Sam Cooke: A change is gonna come
Distinguished biographer Peter Guralnick's essential new book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke finally puts Cooke's cultural impact into its larger and proper context. Though not as versatile as Ray Charles, Cooke's mixing of spiritual and secular musical elements arguably influenced more performers. His switch from heading the Soul Stirrers, the greatest gospel group of its day, to becoming a pop success led others, from Aretha Franklin to O.V. Wright and Wilson Pickett, to follow his example. In addition, Cooke was a visionary in his approach to the creative and business aspects of the music industry. He wrote his own songs, selected and hired musicians, and started both a record label and publishing company. Cooke demanded that record labels afford him the same dignity and fiscal respect given white performers, and he closely scrutinized the details of every contract.
Guralnick's book also documents Cooke's underrated role in the civil rights movement. He didn't lead marches, but he understood the importance of being a role model. From his public decision to wear his hair "natural" to his refusal to perform before segregated audiences, friendship with the youthful Cassius Clay, and close study of the writings of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Cooke maintained an interest and involvement in many issues besides the chart positions of his singles. Guralnick doesn't sanitize Cooke's life, nor excuse his relationship failures or occasional career missteps. Most importantly, he links Cooke's stylistic evolution to other major changes within a community, providing a vivid and rich portrait of African-American life and culture.
While Dream Boogie in some respects serves as a mini-primer on the '60s, thanks to Guralnick's skillful interweaving of such personalities as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Fidel Castro, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix into the narrative, the book is first and foremost the story of a phenomenal individual whose majestic voice and innovative personality helped fuel the rise of a new era before his tragic death in 1964 at the age of 33. Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and several other publications.