Having written the definitive story of Elvis Presley with his celebrated two-volume biography Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, American roots-music chronicler Peter Guralnick is no stranger to Memphis. This week he returns to promote a new book, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown), a mammoth biography of the golden-voiced superstar who crossed over from gospel to secular music in the mid-'50s, helping create "soul" music in the process.
Guralnick first wrote about Cooke in his classic 1986 genre history, Sweet Soul Music. Fittingly, this week Guralnick will celebrate Cooke at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, where the author will be joined by students from the Stax Music Academy, an institution similar to one Cooke founded for youth in South Central Los Angeles shortly before the singer's 1964 death. Guralnick took time off from a book-tour stop in Chicago to talk about his new biography:
Flyer: I understand this book has been a long time coming.
Guralnick: When I interviewed [Cooke's manager] J.W. Alexander for Sweet Soul Music back in 1982, that was the inspiration for the book. The picture that he painted of Sam was so wide-ranging. At that point I knew that I wanted to do a book, but it took 15 years to set up the conditions to get it done.
But the Elvis books came first, and there are no other musical/cultural figures of quite the same immensity.
Well, within mainstream culture that may be the perception. But what drew me to all of this was the blues. I think that within African-American culture, Sam Cooke or Ray Charles or Muddy Waters -- it just depends on the generation -- loom as large as Elvis Presley or the Beatles within mainstream culture.
In the introduction, you cite a passage from W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk that refers to the "twoness" -- the sense of negotiating two separate worlds -- for black Americans. Can you relate that to Cooke's music?
You hear it in a song like "Laughin' and Clownin'," which is almost adapted from the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem We Wear the Mask. It's all about the way in which you can see me one way, but really, underneath, I'm another way. It's not intended as explicit protest, but it's an open recognition of an understanding that's shared throughout black society or the society of any oppressed people. But what Cooke's music stands for is the same thing that August Wilson's plays stand for or Zora Neal Hurston's writing. It's a celebration of a culture that's so rich and so diverse almost because of segregation, because people were thrown back on themselves by virtue of a cruel system of exclusion that led them to create a culture and community that was so rich in associations.
How was Cooke's negotiation complicated by leaving gospel for pop?
Well, he brought a great deal of his gospel audience with him. Some of them obviously were not going to come along. But he calculated it. This was a person of great intellectual acuity. He was almost like Sam Phillips. He determined that he had gone as far as he could in gospel music. He simply couldn't get the material rewards that he thought were his due, with his talent and ambition. Sam Cooke thought he could reach everyone. He could reach the broadest possible audience, irrespective of race, irrespective of class. And that was, more than anything else, what led him to cross over to pop. On "You Send Me" he intentionally sets out to bleach out his sound. And while you can hear all the unmistakable vocal traits of his gospel background, it's a very whitened sound. The fact that it sold almost two million copies indicates the success, and he didn't alienate his black audience in the process. All of his songs went Top 10 R&B as well. But in a few years he brought back the gospel sound more explicitly in a song like "Bring It on Home to Me."
Is the book also meant to reflect the larger African-American culture that Cooke was a part of?
If [the book] is successful, it totally reflects that. I wanted to paint not just a true portrait of Sam Cooke but a portrait of the variegated world full of these characters of the greatest diversity and imagination and resourcefulness. My idea was to try and give voice not only to Sam Cooke but to the world in which he lived.
Your itinerary, which includes an event at the Stax Music Academy, isn't a typical book tour.
I was determined to do it at places that were in the spirit of Sam Cooke. On this whole tour, I didn't think it would serve the spirit of the book or the spirit of Sam Cooke to do a conventional book-store tour. The idea is to reach out to a broader and more diverse audience. The reason I've done the programs I have is to serve not the memory of Sam Cooke but the spirit of what he was all about.
Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke Book signing and reading
Studio A, The Stax Museum of American Soul Music
926 E. McLemore St.
Friday, November 18th, 7 p.m.