'Dream Boogie': The Life and Death of Sam Cooke

Ed Gordon talks to music journalist Peter Guralnick, whose new book charts the life and tragic death of soul music icon Sam Cooke.

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(Soundbite of song)

Mr. SAM COOKE (Singing) Oh, Jesus...

Back-Up Singers: (Singing) He gave me water.

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) ...gave me water...

Back-Up Singers: (Singing) He gave me water.

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) Jesus...

Back-Up Singers: (Singing) He gave me water.

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) ...gave me water.

Back-Up Singers: (Singing) He gave me water.

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) Jesus...

Back-Up Singers: (Singing) He gave me water.

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) ...gave me water.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

That's Sam Cooke in 1951. It was his very first recording as a member of the legendary gospel group the Soul Stirrers. The son of a Baptist preacher, Cooke would become a superstar of gospel music. But he eventually saw that his extraordinary voice and songwriting skills could be equally appealing to secular audiences. He was among the first and most famous to step outside the church into the realm of popular music. Peter Guralnick spoke with NPR's Ed Gordon about his new book, "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) ...his drinking was made richer from the water...

Mr. PETER GURALNICK (Author, "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke"): He simply was someone who had been taught by his father never to allow anyone to set limits on you and never to set limits on yourself. And from Sam's point of view, he wanted to reach everyone--black, white, rich, poor. And there was simply no way to do that within the framework of gospel music. He had hit a wall and he wanted to go out there and meet the entire world.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) ...water, gave living love and lasting water and I will not ...(unintelligible).

ED GORDON, host:

Sam Cooke, in my mind, was Marvin Gaye before Marvin Gaye. And by that I mean, here's someone who was sexual, was loved by women, yet he had this tear, the religious side, too. Marvin Gaye went back and forth being this sex symbol and knowing that he had this strong, deep, religious conviction. Did Sam Cooke have the same tear, the same going back and forth in his head?

Mr. GURALNICK: Well, I think from Sam's point of view, just like Aretha, he never left the church and he never left gospel music. And even after he stopped singing with the Soul Stirrers, he continued to produce them, he wrote their greatest numbers, he continued to sing with them and perform in all-star gospel programs himself. So Sam never saw himself as really conflicted in those terms. And what drove him into secular music had nothing to do with a falling off from religion. It had to do with just that age-old ambition, simply the opportunity to better himself.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) Darling, you send me. I know you send me. Darling, you...

GORDON: Is it overstating or being too simplistic to suggest that this is a man who had `it'?

Mr. GURALNICK: No, I think there's no que--he had `it' in many different ways, whether you're talking about sexual attraction or you're talking about a creative drive which would simply not allow him to sit still. I mean, for example, had Sam Cooke not had this voice, Sam Cooke would have written songs, he might have written novels, but he had this drive to create, which I think is part of that indefinable hipness that he had. But in terms of his attractiveness, it was as if a light was shining on him at all times and the smile that he had could light up a room. If he was in a room with 20 women, every woman walked out of the room saying, `He was looking right at me, he was talking right at me. Did you see, he was holding my hand?'

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) Another Saturday night, and I ain't got nobody. I got some money 'cause I just got paid. Now how I wish I had someone to talk to. I'm in an awful way.

GORDON: Let me ask you about a song that he wrote, one that has become a classic, and that is "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Mr. GURALNICK: Well, "A Change Is Gonna Come" came directly out of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington, and out of two other things in particular. One was that his friend and partner, J.W. Alexander, gave him a copy of "The Freewheeling Bob Dylan" in the summer of '63. And when Sam heard the song "Blowin' in the Wind" on that album, he said, `You know, it almost makes me ashamed that a white boy should have written a song like this. I should have written a song like this.'

(Soundbite of "Blowin' in The Wind")

Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?

Mr. GURALNICK: Two or three months later, Sam was arrested after being turned away from an all-white motel in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was thrown in jail and was nearly killed at the time. And within weeks, he wrote the song "A Change Is Gonna Come."

(Soundbite of "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Mr. COOK: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent. Oh, and just like the river I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes, it will.

Mr. GURALNICK: What scared him about the song--two things, I think, scared him about the song. One was, he told J.W. he didn't know where the song came from. It was as if it had come to him in a dream. The other thing, I think, that scared him was that somehow he might go beyond some part of his audience. But this was a song that meant so much to him, it was so important, and he was so committed not just to his art but to his message that he couldn't leave this song behind.

(Soundbite of "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Mr. COOK: (Singing) Then I go to my brother and I say, `Brother, help me, please.' But he winds up knocking me back down on my knees. Lord, every the time that thought I could last for...

GORDON: With all of these talents, one would believe that he may have become mythical and iconic anyway, but his death certainly solidified that.

Mr. GURALNICK: Well, his death carried such reverberations within the black community. You know, it was, in a sense, so inexplicable and so sordid in its circumstances and so contrary to the image of Sam Cooke, and the result is that, I would say, within the community, there is not a single person who believes that Sam Cooke died as he is said to have died, killed by a motel owner at a cheap motel in Los Angeles called the Hacienda, which he had gone to with a prostitute named Elisa Boyer. I could have filled 100 pages of the book with an appendix on all the theories about his death.

The central tenet of every one of those theories is that this was a case of another proud black man brought down by the white establishment who simply didn't want to see him grow any bigger. I looked into this very carefully. I had access to the private investigator's report, which nobody has seen and which filled in a good many more details. And no evidence has ever been adduced to show--to prove any of these theories. But, you know, it's--the love that people felt for Sam Cooke, I think, is far more significant than the circumstances of his death. But in the research that I did and also all the people who were closest to him, I don't know anyone who doubts the official story, as much as they might wish that it were otherwise.

GORDON: Your book shows this so well. But if Hollywood were to come up with a character who personified the times, he was it.

Mr. GURALNICK: He emblemized the times. And because of the fact that he was so sharply observant and so deeply feeling, everything about the times was absorbed into his music and into his thinking. But I think that in his own right, he was someone who so unique an individual that we could meet him today at 75 and he would be equally impressive and equally out of time.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Biographer Peter Guralnick. His book is called "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) If you ever change your mind about leaving, leaving me behind...

CHIDEYA: That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of song)

Back-Up Singers: (Singing) Yeah.

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) Yeah.

Back-Up Singers: (Singing) Yeah.

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) Yeah.

Back-Up Singers: (Singing) Yeah.

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) I know I laughed when you left...

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

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