He was the biggest star in gospel music before he ever crossed over into pop. His first single under his own name, “You Send Me,” was an historic success, going to number one on the charts and selling two million copies. He wrote his own songs, hired his own musicians, and started his own record label and music publishing company. At a time when record companies treated black artists like hired help, he demanded respect and a recording contract equal to that of top white artists of the day.
And Sam Cooke connected, in songs like “Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Another Saturday Night,” and “Having a Party” – seemingly effortless compositions that still sound fresh today. In a biography that for the first time tells the full story of Sam Cooke’s short, blazing life, prizewinning author Peter Guralnick captures a personality so vivid, so appealing, that it is almost impossible not to fall under its spell. At the same time, Dream Boogie re-creates in remarkable detail the astonishing richness of the African American world from which Sam Cooke emerged, and the combination of style, wit, and resiliency that was necessary in order to survive and overcome the pervasive prejudice of the day.
Dream Boogie tells a story at once tragic and true: Sam Cooke’s rapid rise to stardom; his troubled marriage and relationships with women; his triumphant recordings and – along with Ray Charles – his reinvention of rhythm and blues as soul music; the joy he brought to live performance and the rolling parties of the road tours; and the senseless waste of his death by shooting at the age of thirty-three.#
In a December, 2005 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Peter Guralnick talks about his book and Sam Cooke’s epic American life.
“And my baby leave home
‘Cause things ain’t right
Oh, but I get to feeling – ha ha – so all alone
And I dial my baby on the telephone
And I tell her, “Listen here, operator,
I want my b-a-a – aby,
Onnnn, operator, I want my baby.”
Finally the operator get my baby on the telephone
And I tell her, “I got something to tell you, honey.”
The minute I hear my baby say hello
S-s-s-s-something start to move deep down inside of me
And I tell her, “Listen to me, baby,
I know I didn’t treat you right sometimes
And I want you to know one thing”
He has them now. There’s no doubt about it. With all the tried-and-true methods of his gospel training, he has drawn out the tension until it is almost unbearable, people are screaming, they are crying out for release, the level of emotion almost visibly rises, the audience becomes his congregation.
“I just want you to know one thing
You-u-u-u-uuuu, ohhhhhhh you SEND ME
Oh-ohhhhhh, you send me
Ha Ha, that’s what I want to tell you, baby,
O, oh-oh-you-ou, awww, you send me
Aw, let me tell you one more time
Oh, baby you send me
Oh-whoa-oh-ohohhhhhwowohhhh – Ha ha –
Honest you do”
– Sam Cooke
courtesy Joe McEwen
“I write songs that start slowly and then work in little by little to this pounding beat. That is where the excitement is. But I still have my religious beliefs. Our forebears thought you couldn’t sing [both] pops and spirituals, but I have rationalized this. I can do anything I want and still have my religious beliefs. My philosophy of life is: Do whatever is best for Sam Cooke.”
– Sam Cooke
JJM Your book is an amazing combination of entertainment and scholarship, and a great vehicle on which to revisit the culture that Sam Cooke was such an integral part of. You wrote, “The Sam Cooke that I discovered was a constant surprise.” What sort of surprises did you encounter during this process?
PG It was the kind of surprise that you encounter when you essentially remove all preconceptions, whether your own or those that are imposed on you. It is the kind of surprise that you would find when looking with fresh eyes at any of the people to whom you are drawn in real life and discover the various and sometimes contradictory layers that exist in all of us. These are the layers that are essentially set aside when we reduce our perspectives to either judgment or anecdote. The kinds of things that I discovered about Sam don’t necessarily reveal themselves in an interview format, but, as an example, one of the things I discovered was his deep interest in reading. While I knew he read, my research for the book led me to an understanding of the depth of his interest the kinds of things he read and what he presumably took out of them and to set this in the context of someone who is in the process of constantly evolving.
JJM The depth of his reading was amazing. He was really into African American history, and James Baldwin seemed to be a favorite of his.
