« A Tale of Two Cities | Main | Wild Rides »

Sam Cooke: Lost and Looking

By Stephan Talty

Thirty-five years ago last December, Sam Cooke, the legal father of Soul, was shot to death by an L.A. hotel manager. In a time when pop stars died clean martyr deaths in plane or car crashes, the circumstances were sordid: the married Cooke, near-naked when he died, had been at the motel with a Eurasian prostitute, who later claimed he tried to rape her. The shock was palpable - for those cared. The New York Times didn't care, and carried the news in a small item on page 34. But the black newspapers, the black nation and Cooke's deepest white fans reacted with honest grief. How could that beautiful man with that beautiful voice have died this way?

Cooke was the first famous black figure to become a kind of national martyr in the 60's. before Malcolm and Martin Luther King. His funerals (there were two of them) drew 80,000; King's just 50,000. Private eyes were hired, there were protests, outrage, and a four-part series in Cooke's hometown black newspaper. The investigations aimed at larger questions than whether the shooting was legally justified. Sam Cooke was Mr. Elegance, his miraculous voice communicated a world full of new ease available to everyone. He was the first black singer to own his own record company (paving the way for later moguls like Berry Gordy and Puff Daddy). He had come up through gospel music and had risked everything by going pop, but had made his betrayal into a triumph, clearing territory for others (from Otis Redding to Michael Jackson) to settle.

So which man - the smooth idol or the naked, raging bull - was the real Sam Cooke?

Cooke's death tore his image in two. But in life he had always been a split personality, his bichambered soul pumping out hits whose innocent pleasures were in fact pivotal moments in American cultural history. Cooke was the black Elvis, the first major black figure to cross from deepest black music music (gospel) to the purest white pop. Elvis is now everywhere in America. But Cooke, his partner in revolution, has been forgotten, or worse.

Talk to members of the hip hop generation and Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and Al Green are cited as forefathers and influences. But Cooke is strictly an oldie-stations phenomenon these days, getting less relevant with every spin of 'Cupid' and 'Wonderful World' on 101.1FM. In the mind of America, he is an overpolite black man in a cardigan sweater - a fake white man. But it is impossible to truly understand the '50's - the decade that served as prelude to the new America - without understanding Sam Cooke.

He was born in Chicago in 1931, the son of a Mississippi-born preacher. A clean-cut prodigy, he led various teen gospel quartets before receiving, In 1951, the proverbial divine tapping on the shoulder. At only 19, Cooke was chosen to take over the lead of the legendary Soul Stirrers, the greatest and most famous gospel group of its time.

His voice was already a hypnotically clean and thrilling instrument, endlessly changeable but exquisitely controlled, its tone grounded in Mississippi soul but made urbane, self-regarding, swinging, cool. Along with Brian Wilson's and Smokey Robinson's, Cooke's voice is one of the miracles of the pop age.

But even then there was something new and disturbing in Cooke's voice. In the singing of almost every other gospel singer, you can hear their relationship with their God. Sometimes it is so reverential it is as if the singer can never really address God directly; it is half-turned away, like a glance away from direct sunlight (R.H. Harris, Cooke's predecessor in the Soul Stirrers).

Sometimes it is jazz theater masquerading as gospel (The Golden Gate Quartet) or a vessel almost breaking as God's power flows through it (Mahalia Jackson).

With Cooke, you heard something else. He was playful, brash, curiously secular. His voice soared and dived, played with the words, impudently stretching and remaking them in his own mouth. There is great joy in Cooke's singing, but little or no reverence. It is pop music disguised as gospel.

When he trades off the lead with Harris in the Soul Stirrers classic 'Come, Let Us Go Back to the God,' the difference is clear. Harris's rich but guarded, grimly experienced singing is in the tradition of the slave hymns. His voice is full of black history and it means to be. When Cooke takes over, he's swinging, vamping up and down the notes like a child released. He never beseeches God; on record, at least, he sings as though free from all of Harris's dread.
This completely new attitude carried over to Cooke's original gospel songs. In 'That's Heaven to Me,' Cooke wrote:

A little flower that blooms in May
A lovely sunset at the end of the day...
The leaves growing out, growing out, growing out on the tree
That's heaven to me

This is a gospel song without God - just kids and birds and tangible happiness. Cooke's music was not poised between Jesus and the devil, as was gospel and r&b, he was far more modern.
As Daniel Wolff points out in his Cooke biography, You Send Me, the gap was at least partly generational. If Harris is praying to God, he's also praying for protection from the realities of Eisenhower's America. Cooke was an optimistic post-war kid, he wasn't going to beseech anyone. In his voice you can hear not only joy but defiance.

