Friday, January 20, 2006

Dream Boogie - The triumph of Sam Cooke

If there is one music book that you really MUST read in 2006 it has to be Peter Guralnick's excellent 'Dream Boogie: The triumph of Sam Cooke'. In well over 700 pages it charts Sam Cooke's life and career in detail, from his early days as a gospel singer with the Soul Stirrers to his bizarre and tragic death at a seedy motel in LA in 1964.
Sam was truly a superstar of his day in the US and can lay claim to being the first soul singer, as well as writing probably the greatest civil rights anthem of all time 'A change is gonna come'. He was one of the first black artists to demand control of his catalogue and recordings in an era when the white music establishment regularly cheated black artists of their royalties. His had regular hits as a pop/soul star beginning with 'You Send me' in 1957 and running through the early 60s until his death. And although most of his LPs were disappointing because of his determination to show that he could compete with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Nat King Cole, his musical legacy included timeless classics such as 'Wonderful World', 'Bring it on home to me', 'Cupid' and 'Twistin' the night away'. His voice was unique and he could turn utter dross into gold. He was also suave, handsome and cool.
His downfall was women and he would apparently walk past a classy woman to get to a whore (I know the feeling). In the end it led to his death, as he chased half naked and drunk after a woman he had taken back to a motel, only to be shot by an apparently terrified motel manageress. 'Lady you shot me' were Sam's final words as he died in squalor. Conspiracy theorists were convinced that it was a set up - the mafia, someone wanting to take out an uppity nigger who was making waves, but Guralnick doesn't back these theories up. It seems that dapper Sam had a dark side and paid with his life.
Sam Cooke toured the UK in 1962 on a package show headlined by Little Richard, who was making his first of many comebacks after having turned to religion at the height of his success. Sam closed the first half of the show and got a great reception from the UK crowd (who couldn't clap on the beat apparently!) but it was Richard who stole the show. I was lucky enough to see the show at the Tooting Granada and went backstage because my friend's father was the manager. I met Sam and Richard and got their autographs - my most prized possession.
Sam can truly be said to be one of the fathers - if not the father - of soul music and his influence is felt to this day. His voice was matchless and simply beautiful. If he had lived who knows where his career may have taken him. It's one of the great 'what might have beens' of popular music.
Peter Guralnick is of course a great music writer with fantastic books such as Last Train to Memphis, Sweet Soul Music and Lost Highway to his credit. But Dream Boogie - clearly a labour of love - may just be his best yet.


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