Tracing the Highs and Tragic End of Sam Cooke Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of Sam Cooke, one of the most famous gospel and pop singers in American music history. Along with Ray Charles, Cooke was one of the earliest artists to cross over from gospel to pop music. By the end of his career, he heralded the advent of soul.
NPR logo

Tracing the Highs and Tragic End of Sam Cooke

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Tracing the Highs and Tragic End of Sam Cooke

Tracing the Highs and Tragic End of Sam Cooke

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal CONAN in Washington. Our focus today, our main guest is Peter Guralnick, author of the new book Dream Boogie, the Triumph of Sam Cooke. We're having some difficulty technically getting him setup in the studio in Boston. He'll be joining us shortly.

Earlier today, as you may know, the Al-Jazeera television network broadcast excerpts from an audio tape purported to be from Osama Bin Laden, and in fact, you can hear more on that story later today on NPR News. This coming Sunday, though, would have been Sam Cooke's 75th birthday.

(Soundbite Sam Cooke singing 'You Send Me')

CONAN: That magical voice animated a long string of hits that came to a sudden end when Sam Cooke was shot and killed in a motel manager's office in 1964 at the age of 33. In a new biography, writer Peter Guralnick traces Sam Cooke's career.

He began singing with his brothers and sisters in his father's church in Chicago, became a star on the gospel circuit and then broke through. Along with Ray Charles, Cooke was among the first to crossover from gospel to pop. Like other black stars, he struggled with white-owned record companies, but Sam Cooke went ahead and formed his own record label. Like the rest of his generation, he got caught up in the civil rights movement.

Dream Boogie, the Triumph of Sam Cooke sets the singer and songwriter in the context of his times, of his ambitions, of his enormous accomplishment and describes his darker side as well. Later in the program, the Vatican newspaper weighs in on intelligent design, but first, if you have question about the life and times of Sam Cooke, give us a call or send us an email. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The email address is Peter Guralnick joins us now from the studios of WBUR, our member station in Boston, Massachusetts. Nice to have you on the program, Peter.

Mr. PETER GURALNICK (Author, Dream Boogie): Well, it's good to be here.

CONAN: This may sound like a strange question, but everybody knows You Send Me and Chain Gang and Wonderful World and A Change Is Gonna Come and more, but do people really remember Sam Cooke?

MR. GURALNICK: Well, I think that's just one of the anomalies of creativity in any field is that if the work has any worth, it will survive, but often the creator may be lost sight of for periods of time. I mean, somebody like John Donne disappeared for 300 years. Robert Johnson disappeared for 50. I think in the case of Sam Cooke, I think that his, you know, his celebrity or his fame was definitely cut down by the fact that he died so young, but his songs have never gone away.

CONAN: He died, also, at a time when it seems he was nationally known, internationally known, but on the cusp of even greater renown.

MR. GURALNICK: Well, he was really on the cusp of so many things. I mean, one thing about Sam Cooke is that he was always moving forward. There was never a period of life, there was never a period in his life from the time he was five years old where he didn't have a sense of strong forward motion. And at the end of his life, he envisioned any number of new advances.

For one thing, he was making a more and more explicit commitment to the civil rights movement, had set up a benefit performance for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had had his song A Change Is Gonna Come adopted as a kind of anthem for the movement. But in addition to that, he was planning to plan supper clubs, to open in Las Vegas, he had just signed a movie contract, and on the last night of his life, he spoke of going into the studio in the next month and recording a gut bucket blues album which would be influenced by his great love for the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

So I mean, we tend to compartmentalize things, and we often say, oh, somebody goes in this direction, they can't possibly go in that direction. I mean, they might sell out by doing this...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

MR. GURALNICK: ...if we don't like it or, but in Sam's case, he truly believed, he had been brought up by his father to believe never allow anyone else to set any limits for you, never put any limits on yourself, and he genuinely didn't. He really believed he could do it all.