There is a remarkable parallel here to another young black man who was growing up at the same time with much the same attitude. Muhammad Ali and Cooke would become fast friends as they both rose in the world. After winning his epochal first fight against Sonny Liston, Ali embraced Cooke, grabbed an interviewer's microphone and introduced Cooke as 'the world's greatest rock and roll singer.' (Fuck Elvis.) Cooke returned the compliment, calling Ali 'a great example for our youth.' This was just after Ali had shocked America to its Christian core by proclaiming himself a Black Muslim. (Fuck the Establishment, Cooke was saying, white and black.)

Ali and Cooke publicly departed from the old ways of being black in his country, and startled whites into new ways of looking at black men. Ali's most clear-eyed observer boxing doctor Ferdie Pacheco, believed that the boxer was a 'divine' man, literally molded by God. 'He was the most perfect physical specimen I had every seen, from an artistic and an anatomical standpoint, even healthwise,' Pacheco said. It was a theme that ran through much of the writing on Ali.

Cooke's touched-by-God reputation was widespread among musicians; he could churn out 20 to 30 songs in one session, an astonishing rate for a jingle writer but almost incomprehensible for a first-class songwriter. He was a pop arranger of genius. And voice-wise, Atlantic exec and master-producer Jerry Wexler, who gave 'rhythm and blues' its name, called Cooke 'a perfect case.' 'He was the best singer who ever lived, no contest,' Wexler said. 'When I listen to him, I still can't believe the things he did. It's always fresh and amazing to me, he has control, he could play with his voice like an instrument, his melisma, which was his personal brand - I mean, nobody else could do it - everything about him was perfection.'

The claims - the suspicion of divine touch - stand the test of time. There was something unearthly in the gifts both men possessed, and in the way they used them. But if both possess the air of black gods, Ali and Cooke went further, publicly leaving the God that blacks were almost obligated to worship. Ali's rejection of the white Jesus in favor of Islam and Elijah was a huge event, a satchel charge tossed into the placid cultural camp of early '60s American life.
But Cooke made a far more dangerous and lonely switch. He left Jesus's gospel for money and the idea of complete freedom. 'This is my new God!' Cooke is said to have told the gospel group the Womack Brothers after he went pop, holding in his hand a fat wad of cash.

He wasn't kidding. The singer was obsessed with material goods and all they represented in American life; he gave away furs and automobiles like candy, and toured relentlessly to earn more cash. He reveled in the high suburban lifestyle, and took Hugh Hefner's de luxe swinger credo as his own. Cooke's (little) candy-red Ferrari was the equivalent of Ali's prayer book.

When Cooke went pop in 1957, it was said he was selling out. Certainly, Jerry Wexler thought so - he refuses to this day to even listen to Cooke's pop records. Art Rupe, the white owner of Specialty Records - the Soul Stirrers' label - agreed. Rupe loved gospel and roots music, but when Cooke came to him, wanting to go pop, Rupe reacted with disgust. He couldn't believe that Cooke would trade the Soul Stirrers' ecstatic, deeply meaningful harmonies for white back-up singers, strings and pop 'crap' like 'You Send Me.'

Here is a critical moment in American racial/cultural history, as important in its way as Elvis bursting into 'That's All Right Mama' three years earlier at Sun Studios. Cooke was demanding to sound light, carefree, even empty - emotional terrain that was reserved for whites. Rupe instinctively revolted against the switch - black music was soulful, deep, ancient, possessed. Cooke stormed out of the session, crying 'If that's how you see me, I quit,' and took the song to another label.

'You Send Me' is an almost bizarre departure in the history of American music. If the fierce 'That's All Right, Mama' was a midnight raid across the color line to steal some deep blues feeling and emotional freedom, 'Send Me' is a counter-attack on the storehouse of white American style - sung, crucially, in a voice that was clearly, deeply black. It is a masterpiece of nothingness, so airy it's barely even a song. There were no verses, no story, no content. For much of the song's two minutes, Cooke just repeats 'You send me' over and over (and he had to be convinced to change that to 'You thrill me' for the second verse). It was a trick he would repeat again and again - in 'Just for You,' 'Soothe Me,' 'That's Where It's At' and others. He wanted to showcase his voice's modulations, his mastery of vocal ornamentation and the purity of his gift.

But, in doing so, he also created a universe apart from the deep-feeling blues and gospel that defined black music and black life. Cook was not abandoning feeling, but he wanted to unchain black musicians from their sense of racial obligation and fatalism, to allow them to fantasize. The fanatical perfection of the song influenced everyone from Otis Redding to Rod Stewart, but it anticipates nothing more the Carpenters, the true poets of masked white emotion. It was as if he was stealing back the right of black Americans to feel innocence.

'You Send Me' was a phenomenon, going #1 pop and r&b. Cooke had conquered new territory, but had brought his black fans with him. His incredible string of hits throughout the late '50's - 'Only Sixteen,' 'Wonderful World' and many others - were pop fantasies in the same mode. But Cooke's ultimate reversal of what was expected of a black singer (even by blacks themselves) was epitomized in his 1960 smash, 'Chain Gang.'

