An interviewer once broke the ice with Rod Stewart by asking how he was doing, and Stewart said not so great — Sam Cooke was still dead. Since this exchange took place roughly two decades after Cooke had been shot to death in the front office of a seedy LA motel, it suggests just how hard Rod Stewart took his idol’s demise.
But then Sam Cooke was not ordinary as a singer or a person. Some achieve gold status and some have it thrust upon them. But Peter Guralnick (the author of a magnificent two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, among many other music-related books) in this new, dense, detailed, and utterly captivating biography, makes one think that Cooke probably shone in the womb. Certainly he was a golden child to everyone who knew him, and not just because of his incandescent smile and inherent sweetness; from his earliest days, Cooke not only seemed to know that he was destined for greatness but also planned for it. His brother L. C. recalls, "When we was very little boys, we were playing, and he had these popsicle sticks . . . he lined them sticks up, stuck ’em in the ground, and said, ‘This is my audience, see? I’m gonna to sing to these sticks.’ He said, ‘This prepare me for my future.’ "
Even if the prepare-me-for-my-future line sounds a little too prescient for a kid playing in the dirt with popsicle sticks, there is no doubt that, from his earliest days, Cooke consciously took his part within a venerable musical tradition and then worked doggedly to advance it. The young Sam Cooke fell hard for the Ink Spots and was singing their 1939 signature tune "If I Didn’t Care" to a girl in the hallway of a Chicago building in 1947 when a couple of other teenagers he’d never met began to harmonize with him and then asked him on the spot to join their gospel quartet, the Highway QCs.
This wasn’t his first group — along with his siblings, he’d already debuted with the Singing Children, his pastor father’s chorus and prime recruiting tool for salvageable souls ("Anytime you can’t come, Preach," pastors at other churches would say, "just send the children to sing.") —but the Highway QCs got him onto a professional track that eventually landed Cooke a spot with the Soul Stirrers, one of the biggest gospel groups in the country. Servants of the Lord they may have been, the Soul Stirrers’ one goal was to "dump house" on the groups they shared the bill with, to turn the auditorium upside-down and shake it like a dollhouse — not bad preparation for the future, considering that, within a few years, Cooke would turn secular and become one of the greatest singer-songwriters of his day and ours.
But what the golden child was selling was not something that glittered. There is a quality that Guralnick calls "lostness" in Cooke’s voice, an ache that comes through even in his happy tunes. He may have appeared to sing to everyone individually, but nobody seemed to know what Sam Cooke was thinking, maybe even himself: he "maintained an inscrutably cheerful and impenetrable calm," Guralnick writes, which "might merely have masked the simple fact that it was all as much a mystery to him as it was to them."
Occasionally the facade cracked: once, when a loudmouth in a café badgered Cooke to stand up and sing, the singer threw the heckler over a chair and threatened to break his neck. "But as quickly as it happened," Guralnick says, "it was over, and Sam was back to his cool, calm, collected self." Eerily, that calm could manifest itself smack in the middle of the churning cauldron that was a stage show: the band would be dumping house, yet, "If you had studied Sam closely, you might have wondered at the vague look of dissatisfaction in his eye, at the oddly dispassionate manner in which he took in everything going on around him without ever fully taking part. . . . Sometimes it seemed like Sam was looking past his immediate surroundings to a place that existed only for him, or one to which, for whatever reason, he was not able to go." Well into his singing and recording career, he who had been born "Sam Cook" added an "e" to his name, just as two other American malcontents, Herman Melvill and Nathaniel Hathorne, had added letters to theirs. Perhaps that way he became the person he strove to be, the one he himself was unable to recognize.
Another way to put it is that Sam Cooke was always in the moment — he wrote "Chain Gang" while he was looking at a chain gang he came across during a Southern tour, and after a child shouted, "Everybody, cha cha cha!" at a Christmas party, he wrote "Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha" — yet he was always looking ahead. He was a nut about self-improvement, and he told protégé Bobby Womack, "Bobby, if you read, your vocabulary, the way you view things in a song — it’ll be like an abstract painting, every time you look back, you’ll see something you didn’t see before."
When you’re reading a biography and you can see you’re near the end and you get to the paragraph that begins "On Thursday Sam had a dentist appointment," you wince because you know the writer is slowing his pace as he takes you through each detail that leads to the death moment; it’s as though the victim has already bled out, and you’re following every drop until you finally reach the body. Later that evening, December 10, 1964, Cooke checked into a Los Angeles motel with a hustler named Elisa Boyer and went into a room where, Boyer would later testify, Cooke began to rip her clothes off. She escaped, taking most of his clothes with her; a police report would verify that she made a practice of insisting that her marks bathe before sex and then fleeing with their clothes when they went into the bathroom. Cooke chased her and began pounding at the motel manager’s door, demanding to know where Boyer was and eventually breaking in on the 55-year-old manager, Bertha Franklin. She shot him three times with a revolver, and when he kept coming at her, took up a heavy walking stick and began clubbing him. That rare and now fatal fury had erupted again, and at the age of 33, Sam Cooke was dead when the police arrived.
The quintessence of Sam Cooke’s art and life can be found in "A Change Is Gonna Come," ostensibly a protest song he wrote during the civil-rights turbulence of the early ’60s. Like all of his songs, though, the simple, three-chord arrangement and elemental lyrics— "I was born by the river in a little tent"— reveal more than they seem to at first, especially the verse where he sings, "I go to the movies/And I go downtown/Somebody keep telling me/Don’t hang around." Who tells him, though? A girl? A cop? Himself? As Cooke said to Bobby Womack, a good song is like a painting in which you see new meanings every time you look. "I never met a man like him in my life," said producer Lou Adler; "He was a shining light."
Rod Stewart is right to be sad: that light’s out now. But when you listen to the music, it’s as though it’s brighter than ever.
Peter Guralnick | Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut St, Newton | Nov 16 | 7:30 pm | 617.244.6619
Issue Date: October 28 - November 3, 2005
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