PG I recently saw John Hope Franklin a couple of times during my book tour. On one occasion he spoke after Bill Clinton and before me in the House chamber in Austin, Texas. By the time it was my turn to speak, the chamber had emptied out substantially! When I spoke, I talked about how people frequently ask me what Sam Cooke would be doing if he were alive today, and how I believe he would unquestionably be doing something great he might be mayor of Chicago, for example, or he might be the head of a major record company but if I were asked what he would be doing on this particular day, I was sure he would have been there listening to President Clinton and John Hope Franklin, being reinvigorated, re-inspired, and recommitted to the movement and the idea that there really can be progress, even in the face of some of the disheartening developments of recent years. Later, I told John Hope Franklin that his 1947 book, From Slavery to Freedom, is what first triggered Sam’s interest in black history.
Getting back to your question concerning what surprised me about Sam this was not necessarily a good discovery, but it was certainly surprising to learn that, despite the sense you get of him that he was always controlled, smooth and sophisticated, his temper could flare up in certain situations, whether it was at the Palm Café with Jess Rand, when a guy came up to him and challenged him to prove that he was indeed Sam Cooke by singing him a song, or at the Holiday Inn in Shreveport, which he was turned away from because he was black. Those kinds of things were surprising not on any grand scale, but they were surprising. And while I would like to think that the book might approach a grand scale, it can only do so if the specifics hold up.
JJM How did Sam stand out among the other young church singers?
PG From the testimony of people who knew him as a sixteen or seventeen year old, or as a young quartet singer with the Highway QCs, it is clear that he stood out as a remarkable person in a remarkable world. As a singer, he stood out in a number of ways. When J.W. Alexander was manager of the Pilgrim Travelers as successful a gospel quartet as there was at that time he picked Sam out from among the Highway QCs not just on the basis of his talent but on the basis of his personality, as someone who, as J.W. said, was just so damn likable. This was despite the fact that he was not yet fully in control of his voice, nor had he achieved the technique for which he would later become known. But he communicated something to everyone in that audience. Another outstanding aspect was his ability to improvise on a theme essentially to rearrange Bible verses in an original way, improvise on the melody, and always come back in exactly the right place, which was something he could do even when he was with the QCs.
JJM What did it mean to be a member of the Soul Stirrers at that moment in time?
PG When Sam joined the Soul Stirrers, it was a big step up. As wide a path as the QCs cut not just in Chicago and the Midwest but in Memphis too, and without a recording contract there was nowhere else for them to go. The Soul Stirrers, on the other hand, were one of the major gospel quartets, and one of the few who recorded for a major independent company. R.H. Harris, the Soul Stirrers lead singer, was a primary influence on a wide array of vocalists, from a screamer like Archie Brownlee to a crooner like Sam Cooke, who replaced Harris in the Soul Stirrers. Joining the Soul Stirrers meant you were now part of an extremely well established group that was part of major programs. To use a baseball metaphor, it was like moving from the minor leagues into the majors, where you are confronted with the glare of publicity at every stage.
JJM Did Sams stylistic breakthrough occur while singing with the Soul Stirrers?
PG Yes, although his performance of “How Far Am I From Canaan?” at his first Soul Stirrers session is a pretty good indication that he had achieved a style of his own with the QCs. That performance features a fully developed Sam Cooke style, although Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty Records, didn’t much like it and never released Sams original version. But Sam’s performance differed radically from the way Harris would have sung it and I think represents pretty accurately the way Sam sounded with the QCs. He developed his yodel in 1953, which is what distinguished his sound most of all stylistically it became an almost all-pervasive mannerism, particularly in his early years in pop music. It was probably an adaptation of Harris’ yodel, which was more of a falsetto leap, something that was natural to Harris but wasn’t natural to Sam. So Sam created this kind of ululating Whoa-oh-oh sound as a substitute.
JJM He was also incredibly successful as a communicator. You point out that he sang so directly to his audience that they couldn’t help but feel as if he were singing just to them.
PG Yes. To go back to what we were taking about before, that is the one element that can never be taught or learned. You either have it or you don’t. One of Elvis earliest influences, Jake Hess, the great lead singer with the Statesmen gospel quartet, told me there were lots of singers more virtuosic than Elvis Presley, but there were none who could communicate with an audience the way that Elvis did. Sam Cooke had that same appeal, where every member of the audience, male or female, felt that they were being sung to directly. Even on record, there is that same sense of warmth and communication. For instance, R.H. Harris is a great singer, and you can’t listen to him without being moved, but it is a different kind of communication than Sam’s in that he simply doesn’t have that kind of warmth. Johnnie Taylor was a great singer who actually sounded almost identical to Sam, but Sam’s criticism of him was that there was always a certain coldness to the way he connected to his audience, both in person and on record. Not everyone would necessarily agree with that, but the point is that there is this kind of calculation that is very much a part of a singer’s appeal to his or her audience.