CONAN: Hm. Sam Cooke's father, a minister, an itinerant minister much of his life, but for most of his childhood there in Chicago. But he started him singing with his brothers and sisters in a little group that they took around to various places, and then he joined other local groups and became an absolute star, and I don't think people understand this, on the gospel circuit when he was the lead singer with a group called the Soul Stirrers.

MR. GURALNICK: Well, that's right. I mean, he was in essence kind of matinee idol on the gospel circuit. I mean, there were other great stars there. There were, Archie Brownlee with the Five Blind Boys was a great, great singer and a star in his own right, and there was someone like June Cheeks with the Sensational Nightingales. But Sam, as Bobby Womack who was a protégée of his, who met Sam when he was only seven or eight years old, Bobby Womack always likes to say Sam brought sex into the church, and while that may not be explicitly true, or it may be, I'm not sure, but, you know, he attracted an audience, and he had a kind of seductive style that was new to quartet singing. Most of the singers that he was going up against, like Archie Brownlee, like June Cheeks, like, oh, Kylo Turner and Keith Barber with the Pilgrim Travelers who traveled all over with the Soul Stirrers...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

MR. GURALNICK: ...they were more shouters. They were, in some cases they were screamers, but they really put their music out there by the volume that they created and the passion that they communicated. And it's not that what Sam was doing was better or worse. But what he was doing, he was a crooner in that field, and he brought teenagers into the church. He brought young girls, and he brought an atmosphere, a kind of seductiveness into the music which was a natural to crossover into pop music.

CONAN: Let's hear a little clip of, this is Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers and one of their biggest hits, Jesus Gave Me Water.

(Soundbite Sam Cooke and Soul Stirrers singing Jesus Gave Me Water)

CONAN: And interestingly that we listen to that, Peter Guralnick, we can hear Sam Cooke's voice. It sounds a little light, a little young. We don't hear that characteristic sound that he had in so many of his pop and R&B records, that whoo. I'm not gonna try to do it, that whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo.

MR. GURALNICK: I think you should do it.

CONAN: Another career maybe.

MR. GURALNICK: But, no, I mean, he, that was something that he developed. I mean, he came close to it. He came up in the wake of another great lead singer R.H. Harris, who really set the tone for all of the quartets singing in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and Harris had what he called a yodel, and it was really almost a natural break into a falsetto that really was almost as natural as his regular voice.


MR. GURALNICK: And it was that break between the, between his, you know, what you would call his natural range into the falsetto that created the yodel. Well, Sam couldn't really do that, and eventually he created, I'm gonna leave it to you to do the whoo-whoo-whoo...


MR. GURALNICK: But, you know, he created that almost as compensation. But I, although people say that, I'm really not convinced of it. I think that he was developing his own style, and in fact, it should be pointed out that that Jesus Gave Me Water was the very first record that came out with him as lead singer with the Soul Stirrers. He was just 20 years old when he recorded it.

CONAN: Boy, he sounds so confident there.

MR. GURALNICK: He does. And the point is this was a song, the owner of the label, Art Rupe, the Specialty Records owner, was adamantly opposed to the Soul Stirrers recording this with this kid. He didn't want the kid to record at all, but he definitely didn't want to record that song because it had just been a hit for the Pilgrim Travelers on Specialty, and every single gospel group had...

CONAN: Which was Art Rupe's label, yeah.

MR. GURALNICK: ...which was Art Rupe's label, exactly. And every gospel group, it seemed, had recorded Jesus Gave Me Water. Well, Sam had been singing it with his teenage gospel group that he had been with just before the Soul Stirrers, the Highway QC's, and it was so much a signature to him that the manager for The Soulsters, F.R. Crain(ph), and the Pilgrims travel manager, J.W. Alexander, who was a great champion of insisted, give him a chance. And you can hear the resolve out there. And although you're right, his voice is like, you can hear it break in places. But, nonetheless, there's so much confidence and again, even without that characteristic yodel, there is still such a remarkable sense of the style of his own.

CONAN: Peter GURALNICK's, new book is Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255 or send us e-mail:

Let's take some callers.

