I highly recommend Peter Guralnick’s thoughtful and informative biography of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, which gives a good sense of the revolution of his career. Moving from gospel, where he made his name with the Soul Stirrers, into secular music, where he had a tremendous gift for writing memorable catchy tunes (understatement). The number of classic songs he wrote is extraordinary (especially since he died at so young an age.) He was also a pioneer in the realm of producing. He did not want to be an employee of anyone. Very early on, he made his moves towards financial independence. He created a studio and set himself up, producing others’ music took up even more of his time and devotion than his own stunning career. He created a space for fellow black artists to do things on their own terms. What a loss. He died just as the civil rights movement was heating up. His life was cut short (through his own reckless behavior, it’s got to be said), but the loss to the culture is incalculable. However: he made very very good use of his time while he was here.
I love his gospel stuff with the Soul Stirrers.
Sam Cooke’s song-writing was eerily in sync with what the public – any public – would want to hear. He wrote “hooks” that stuck in your brain … and still do. He still gets constant radio play. His songs defined an era. He clicked into what people were doing, thinking about, grooving to … similar to what Madonna did early on, moving the underground beats she heard in gay dance clubs in NYC into the mainstream. Sam Cooke was a hit-maker.
One of the things I love about his lyrics is how vividly he paints a picture of the event of the song. He did not write general “Oh, I love you” songs, or “Oh, how I miss you” songs. He started with a specific image: A boyfriend encouraging his girlfriend to dance the cha-cha, and once she learns the dance, she can’t stop. A love song filled with images of education (Sam Cooke was a voracious reader and learner), slide rules and Latin and geography. There’s a place out “New York way” where people twist the night away. People having a party, the radio’s on, and “the Cokes are in the ice box, popcorn’s on the table …” Hey, you want to go to the party “over at Mary’s place”? Hell, yeah, Sam, I do. He paints a picture. A glimpse of a chain gang on the side of the road (his brilliance there was in adding those primal GRUNTS on the beat throughout the song. His first real foray into social protest music).
Similar to the generation before him, Sam Cooke merged multiple strains of music and culture, bringing that hybrid sound into the mainstream, opening up possibilities for others. The generation before him were country boys who fused all of the music they heard all around them into a genre-blend called rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, a mix of gospel and country & western and rhythm & blues. Or, conversely, African-American artists from the same region who had country music influences along with the rhythm blues, because they too grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast. All innovations in music happen because people hear something new, hear a possibility in an old form, and make it new. Sam Cooke did that. He started out on the gospel circuit, where church-going girls fainted in the aisles, the way girls were doing at “rock ‘n’ roll” shows too. Sam Cooke was devoted to gospel, but he was more devoted to stardom, financial success. The gospel stuff took him only so far. The big labels weren’t interested. He got as far to the top of that world as anyone did. When he started writing “secular” songs, you can hear that gospel influence, in the melodies, yes, but also in his soaring passionate vocalizations. He stood out in the Soul Stirrers quartet, too, but center stage was where he belonged.
He also was a great interpreter of well-known songs. He took traditional songs and made them his own.
My favorite example of this is his version of the country-waltz “Tennessee Waltz”. Done by everybody. It’s a waltz, first and foremost. A waltz has a very specific rhythm that can’t be changed, otherwise it wouldn’t be a waltz anymore. Sam Cooke transformed it into an almost big-band-swing number, with his voice soaring around like he’s in church. It’s a gorgeous blend of influences and sounds and it is completely right. Everyone and their hillbilly Grandma covered “Tennessee Waltz,” and it’s one of those beautiful conservatively-structured country songs. So well-structured, in fact, that it can TAKE what Sam Cooke does to it, which is: brings it into the modern age, and brings it to the world, a wider and diverse demographic. Here’s a clip of him singing it live,
The relationship between Muhammad Ali and Sam Cooke was complex. They were kindred spirits in a lot of ways, men at the tops of their chosen fields, men who had a talent for re-invention, men so charming that everyone who met them – professional and personal – fell over like ninepins. It was useless to resist either one of them. Ali’s conversion to Islam, and his involvement with Malcolm X, caused a rift in their relationship. Sam Cooke felt that Ali seemed to be under the control of the group in a way that amounted to brainwashing. The men still had respect for one another, and were united in the burgeoning civil rights movement, but some intimacy had been lost.
However, here is – literally – one of the most charming clips that has ever existed. I am grateful someone recorded it and I am grateful to the person who uploaded it to Youtube. Cooke and Ali were collaborating on an album, and here they give us a glimpse. They are so in sync it’s practically heart-breaking, and the hand-drumming and laughing and total-unison of their phrasing makes your breath stop in your throat. What beautiful men.
And finally: after gate-crashing the culture with Hit after Hit after Hit after Hit, Sam Cooke’s anger at the racist culture had to come out in his music. That anger was always present but he was a master at submerging those feelings so he could get what he wanted. But finally it was time to stop hiding. It was time to speak out. He was a songwriter. Songs about doing the cha-cha were all well and good. But times were changing, things were getting scary, and he added unforgettable voice to the conversation.
The result, of course, became one of THE rallying songs for the civil rights movement.