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The Measure of Sam Cooke's 'Triumph'

Biographer Peter Guralnick's new book is Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Guralnick follows the life of rhythm and blues legend Sam Cooke from his roots in gospel music through his legendary career as a singer and songwriter whose hits include "You Send Me," "Only Sixteen" and many others.

44:55

Other segments from the episode on October 31, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 31, 2005: Interview with Peter Guralnick; Commentary on "Infotainment".

Transcript

DATE October 31, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Peter Guralnick discusses his biography of Sam Cooke,
"Dream Boogie"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame begins a weeklong tribute to Sam Cooke, a
great singer who was also significant for producing his own records and
starting his own record label long before this was common. My guest, Peter
Guralnick, has written a new biography of the late singer called "Dream
Boogie." Guralnick is best known for his two-part biography of Elvis Presley
and has written extensively on soul, blues and country music. Sam Cooke is
best known for his hits from the '50s and '60s like "You Send Me," "Wonderful
World" and "Chain Gang." But before he sang soul music, he sang gospel. When
he crossed over, his success encouraged other gospel singers to try secular
music. One of them was Aretha Franklin. This is what she told me in 1999.

(Soundbite of 1999 interview)

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): As time went on and I just began to listen to
more and more of his recordings, and I loved them, the way they were produced,
the melodies, the background singers, I was interested in changing fields as
well, but I was not as confident, I guess, as Sam was to begin with, and
finally, I said, `Well, if Sam made it, maybe I could, too.'

GROSS: Well, let's hear how Sam Cooke sounded before recording secular music.
Here he is with The Soul Stirrers in 1954.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. SAM COOKE: (Singing) One of these mornings, I'm a-going away. Any day
now, I'm a-going to heaven to stay. I don't know how soon. Maybe morning,
night or noon, but I'm a-going to see the Father and by his side to stand.
There'll be no sorrow, no sadness, just only complete gladness, but any day, I
know that I, I know that I am a-going home, that I'll shout hallelujah...

GROSS: You can hear how Sam Cooke's gospel style translated into soul music
when you listen to "You Send Me," his first hit, which climbed all the way to
number one in 1957.

(Soundbite of "You Send Me")

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) Darling, you send me. I know you send me. Darling, you
send me. Honest, you do. Honest, you do. Honest, you do. Whoa, you thrill
me. I know you, you, you thrill me. Darling, you, you, you thrill me.
Honest, you do. At first, I thought it was infatuation, but, ooh, it's lasted
so long. Now I find myself wanting to marry you and take you home. Whoa,
you, you, you send me...

GROSS: Peter Guralnick, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. PETER GURALNICK (Author, "Dream Boogie"): Hello.

GROSS: This is the song that Sam Cooke crossed over with from gospel to pop.
What did it mean to Cooke to cross over and to have, you know, a number-one
song on the pop charts?

Mr. GURALNICK: For--it meant tremendous fear and tremendous relief. I mean,
the greatest barrier to Sam Cooke crossing over was not so much a religious
concern. He never left the church. He never left gospel music. He continued
to sing gospel music until the day he died and to write gospel songs, so it
really wasn't a matter of challenging his faith. And he had been brought up
by his father to look for the opportunity. I mean, he was--his father was a
member of a striving generation, part of the great migration to Chicago, and
someone who really taught his children to get ahead, that you didn't--whether
you made your living by singing or shining shoes, that had nothing to do with
your dedication to God. Sam's father, incidentally, was a minister, the
Reverend Charles Cook, in the Church of Christ Holiness.

But for Sam, the great fear was that he wouldn't succeed. He knew what he had
in gospel music. He had come up against an economic wall. He had come up
against a wall in terms of the success that he could see for himself, and he
didn't want to stop with that wall. From Sam's point of view, there was no
end to his ambition. But at the same time, there was that kind of fear that
any of us might feel, that what if I do this and I don't succeed? And the
great fear was that if he didn't succeed, if he failed in pop music, then he
would never be able to go back to gospel. He would never be accepted again.

GROSS: How did "You Send Me" become that first song? I know he'd recorded
another secular song on a small label, but this was the song that really
crossed over. It's an original of his. Is there a story behind the song?