JJM What was his stage presence like while he sang with the Soul Stirrers?
PG He was a standup singer. The Soul Stirrers were a group of standup singers who never went in for acrobatics or showmanship in the way that, for example, the Pilgrim Travelers or even the Five Blind Boys, who, despite being blind, performed with tremendous drama and showmanship. On the other hand, starting with R.H. Harris, the Soul Stirrers presented themselves as standup singers, and that is the tradition in which Sam grew up, and it continued to be the centerpiece of his appeal. A contemporary of Sam’s, Jackie Wilson, performed with an incredible amount of showmanship, but Sam’s approach was to stand up at the mike and put everything into his articulation of the words, communicating with the audience just by the intensity of the way that he sang.
JJM Jackie Wilson’s approach seemed to be more one of “in your face,” which was probably more threatening to white society than Sam’s approach.
PG To a degree that’s true, but remember that Jackie Wilson had a lot of crossover hits, and was very ingratiating to a mixed audience. I would say that James Brown was more threatening in that sense. His shows of the mid-sixties were the greatest theatrical experiences I ever had they were comparable to an August Wilson play in their scope, and almost exclusively performed before a black audience. Jackie Wilson’s showmanship is what got him back on Ed Sullivan seven or eight times at a time when Sam, for whatever reason, rarely appeared on Ed Sullivan. It may have been that appearing on the show required a bargain Sam was unwilling to make.
JJM When did Sam Cooke begin looking beyond gospel music?
PG The success Ray Charles had with “I Got a Woman” in 1955 had a cataclysmic effect on both the gospel and R&B worlds. Charles’ recording offered an opening for vocalists to present music in a new way. “I Got a Woman” is based on a gospel number, “It Must Be Jesus,” and the recording caused a tremendous stir at the time in both the sacred and secular worlds. Ministers were preaching against this “sacrilege,” but it offered a commercial and artistic opportunity for singers that simply could not be ignored. The effect it had on Art Rupe, the head of Specialty Records, was not to change the sound of the Soul Stirrers, but to seek out his own Ray Charles. Ultimately the person he found was Little Richard, who sounded very much like a combination of Alex Bradford and Marion Williams, with his ecstatic whoops but very secular message.
By the end of 1955, Little Richard was a pop star in that crossover mode, and thats really when the pressure came down on Sam to go in that direction. The pressure came from three different directions. From Bumps Blackwell, who was his A&R man at Specialty; from Bill Cook, the Newark disc jockey who saw enormous crossover potential in Sam, and who functioned as his manager of sorts in 1955 and 56; and from J.W. Alexander, who felt that gospel was only holding Sam back in what he could ultimately accomplish. But Sam wrestled with this for at least a year-and-a-half, and it represented a rare moment of self doubt, because the thing that held him back was not so much religious inhibition after all, his father had always taught him that a person is not “saved” by what they do for a living but rather an uncharacteristic concern about whether or not he could make it in the secular world. What if he crossed over and didn’t make it? Could he ever go back? I think that kept him on the fence for a long time, but eventually he made the decision.
JJM You wrote that “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by Lloyd Price — released by Art Rupe of Specialty — was the first breakthrough R&B song, and white record stores began to carry it because, according to Rupe, “Market demand dictates where the product goes.” How soon after this did record companies recognize this could become a full-fledged trend they could profit from?
PG I picked out “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” as a kind of signpost, but Im sure there are others that can be cited. Certainly from that point on, you have this ineluctable drift toward what Elvis Presley started doing and what rock and roll is supposed to be. Around 1953, predictions started appearing in the music industry trade publications about a new type of music that eventually came to be labeled rock and roll, and symptoms of it were becoming more and more evident although at the time it wasn’t possible to know exactly what form this new music was going to take.
What we are talking about here are two different types of crossover, the one with Lloyd Price to a white market, and the second, on the heels of that, the introduction of a pure gospel sound into R&B, which then benefited from its crossover into the white market. It was clear to everybody in the business at the time that something was happening, but they didnt necessarily know where it was going to end up. Which is why this whole idea that rock and roll which is really just a marketing term was born on a specific date is silly because it was part of an evolution that grew out of the rise of the independent record companies, more money being available to teenagers after World War II, and a greater and greater degree of social mobility and, eventually, integration.
