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Sam Cooke.

On March 1, 1951, 20-year-old Sam Cook - the "e" would be added later - joined the famed Soul Stirrers in a Los Angeles recording studio, replacing their fabled tenor Rebert H. Harris. By that time the Soul Stirrers were one of gospel's foremost quartets, prime exponents of the twin-lead-voices format that contrasted a liquidy tenor with a gruff, bluesy baritone in alternating sections of each song, backed by barbershop quartet-derived harmonies that pumped driving cross-rhythms. Harris's tenor had been the pride of the Soul Stirrers, with its elastic note bends and invigorating presence. Specialty Records founder Art Rupe watched the tapes roll while the young man tackled "Peace in the Valley," a venerable and mighty piece by Thomas A. Dorsey. Dorsey was a former bluesman turned prolific gospel composer whose tunes had helped pave the gospel highway - the circuit of churches and halls that sacred performers like the Stirrers and the Clara Ward Singers traveled around the country.

Cooke was undoubtedly nervous - he was, after all, stepping into a pair of gospel's largest shoes. But he already had plenty of experience. Beginning as a kid with his family's gospel group, he graduated to the Highway QC's during high school. They became a sort of Stirrers' farm team, as the older men took the talented youngsters on for tutelage. So, daunting as the day may have been, Cooke had talent and training, and was ready to bear down. You can hear it during the first half of "Peace," which he, as lead vocalist, fills with floating melismas.

One verse of that section holds a revealing moment I've always treasured. "You know the bear will be gentle," Cooke sings in a high, just-a-bit-tentative voice, slurring "gentle" in a way that hints at his Clarksdale, Mississippi, birthplace; as he surfs over the tightly harmonized, wavelike a cappella background, the Stirrers hypnotically unwind behind him. "You know the wolf will be so tame/The lion will lie down with the lamb [this last line shot through with bluesy thirds and fifths]/I know the host from the wild/Will be led by a little child/And I'll be changed from this creature that I am." During the last line, Cooke's youthful voice breaks on the word "changed." It's a wondrous coincidence that that word marks the fault line between the secular and the sacred that Sam Cooke - like so many others before and after him - would spend the rest of his life traversing.

By the time Cooke died on December 11, 1964, he had long been the focus of the fierce antagonisms between the sacred world of gospel music and the secular world of popular culture - worlds that he, more than anyone else except Ray Charles, had successfully bridged with his artistic hybrids. The story of his death was widely reported in the media, usually with huge headlines - itself a testament to Cooke's pop-star status. As Peter Guralnick explains in his excellent Sweet Soul Music (Harper & Row), "The details were so sordid that many refused to believe the story as it was reported."

Cooke's death was reported like this: Earlier that night, at a restaurant with friends, he picked up a young Eurasian model named Lisa Boyer. After a few drinks, Cooke took her to the Hacienda Motel. There, she later testified, he dragged her into a room after registering, and tried to rape her. He ripped some of her clothes off, and then went into the bathroom - and Boyer made off with his pants. Cooke, wearing only an overcoat, pounded on night manager Bertha Franklin's door, shouting, "Is the girl there?"; he eventually broke it down. Franklin, frightened, grabbed a pistol and fired three bullets into his body - but he lunged at her one last time, saying, "Lady, you shot me." She fended him off with a stick until the 33-year-old star, holder of twenty-nine top-40 Billboard hits with a seemingly unlimited future in his music, collapsed.

More than 200,000 fans came to view his body in Chicago and L.A., moved to pay tribute by Cooke's light-with-a-touch-of-throat, arresting vocal lilt over the style he'd helped create and popularize - soul music, the hybrid offspring of gospel music and rock and roll. But on the gospel side of the aisle, many true believers pointed fingers of retribution: This, they wagged, was the wages of sin. It was rather ironic, then, that the profound sense of loss in the pop world at Cooke's death mirrored the gospelers' reaction seven years earlier when the young vocalist began, as they saw it, to betray his heritage by trifling with pop seductions that appropriated, trivialized and even blasphemed the music meant to uplift and heal the soul.

Like Aretha Franklin, whom he knew well and with whom he performed as both a young gospeler and a pop artist, Sam Cooke was one of the clearest embodiments of the tension between the sacred and the secular that continues to define the American political and cultural landscapes. In sheerly musical terms, the Rev. Al Green, one of Cooke's outstanding artistic heirs who still straddles that divide uncomfortably, can attest to the border's near-impassability. (The largely lily-white Christian-rock movement of the last decade is another matter: an attempt to reclaim and use the Devil's music to reach new disciples for its right-wing cultural politics.) That tension was not strictly limited to battles between ideological fiefdoms, however. The way Anthony Heilbut in his essential The Gospel Sound (Limelight) describes it, the gospel highway was paved with hymns, but the fuel for its male and female wayfarers alike came from earthly furnaces. A stunningly beautiful youngster, Cooke apparently developed a taste for gospel groupies at an early age - and, not coincidentally, brought young, especially young female, audiences into the churches where he appeared.