Mr. GURALNICK: There are a lot of stories behind the song, but the story
behind its success or how it got chosen was that Sam had actually made a
number of attempts in the nine or 10 months prior to his recording session in
the spring of '57, June 1st of '57, at which he recorded "You Send Me." Now
he had been writing songs for a good while. He had been writing songs all
through 1956, not at first with the idea of recording them himself. And then
when he made the decision to leave The Soul Stirrers, he put a number of those
songs and a couple of other songs down on tape, sent them out to his producer,
Bumps Blackwell in California, with just him playing guitar, and among those
songs was "You Send Me."

When they went into the studio, they recorded "You Send Me" and "Summertime"
as the potential single, and it was "Summertime." It was Sam's arrangement of
George Gershwin's "Summertime" that both Sam and Bumps Blackwell believed was
the A side of the song. "You Send Me" was a very peculiar hybrid, and it was
a song that when Sam first sang it for his guitarist, Cliff White, the
guitarist who played on the "You Send Me" session and then continued with Sam
up until his death--when Sam first played it for Cliff, Cliff said, `I thought
the guy was joking. He just kept singing the same words over and over and
over again. I thought he'd lost his mind or something.' And when it finally
came to the release, Cliff said he breathed a sigh of relief. He said, `Well,
he finally got out of that rep--you know, that repeated phrase.' But again,
Sam had a very strongly developed aesthetic, and one element of it was
simplicity, and he believed that every song ought to be accessible, that it
ought to be something--the melody ought to be something that the man on the
street could hum and the lyrics should be something that were written in plain
enough language so everybody could pick up on them, and that they would tell a
story plainly and directly.

So when the single came out, "You Send Me" and "Summertime," Sam and Bumps
went out on the road, still with the idea that "Summertime" would be the hit,
and they went around to visit deejays. This was on a promotional tour, not a
performance tour, and virtually every deejay said--you know, turned the record
over and said, `This is the hit. "You Send Me" is the hit.'

GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick, and he's written a new biography of Sam
Cooke. It's called "Dream Boogie." And Peter's also the author of a
two-volume biography of Elvis Presley.

Peter, how do you think Sam Cooke's gospel singing compared to his pop
singing?

Mr. GURALNICK: I think it compared--in some ways, it compared very directly.
In other ways, it contrasted. I think the comparison is that Sam learned
very--he was inclined very early on and he learned very early on that his
strength, his mark was really in lowering the volume. At his first show that
he did, the first program he did with The Soul Stirrers in Pine Bluff,
Arkansas, when he was just 19 years old, he was blown off the stage by The
Pilgrim Travelers and the Five Blind Boys by their showmanship, by the way in
which Archie Brownlee and the two leads for The Pilgrim Travelers just
shouted, and he attempted to do that and failed. And both S.R. Crain, The
Soul Stirrers' manager, and J.W. Alexander, who was the manager for The
Pilgrim Travelers and a kind of mentor to Sam from an early age and who became
his--was his friend and became his business partner several years later--both
Crain and J.W. Alexander counseled Sam, `Rely on your strengths. Your
strength is in the way in which you--the unique way in which you sing, the
unique way in which you can draw the listener to you. You can draw the
congregation to you.'

And that was the basis for Sam's gospel style, was this kind of crooning
style. It was a seductive style. That was what he brought to pop music.
That's what I think is so extraordinary about his transition to pop music and
it was what both Bumps Blackwell, his producer, and what J.W. Alexander and
what this deejay in Newark who managed Roy Hamilton, Bill Cook, all saw in
him. They saw the potential for a teen-age singing idol. J.W. Alexander felt
that this was--Sam was the first black performer, rhythm and blues performer
who had the potential to really be a matinee idol for teen-agers, black and
white, and for whom the category didn't have to exist.

This depended to some extent on Sam's looks, because he was an extraordinarily
good-looking man. But it also depended on the manner of his singing, which
was not challenging, was not threatening, and didn't require a tremendous
adjustment on the part of a white audience to what he was presenting.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. His new biography of Sam Cooke is called
"Dream Boogie." Here's Cooke's 1962 hit, "Having a Party."

(Soundbite of "Having a Party")

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) We're having a party, dancing to the music played by the
deejay on the radio. The Cokes are in the icebox, popcorn's on the table. Me
and my baby, we're out here on the floor. So Mr., Mr. Deejay, keep those
records playing, because I'm having such a good time dancing with my baby.

GROSS: We'll talk more about Sam Cooke after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. His new biography of Sam Cooke is called
"Dream Boogie."

