The next star over

Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick tackles another music legend: Sam Cooke.

By Lee Hildebrand

IT TAKES A lot of time, patience, and love to be a world-class pop music biographer like Peter Guralnick. The 61-year-old Massachusetts-based author is arguably the best of the bunch. He may not be as clever as Nick Tosches, whose biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin are the most entertaining examples of the genre, but no one has penetrated the lives of long-deceased subjects – first in the companion volumes Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (both Back Bay), and now in the 750-page Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown and Co.) – with such staggering detail and depth of understanding as Guralnick.

Cooke, who died 41 years ago at age 33 under sordid circumstances, was in many ways a more complex figure than Presley. During the seven years of success that followed his 1957 pop breakthrough, "You Send Me," the former gospel star maneuvered along a fine line between satisfying African Americans, who were his core audience, and seeking crossover appeal to the wider population, performing on the so-called chitlin circuit one week and at the Copacabana the next. Cooke's rise to pop stardom coincided with that of the civil rights movement, and he publicly lent his support, even as others such as Nat "King" Cole shied away for fear of alienating their white fans. The handsome soul singer, who kept his hair neatly cropped and favored cardigan sweaters, projected an almost saintly image to the public, yet in his private life he was, in Guralnick's words, "a whorehopper." And he took a much keener interest in both his music and his business affairs than did Presley.

Cooke's songs have not been as frequently covered in recent times as they once were by such singers as Aretha Franklin, Johnny Nash, and Luther Vandross, though Bob Dylan surprised many last year by performing "A Change Is Gonna Come" – the socially conscious Cooke composition that was inspired by Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" – at the Apollo Theater's 70th anniversary celebration. As one of the first major African American recording artists to control his own song publishing and record production, however, Cooke supplied a business model that resonates today, particularly in the hip-hop world.

Guralnick began thinking about writing a book on Cooke while working on Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Back Bay), a seminal study of '60s soul published in 1986. One of the people he interviewed was J.W. Alexander, a former gospel vocalist who had been Cooke's business partner. "The picture he painted of Sam was one of such fascination and charisma that I was incapable of understanding what he was talking about in many respects," Guralnick said on the phone from West Newbury, Mass. "I had something like a three- or four-hour interview. It was an interview that took me over 20 years to understand."

"It took me 15 years before I could set up the conditions that I felt were necessary to write the kind of book that I wanted, which was basically having free, unimpeded, unconditional access to all the music, the business records, the papers, and particularly the people close to Sam who had never really spoken much to anyone," the author added. Central to Guralnick's access was Cooke's last manager, Allen Klein, who had not cooperated with writer Daniel Wolff for his 1995 book, You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke (William Morrow and Co.). Through Klein, Guralnick gained the trust of Cooke's father, brothers and sisters, daughter, and wife, Barbara Campbell Cooke.

"Barbara had never spoken to anyone at all," Guralnick said. The frank tales she told him make up some of the book's most sensational aspects, such as how she stayed home smoking pot night after night while her husband was out chasing tail, and how she took up with 20-year-old Bobby Womack, Cooke's guitarist and close friend, within days of Cooke's funeral and married him a few months later.

Guralnick vividly describes the events surrounding Cooke's tragic demise – the inebriated vocalist was shot to death by the manager of a cheap Los Angeles motel after he assaulted her because he mistakenly thought she was harboring a prostitute who'd just ripped him off – yet he avoids discussing conspiracy theories that linger to this day.

"In the course of the two or three hundred different interviews with different people that I did for the book, there are two or three hundred different conspiracy theories," he explained. "While they were all extremely interesting, and while every one of them reflected a basic truth about prejudice in America in 1964 and the truth of the prejudice that has continued into the present day, none of them came accompanied by any evidence beyond that metaphorical truth."

Without whitewashing the singer's flaws, Guralnick paints a more positive portrait of Cooke than he did of Presley. "Sam was a far more analytic person who, I think, looked upon every situation as a challenge to broaden his knowledge and perspective and built on that," he said. "I see them both as highly intelligent, complex, and ambitious, but very different in terms of character. Sam's analytic intelligence and, in a sense, his creative vision, which encompassed both the artistic and the social and political and also the business aspect, was a very broad vision. It really rivaled that of any American visionary, from Sam Phillips to Walt Whitman."

Peter Guralnick reads from Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke Thurs/20, 7 p.m., Booksmith, 1644 Haight, SF. Free. (415) 863-8688. He also reads Fri/21, 7:30 p.m., Cody's Books, 2454 Telegraph, Berk. Free. (510) 559-9500.