The song was written after an experience Cook and some band mates had while touring the South. Driving through deepest Georgia, they saw a strange vision ahead of them. 'There against the endless red-dust field,' Wolff writes in You Send Me, 'They'd seen a dozen coal-black men dressed in eye-stunning pure white uniforms.' It was a gorgeous picture, until they pulled closer and saw the chains around the convicts' ankles - and the shotguns in the hands of the white guards.

Who else but Cooke could see this tableau, the prisoners chanting in a call-and-response pattern as old as slavery itself, and think 'Top 40 hit'? Another black artist might have turned his dread into money through a single, but the race-based shock of recognition wouldn't have been lost in the music. Imagine Ray Charles or James Brown doing 'Chain Gang' - there would have been some gesture toward the scene before them, a note to say, 'there but for the grace of RCA go I.' But not Cooke.

The song starts with an echoing, grooving bass line and the chant of the chain gang: 'Huuh,' 'Ha.' The rhythm and moaning go on for almost a full minute - an eternity in a '60's pop song - before Cooke cuts in with the first verse. Clearly this is what attracted him to the idea of the chain gang - the sound. Not the scene, not the pity - the sound.

Cooke's voice floats in: 'I hear something saying...' Cooke's toughness is amazing - he hears 'something ' not even 'someone.' A basso profundo voice has to intervene and inform him: 'Don't you know/that's the sound of the men/working on the chain gang.' Cooke places himself in the role of startled onlooker; he has to be told what this awful, beautiful noise disturbing his peace is, as if he were society matron out for a Sunday afternoon drive.

Cooke's lyrics are typically light; he imagines the convicts dreaming of the day they'll return home and see their women - but until then 'they've got to work right here.' He's matter-of-fact about it, clearly Cooke doesn't see himself in that chain gang. He feels the emotion a good reporter might - in fact he credited his songwriting abilities to 'observation,' an unusually cool term for a soul singer.

And yet that is not to say the song is cold and unfeeling. It swings hard, and like all Cooke's songs, it is supremely in the moment - not a convict's moment in the hot sun but Cooke's transformation of it into a pop artifact. Listening to 'Chain Gang' is like watching a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about convicts; it's not quite real, but it's intoxicatingly artful.

Could it be that perhaps that his coolness is one thing his black - and even his white - audience loved about Cooke? In the brief integrationist moment of the late '50s, Cooke represented, or at least he sounded like he represented, a release from all the drama, toil, horror and depth of black American history. He sang as if soulful elegance could transform not only his own troubles but the past itself. If Elvis channeled gospel depths (and thus black history) through the voice of a Southern white boy, Cooke claimed the other half of the bargain.

Other black singers had crossed over with light pop of course, going back to Nat King Cole. But there were essential differences: Cole's singing style was not identifiably black; it was beautiful but dry-cleaned. Cooke carried with him his gospel inflections into white pop; you could never mistake him for a white singer. Chuck Berry sang countrified rock masterpieces about white teens, as cleanly phrased as John Cheever's short stories. But Berry's voice and pop persona didn't resonate with black folks as deeply as Cooke's. Ray Charles's voice was that of a sufferer who was so sure of doom he almost embraced it. (Characteristically, when he decided to take on a white music, he chose country and western, the most fatalistic genre of American pop.) Cooke, on the other hand, was almost ridiculously hopeful.

The singer did not cross over without costs. There was the emasculating disaster at the Copa lounge in New York, where he was taught some 'elegant' dance moves, dressed up like a butler and sang some syrupy drivel to a bored audience. There was the story (still disputed) that when when he tried to return to the black gospel circuit, and was shouted down with cries of 'Get that blues singer off the stage!' Cooke, barred from going home again, left in tears.

But Cooke crossed the color line mostly on his terms, and that took a special, and perhaps cursed kind of man. In Wolff's biography, Cooke comes across as strong-willed, nobody's fool, full of deep surface charm. He had the looks and cockiness of a high-school quarterback who never loses but is always searching for something beyond the admiration and applause.

Cooke was, one senses, emotionally adrift for most of his life. At one point, near his death, he was drinking a bottle of Chivas Regal a day. Less important than the alcoholism is the fact that no one, not his close friends or his biographer, can give a definitive reason why he was suddenly hitting the bottle. Cooke was not mysterious; it's just that he had the super-controlled inner toughness of the suburban '50s businessmen in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. He slips through his own biography like a ghost, with his swellegant patter and his bursts of rage, so that we never get a real sense of him. Nobody did. One could see in the singer a figure not from Toni Morrison but from William Inge or Arthur Miller.