This is Tony(ph). Tony's calling from Portland, Indiana.

TONY (Caller): Hello, yes I love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

TONY: And the subject's great because his music stirs my soul. What was his relationship with Lou Rawls?

MR. GURALNICK: Well, Lou Rawls was kind of the protégé of Sam's. I mean, Lou Rawls grew up in Chicago and as Lou Rawls said, you just wanted to hang around with Sam. You know because you knew that there was so much happening there was always going to be some fall out for you.

And Lou Rawls came up in gospel groups like the Holy Wonders and the Teenage Kings of Harmony and their Queen, which were secondary to the gospel group that Sam was signing in as a teenager, the Highway QCs.

And basically, Lou Rawls' whole career he, when he entered, what you want to call the Big Time in gospel it was as the lead signer of The Pilgrim Travelers after he got out of the Army. Which Sam's friend and business partner J.W. Alexander managed and brought Lou into the Pilgrim Travelers. J.W. Alexander became Lou's great guide and to some extent his manager, brought him to Capital Records. And Lou sang on many of Sam's records, sang backup. The most notable one being Bring it On Home to Me…

TONY: Oh, that's a great song.

MR. GURALNICK: …which Sam recorded in 1962 and which really marked the return, on Sam's part, to the kind of gospel sound.

TONY: And wasn't Sam Cooke one of the original members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

MR. GURALNICK: He was. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I think, in 1986, with Elvis Presley and Little Richard and Chuck Barry and James Brown. And you know, it was a great class.

TONY: Well, thank you for remembering him.

CONAN: Tony, thanks for the call. I just wanted to read and excerpt from Peter Guralnick's book. This is from L.C. Cooke, Sam's brother talking about his brother when he was very young. “‘I figured out my life then,' he said. ‘I'm never going to have a nine-to-five job.' I said, ‘what do you mean Sam?' He said, ‘Man, I figured out the whole system.' He said, ‘it's designed if you work to keep you working. All you do is live from payday to payday. At the end of the week, you're broke again.' He said, ‘the system is designed like that.' And I'm listening, I'm seven and he's nine and he's talking about the system. I said, ‘what are you going to do then if you ain't going to work, Sam?' He said, ‘I'm going to sing and I'm going to make me a lot of money.' And that's just what he did.” There's a man who knew what he was going to do with his life.

MR. GURALNICK: Well, exactly, and you know his brother L.C., while he is certainly a reflective person and somebody who has his own insights. To this day the system doesn't mean anything to L.C. I mean, when he speaks of Sam telling him that, he's referring to a child who became an adult with a deeply analytic cast of mind.

I mean, all his life Sam really sat himself to figure out how to do things work and how do I move ahead within the frame work of the way the things work.

CONAN: We're talking with Peter Guralnick whose new book is Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke.

If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255 or e-mail us:

We'll be back after a short break.

I'm Neal Conan you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite, music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about gospel pop and R&B legend Sam Cooke today. Our guest is Peter Guralnick, whose newest book is Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. If you'd like to read an excerpt of the book and listen to some of Sam Cooke's music you can visit our Web site at And if you want to speak with Peter Guralnick, give us a call: 800-989-8255; e-mail address is

Let's get another caller on the line. This is David. David's with us from Kansas City.

DAVID (Caller): Hi.


DAVID: I'm a huge Sam Cooke fan, but also kind of an amateur musician. And a year or so ago I tried to look for sheet music, piano/guitar music for Sam Cooke songs. And I found that almost none of it was available. The only thing you could buy commercially was a collection of his very, very early stuff, which was primarily the gospel music.

And it got me wondering of the later songs of Sam Cooke that most of us know Wonderful World, Change is Gonna Come, Bring it Back Home to Me. How many of those were actually written or, by Sam Cooke or Sam Cooke compositions. And to what extent was his music owned by other people and controlled by other people?

MR. GURALNICK: Every one was written by Sam Cooke and every one was…

David: That's what I thought.