Recording for Specialty, the group left a rich legacy now reissued on CD, including The Gospel Soul of Sam Cooke With the Soul Stirrers (Specialty), which boasts "Peace in the Valley." But Art Rupe wasn't willing to follow when Cooke began to get the idea, in the mid-1950s, that there was a crossover audience for the gospel-influenced pop he was hatching. Ray Charles, of course, was already chasing a similarly inspired mix of the sacred and profane from his own unique angles at Atlantic, with hits like "I Got a Woman," a revamped gospel shout for secular ears, and "What'd I Say," an orgasmic revamping of gospel's call-and-response format. Doo-woppers like the Orioles, descendants of groups like the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, also made Cooke aware that reaching a mass white audience with gospel-inflected pop was not only possible but the next logical step for the music (and his career).

And so, Rupe notwithstanding, Cooke and his then-manager, Bumps Blackwell, (who'd been Rupe's general factotum until he was fired when he and Cooke started recording pop material under the transparent pseudonym Dale Cook) found a small, recently formed L.A. record label called Keen. (Its producer, Bob Keene, would later form another label and record early Latino rocker Ritchie Valens.) There he transferred his gracefully wafting attack with its trademark modified yodel from the sacred realm to the profane, and Sam Cooke was launched with "You Send Me" in 1957.

After three years of hit singles, Cooke signed with one of the major labels, RCA. There he went on to have a string of hits. Some, like "Bring It On Home to Me" and "Chain Gang," were a bit grittier. Most, though, were middle-of-the-road pop confections, turning gracefully catchy hooks and Cooke's limpid phrasing into cash. Virtually all sported big backing orchestras - novelty-dance tunes, recycled standards, rearranged blues and ballads, teenage love songs, whatever. While some had more rhythmic subtleties than others, almost all were drenched with the hovering strings and white-bread backup vocals that were the staples of pop music at the time, from the postwar crooners headlining in Vegas to Jackie Wilson, the mad stage acrobat with the humongous voice whose act inspired both James Brown and Elvis Presley.

In his recently published biography of Cooke, You Send Me (Morrow), Daniel Wolff represents the singer as forced into this mode by racism. Now, it's true that most of 1950s white Middle America wasn't in the mood to be moved by raucous black gospel-derived vocals and churchy falling-out. But if you look at the historical situation three-dimensionally, the emphasis shifts a bit.

Nat (King) Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. were two among many African-Americans who had already reached across the musical color bar for a mass audience in pop. Just looking at nascent rock, Chuck Berry had blended rockabilly and blues to attract white teenagers across the country. Yes, Fats Domino and Little Richard had their hits covered by the likes of Pat Boone, but they also had their own versions aired. Meanwhile, Ray Charles was succeeding - as he always succeeded - on his own terms. In fact, while Cooke was crafting his frothy pop hits like "Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha," Brother Ray was singing rockabilly rave-ups like "I'm Movin' On" and string-laden classics like "Georgia on My Mind." Charles and Cooke shared a target: to reach the broadest audience with what they did. Much of that audience was white - in Cooke's case, white teenage girls.

Cooke's emphasis on diction and demeanor, his deliberate approach to the crafts of songwriting and arranging - to his whole career - shows that he knew exactly how to get where he wanted to go. And as Wolff himself notes, he didn't take orders if they conflicted with what he wanted to do. His use of strings on his records, rather than being a sellout or a diminishing of his talents, was a choice. It's akin to what Charlie Parker felt about his often maligned recording with strings: It was state of the art, it meant respect. Whether or not you prefer Cooke's somewhat rawer gospel sound, his pop approach was a statement of value, human and artistic, not a degrading forced compromise.

It follows that there wasn't a rigid split between "authentic" and "phony" Cooke, one performing at the glitzy Copacabana for the white folks (Sam Cooke at the Copa, RCA) and the other (Live at the Harlem Square Club, RCA) for the other folks, as Wolff and others would have it. There was a continuum, defined and integrated by Cooke himself. He'd spent nearly all his life, don't forget, as an entertainer, one who succeeded by sizing up audiences and delivering the goods that would make them "fall out," whether in church or not. That was his overriding goal. He was a complex, compelling artist who searched for as many outlets as his undeniably large talent could supply.

