Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke

By Levy, Morris S. | Notes, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke


Levy, Morris S., Notes


JAZZ AND POPULAR MUSIC Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. By Peter Guralnick. New York: Little Brown, 2005. [xv, 750 p. ISEN 0-316-37794-5. $27.95.] Illustrations, notes, bibliography, discography, index.

Peter Guralnick has been one of the most deservedly praised chroniclers of American vernacular music for over thirty years. His first three non-fiction books, Feel Like Going Home (New York: Outerbridge Sc Dienstfrey, 1971), Lost Highway (Boston: D. R. Godine, 1979), and Sweet Soul Music (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), are often described as a blues, country, and soul music trilogy. However, the first two books are compilations of individual portraits of musicians loosely connected by musical genre; the third is a history of soul music that cohesively integrates the portraits into a historical narrative. With Guralnick's magnificent two-volume biography of Elvis Presley -Last Train to Memphis (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994) and Careless Love (Boston: Little, Brown, 1999)-his portraiture style is used to its best effect, sifting through hundreds of interviews and documents to create something that one would have thought impossible: a fresh look at Presley and his career through the people who knew him. With Dream Boogie, Guralnick takes a similar approach with a much more elusive figure; Sam Cooke may be a familiar name to many, but his story may not be. Guralnick's wonderful biography of the singer-music business entrepreneur should put Cooke back in the pantheon with Ray Charles and James Brown, as a pioneer in secularizing gospel music to create a new genre called soul music, and as a fiercely independent musician whose attempts to gain control over his recording contracts and his successful attempt to start his own soul and gospel record label was in perfect sync with the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s.

Born in 1931 in Mississippi, Sam Cook (he added the "e" when his singing career took off) and his family moved to Chicago when Sam was just two. Guralnick's ability to interweave portraits is evident in his description of Sam's early years, which he elegantly combines with the stories of Sam's two brothers, Charles and L. C. (Sam's two older sisters apparently led lives independent from their younger brother.) Even as a child, Sam was recognized as being special; L. C. recalled that Sam "could charm the birds out of the trees" (p. 19). Sam not only loved to sing but he could think of no other vocation for himself. The Cook siblings formed a vocal group simply known as the Singing Children that performed at churches and picnics; in high school, Sam joined the Highway QCs, a teenage gospel group that soon became known for the young women who flocked to see the handsome and personable lead singer. After three years with the QCs, Sam joined the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group with a national reputation. With a desire to distinguish himself from Rebert H. Harris (19162000), the popular former lead singer of the Stirrers whom Sam replaced, Cooke perfected his singing style: not a shouter, Sam sang his spirituals with intimacy, inserting a soulful yodel ("whoa-oho-ohoh-oh") into nearly everything that he did. He also developed his skills as a songwriter, composing classics like "Touch the Hem of His Garment" by finding a passage in the Bible that appealed to him and improvising the verses over a two-chord guitar lick. But he was reckless in his relationships with women in Chicago and on the road, fathering several illegitimate children, including one with seventeen-year-old Barbara Campbell, whom Sam met in Chicago when he was still in high school and she was just thirteen. Along with Sam's brothers, Guralnick's portrait of Barbara is remarkable: while Sam cultivated an image of urbanity while admiring the street life when not on stage, Barbara had no such pretensions, taking up with pimps and drug dealers when Sam abandoned her, and when they eventually married and Sam's indiscretions continued, she would party with the harder living members of Sam's entourage. …

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