MR. GURALNICK: …controlled by Sam Cooke because he started in 1959 with his friend J.W. Alexander. He started his own publishing company, Keg's Music, which was actually named for Lou Rawls stepfather Keg. His nickname was Keg because he was an armature bartender. But so Sam, again, in line with that quote from his brother L.C. at the age of nine, Sam saw the system for what it was and really with J.W. Alexander's tutorial because J.W. was 15 or 20 years older than Sam. He learned early on that that the music business is a business. And at the heart of the business, the heart of the business is ownership. That's where you make your money.

DAVID: I was just wondering if, there must be some reason that his estate or the people who later took control of his music have chosen not to issue. The records are out there for us, but you can't purchase, you can't purchase sheet music to it.

MR. GURALNICK: I don't know what the politics of sheet music are. I mean, I don't know what or the business of sheet music. I know that there's a booklet which is of all the songs from Sam Cooke's Sar record story, which is the label. Neal was talking about it earlier, the label that he and J.W. owned. And on which they recorded people like Johnny Taylor, the Simpson Twins, The Valentinos, The Soulsters. Most of those songs are also songs that he wrote. And there's a booklet with sheet music for each of the songs on that two-CD set.

But I know that when Portrait of a Legend came out a couple of years ago. The intent was to have a book, this is all of his greatest hits, it's on the ABKCO Label and the intention was to put out a book with that sheet music. But I never followed up on it and I, I'm sure you're right. I'm, you seemed to have pursued it and…

DAVID: He wrote all those songs, huh?

MR. GURALNICK: Yep, he wrote all the songs for all of his artists, virtually all of the songs for all of his artists on Sar Records.

DAVID: What a genius. He was the best.

CONAN: David, thanks for the call, good luck looking for the music.

DAVID: All right, thanks.

CONAN: You mentioned Sar Records. Art Rupe mentioned earlier that the guy that ran Specialty Records, he and Sam had a lot of professional problems. Sam thought he was being ripped off and ended up leaving Art Rupe feeling like he had been ripped off.

Sam formed his own company, Sar Records. But then he went to work for a big time label. He was recording for RCA.

MR. GURALNICK: Well yeah, actually, the company that he went to after when he left Specialty. And you're right, they both Art Rupe and Sam felt seriously abused. Each felt abused by the other in a business sense. But Sam went to a label that didn't have a name initially, but was, when it was formed over the summer of 1957 and when his and his record You Send Me was the first record on that Keen label. Which was owned by an airplane parts manufacturer named John Fiamis(ph).

While he was on Keen he started his own label, which was Sar Records in 1959 basically to record The Soulsters. But he himself was never on his own label.

He and J.W. recorded as J.W. said, J.W. was just a wonderful person and a great mentor to Sam and eventually much later in his life to me too, but he, J.W. said they recorded, we recorded people we liked.

But Sam went from Keen Records to RCA with the idea of, you know, not staying on his own label because he believed that you know what he wanted was major label exposure. He believed he could compete in the same market place as Elvis Presley. Saying he was the second biggest single seller on RCA behind Elvis Presley.

CONAN: One of his big hits for RCA, Chain Gang. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of Chain Gang)

CONAN: Sam Cooke and Chain Gang. As a song writer, Peter Guralnick, he liked to describe things that he saw. This is one of many occasions you describe in the book where he saw something happen and said, “That's a song” and proceeded to write it down.

MR. GURALNICK: Yeah. I know that's exactly I mean he carried a notebook with him everywhere he went and it just, like that Norman Mailer story and advertisements for myself, The Notebook. He just, everywhere he went he carried a notebook to jot his. And if he didn't have a notebook, he'd write it down on a napkin.

But he saw himself as a kind of reporter so that, as you say, I mean he saw this chain gang in the Carolinas. He and his brother Charles, I don't think he'd ever seen a chain gang before. He and Charles went and got cigarettes for the prisoners but he wrote the song that he wrote rather than being a social protest song, it was almost a romantic song about the women back home and when they get back home. And actually, if you were to listen to the session tapes and you see how the song evolves, it's fascinating how he takes a real life situation and he sees it as a kind of drama but he develops it almost like a fiction writer aligns with his imagination suggests.

