For six years, beginning in the late 1950s, singer Sam Cooke lived on the upper reaches of popular music charts. He recorded or wrote 29 Top 40 singles--more than Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis combined. In 1986, he was one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
"Sam was the best singer who ever lived, no contest," was the assessment of Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records producer who worked with such transcendent talents as Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. "When I listen to him, I still can't believe the things that he did. . . . Everything about him was perfection."
British rocker Rod Stewart allowed as how Cooke was the only singer to influence him--that he listened only to Cooke's records for two years. And 30 years after his death, artists including Stewart, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett and Michael Bolton are still recording his songs: "Another Saturday Night," "Bring It on Home to Me," "Having a Party."
His career was in full ascent when his half-naked body was found with a bullet through his heart at a seedy Los Angeles motel. He had gone there with a woman who claimed that he had abducted and tried to rape her. When she fled with his trousers, Cooke broke down the door of the manager's office looking for her. The manager, a 55-year-old woman, fired the fatal shot; the shooting was later ruled justifiable.
Many of Cooke's fans have never accepted official versions of his death, insisting that a conspiracy lay behind the shooting. They also maintain that whatever the truth behind that tawdry evening, Cooke's genius as a gospel and pop musician far outweighs it.
So does this wonderfully crafted biography.
Journalist Daniel Wolff and his collaborators have produced the most complete portrait of the charismatic singer to be found. This long overdue assessment is all the more welcome because it is informed and given texture by the participation of S. R. Crain, the man who brought Cooke into the Soul Stirrers, Clifton M. (Cliff) White, Cooke's longtime guitarist, and Los Angeles attorney G. David Tenenbaum, a devoted Cooke fan who spent years researching his idol's life.
That texture, though, comes at times with controversy. Before this work went to press, several unflattering references to Cooke's widow and to his former manager Allen Klein were either revised or excised. J. W. Alexander, Cooke's long-time business partner, is outraged by comments that he knew the woman who had been in the motel room with Cooke and that he had been seen with her before Cooke was killed. Those statements are absolutely untrue, Alexander says, and fuel conspiracy theories that he might have been involved in a scheme to kill Cooke.
In a compelling, thoughtful and refreshingly honest narrative on the nature of the music business, Wolff takes us from the origins of the church that produced Cooke to the mob scenes at the churches where he was eulogized. Race, sex and politics were midwives at the birth of rock 'n' roll, and Wolff reminds us with infuriating details of the indignities and exploitation those African-American originators of the music endured.
Race has long made American music moguls uncomfortable, resulting in transparent marketing contortions fraudulently passed off as new genres. There was a time when rock 'n' roll was undeniably black music and roundly denounced by bigots as such. But as more and more white artists entered the field, a profusion of dishonest labels appeared in record stores and music publications. A tune by a black artist suddenly became "rhythm and blues." The same tune badly covered by a white artist miraculously became something called "rock." Soon, all the black artists were segregated in rhythm and blues while their music--with hardly a note changed--wound up on pop charts as rock.
(That the discomfort with race continues today is amply demonstrated by the mindless euphemism "urban contemporary" now used to refer to black popular music. Urban contemporary? To distinguish it from suburban archaic?)
When Wolff sets out to capture one of the most influential singers and his impact on contemporary music, he takes us to Cooke's Mississippi Delta roots and to church--the crucible of African-American music. Implicit in this biography is the axiom that critical dimensions of contemporary popular music remain inaccessible unless you experience an emotion-laden black church service.
Wolff introduces the reader to Sister Flute--the archetype for all of those heavily burdened black women who flock to Pentecostal services and gospel concerts seeking an intense emotional experience and its sweet release. Sister Flute is the unfailing barometer of how the Spirit is moving through the house. When an inspired sermon takes flight, she is swept aboard, often speaking in tongues before collapsing in paroxysms of religious fervor. If a preacher fails to trigger her convulsions, he would be wise to seek another line of work. The same holds true for gospel singers.