Swans Commentary » swans.com September 10, 2007  



A Dream Deferred
Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie, The Triumph Of Sam Cooke


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



"Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?"
—Langston Hughes


Peter Guralnick: Dream Boogie, The Triumph Of Sam Cooke, 2005, Little Brown and Co., ISBN: 9780316377942, 748 pages.


(Swans - September 10, 2007)   In a fat man, somebody said, there's always a thin one struggling to get out. Peter Guralnick's is a very fat book. He follows Sam Cooke month by month through the 1950s till his early death in 1964. The singer was also a composer and record producer, and we are given striking glimpses of how Sam put his songs together, conducted recording sessions, and came across in personal appearances at churches and on the chitlin circuit as well as at the Copacabana and on network TV. But that's only the beginning. Guralnick tracks Sam's commercial operations so closely that his book illuminates the workings of the pop music industry of the time.

The author's method leads to proliferation. Cooke died young and the people who knew him are still around. Guralnick spoke to all of them at length and recorded their impressions of Sam in their own words. This makes for a rich and intriguing picture of someone who kept his inner thoughts and strategy to himself. The downside is that these many views aren't always knit into the narrative. The use of quotation marks is erratic. The reader confronts sudden highs and lows in vocabulary that disconcert him until he realizes that it's not the author who has the floor but an interviewee. Many of the people concerned have lived "the life," the touring musician's white-Cadillac existence of drink, drugs, and prostitution. Guralnick regularly takes his eyes off Sam to stray into their biographies and recount their salty anecdotes.

Yet, off and on, Guralnick writes very well indeed. His attempts to catch the essence of a song, performance, or ambience in a telling phrase are often striking. Listen to him reach the substance beneath the froth:

No more, really, than the most conventional romantic ballad, it achieves a kind of gravitas by the very way Sam's voice skates on the edge of naked revelation. The song begins with that most familiar of lovers' plaints -- something along the lines of who's loving you tonight? -- and yet a sense of emotional betrayal comes through that would be unimaginable were it not for the delicacy of Sam's delivery. (Page 158)
Like nearly every one of Sam's songs, it was so simple, both lyrically and melodically, as to defy analysis -- but so carefully put together at the same time, so perfectly matched in meter, melody, and rhyme as to be instantly memorable and, once heard, virtually unforgettable. (Pages 390-1)
Sam sings as a swirl of violins, cellos, and violas washes over his voice. It sounds for all the world like the most clichéd version of romantic love, but then as the song develops, you realize that what you are hearing is not the embrace but the denial of illusion, set fourth in a tone of deeply ambiguous regret. "You're the apple of my eye / You're cherry pie / And, oh, you're cake and ice cream," is the explicit message of the bridge, even as the singer's world-weary mood, the unspoken layers of irony, yearning and knowledge that accompany his heartfelt declarations, work to undercut any suggestion of belief. (Page 421)
It showed off every one of Sam's characteristic vocal effects -- his delicate falsetto, the way he would ride a syllable, elongate a vowel to suggest dimensions of meaning scarcely hinted at in the lyrics, the slight roughening that he could use to suggest intensity of feeling without raising his voice; he employed all of these effects without in any way suggesting, either to the listener or himself, that they were effects, so intrinsic were they to his feeling for the music, to the feelings he wanted to express. (Page 459)

So undoubtedly Guralnick could serve as midwife to that thin book, in its struggle to break out of these 748 pages stuffed with notes, a bibliography, and photos. It would be an incisive portrait of the charismatic artist in the context of his times as he maneuvered his rare talent from one existential choice to the next. We'd watch Sam in his last months creating "what could be taken almost as a template" for the strong gospel-based sound that was "soul music". (Page 594)

Sam Cook (Cooke from 1958) was born in Mississippi in 1931 and taken to Bronzeville, a thriving segregated city within the sprawl of Chicago. This well-rooted black community replicated the larger white city around it in its social and cultural peaks and abysses. Bronzeville churches were the social cement in a society in constant growth thanks to immigration from the southern states. Sam's father, the Rev. Charles Cook, in addition to holding a humbler day job, was a Baptist minister of some prominence. According to the practice of the day, the Reverend made preaching tours outside of Chicago. It was not unlike the more profane chitlin circuit that black entertainers constantly moved through.