One of the paradoxes in Sam Cooke's life is that, you know, he comes out of a
gospel circuit. He's singing--you know, he's singing sanctified songs and
then, I mean, he becomes a kind of a drinker, a gambler, lots of women in his
life. How did he reconcile this kind of contradiction?

Mr. GURALNICK: Probably the same way that almost every other gospel singer
and many ministers do. He wasn't really a gambler. He was a bad gambler.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. GURALNICK: He didn't take--he gave the money back if he ever won, and he
didn't win much of the time. The drinking, I think, was something that as a
kid he probably didn't do all that much. It became much more pronounced after
the death of--the drowning of his son, Vincent, at 18 months in the spring of
1963. But the women, Sam always had a very active social life from the time
he was quite young, and I would say the women were always a part of that life,
and I think if you examined--well, I think it's just the--it's the range of
human activity. I don't think you'll find any less sexual activity in the
church in general than you will in the world at large, and certainly not
within the gospel world. So I think that without sin, there'd be no
salvation, and I think that there was always hope of salvation.

GROSS: Did it bother him that he was a sinner? Did he think of himself as a
sinner?

Mr. GURALNICK: You know, I doubt that--I would say Sam had a more analytic
approach to life. I don't think he was satisfied with easy solutions or--so
that--I don't think he would categorize himself in that way. I think he would
perhaps take a broader view that all of us are sinners in different ways. And
I would imagine the thing that would have bothered him most of all, although I
certainly don't have any evidence of this, was the difficulty that he had in
expressing emotion outside of his music, the difficulty he had in a sense in
owning up to the way that he felt, to the conflicted feelings that he might
feel, not sinning feelings, but just the--because he was so charming, he was
so charismatic, and he felt the burden, I think, of carrying that image with
him everywhere he went, not simply for the general public, but even for
the--with the other performers that he traveled with. And I think the burden
of keeping his feelings inside is something that many of those closest to him
remarked upon.

I mean, that was what was most extraordinary about researching this book, or
meeting all the people who were closest to Sam. Bobby Womack, who was Sam's
protege, who was just an 18- or 19-year-old when he started playing with Sam,
said that Sam told him if he felt bad, he just didn't go out of his room,
because he didn't want to put that burden on anybody.

GROSS: Another way in which Sam Cooke was groundbreaking is that he
co-founded and co-owned a record label, a record label that he started with
his friend and business partner, J.W. Alexander. Why did he want that?

Mr. GURALNICK: He--it really stemmed from an innate sense of black pride and
self-determination, which was something--he was a student of black history at
a time when the term didn't exist. He was someone who had been brought up by
his father to believe that you should respect yourself most of all, never
allow anyone to disrespect you but respect yourself most of all. He realized
very early on the same thing that many performers, both black and white,
recognized, which is that he did not own the fruits of his own labor, that
other people were making money off of his creative endeavor, and that in fact,
the--particularly with respect to songwriting, that this was really where the
money was, and where the money still is today, in the music business is both
in writing and publishing songs. And when he switched over, when his--when he
switched over from Specialty Records to Keen Records with his first pop record
under his own name, "You Send Me," Bumps Blackwell, who was managing him and
producing him at that time, told him, `Sam, when you go over to Keen Records,
you're going to own your own publishing and that means we're going to make a
lot more money.' Well, it didn't happen. Bumps was going on a nod and a wink
or, you know, perhaps just on wishful thinking.

And eventually J.W. Alexander, who had set up his own publishing company in
the summer of 1958 and kept bugging Sam, like, `Come on, you've gotta have
your own publishing. They're never gonna pay you if you don't have your own
publishing.' So J.W. Alexander won Sam over, and at the beginning of 1959 he
went into partnership with J.W. in this publishing company. And that was
really the genesis of almost--of a creative rebirth on his part. He started
writing songs like crazy in the early part of 1959, just writing one song
after another, essentially to demo them for other singers and with the idea
that they would be recorded by other singers. And the outgrowth of that some
nine months later was the start-up of a record company, SAR Records, S-A-R,
which J.W., Sam and S.R. Crain at the beginning formed specifically to record
The Soul Stirrers, who had been cut loose from their recording contract at
that time, but ultimately to record, as J.W. said, people they liked, people
they liked both in terms of their music, people they liked personally. And
essentially to give expression--untrammeled expression to an artistic vision
that Sam and J.W., to a lesser extent, both had.

