If you have ever listened to a song by Sam Cooke (1931-1964), then I am sure you can agree that no one is ever the same after hearing his voice. My parents and grandparents played his albums and knew many of his songs by memory, singing them with as much passion as Cooke did while on stage. For millions of black Americans, Sam Cooke was the best singer of his time and his death on December 11, 1964, sent music fans into mourning as one of the most beloved singers in America was laid to rest. Today, almost fifty-six years after his death, the songs he produced sound as if they were recorded yesterday. In fact, earlier today, I listened yet again to ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ which many people believe to be his best recording. Spike Lee opted to use it in the 1992 film ‘Malcolm X’, in the scene where Malcolm (Denzel Washington) walks toward the Audubon Ballroom and his fate after parking his car. Cooke’s music has stood the test of time and will continue to do so. But just who was the real Sam Cooke?
Author Peter Guralnick researched Cooke’s life and has composed a biography that shows the many sides of the late singer. The book is well over seven hundred pages, so by no means is it a short read. But contained within these pages, is a wealth of information about Cooke’s life and the music industry in which Sam found himself fully immersed. Guralnick was able to speak to many individuals who knew Sam and were able to provide him with invaluable access to archival documents, footage and anecdotes. It is an exhaustive effort for sure but one that has certainly paid off.
The story begins in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the home of the Rev. Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae whose marriage produced eight children. Sam came in fifth but would go on to become the most popular and most tragic child. From an early age, his father drilled into him that no matter what you do, you do it the best. It was a lesson that helped fuel Cooke’s work ethic which is on display throughout the book in both positive and negative light. After becoming part of several singing groups early in his career, Cooke makes the decision to become a solo artist. It was a decision that would change his life forever and re-shape music in America.
There are many high moments in the book as Cooke’s life reaches new heights. However, not all of the story is smiles and giggles. Sam was a complex figure like many superstars and some of the sides to him were darker than what many fans were allowed to see. Guralnick explores these sides of Cooke which might come as a shock to the even his most ardent supporters. Cooke was not impervious to the demons that come with success in the music business and it is not long before money, fame and women become the vices with which he lived. Lawsuits, contract and paternity disputes haunted Cooke and I admit that I was unaware of some of the other children he had sired. However, Barbara remains central to the story and was the wife the public knew. But behind the scenes, Cooke’s relationship with his wife was a constant storm brewing that occasional developed into a full blown tornado with Sam’s dark side rising to the occasion. The tragedy of their son Vincent is central to their relationship later in the book. I warn readers that some of the events that take place between Sam and Barbara are tough to digest and remind us that even stars have their faults.
Cooke rose to fame during a time in America where segregation was still legally employed in many cities across the United States. The ugly face of Jim Crow appears as Sam and the other artists are forced to navigate and endure a system of discrimination that was designed to humiliate and subjugate its victims. Cooke is determined to buck the system and his actions in opposition to segregated audiences is both legendary and truly one of the most inspiring moments in the book. His refusal to perform in front of segregated audiences helped set the stage for the eventual demise of Jim Crow. And battling right along with him are Malcolm X (1925-1965), Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) and even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), all of whom make an appearance in the story. Sam found himself at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and used both his music and star power to challenge the establishment. By all accounts he was a straight shooter and fair regardless of who the person was. He exemplified integration with a supporting cast composed of people from all walks of life. For Cooke, all that mattered was the music and the revenue.
It should be noted that many industry greats appear in the story on various occasions. You may find yourself taking a significant amount of notes. However, if you are familiar with Cooke’s story, you will already know some of the history presented here. Regardless, the book has a steadily moving narrative that flows effortlessly through the author’s words. The inclusion of the recollections by Sam’s close confidants adds the right amount of authenticity to completely tell the story of his life. At one point, it seemed as if for Sam, the sky was the limit. But his attraction to money and fast women would prove to be his undoing and at times, I found myself wondering why he acted in the ways in which he did. The final act in which he visits the Hacienda Hotel with Elisa Boyer seems surreal so many years later. Perhaps we may never know what completely happened that night. Maybe Sam was over his head filled with rage. Or perhaps there was a darker and far more sinister reason for Bertha Lee Franklin putting an end to the legend of Sam Cooke.
If you are a fan of Sam Cooke, this book is a must read. It is by far, an authoritative account of his life that steps deep inside the life of the man behind the music. He is long gone but his powerful words remain with us and even in the most adverse of situations, I often think of Sam and remind myself that yes, a change is gonna come.