Of the Rev. Cook's eight children, Sam stood out from the first. They all sang, but his voice was exceptional, and his physical beauty stopped people in the street. Sam sang in a gospel quartet well before he graduated from high school in 1948. Gospel music lay at the center of black America and enlivened Chicago's one thousand black churches. The music also operated on the circuit principle. Various quartets would take part in programs organized in different churches.

In the post WWII years "there was a brand-new gospel movement sweeping the nation." (Page 3) But it was completely hidden from white America and, more important, completely organized and run by black Americans. Jazz, in the hands of innovators like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, had become an elite art form taken over by white entrepreneurs. It lost its popular attraction of being danceable. Downhome blues, seen as passé and redolent of poverty by the black community, also had to seek promoters and an audience amongst whites. But gospel, tied to the churches, would never cross over. It could only join the larger national scene by apostasy, transmogrified into rhythm and blues. The career of Sam Cooke encapsulates that transformation.

A gospel program was first of all a spiritual exercise. When Guralnick, who is an astute musical critic, weighs up gospel numbers he invariably invokes the yardstick of transcendence, transfiguration, conversion, purity, sincerity, fervor, and ecstasy. But a gospel session was not only about prayer and worship. It was also a highly competitive demonstration of technical virtuosity. The different quartets -- far from turning the other cheek -- strove to sing one another out of the church. Urged on by worshippers, vocal combat raged back and forth. There was all the tension of an encounter of crack football teams. A winner and a loser would just as surely emerge. The spectators were as frenetic as in a sporting arena. The managers of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles didn't invent the spectacle of teen-age girls tumbling about in hysteria. And, yet, a gospel program remained a spiritual exercise.

But for the audience there was no question of "faking it"; salvation occurred precisely in the manner in which they were caught up in the moment, and the whoops and cries of the crowd, the testifying and talking in tongues of men and women who came not so much to be entertained as to be carried away, became as much a part of the program as the ear-splitting screams emanating from the stage, the energetic choreography of the more acrobatic groups, and the naked show of passion, pride, exaltation, humility, invincibility, and joyful celebration that lay in equal measure at the heart of the gospel experience. (Page 123)

Such goings-on in churches, though not rare in the immemorial history of religion, were in the mid twentieth century entirely foreign to classic forms of American Protestantism and Catholicism. There were hints of the same exuberance in some white evangelicals, but redneck paucity of musical talent makes any comparison cruel in their regard.

Leaving gospel music in 1957 became the drama of Sam Cooke's life. It was first of all a problem of conscience. Gospel milieus saw themselves as a righteous, compact, dedicated fraternity, to leave which for the "devil's music," namely, rhythm and blues, was not only a ticket to hell but a family betrayal. Young Sam hesitated a long time before making his move. Strangely, the Rev. Cook, the central influence on his son's life, had no qualms: Music wasn't Sam's religion. "That's your job; you do that for a living. The Lord gave you a voice to sing to make people happy. And if you can make more money singing pop music than you can the church songs that you're singing -- don't nobody get saved over singing." (Page 170) Moreover, "Anytime you can make a step higher, you go higher. Don't worry about the other fellow. You hold up for other folks, and they'll take advantage of you." (Page 63-4)

The Reverend's sentiments would reappear again and again in Sam's later statements and interviews. Black entertainers had a lamentable reputation in matters of business know-how and in the planning and controlling of their careers. By becoming a competent black artist-businessman, Sam thought he would advance himself and in consequence his community. This was basic American individualism, a driving personal ambition decked out with an afterthought of altruism. John D. Rockefeller had not reasoned, or rationalized, differently. Sam felt that by achieving stature in his field and the material rewards that went with it he could do something "for the Negro people and for the human race." (Page 336)

