Unveiling the many layers of Sam Cooke

ON POPULAR MUSIC

November 03, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

I enter Peter Guralnick's room at the Hotel George in Washington. And after we exchange hellos and shake hands, the author asks about my grandmother. I stop for a moment at the table where we're about to settle down for our interview, wondering why in the world he wants to know about my grandmother.

"Did she like the Johnnie Taylor story?" Peter asks.

The mental fog suddenly lifts. Oh, yeah. The Johnnie Taylor story. Six years ago, when I was a music writer intern in Dallas, I interviewed Peter for a profile I wrote on the late soul-blues star. Our interview was over the phone, and it wasn't very long, as I recall. But in that 15 minutes or so, I must have mentioned that my grandmother, Mama Teacake, who has since passed, was a serious Johnnie Taylor fan. That was the only story of mine she ever read or cared to read.

I'm a bit shocked that Peter remembers that small detail from the interview. I'm impressed he even remembers the phone call. But, in a way, that's the essence of what the biographer does: He collects details of people's lives. Guralnick, whose colloquial writing style I've long admired, has written extensively about American music and the folks who shaped it. He wrote the acclaimed two-part biography on Elvis, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999). He established himself as one of the pre-eminent chroniclers of black American music with the 1986 publication of Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.

A slight, gray-haired man dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt and a black blazer, Peter leans back in his chair. He's ready to discuss the subject of his new book, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, the definitive biography on the black American music legend who forever changed gospel and pop vocalizing.

About the biography, Peter says, "I wanted to paint the picture that showed his almost boundless ambition and wide range of interests, from black history to Tolstoy."

The Boston native's interest in doing a biography on Sam was sparked in 1982 when he interviewed J.W. Alexander, the singer's friend and business partner, for Sweet Soul Music. Peter was intrigued by the older man's portrait of Sam as a magnetic, driven man.

"J.W. looked up to Sam, although he was older," the author says. "He looked to Sam as a kind of model for someone he wanted to be."

Peter started the biography, named after a Langston Hughes poem, in earnest in 1991. Eventually conducting about 200 interviews, he spent time with Sam's family, including the artist's father who was in his 90s at the time; his protege, singer Bobby Womack; and his widow, Barbara, who hadn't done interviews since the performer's death in 1964.

"Sam was such a shining light," Peter says. "He represented so much more than just a rock star or an R&B star. He was so smooth, so sophisticated, so clean-cut. His song `A Change Is Gonna Come' had already been embraced as an anthem [before he died]."

The engrossing 750-page book does a wonderful job of distilling the times that informed Sam and his art. The early chapters about his secure, seemingly happy childhood - his father was a respected preacher in Chicago, his mother a quiet homemaker who adored him - are interesting. But the book really crackles in the chapters that detail Sam's time with the famed Soul Stirrers and his crossover into the secular field. The gospel and R&B worlds of the '50s and early '60s brilliantly come to life. Peter pulls you on stage and backstage during the chitlin-circuit tours Sam played. You feel the energy of the shows, inhale the funk and smoke in the clubs and back rooms, where sometimes the after parties were off the hook.

Throughout Dream Boogie, Peter captures Sam's many sides: his undeniable charm, unshakable pride and keen intellect; his sometimes callous attitude toward women, especially toward his second wife Barbara, and his shamelessly philandering ways on the road. (It wasn't uncommon for Sam, a gorgeous man with a Crisco-melting smile, to have up to five women in his hotel room at a time.)

The suave, sophisticated Sam sometimes gave way to a cocky, violent dude. There's one instance in the book where a guy in a club asks the performer to sing a little something to prove that he's really Sam Cooke. Smiling, just as cool as can be, the soul star gets up from the table and, in a flash, throws the fella down on the floor. Sam threatens to break his neck if he doesn't leave the joint.

"You see in a number of places in the book where he could have died, where he places himself in precarious situations," Peter says. "He's not all a bad guy. But you can see how he lashed out in a way that's inexplicable."

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