One indication of his true self was his bleak romantic life. Cooke had the pick of black American girls in the late '50s, from debutantes to starlets, But he chose women one could only describe as 'hardened' - marrying twice, both times unhappily. He cheated ferociously on his first wife, sired a handful of illegitimate children, and tolerated his second wife's open affairs. 'I often said Sam would walk past a good girl to get to a whore,' said his manager Bumps Blackwell after the singer's death. His widow showed up at the funeral with Sam's replacement, Bobby Womack, on her arm - dressed in his clothes. A supremely cold gesture, but appropriate to Cooke's whole romantic life.

It was like some kind of Biblical parable: the greatest soul singer of all time seemed to be as inwardly bereft as a game show host. Perhaps that is why he could inhabit his pop fantasies so brilliantly and sell millions to suburban whites; he possessed some of their searching blankness. Those songs not only made him rich (as his critics point out), they satisfied the part of his soul not appeased by gospel.

Cooke's life is now told as an American morality tale: the brilliant young black singer who rose to the top of gospel world, forsook his God and his people for white money, began to despair, attempted to return to the fold but was killed before he could truly return to his roots. Even soul's Boswell, Peter Guralnick, now accuses Cooke of passing most of his musical life. In his liner notes for Cooke's 1963 album, Live at the Harlem Square Club, Guralnick writes: 'This is not the same Sam Cooke who appeared on the Tonight Show, who presented himself as a kind of urbane 'swinger.' The Sam Cooke who sang to this club audience made up of working men and women is a harder, grittier version of the Sam Cooke that we have known from his records, a singer closer to the ecstatic gospel music with which he started out...He is home free.'

In other words, this is the black Sam Cooke. (The 'black' is there, in the euphemism 'working men and women.') The album was recorded on the chitlin' circuit, where Cooke spent large swaths of his life earning his living and wearing his voice to an exquisite edge. In trying to bring Cooke home and restore his blackness, Guralnick ignores one thing: Live at the Harlem Square Club is not Cooke's most authentic album - it is by far his worst record, his phoniest, his most self-hating, his biggest sham.

Here Cooke misuses his gifts, vulgarizes his art instead of authenticating it. Every note is forced and roughened: 'You Send Me' is made raw, a horrible mistake - the song's perfection lies in it unearthliness, not its earthiness. The performance might have been the gutbucket version that the crowd wanted, but delivering it Cooke seems uncomfortable and robotic, a puppet as surely as he was at the Copa.

But near the end, Cooke did finally bring his two impulses together. In the early '60s, his music got moodier, funkier, with songs like 'Sad Mood,' 'That's Where It's At,' even 'Another Saturday Night.' Whether Cooke was following his own mood or only the pop market (which was drifting away from '50s ethereal pop) is hard to say, but his music changed. 'Bring In On Home To Me,' his raucously felt single from 1962 (recorded late one night after Cooke had been drinking) is the signal song in this final act, and perhaps the high point of his entire career.
With Lou Rawls shouting behind him, Cooke cries after a departed lover and here, for once, his coolness is shattered. He begins in a convincingly self-centered way:

I know I laughed when you left,
but now I know I only hurt myself

That sounds like an authentic moment from Cooke's romantic life. And he follows it up with some playboy bullshit, now made urgent and almost pathetic by how Cooke is screaming the word:

I'll give you jewelry - and money too
That's not all, all I'll do for you. Whooaaa.

He is singing like he has never sung before on his pop records - his immediacy tearing the face off the patented Cooke elegance. In the next verse, his lyrics match the desperation in his voice:

You know that I'll always be your slave,
Till I'm buried, buried in my grave
Oh bring it to me.

For a black man to call himself a slave, for Sam Cooke to call himself a slave on a pop record, when his whole career has been a rejection of the necessity to hit the slave note, is a devastating moment. Cooke reaches back to a haunted past the only way he can understand - through his own personal desolation. Life has ground into him an understanding of the gospel pleas he sang so blithely 15 years before. He still hasn't found God - he's calling after a woman, and probably not a good woman either - but he has found himself truly calling for redemption at last.
Cooke completed his spectacular exit from this world by leaving us one final tableau to consider. As his body was carried off to the morgue (where it would lay, unclaimed for many hours), police found the singer's beloved red Ferrari in the motel parking lot, bizarrely out of place in the low-life surroundings. On the seat lay an open whiskey bottle and a book: Muhammad Speaks, the handbook of the Black Muslims.

The Ferrari, the bottle of liquor and the prayer book - it captures' Cooke's dilemma with a bluntness he might have laughed at. Certainly, he would never have been so crass in summing up himself - or America. Cooke's synthesis of the tectonic forces that were reshaping the nation and the national character - the racial revolution - was as pure and shimmering as light off a lake. Perhaps only a ghost could have pulled it off.

From August, 2000