And similarly I mean he saw these dancers at the Peppermint Lounge you know doing the Twist at the Peppermint Lounge. High Society doing the Twist at the Peppermint Lounge on TV and then wrote the song Twisting the Night Away in which he peoples with characters. I mean these are very brief, you know character sketches. But the idea is to create a scene and to create a kind of storyline and he believed deeply in simplicity so that it was a matter of presenting characters in a storyline that the listener could immediately grasp and a melody as he said that the person on the street, the person walking down the street could pick up on and could hum to himself or herself.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, Jim. Jim's calling from Tuscan, Arizona.

JIM (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air; go ahead please.

JIM: I wanted to ask your guest if he is familiar with any alcohol problems Sam Cooke had.

MR. GURALNICK: No I wouldn't say that he had any alcohol problem. He drank, his son Vincent drowned in…

JIM: I hired him in 1964, 65 for our fraternity in a university I was going to and he got off the plane in Oklahoma. He stood on the tarmac and he goes, “Here I am in Oklahoma City. Lot's of pigs, lots' of cattle, lot's of nothing. Oh, New York, New York where's my skyscraper?” as he turned around two or three times.

And then he couldn't even, by that night, that was the afternoon, and by the evening he, went on and he couldn't even do the second part of the act. He had to have the comedian and the band do a second round and people were upset and everything. And I was just…

MR. GURALNICK: Well, I, yeah I don't know. He met a very demanding schedule. He performed probably as much as you know 200, 250 nights a year. I‘ve never heard a story like that. I've never seen a show that he missed. I've never, you know, I've spoken to hundreds of people, and so I think that was very uncharacteristic of, but that certainly doesn't, he was certainly, after the death of his son Vincent in, I think May of 1963, he was depressed and he drank more.

But as far as meeting his professional responsibilities both in terms of an extremely demanding, you know, live performance schedule in terms of maintaining a recording schedule and recording the artists on his own label and really constantly being on the go and constantly meeting his obligations and always and improving his possibility, his situation. You know there was never any evidence of that kind of behavior.

CONAN: You were mentioning, though, his son Vince who as a baby fell into a swimming pool, the cover had been left off. And that not all that far from the end of Sam's life.

Mr. GURALNICK: No, no, and I think that that marked a period of great sadness even in the midst of great achievement, so that while his career and while on the surface everything went well, it marked a, there was both self-blame and I think he and his wife Barbara blamed each other. So that it led to a great deal of friction in a marriage which already had its share of friction.

CONAN: Yeah, you could say and be truthful that he married his childhood sweetheart and that would be the most misleading thing you could probably say.

MR. GURALNICK: Well, it would and it wouldn't, because in a certain way, I think, they never fell out of love, but the love that they shared was not the love that exists in story books. It was not an easy kind of love and there was constant friction and I think the great heartbreak in his wife's life, who was perceived in many different ways by many people around her, but was perhaps one of the most honest people that I've ever met, one of the most brutally honest in terms of not just other people but herself.

Just the great heartbreak of her life was that she never could make a place for herself in Sam's. And that while she would have given anything to have become more a part of his life with his, not just his professional life, but I mean of his whole life. And she did everything she could to do that. But, I mean, it's funny. Like so many entertainers I would say that at heart Sam was an almost solitary person. And I think you find that, you know, you find that to be true of a great many entertainers who go out, charm the world, and yet in their own selves are more contemplative, more solitary and more brooding than you would every imagine from their public persona.

CONAN: He had that ability you describe of being what people wanted him to be. Being utterly sincere and convincing at the moment that they were with him, but being able to turn on that, you know, being detached from that in the same way. Almost as if he's observing himself.

