The soul man
From biographer Peter Guralnick, a comprehensive life of the charismatic Sam Cooke, one of the first artists to blend gospel music and secular themes
Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke
By Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown, 750 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Sam Cooke's car once ran out of gas in Memphis, in the middle of a tour, and as he waited for fuel to arrive he was confronted by a white cop who told him to push the car off the road. Cooke's retort: ''You push the [expletive] car. You may not know who I am, but your wife does." A crude boast, but almost certainly a correct one. Indeed, to judge from the evidence assembled by Peter Guralnick in ''Dream Boogie," the unfortunate policeman was to be congratulated if his wife had not already slept with Cooke. The singer's near-lethal gift for arousal, honed in the black churches as a gospel performer and then perfected as a pop star with a multiracial audience, was the instrument of a libido almost as gargantuan as that of his fellow performer Little Richard.
But Richard was an obvious wild man, drastically sexual, ablaze with sweat. Cooke by contrast was super-cool, restrained, and herein lies the tension at the heart of Guralnick's excellent book. How did this honey-voiced connoisseur of life, reader of Tolstoy and John Braine, favorer of ''the Ivy League look," singer-composer of ''Wonderful World" and ''You Send Me," come to be shot to death, wearing no pants, by the frightened manageress of a motel on LA's outskirts? All honest biography ends in mystery, and Guralnick -- author of the two-volume Elvis biography ''Last Train to Memphis" and ''Careless Love" -- does not presume to have an answer. Cooke passed through the world cloaked in the enigma of pure charm; carefree, light-stepping, with a gift for shaping his own future that his family called ''second sight." Patiently and faithfully, ''Dream Boogie" gives us everything that can be known about him.
As mentioned, Cooke -- the son of a minister -- was apprenticed into his singing career by religion, as a gospel performer first for the Highway QCs and then for the Soul Stirrers. The passages covering these years are some of the fizziest in Guralnick's book, as the churches are stormed by outfits with names like the Progressive Moaners and the Teenage Kings of Harmony (and Their Queen), battling for supremacy over an audience that could be driven, en masse, out of its mind. Gospel congregations were primed for rapture -- carnal, spiritual, whatever. People screamed and ''fell out" in the pews as the harmonies swept them up. The showmanship was deadly; the gospel musicians in ''Dream Boogie" talk of ''putting the hammer on," ''killing the house," ''destroying" it, or -- in one memorable instance -- ''emaciating" it. Cooke's skills in this area were considerable. ''Sam was singing," recalls his brother L.C., ''and this lady two rows in front of me threw her baby up in the air. And, I mean, lucky some man caught that baby, 'cause she really throwed it, man!"
Physically and vocally, he moved in degrees of sexually shaded understatement, mellow -- almost -- as Bing Crosby, not a ''screamer" like the awesome June Cheeks (from the Sensational Nightingales) or quite a ''yodeler" like R. H. Harris, but ''a crooner," as Guralnick writes, ''in a field which . . . had not put much stock to date in the subtleties of seduction." ''He just floated under," said one observer. ''He had this way of biting his lower lip," said another, ''that made the walls come tumbling down." When this appeal was funneled away from the altar and into the emerging rhythm and blues market, the results were inevitable: Cooke became an enormous star.
The sordid disaster of his death, in 1964, throws a difficult light back into his life. A car crash in 1958, in which Cooke was injured and a member of his entourage killed, had been understood by many in the gospel community as a judgment on the singer for his neglect of God. This was wishful thinking; Cooke in fact walked away from that particular wreck as if angelically preserved. But even as he climbed into stardom, the world, in its way, did seem to be dragging at him. A pattern of embroilments emerges, an undertow, from his youthful conviction for passing dirty books to a charge of ''fornication and bastardy" to the violent wreckage of his marriage.
Never moralizing, through the monumental weight of his data, Guralnick builds up the picture. For faults, one might cite his occasional drops into a sort of thumping new journalism: ''She never heard from Sam during this time, but she never stopped thinking about him either, and sometimes she thought about the one time he had made oblique reference to getting married before she had even gotten pregnant." Guralnick's deafness here to the jarring of registers between the high-toned ''oblique" and the colloquial ''gotten" is surprising; this is the man who once described a televised appearance by a late-period Elvis as ''the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty." But ''Dream Boogie" is a hefty book, and there are plenty of fine phrasings. Guralnick's description of Cooke in the embrace of Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), moments after Clay's first victory over Sonny Liston, is superb: the singer is ''almost disheveled with excitement. . . . 'You're beautiful,' says Sam, his face wreathed in smiles, his expression one of innocent mirth." ''Dream Boogie" is subtitled ''The Triumph of Sam Cooke," and we may take his triumph to have been the maintenance of this ''innocent mirth," this grace and brightness, against the darker fate that eventually overtook him.
James Parker is the author of ''Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins." He lives in Brookline.See ''Bookings," below, for information on a local appearance by Peter Guralnick.