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Thoughts on Guralnick's "Dream Boogie"

Tue Dec 06, 2005 1:50 pm

One of the defining moments in Peter Guralnick's new book "Dream Boogie: the Triumph of Sam Cooke" is, believe it or not, the Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston fight in early 1964 and its aftermath. Although, Cooke was not the central player in that drama, Guralnick's description of the events that took place crystallizes the greatness of his work. Most authors would give the fight a few paragraphs as it was basically an interesting footnote with little impact on the overall thrust of Cooke's life. But Guralnick gives it ten pages and it's ten pages well spent. With Malcolm X and Sonny Liston and Ali all gathered in one place battling for the soul of black America, the Beatles in town, and the Founatinebleau Hotel trying to deny Cooke- at the time a major international super star- admittance to the hotel- the event encapsulates the clash of cultural and sociological forces that were in the air at that time that created both the artistry of Sam Cooke and in many ways the modern era we live in. In other words, we don't just get Sam Cooke we get the world that made Sam Cooke and a glimpse at how Sam Cooke helped to make this world and why he still matters.

It is this historical and cultural context, that makes "Dream Boogie" a work equal to Guralnick's great Presley biographies or really any other biography created in the past twenty years. When you are in Guralnick's books, you are merged into their world. It is no longer 2005, it is 1962 and you are riding in the back seat with Sam Cooke on the way to the next gig or lounging with Elvis in between takes on a movie set.

As in his great Presley bios, Guralnick uses every resource at his disposal including hundred of interviews of Cooke associates, relatives, friends et. al but also the work of previous writers and vintage press clippings. Some fans have disparaged Guralnick's work in this regard but in my view it is some of the best work that he does. By digging up these vintage interviews and contemporary accounts, that most fans could never find on their own, he gives viewers as close to a contemporary account of the artist as possible. Unlike previous Cooke biographer Daniel Wolff (whose book was fine), Guralnick appears to have had access to Cooke's in studio tapes which like Elvis really adds to our appreciaton of the performer's art. (Unlike Albert Goldman, Guralnick actually cares enough to use the musical material.)

This use of context is fundamental to our understanding of the artist and his work. The informal bond of the black musical celebrity community in the 1950s caused by segregation and the lack of decent facilities for black performers will probably come as a surprise for most contemporary readers. Unlike today where most performers learn of each other at awards show or on TV, the black performers of the 1950s were always bumping in to one another on the road because they had to stay and eat in the same places. (It's also a reminder of the horrors of segregation recalled by people still alive today of a time, within their lives, where even a major celebrity like Cooke had to endure demeaning slights and harassment any moment he ventured below the Mason-Dixon line.) That sense of community caused by that sense of humiliation made folk heroes out of performers who crossed over into the mainstream like Cooke and Jackie Wilson. Their movements were recorded in the black press with pride and reverence (and a not litte mythologizing). It's as if they were making strides for everyone.

It will be no surprise to most readers that the movement of the time politicized even a performer like Cooke who did not want to alienate his white audience. The Civil Rights Movement pushed the intellectually curious Cooke to action and in turn that action pushed him into even greater awareness and artistry. "A Change is Gonna Come" would have never occurred without the Movement.

Guralnick paints a portrait of man trying to meet the white audience while retaining his original black audience who eventually accomplishes both goals by staying true to his community. Cooke helps young black artists because they need the help but also because he loves the music and loves the culture and wants everyone to join in. It's really a story that could have only taken place in that time of the first thrust of upward mobility and self-awareness for the black audience and the unprecedented acceptance of a portion of the white audience. (That acceptance really woke up performers of Cooke's generation that although the segregation was the way it was, it was not the way it had to be.)

There is an especially sweet moment where Cooke plays a Memphis arena in 1964 that he refused just a few years before because of its policy of audience segregation. In the months before he died, the world was finally starting to catch up with Cooke.

For Cooke fans there's all kinds of great little tidbits and anecdotes that flesh out the story as well. There are the great tours where Cooke tries to outdo Jackie Wilson and vice versa. There's a wonderful moment where Phil Everly, on an integrated tour, stumbles upon Clyde McPhatter and Cooke trading lines on a country song. There's James Brown tapping Bobby Womack on the head with a drum stick for goofing up on stage.

And we learn things we never knew about old favorites. Cooke's production of a Shirelles' record is something I never knew for instance. The same could be said about Clyde McPhatter's militant and emphatic stance on integration. We even meet Elvis who meets Cooke's brother L.C. backstage at the WDIA show in Memphis and endlessly praises Sam's work with the Soul Stirrers. "He knew his gospel music," LC told Guralnick.