MR. GURALNICK: Yeah. No, I think that that's, I mean you can call that a protean personality, you know, where you can, but I mean, but I think it suggests the same problems of intimacy again that so many entertainers have or so many people have. I mean it really it's unfair just to put it on enter, but entertainers are placed in the position, entertainers are like politicians, it's similar to, you know, you can see this let's say in someone like Bill Clinton or in Elvis, both of whom clearly want to be loved by everybody and put forth a persona that allows them to be loved and accepted by the crowd, but the question is who are they, you know, when they're by themselves at night.

CONAN: We're talking with Peter Guralnick about his new book, Dream Boogie, the Triumph of Sam Cooke. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk now with Nordine(ph). Nordine calling us from Tucson, Arizona.

NORDINE (Caller): Yes, hi Pete, Neal.



NORDINE: I just wondered if Pete had a, was aware of the impact that Sam Cooke made in my generation. (Unintelligible), song, especially the song you just played, The Chain Gang, and he really, really inspired us and helped us all in (unintelligible).

CONAN: I'm sorry, Nordine, we're having trouble hearing you. Did you say you drew up in France?

NORDINE: Yes, I'm French. and I moved about ten years ago here and I moved because I was inspired by Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke is and was an icon, an American Icon in Europe, especially in France.

CONAN: Did you know the words when you were listening?

NORDINE: I didn't know the words. We're singing after him and the words (unintelligible) inspired by his voice and the music. And until today, now that I understand everything that he says, it's really moving, you know, and I just want your listeners to know that Sam Cooke had an impact on all of us in France, especially North African children dealing with racism.

CONAN: Oh, Nordine thank you very much for the call.

NORDINE: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Appreciate that. And I guess Peter Guralnick, there's a testament.

MR. GURALNICK: Well, you know, I think that to some extent is a testament as well to the universality of music. I mean the way in which say the Blues has reached around the world to an audience that may very well not understand the words, but it's the way in which that's that direct impact communication of the songs of someone like Sam Cooke, of a whole variety of people. And the emotional core that lies at the heart of Sam Cooke songs that allows them to communicate in a way that is beyond language I think.

It's what Ray Charles said of him. I spoke to Ray Charles just a few months before he died and he said, you know, Sam Cooke was the one and only. He knew Sam from the time Sam was singing with The Soul Stirrers, they would get together. Ray would get, they would all be staying at the same little hotels because of course black entertainers whether they were Gospel singers or they were R&B singers, or Pop singers or if they were sports figures there was only one little hotel in town who would take African Americans. They couldn't stay in a white hotel.

So on Sunday morning Ray Charles would talk about how he would get together with J.W. Alexander and The Pilgrim Travelers and Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers and how they would just sing Gospel music. But he said of Sam, Sam was the one and only. Not only did he hit every note, he hit every note with feeling. And as Ray pointed out to me, I'm not one to hand out compliments lightly.

CONAN: The stories about those meetings, either back stage or in those hotels, there's a description of a scene with Clyde McPhatter, I think, on one of the tours, another person who came from Gospel, but of Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke trading lines and songs and you would have given anything to be there.

MR. GURALNICK: Yeah. No, no, I mean, it's just, the musicality of these singers, I mean, and it's something that, it hasn't been lost, but I mean when we talk about the golden age of Gospel, which was, you know, roughly say from 1950 to 1960 but continue, I mean, you have great, great Gospel singing. The Mighty Clouds of Joy came in right around '60 or '61. but the point is that you had, it was just every night you had the kind of exchanges and the kind of competition that is almost beyond imagined and then, you know, with the Soul shows and I used to usher the Soul shows. We would have Otis Redding and Solomon Burke and Jackie Wilson and again, I mean, these are the shows that Sam would go out with, Sam and Jackie Wilson, for example.

And the competition and the way in which the music alone would elevate them, you know, beyond anything that can be imagined from the records alone. And anyone who's ever been at any of those shows and, what you describe, what you describe was on a backstage thing. Which I think either Phil or Don Everly described to me. He said that they would be singing Country and Western songs with Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke backstage. But just the sheer musicality and the way in which music served as an instrument of communication. I know that I wish I had the eloquence but Sam Phillips just used to declaim to me about the way in which music had changed the world, could change the world, would continue to change the world, you know. He would say put some of those musicians over there in Iraq and that'll be the end of the war.