JJM On Sam’s effect on women who watched him perform, you wrote, “To J.W. Alexander, observing it all with something more than dispassionate curiosity, ‘The young girls would scream, the old women would scream. In the churches.’ What, J.W. naturally asked himself, if Sam were singing about love?” What did Sam have to overcome in order to move his music from the churches out into the streets?
PG He had to overcome an inner struggle and confront his fears about moving out on his own, the concern that if he were to fail, he might not be able to go back. He was writing pop songs from at least 1956 on he recorded most of them in New Orleans at his first pop music session in December 1956. That was the session that his first pop release came out of, Lovable, which was released under the name of “Dale Cook.” But with the exception of Lovable, he had written the songs originally with the idea of having Bill Cook submit them to Roy Hamilton and the Platters, so he could become a pop songwriter, not a pop singer. Again, I think this is just part of that inner debate he was having with himself, and an uncharacteristic reluctance to make the bold move a rare instance in his life where he didn’t simply say, “Ok, that’s it. Im moving on to the next stage.”
JJM His decision to record under the name of Dale Cook was because of that risk. He felt if he failed on his own, he could come back as Sam Cooke.
PG Yes, which is an extension of that inner debate. I don’t know whether that idea was his or Art Rupe’s or someone else’s, but he somehow must have rationalized that if it didn’t work he could always say it was some cousin or some distant relative who had recorded that music!
JJM I suppose he could have possibly got away with that during that era.
PG Everyone knew it was him, and right away, because the recordings had all of his vocal characteristics and mannerisms, and it was a translation of the gospel single that the Soul Stirrers had out at the time, “He’s So Wonderful,” which was the highlight of every one of their shows. It was kind of a funny, almost quixotic attempt to escape detection, but, as J.W. eventually told him, he had to take his head out of the sand and “be Sam Cooke,” and that is who he became.
JJM There were issues around the songs that he wrote. While under contract to Rupe, songs he wrote were actually credited to L.C. Cook .
PG Yes, and that became the subject of a lawsuit and considerable controversy. He signed the songwriters contract the day before his first full scale pop session in June of 1957, which was probably the first real songwriter’s contract he ever signed. While he had signed off on songwriter’s rights as a member of the Soul Stirrers, this was a specific songwriter’s contract in which he gave half of his mechanical royalties to the publisher, which was essentially Specialty Records and Art Rupe.
Following the quarrel he had with Rupe over the sound of “You Send Me,” he and Bumps Blackwell left Specialty and, over the course of the summer, signed with Keen Records which was not yet even a label, nor was it even named. By the time they put out his record in September of 1957, just a few months after that initial session, he had come to realize that he had signed away one of his principal sources of income. It was at that point that he recognized that songwriting and song publishing were the foundations for any money he hoped to make in the record business something which people going into the record business today would be well advised to learn.
It was also at this point that he realized he could not get out of the songwriting contract he had signed with Rupe, but, of course, he knew it was only Sam Cooke who had signed that contract. In other words, the agreement required only Sam Cooke to share songwriters royalties, and because no documentation existed to show he had written these songs, he very conveniently remembered at this point that it wasn’t he that had written “You Send Me,” but rather his brother, L.C. A lawsuit that went on for close to a year ensued, and eventually authorship of “You Send Me” was awarded to L.C.
JJM When he left Specialty, why did he settle on Keen Records rather than a more established company?
PG Essentially there had been a struggle over who was going to manage Sam Cooke. Bill Cook believed that he was Sam’s manager right up until the time Art Rupe gave Sam’s recording contract to Bumps Blackwell, which in effect made Bumps Sam’s record company. Bumps then marketed that contract to John Siamas unnamed label, doing so in exchange for a high-level position with this new label, one that he considered to be an ownership position though actually didn’t turn out that way for him. But he sold Sam on the label, so essentially it was Bumps consolidating his position with Sam, not just as his A&R man and producer, but as his manager as well. He felt they would have their best shot at success by going to this new label because they would get all the companys attention in the way of promotion. But the move they made was done as much in support of Bumps Blackwell’s career as Sam’s.