GROSS: So was Sam Cooke recording for RCA at the same time that he had his
own record label?

Mr. GURALNICK: Yeah--no, he was--Sam Cooke, I think very wisely, determined
that he needed a record company with greater capital--or capitalization than
his own record company could give him. He needed the promotion that a
full-scale record company could give him. So he alway--he was--he started
recording for RCA in January of 1960, and that was almost precisely the time
that he started recording new artists, other than The Soul Stirrers, for his
own SAR Records, and virtually every session was produced by Sam Cooke and you
can hear Sam producing these sessions on--you can hear the--you can hear him
teaching the song to different artists--the songs to different artists on the
album "The SAR Records Story," on the two-CD set, "The SAR Records Story."

GROSS: Peter Guralnick is the author of a new biography of Sam Cooke called
"Dream Boogie." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

Here's Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers rehearsing for a session on Cooke's
own record label. He's explaining the meaning of the lyric to the song, "Lead
Me to Calvary."

(Soundbite of rehearsal session)

Mr. COOKE: All right, Jim, I'm back of you now. I want to know I'm going to
holler at you.

Unidentified Man #1: Gethsemane.

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) Gethsemane. Lest I forget thine agony.

Mr. COOKE: Thine.

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) Thine shall the...

Mr. COOKE: Thine shall thy glory be.

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) ...glory be.

Mr. COOKE: Lest I forget...

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) Lest...

Unidentified Man #1: The glory be?

Mr. COOKE: Thy glory be.

Unidentified Man #1: Thine shall thy glory be? No, thine shall the glory be.

Mr. COOKE: Thine.

Unidentified Man #2: That's right. Thine shall the glory be. It can't be
thine shall thy glory be.

Mr. COOKE: Yeah, thine shall be thy glory.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh. Thine.

Mr. COOKE: So wait a minute. No, no.

Unidentified Man #2: Get the sense of it now.

Mr. COOKE: Thine means yours.

Unidentified Man #1: Uh-huh.

Mr. COOKE: Yours shall the glory be. It ain't--the glory ain't mine. It
belongs to you.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Mr. COOKE: You understand? Thine shall the glory be. You understand? It
means the glory belong to you. It don't belong to me.

Unidentified Man #1: Thine shall--thine shall thy--thine shall the--oh, OK.

Mr. COOKE: It means I'm giving all the glory to you. I'm giving all the
glory to you.

Unidentified Man #2: Let's do it.

Mr. COOKE: I don't want none of it. Yeah. OK, are we in business? Here we
go.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, more on Sam Cooke. Also, critic at large John Powers
considers the new film "Good Night, and Good Luck."

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) If you ever change your mind about leaving,
leaving me behind, baby, bring it to me, bring your sweet lovin', bring it on
home to me.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) I know I laughed when you left but now I
know I only hurt myself. Baby, bring it to me. Bring your sweet lovin'.
Bring it on home to me.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) I'll give you jewelry and money, too. That
ain't all, that ain't all I'll do for you, baby, if you bring it to me, bring
your sweet lovin', bring it on home to me.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Peter Guralnick. He's
written a new biography of Sam Cooke called "Dream Boogie." Cooke's hits from
the '50s and '60s include "You Send Me," "Only Sixteen," "Wonderful World,"
"Chain Gang," "Twisting the Night Away" and "Another Saturday Night."

To understand what a great singer he was, you need to also hear his early
gospel records and some of his lesser-known solo recordings like this one
which has just been reissued. Here's "Lost and Lookin'" from Cooke's 1963
album "Night Beat."

(Soundbite of "Lost and Lookin'")

Mr. COOKE: I'm lost and a-lookin' for my baby. Wonder why my baby can't be
found. I'm lost and a-lookin' for my baby. Lord knows my baby ain't around.
So I'm lost and a-lookin' for my baby. Wonder why my baby can't be found.
Lost and a-searchin' for my baby. Lord knows my baby ain't around. Cryin'
for my baby, cryin' all alone. Calling for you, come home, come home. I'm
lost and a-callin' for my baby. Baby, won't you please come home? I'm lost
and a-callin' for my baby. I need you 'cause I'm so alone.

GROSS: Sam Cooke, recorded in 1963. Let's get back to our interview with
Peter Guralnick.