CONAN: Well, I'm not sure about that, but music…

MR. GURALNICK: We can hope.

CONAN: …music helped change the country in the early ‘60s and of course what was going on in the country changed a lot of the music as well. And we'll talk about that with Peter Guralnick when we come back from a break. Again, his new book is about the triumph of Sam Cooke. It's called Dream Boogie. 800-989-8255. TALK OF THE NATION has an email address too. That's And this is NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today we're talking about Gospel, Pop, and R&B legend Sam Cooke. With us is Peter Guralnick. His new biography is Dream Boogie, the Triumph of Sam Cooke. If you'd like to read an excerpt of that book and listen to some of Sam Cooke's classic songs you can visit our website at If you'd like to get in on the conversation 800-989-8255 or email us: And let's get another caller on the line. This is Michael. Michael's calling us from Cleveland.

MICHAEL (Caller): Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, Michael.

MICHAEL: Great. Peter, thank you very much for the book. I really enjoyed it.

MR. GURALNICK: Oh, thank you.

MICHAEL: And I have a story that I'd like to share with you. I'm originally from Brooklyn, New York. And a local group, The Five Star Gospel singers would open for Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers when they would come into town. And my father was a member of that group. And it was a performance where Sam really lit the church up and he made my mother cry so much that after the performance when I was with my father and my father said, say hi to Sam. I wouldn't say hi. My father says, why won't you say hi and I said, because he made mommy cry.

MR. GURALNICK: Now, would that be at Washington Temple in Brooklyn?

MICHAEL: That was definitely, yeah, that was Brown's Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Right off of Gates and Washington.

CONAN: That's a great story, Michael.

MICHAEL: Peter, thank you very much and keep it up. I enjoyed both of the books.

MR. GURALNICK: Well thanks. And I hope you were at the shows in Cleveland. The tribute to Sam Cooke.

MICHAEL: I was out of town and I missed it, but I heard it was really great.

CONAN: Michael thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MICHAEL: Thanks a lot, Neal. Appreciate the show.

CONAN: And Sam Cooke had that affect on a lot of women.

MR. GURALNICK: Yeah. No, he could make them cry and, I mean, it was a very, it was a deeply emotional kind of music and Sam's whole point was that if you couldn't bring that emotion to it, if you couldn't bring that feeling to it then don't do it. I mean that was the core of the music, despite the fact that he was a deeply reflective person, a highly analytic person, and really an intellectual. Somebody who was not just a veracious reader, but someone who pursued his reading in directions.

For example, he took up, he was inspired by the work of John Hope Franklin, by specifically From Slavery to Freedom to begin his study of black history. And he soon acquired a library of black history and, you know, that would rival anybody's. he used to go out to a bookstore in Los Angeles called The Aquarian Bookstore, one of the few in the country that had that kind of, you know, that had that, that had those kinds of books. But the point is that for all of that, for all of his intellectuality, for all of his acuity of mind, for all of his the way in which his analytic cast of mind, his whole point about music was you had to bring the feeling to it. And that what's brought the feeling out in the audiences.

CONAN: Let's talk now with John. John calling from Syracuse, New York.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, Neal, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

JOHN: I had recently read the autobiography of Malcolm X, which I highly recommend to everyone and in researching Sam Cooke recently I understand (unintelligible) with Malcolm X at the Liston and Clay fight in the early ‘60s and my question is about Sam Cooke's politics. I know that at the time of his death he had written A Change is Gonna Come. I'm wondering what kind of political activities he was undertaking and what he might have undertaken?

CONAN: You know how long it was and it's still referred to as Cassius Clay, of course we know him as Muhammad Ali.

JOHN: I know it's Muhammad Ali. I'm just, at the time I know Clay/Liston, so.

CONAN: At the time, Cassius Clay. Peter Guralnick?