Casual readers may be surprised at Cooke's embrace of black history and the fact that he owned and operated his own record independent record label SAR. It is also breathtaking to consider the number of pre-fame performers that Cooke worked with on that label including Lou Rawls, Johnnie Taylor, Mel Carter ("Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me"), Billy Preston and Bobby Womack (who is a huge player in the story.) In his ambition at a cultural crossover and in recording this music that might be lost otherwise, he reminds the reader of another Sam- Sun Records Foudner Sam Phillips. Like Phillips, he set up what amounted to a little audition studio in Los Angeles that like the Memphis Recording Service allowed young performers to wander in and get some tips and hear how they sounded.

Of biographers working today only A. Scott Berg provides the in-depth focused context you find in Guralnick.

But Guralnick's greatness is also in the humanity with which he treats not only his main subject but everyone within their world. Even a marginal figure in the story like Malcolm X appears more human in Guralnick's 10 pages than he did in Spike Lee's three hour movie. While many have condemned Guralnick's refusal to judge, his decision to paint in three dimensions creates a far richer world. Guralnick does not blink from depiciting Cooke's flaws which included endless womanizing that resulted in a string of unwanted pregnancies and a loveless marriage. Nor does Guralnick hold his subjects in iconic awe. A guy like Cooke, or Elvis or Malcolm X may have been morally flawed but they also brought someting unique, something positive into the world and you can't take one and leave the other.

Guralnick's refusal to judge may have contributed to his greatest research coup- the involvement of Barbara Cooke- Sam's widow. Previous biographer Wolff had no access to Barbara and as it turns out she had a lot to tell, even though Guralnick doesn't quote her directly. Her participation adds depth to the greatest tragedy of Cooke's final years- the death of his son Vincent. Barbara tells us that Sam had significant doubts (unfounded according to her) that the boy was his. When Vincent dies, we can see how the tragedy stings Sam that much more because in Bobby Womack's words he didn't love the boy enough.

Even more, the relationship with Barbara, who loved Cooke since she was 11 and they grew up in the same neighborhood, captures the enigma of Sam Cooke as well. Somewhere along the line Cooke fell out of love with Barbara but married her anyway out of a sense of obligation and a promise broken when he was young. Guralnick's Cooke is a man who could, to use a cliche', charm the birds out of the trees but who is fundamentally alone (much like Elvis). All of Cooke's friends and relatives can get in but only so far. He was also a man like Elvis who was caught up in upwardly mobile ambitions but determined not to abandon the world that created him and that contradiction created an internal conflict that never abated.

Cooke separated from Elvis in his head for business and a self-assurance that allowed no one to take advantage of him more than once. Cooke's refusal to say no in a polite way was what allowed him to move beyond the success of nearly every black performer of his day with the exception of Ray Charles.

There are some flaws of course. After introducing us to such a vivid cast of characters, Guralnick doesn't provide a wrap up. It would be nice to know what happened to some of these people years down the line after Cooke's death. Also, Wolff did a better job of postulating almost every possible theory that could have happened the night of Cooke's mysterious death in 1964.

Wolff did a better job as well of explaining to the reader how Cooke was able to push his artists onto the charts so soon after starting his label. (Distributors didn't want to screw the label because of the potential of being denied a future Cooke record.) Neither book explained to my satisfaction the reasons why the SAR records weren't even bigger successes. Most of the hits got to around #50 pop. They were great records and most of the artists, of course, hit it big elsewhere later on. It may have been simply the limitations of a shoe-string label to promote its records. (Cooke financed most sessions with his recording royalties.) But neither Guralnick or Wolff explains.

And while Guralnick's endless chronicling of Cooke's sexscapades serves the greater overall drive of his narrative, it does get redundant.

A bigger flaw which was pointed out by Robert Christgau is that Guralnick is too unquestioning of late period Cooke manager Allen Klein. Klein set up agreements that eventually led to him not the Cooke estate owning Cooke's recordings. Even on face value, the deal doesn't seem right.

Christgau's criticism about Guralnick missing out on Cooke's pop work is largely unfounded. Although, it is frustrating to see Guralnick toss off "Wonderful World" in a paragraph, a recording like the tremendously underrated "Cupid" receives a loving and exquistite description. And Guralnick is there for the genesis of all the classics "You Send Me", "Touch the Hem of His Garment," "Jesus Gave Me Water", "Twistin' the Night Away", "Another Saturday Night", NIGHT BEAT, and so many others. Then there is also his brilliant and necessary scholarship on the SAR stuff which is a lot of the best stuff Cooke was involved with.