It was in 1964 that Sam Cooke was shot to death and in just an incredibly
pointless, tragic shooting, and I'm sure you've done a lot of research about
how this happened, 'cause there's always been a lot of questions surrounding
what really happened. So could we just, like, reconstruct a little bit what
happened that night? He went to a cheap hotel with another woman. Who was
the woman?

Mr. GURALNICK: The woman was a prostitute named Elisa Boyer, whom he met
earlier in the evening at a restaurant in Hollywood. And she was a very
attractive--she was referred to in the press--in the black press, anyway--as
Eurasian and a very attractive young woman. And it wasn't--this was not out
of character for Sam. He actually was committed to the idea, and he told
Bobby Womack, `Get yourself a high hooker. Just don't mess with your fans,'
because over the years his involvement with his fans had caused him a lot of
trouble, caused them a lot of trouble and caused him, in his view, a lot of
money. So from his point of view, it was far more practical to go with a
prostitute. And this was something, oddly enough, that his wife Barbara also
endorsed.

So I think the greatest--he went to the motel with this woman. She--according
to the private investigator's report, her modus operandi was not altogether
straightforward. She tried--she got her client to go into the bathroom to
take a shower, clean himself up, and while he was in the bathroom, she would
go make off with his clothes, his wallet, his credit cards and everything
else. And I think the assumption was that the client was either drunk enough
or would be embarrassed enough not to pursue her. Well, Sam was neither, as
it turned out, and ran out of the--ran after her, believed that she had gone
into the motel manager's apartment office when she saw him after her, banged
on the door, eventually broke the door down, and whether Elisa Boyer was there
or not--I mean, according to the court testimony, she wasn't, but whether or
not she was, Sam did not believe that she was not there and was threatening
enough so that the motel manager, Bertha Franklin, pulled out a gun and shot
him.

GROSS: And when he burst into her office, it sounds like he was wearing his
jacket and his shoes, which were the clothes that were left behind.

Mr. GURALNICK: Yeah. He seems to have had one shoe on, although I can't
quite picture that. But yeah, he had a jacket and a shoe on. And I--yet...

GROSS: And that's probably all he was wearing.

Mr. GURALNICK: Yeah, you know, exactly. So, I mean, this was not the kind of
thing that would inspire confidence on the part of anyone that they were
dealing with a reasonable person.

GROSS: And the motel manager probably didn't know who he was.

Mr. GURALNICK: I tend to think she did know who he was. She said in her
testimony she didn't, but I find that difficult to believe. But whether she
did or she didn't, it made him no less threatening. It's, you know, a
terrible end to a noble life, and what I think is more significant, though,
than his death--and to some extent, you can see this as part of a piece. It
was in Sam's character never to back down when he felt he was being taken
advantage of. It was what his father had taught him, and it shows up all
through his life.

And, I mean, if you think about it, the previous year, he had come to
Shreveport, arrived at the new Holiday Inn in town, which had a policy
supposedly of--despite the rigid segregation of the South, Holiday Inns across
the country said they had adopted an integrated policy. When Sam showed up,
the manager said, `No, no. We don't have a reservation for you.' In that
situation, Sam became so enraged and started yelling and swearing at the
manager of the motel. And against the entreaties of his brother Charles, his
road manager, S.R. Crain, with him, and The Soul Stirrers and his wife
Barbara, he just would not be pulled away. And his wife kept saying to him,
`Sam, they're going to kill you.' And Sam just said, `They're not going to
kill me. I'm Sam Cooke.' And Barbara said, you know, `To them, you're just
another N-word.'

But in that--let's say Sam had gotten killed in that situation. It would have
been for much the same reason, because he simply--it's like he just flashed,
and he was not going to--couldn't back down. And it would be an entirely
different story, obviously. I mean, he would be martyred, in a sense, to, you
know, forces of prejudice, to the forces of segregation. But essentially it
would have been for the same reason. It's a peculiar thing. I think that in
a sense, the most significant aspect of it is that the black community to this
day simply cannot accept--he was such a shining light. He was such a shining
star. He represented such nobility, something way beyond the ordinary singer
or entertainer, that at the time, I don't think there was--there was virtually
no one in the black community who didn't believe that somehow or other this
was a conspiracy, a racist conspiracy to kill Sam Cooke. And to this day, I
could have had a 50-page appendix in the book with all the conspiracy
theories, every one of them different, every one of them different in its
details and different in its narrative, but essentially all proving that this
is what happens when a proud black man becomes too big for his britches.