Cooke was an ambitious man with enormous drive, which brings us to the recently released two-CD set that's been in the works since 1987, Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story (Abkco). SAR was the label Cooke started with his old gospel-highway mates J.W. Alexander and S. Roy Crain in 1959. It became his laboratory - which is only one of the things that makes the box so fascinating. As producer and owner - probably the first rocker to start his own label, and one of the few African-Americans, aside from Motown's Berry Gordy, to do so - Cooke took the opportunity to record the likes of his old cohorts the Soul Stirrers, young crossover organist Billy Preston (playing in a Booker T and the MGs vein), gospel vets-going-pop like the Sims Twins (whose call-and-response lead vocals influenced the later hitmakers Sam and Dave), and young proteges like the Womack brothers. (As the Valentinos, they cut a tune for SAR called "It's All Over Now" that became a massive hit for the the Rolling Stones, who covered it as soon as they heard it.) In a real sense, many SAR cuts were Cooke's demos, fodder for his own career: "Meet Me at the Twisting Place," for instance, which he produced for blues screamer Johnnie Morisette on SAR, was slightly altered to become "Meet Me at Mary's Place, for Cooke on RCA - complete with his usual ripe orchestral backing. (The set also has, a bit incongruously but nicely, the guitar-plus-vocals demo Cooke did for "You Send Me" back in 1957, two years before he started SAR.)

SAR was a rare example of a black man - and for that matter at this stage of rock history, any artist - taking over his art and career. (Later, both Ray Charles and Betty Carter would launch their own labels.) The fifty-seven tracks selected from a couple hundred SAR masters to compile this box demonstrate the extent of his control, including studio chatter between producer Cooke and his artists, as he directs their approach to the material, most of which he wrote. (In the accompanying essay to the set, Guralnick and the SAR artists he interviewed repeatedly make the point that they sang what Cooke wanted them to the way he wanted them to - which usually meant they sounded as much like him as possible.) Cooke had begun taking charge of his life at RCA as well, thanks to help from Allen Klein - Abkco's owner, and a justly well-known, if often disliked, artist's rep who took on the industry for everyone from Bobby Darin and Cooke to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, straightening out their royalty accounts, setting up publishing deals for them, and so on. In fact, it was Klein who, from 1963 on, managed KAGS and SAR, and renegotiated Cooke's 1960 RCA contract so that the major label became merely the distributor for Cooke's material, which would be recorded for Tracey Records - Abkco's predecessor. That allowed Cooke to solidify his artistic control and reap the major financial rewards of his success.

Cooke had learned from his mentor, J.W. Alexander of the Pilgrim Travelers, that in record publishing the long-term money comes from owning the rights to your material. In 1958, after the singer had miraculously survived a severe auto crash that put his pal Lou Rawls (then lead vocalist with the Pilgrim Travelers) into a long coma, he became a partner in Alexander's KAGS Music, using it as his publishing company, thus assuring him a steady stream of royalties from the songs he wrote. A prolific writer, Cooke used that money, along with the pop-hit dollars he was bringing in, to fund SAR, which initially didn't, pay for itself and never made a lot of money. It was a going concern, and a statement, but it was also a one-man show in many ways, and it died with its guiding light.

Thirty years on, Cooke's death is still surrounded by questions. Lisa Boyer had a record as a prostitute. Bertha Franklin had been arrested several times. And immediately after Cooke's death, his childhood sweetheart and widow, Barbara, began dating, and soon married, the much-younger Bobby Womack, even giving him Sam's clothes to wear to her husband's funeral. (Later, Womack's brother Cecil married Cooke's daughter Linda.) Fierce disputes over ownership of Cooke's estate broke out, since he left no will. Barbara Cooke, as the estate's administrator, moved in on Alexander's office, announcing that Bobby Womack would be taking over Sam's desk; she soon filed suit to dissolve the company. (She wound up selling her half of it to Cooke's nominal RCA producers, Hugo and Luigi. Eventually, it came to Klein.) Lawsuits flew: between RCA and Klein, between Barbara and KAGS, between Barbara and Klein. The legal furor foreshadowed the similar wrangling that would follow the death of reggae great Bob Marley - who, like many Jamaican vocalists, was profoundly influenced by the soul mix of gospel and pop that Cooke helped shape.

Several months before Cooke died, he premiered a song on the Tonight Show that lyrically was a dramatic departure from anything he'd ever done before. "A Change Is Gonna Come" was inspired by his listening to Bob Dylan, especially "Blowin' in the Wind" - a song Cooke himself recorded before his death. Ironically, "Change" only hit the charts after its maker's death, and then peaked out at Billboard's number 31 slot. It is shot through with gospel phrasings, and its gentle but insistent references to the civil rights struggle, which had by then culminated in the Civil Rights Act that Congress passed in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, rode a characteristically fullblown orchestral arrangement. At Cooke's funeral, his gospel pals and proteges showed up, his friend Muhanmmad Ali arrived with one of Elijah Muhammad's sons, Lou Rawls and Bobby (Blue) Bland sang, and Ray Charles, Cooke's comrade in musical arms, did an impromptu version of "Angels Keep Watching Over Me." For a moment, the sacred and secular sides of African-American culture - of Cooke's own life, with its Du Boisian double consciousness - joined hands for a great native son.
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Title Annotation:Music
Author:Santoro, Gene
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 13, 1995
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