MR. GURALNICK: Well, I mean, again, as a deeply reflective person as a, you know, a person of color in a world in which the color line was clearly drawn and in which prejudice was not just prevalent, but just omnivorous. Sam was somebody who was deeply sensitive to racial issues, to racial hurt, and who in the course of his career took a number of stands that some entertainers did and some entertainers didn't. I mean, for example, he and Clyde McPhatter refused to play in Memphis at the Ellis Auditorium at a segregated show after the NAACP had pointed out, had requested them not to play. And everybody else on the bill played and Sam and Clyde McPhatter refused and made statements to the paper at risk to themselves, at personal peril that, with threats, with financial threats and the threat of their cars being confiscated.

And there were any number of incidents like that, including his refusal to be turned away from a segregated motel in Shreveport, Louisiana, which is one of the three point of impetus for his writing, A Change is Gonna Come. But, I think that he was becoming more and more explicit in his political activity, more and more of an activist towards the end of his life. And in fact, after the fight, in Miami after Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston in Miami because as you said, as you pointed out he was yet to become Mohammad Ali. Clay, rather than go to the Fontainebleau for a big victory party that had been planned, or going off with his girlfriend Dee Dee, I'm forgetting her last name right now, went back to the Hampton House where Malcolm X was staying with Sam, with Jim Brown.

And the FBI informant who was there reported back to J. Edgar Hoover with considerable alarm that these sports and entertainment figures should be getting together to express their common dissatisfaction over issues of color. So, more and more, over the course of the last few years of his life, Sam was not just aware of something which no person of color could fail to be aware of. More and more he was inclined to take action and he had just, he had donated his song, A Change is Gonna Come to an album, which was a benefit album for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the summer of '64. There were any number of things which he had planned.

CONAN: John thanks very much.

JOHN: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: And, Peter Guralnick, we just have a couple of minutes left but you said earlier Sam Cooke did not have an alcohol problem. As such, people in your book say repeatedly he never smoked dope, never took pills.


CONAN: There was a dark side of his character though, he was a womanizer. And, the night he died he was certainly drunk.

Mr. GURALNICK: He was he had been drinking certainly, yeah. I mean and was, I don't think there's any way of measuring how much he had drunk. But he certainly had been, he had been drinking. I think the point is that like, if you look to anybody else in the book, he was in the life like everybody else in the book. Like Ray Charles, like Lloyd Price, like B.B. King and I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn't a womanizer, which is neither to condemn or condone.

But what was so difficult about his death to accept was, that simply, people couldn't accept it because it was, it simply wasn't the way it should have been. And I think that, for someone as smooth, as urbane, as sophisticated as Sam Cooke, it just, it simply should not have come to an end in that way. Now, that's as if there were some rational impulse behind the way in which any of us die. But as J.W. Alexander said, and J.W. believed that, this was his friend this was his best friend in the world. And he felt that it was a tragic accident, it was simply a senseless waste of life.

He didn't doubt that it happened the way it was said to have happened. But, I think, to see it as a senseless waste of life would be the best way to see it. But the way in which the community reacted to it was essentially, I think there was almost universal disbelief, because Sam was such a shining light within the black community. And, the conspiracies that were constructed to explain it all make perfect sense in the sense that, they see Sam as being a, this was the case of another proud black man struck down by the white establishment that just couldn't stand to see him get any bigger. Which, in view of the prevalent, you know the prejudice that was so pervasive it was just, ran through every aspect of American life and continues to in many respects. It's a perfectly rational explanation and maybe you know, tomorrow somebody's gonna walk in the door with the evidence to prove these, any one of these theories. But so far no evidence has been, you know has been presented.

CONAN: Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Peter Guralnick thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. GURALNICK: Well thanks I've really enjoyed it.

CONAN: You mentioned, Change is Gonna Come an anthem of sorts, for the civil rights movement, let's go out of this segment listening to that.

(Soundbite of song 'Change is Gonna Come')

CONAN: Sam Cooke, A Change is Gonna Come. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.