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The devil and Mr. Cooke

Dream Boogie The Triumph of Sam Cooke Peter Guralnick Little, Brown: 722 pp., $27.95

October 30, 2005|Charles R. Cross | Charles R. Cross is the author of "Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix."

ON Dec. 11, 1964, Sam Cooke suffered one of the more bizarre deaths in show business history. At 3 that morning, a clerk at the seedy $3-a-night Hacienda Motel in southwestern Los Angeles fired three rounds at the singer from a .22 revolver. Two of the bullets missed, but one struck Cooke in the chest, prompting him to remark, "Lady, you shot me." Police arrived to find him dead from the gunshot wound, with his head bloodied and various bruises on his body from a scuffle. He was naked except for an overcoat. Cooke was just 33 and had only recently finished final edits on "A Change Is Gonna Come," one of the most powerful anthems ever written about the civil rights struggle and the song some critics would later call his masterpiece.

When Sam Cooke died on that motel floor, popular music lost one of its most enduring talents, a singer whose trademark vocal style of adding "oohs" to the end of lines -- most evident on hits like "You Send Me" and "Cupid" -- gave his recordings the transcendent ability to capture the emotional flutter of new love. That Cooke crossed over from gospel, and imported those "oohs" from the church, didn't diminish the smoldering sexuality of his best work. Although artists like Al Green and Elvis Presley produced songs that were at times both secular and spiritual, few gospel singers have ever had as many pop hits as Cooke. His story, then, is a perfect vehicle to explain not only the subtle relationship between gospel and rock, but also how that mirrored larger changes within the music industry.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Author's name -- A book review summary on the Today's News page in some copies of the Oct. 30 Section A misspelled the name of the author of "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke." He is Peter Guralnick, not Peter Guralnic.

Cooke succeeded in pop music for the same reasons that he became a star on the gospel circuit: He was a gifted performer, he was handsome and he had a way with the "oohs" that made women actually swoon. In the words of Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, Cooke was the "best singer who ever lived, no contest."

That accolade would in all likelihood be echoed by Peter Guralnick, whose "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke" must be considered the authoritative rendering of the singer's short life. Ten years in the making, filled with both minutiae and a sweeping back story, "Dream Boogie" is a remarkable testament to Guralnick's skill as a researcher, even if at times that very strength diminishes the story's narrative arc. When a book is as deeply researched as "Dream Boogie," it seems heretical to argue that it would have been more powerful were it shorter, but this is a case where less might have been more. "Dream Boogie" runs more than 700 pages, and though it contains a wealth of detail, only the most rabid fans will be interested in the history of every one of Cooke's gospel hits. Daniel Wolff's 1995 Cooke biography, "You Send Me," does not have the scope of Guralnick's effort, but it is an equally credible work.

The biggest problem with "Dream Boogie" is not of Guralnick's making: The more we learn about Sam Cooke, the less we like him and, correspondingly, the less we care about his music. Cooke was truly a groundbreaking artist; one of the first African American performers to have his own record label, he became a huge star in two genres (pop and gospel) in the same year, a feat that few have equaled. Because he knew so many important cultural figures -- he was a close friend of both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali -- his life offers a chance to tell a much grander saga of the times. In places, particularly when writing about civil rights, Guralnick achieves that larger vision. But Cooke was also a deeply troubled man, as the numerous tales here of his infidelities, the children born out of wedlock and the abandoned business partners will attest. He had two fractious marriages and was absent from his children's lives.

Guralnick has tackled similarly difficult material before, in his masterful two-volume biography of Elvis Presley. But even at his Graceland jungle-room weirdest, Elvis came off as a victim of fame, whereas Cooke seemed to be actively pursuing his demons. That he managed to juggle a serious sexual compulsion -- and serve jail time for possession of pornography -- while he was a gospel star makes the story all the more unpleasant. Such sordid details do not make for compelling biography.

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