Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke
Peter Guralnick’s new biography of Sam Cooke is everything we’ve come to expect from him: ferociously researched and clearly written, with a deep understanding of the culture in which it is set. It’s nearly 700 pages of labor of love, so why did I feel unsatisfied when I closed it?
Partly because, unlike the pieces that made his reputation in books such as Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway, Guralnick’s focus here has necessarily shifted from the forensic examination of a living culture (even the ones in his southern soul and Elvis books continue to exist, if not thrive) to an archeological investigation of one long passed. I really can’t see a writer of lesser stature convincing a major publisher that Sam Cooke matters.
He does, of course. He’s the epitome of the gospel superstar who “crossed,” saw worldly success beyond anyone’s expectations but his own, and died in a sordid incident which has long baffled anyone who rejects the argument that it was the Lord’s punishment. Sam Cooke’s voice lives inside any black crooner or lover-man who’s come since, yet his name is rarely evoked. He was also attempting, in his last years (he was not quite 33 when he was killed in 1964), to start a black-owned musical enterprise combining social work, gospel music, and the production of what was just beginning to be known as “soul.”
Strangely, though, at the time of his death, Cooke saw himself as belonging to an older generation that, in his estimation, couldn’t reach the youth who made the hits. He may have been right, but it wasn’t a generational thing. It was a matter of making a lot of bad records — a lot of them at his own insistence. As in many other areas of his life, Sam Cooke was his own worst enemy.
This is something Guralnick demonstrates from the very beginning in the best part of Dream Boogie, the early chapters dealing with Cooke’s gospel career. He brings the classic era of American gospel to life, from the grueling tour schedule to the ramshackle accommodations to the gospel groupies to the onstage cutting contests, wars fought with voices. There wasn’t a lot of money in it, for sure, but it could be a nice life if your records sold and you toured assiduously. The mix of carnal and churchly, sacred and profane, is inseparable; the Soul Stirrers, the group that made Cooke a star, called each other “fucker.”
But Cooke walked away from the men who had taken him in at 20, much as he already had from Barbara Campbell, the teenage Chicago girlfriend who’d had his baby. Nothing got in the way of his ambition. Nothing. And such was his charisma that over and over, people let him get away with it, even Barbara, who became his last wife.
All of this Guralnick communicates brilliantly while making it look easy. But his scrupulousness trips the reader up once Cooke’s success arrives. Cooke, with help from his brilliant friend, adviser and business partner J.W. Alexander (another gospel singer, from the Pilgrim Travelers), was going to make sure he wasn’t exploited by the usual record business tricks, and to that end he and Alexander began their own company. It was an important move, and had Cooke lived, Alexander might have become a presence comparable to Berry Gordy at Motown. But before the company, called SAR, could get going, deals with RCA had to be ironed out, resulting in prose like this:
“There was one additional catch. Allen [Klein] recognized that RCA could not raise its 5 percent artist’s royalty because of a favored-nations agreement with other artists, but it would not have been a contract with Sam, it would have been a contract with Tracey, Ltd., for which, since there was no record-business parallel, there could be no favored-nations concerns. Allen wanted a 6 percent royalty for Tracey, and he wanted it paid on 100 percent of all sales. Sam’s royalties, like every recording artist’s, were calculated on the basis of list price minus excise tax (on a single listing for ninety-eight cents, the excise tax came to approximately four cents) and were paid on 90 percent of all sales, the assumption being that 10 percent represented ‘promotional’ distribution and breakage.”
There’s similarly dense writing in the endless session details, since Guralnick describes many individual songs along the way, not always with technical expertise on his side. And, as noted earlier, Sam made a lot of not-so-hot records.
In the end, the Sam Cooke story emerges as more important than Sam himself, although Guralnick does a great job of limning the man’s intransigence, sexual promiscuity, and erratic quality control over his material. There are some great secondary characters, too, notably Sam’s brothers Charles and L.C. (“It don’t stand for nothing.”), and of course the long-suffering, enigmatic Barbara, who married Bobby Womack almost before Sam’s body was cold. I was fascinated by a lot of this, but I have a feeling most potential readers are going to think Dream Boogie is too long, and, given the fact that there isn’t really a decent collection of Sam’s work available at the moment, they’re going to wonder what the big deal was. Guralnick makes it clear there was a big deal. It’s just Sam who’ll make it hard for a lot of people to care.