Sam strove to be accepted by white audiences. Nat "King" Cole, who had been his boyhood hero, had done just that. Sam talked of his tactics to his brother L.C. in 1958: "It was a matter .... of not appearing threatening. When they see me I'm the perfect American boy. That's all they can say about me." (Page 220) He wore a modified crew cut and Ivy League clothes. By 1960 he said his goal was "to someday be in the same singing league with Harry Belafonte, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra." (Page 344)

It was as if skin color had ceased to be a factor in American life. But he knew very well that this wasn't true. On his regular tourneys in the South with other black performers he suffered all the humiliations of segregation. In his new home in Los Angeles and at work in northern cities he'd learnt that many doors were closed to him unless he went through white agents and managers. He grumbled of course and expressed his bitterness to his intimates. But his sharp focus on his own career kept him from bucking the status quo. He looked on racial prejudice as simply another ugly obstacle to be finessed on his way up.

Sam seemed to have two professional faces. As he acquired power in the record industry, he began to produce records of the gospel quartets that he felt had never had their due. He brought attention to forgotten black composers of the past that had been overlooked. He financed a "Soul Station" in the Los Angeles ghetto where locals could work with professionals. He also helped artists who wanted to cross over, as he had, into the world of pop. But the contradiction remained. Sam had always kept social criticism out of his songs. Finally he was shamed by Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind to write something similar. Dylan's new civil rights song was sung before Martin Luther King's speech in the Washington demonstration of Aug. 28, 1963.

Sam's A Change is Gonna Come was powerful, but once written it scared him. He had to be pressured by his white manager to sing it on TV's The Tonight Show. When the song's length needed to be cut for recording as a single side and radio play, Sam deleted the verse that was sharpest about the dilemma of black life: "I go to the movies / And I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me / Don't hang around."

For Sam it was always the same fear of failing to bring his white constituency along. "I want to be black. I'm not going to desert my people. But to cross over, you must appeal to that market." (Page 569) And the same fear produced the same contradiction. Of his performance in New York in 1963, Guralnick says he sang in a guttural style "few white people had ever heard from him":

There was nothing soft, measured, or polite about the Sam Cooke you saw at the Harlem Square Club; there was none of the self-effacing, mannerable, "fair-haired little colored boy" that the white man was always looking for. This was Sam Cooke undisguised, charmingly self-assured. (Page 454)

In the same city, but across town, in 1964 at the Copacabana, Sam's show was "race neutral." With a sigh of relief, Variety wrote, "At no time does he make any political references." (Page 583) But these were crucial times for the civil rights movement. Sam seems to have given it all his sympathy in private but never committed himself to a public position. Like his hero Nat "King" Cole, he didn't wish to mar the outlines of his carefully shaped career. Cole refused to fall in with the militant policy of not performing before racially segregated audiences and rejected the idea that "Negro entertainers should lead the way." (Page 490) It was as if the thrusting individualists who had found a niche in the white world didn't want to endanger their gains.

Sam, always thoughtful, foresaw how pop music would change. When a friend insisted that the young Mick Jagger couldn't sing, Sam agreed, but said it didn't matter. "These guys are gonna change the industry." (Page 586) It was no longer a question of out singing another gospel performer. Musical standards would come down. The total impact of a song would count more. "It used to be, he explained, that sound brought attention to the lyric, but what you needed to do now was to find sounds -- as opposed to words -- that could emotionally move an audience." (Page 607)

Peter Guralnick is protective toward Sam Cooke, avoiding any harsh judgments. He's probably right. For a boy born in Mississippi and reared in Bronzeville, alternatives were few and all embodied contradictions. Extraordinary talent only made choices more consequent. There were not many way stations to choose from between the Rev. Cook's stern morals to the accompaniment of gospel music and the seedy L.A. motel on the wrong side of town where "the life" led Sam Cooke, thirty-three, on his last night out.


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Published September 10, 2007