Even with its flaws, "Dream Boogie" is, like the Elvis books, as close as anyone has ever come to a definitive portrait of one of the defining lives of the 20th century.
Last edited by likethebike on Fri Mar 17, 2006 10:16 am, edited 2 times in total.

Tue Dec 06, 2005 2:08 pm

That's a beautiful review. I just picked up "Dream Boogie," and it's an incredible read so far, easily matching the high standard he set with the two-volume Elvis biography. Guralnick has been publishing his thoughts for more thasn 25 years, and his prose has only improved, like a fine wine.

The Cooke biography is an essential purchase for anyone who has ever cared about the man, his unique talent, achievements and place in 20th century popular culture.


Tue Dec 06, 2005 2:23 pm

Thanks Doc. I'm glad that somebody read all that.

It's weird but this was such a good book, I had to get it out. It's a downright inspiring work.

I wouldn't skip Daniel Wolff's book though. He's a good writer and has a different perspective than Guralnick and you take a lot from that book as well. For instance, Wolff goes into great detail about Cooke's flop single "Feel It" from 1961 that was banned from many pop stations for suggestive lyrics. Guralnick only gives the record a sideways mention in his book and doesn't even mention the ban. It's outside his argument but not Wolff's and that's what makes it interesting.

Elvis fans who read the book may also want to take note that Colonel Parker's decision to keep Elvis isolated was definitely the right move from his selfish standpoint. Cooke changes managers several times and from the moment he hits the big time there's always some angling to move in and take the reins.

Tue Dec 06, 2005 4:16 pm

I second the Doc. Very nice LTB. Sounds like two great additions for my winter reading list. Thank you! I'm just about done with a couple of Carson bios, these will fit right in. :)


Tue Dec 06, 2005 8:14 pm

I just picked up this book also. I hope to dig in as soon as I'm finishing my current book.
Good comments from the above readers of good books.

jeff R

Tue Dec 06, 2005 10:23 pm

I am getting deja vu here. :)

Tue Dec 06, 2005 11:27 pm

JLGB wrote:I am getting deja vu here. :)

And the strange thing is, you've had it before, haven't you ?

Re: Thoughts on Guralnick's "Dream Boogie"

Tue Dec 06, 2005 11:36 pm

likethebike wrote:When you are in Guralnick's books, you are merged into their world. It is no longer 2005, it is 1962 and you are riding in the back seat with Sam Cooke on the way to the next gig or lounging with Elvis in between takes on a movie set.

That's exactly how I felt after reading Guralnick's works on Elvis. I haven't read The Cooke bio but will be sure to seek it out. Great review! Thanks.

Wed Dec 07, 2005 1:14 am

Thanks for the replies everyone. As you read the book I would be very interested in hearing your perceptions.

Wed Jan 11, 2006 3:37 am

I finished reading this book a couple weeks ago and kept forgetting to post my thoughts. Likethebike did it so well.

Yes, it is a great read. Yes, Cooke was a great artist and great singer.
The thing is while reading it and after finishing it, I just can't say that I liked the man. I kept thinking, isn't there some artist out there who isn't a pain in the butt to so many people?

I won't go into much here because I am not a good writer. My thoughts are in my head but they don't gel when I write them down.

I knew how Cooke died for my entire adult life but I kept thinking that it was bound to happen. The guy was a bad husband and he slept around with as many women as Elvis did. Sometimes several at a time!

I also found myself feeling very ugly about so many performers out there singing Gospel songs and in the same breath thinking about who they could screw after the performance. That made me very sad.

Again, it was a very good read but I really didn't come away from the book feeling very good about Sam Cooke as a person. Sometimes it's better not to know so much about someone you admire.

jeff R

Wed Jan 11, 2006 5:18 am

I can see that Jeffrey but (I'm glad you liked the book by the way) I think you really have to take the whole package especially to understand the artist. Cooke did a lot of good things for younger artists and the black community in general in addition to his great music. His great music I don't think would have been possible without some of his personal flaws and his success like Ray Charles also wouldn't have been possible without a certain self-centerdness in his personality. Also, you can't ignore that there's a certain corrupting about absolute success. That element which few of us will ever experience makes it hard to judge. It's all well good to pledge allegiance to one women and keep it. However, few of us have that allegiance tested every single of every single day. I'm not condoning it or condemning it. I'm just not judging it because it's something I simply cannot possibly understand.

Wed Jan 11, 2006 7:41 am

You are quite right. I'm always judging too harshly.
"Walk a mile in my shoes" are words I need to remember more often.

Sam Cooke did do much for many people. Even without the womanizing, I would still find it hard to like him. I guess arrogance goes with the territory of fame too. Who knows he might have mellowed had he matured into an older adult. He was quite young when fame hit and he was young when he died.

jeff R