And I think as a metaphor, both for that time and to some extent for this,
it's absolutely true. But in terms of what happened, there's no evidence to
support it. And what's most significant is that the people who knew Sam best
for the most part believed that this is what happened, that the story was
largely as it was told in court, and that this was--and that Sam's behavior
and his presence at the motel were simply not uncharacteristic of the Sam
Cooke that they knew.

GROSS: Now you mention that there's a lot of conspiracy theories about what
really happened to Sam Cooke the night he was killed. You say in your book
that a lot of Sam Cooke's family blamed his wife Barbara for his death. In
what way did they hold her responsible?

Mr. GURALNICK: Well, Barbara Cooke and--Barbara Campbell Cooke and the Cooke
family--the Cooke family never approved of Barbara Campbell, who met Sam when
she was barely 13 years old and Sam was about 17, fell in love with him. It
was love at first sight, but it was--and it may have been love to the end of
their lives. I mean, I don't doubt the attachment, but it was not a storybook
tale. But the Cooke family never believed that Barbara was good enough for
Sam. They felt that she was an adventuress and was--she was too young at the
time she met him. They simply didn't approve of her in any way. And when Sam
married her, when their daughter was six years old, this was not something
which made them any happier. Ultimately, by Barbara's own account, she and
Sam were essentially each pursuing separate lives at the time of Sam's death,
and Barbara was going out with a bartender named Al Woods(ph) at the time.
And Sam had his own dates.

So from the Cooke family's point of view, I think they saw Barbara as
neglecting Sam. If he were happy at home, why would he be roaming around?
But I think this is a--you know, we're all protective of our families, of our
children, and I think that this is not--it's totally understandable what they
felt, and I'm not arguing with their emotional reaction or with Barbara's
emotional feelings, either, but I think there's no objective evidence of
anything other than that they felt that she wasn't the right person for Sam.

GROSS: You interviewed many people for this book, including Sam Cooke's
widow, Barbara, who hadn't spoken publicly before about Cooke. Why did she
talk with you?

Mr. GURALNICK: That, I can't say. You'd have to ask Barbara. I mean, it
was a remarkable--we spent four or five days, two sessions a day, and it was
just very intense and very detailed, but I can't say why she did. Certainly I
sought--had been seeking this interview for five or six years at the time, but
why she finally consented to do it, I can't say.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. His new biography of Sam Cooke is called
"Dream Boogie." He'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. We're talking about his biography of Sam
Cooke, which is called "Dream Boogie."

One of Sam Cooke's greatest records was released on an album very late in his
life and it was released posthumously as a single, and the song is "A Change
is Gonna Come." This is a song that he wrote. And before we actually hear
it, what inspired this song, and what was the change of direction it
represented in his music?

Mr. GURALNICK: What inspired the song "A Change is Gonna Come" was really
everything that was going on in this country in Sam's consciousness at that
time with respect to the racial situation, with respect to the civil rights
movement, with respect to the sit-ins. Specifically, Sam was inspired--he was
on tour in North Carolina in the spring of 1963, and he and J.W. Alexander
spoke with the student sit-ins and spoke quite extensively. And that was
something which was very memorable for him. Within a couple of months of
that, J.W. Alexander gave him a Bob Dylan album that had "Blowing in the Wind"
on it, and Sam responded extremely--very directly to that song and told J.W.
what a great song it was, but it should have been written by a black man. You
know, it wasn't that he--he was very admiring of Bob Dylan, as he was of the
Rolling Stones, of The Animals, and his ears were wide open, and he heard new
sounds, and he talked to Bobby Womack quite a bit about the way in which
someone like Dylan put a song across. Bobby Womack said, `That's terrible.
That guy can't sing.' And Bobby said, `Listen to the words. Listen to the
way he puts the songs across. Listen to the credibility he adds. Listen to
the way in which an audience will respond to it.' He said, `That's the
future.'

In any case, Sam--"Blowing in the Wind" was unquestionably influential. I
think there's no doubt that the Birmingham demonstrations and then the--in the
spring of '63 and then the march on Washington meant an enormous amount to
him, and right in the wake of that, Sam had his own--well, he had many
moments; I mean, he couldn't escape the moments all through--no
African-American could escape an awareness of the racial situation every
minute of every day, but Sam's experience in Shreveport when he got turned
away from the motel and refused to back down was an enormously traumatic
event, just as it had been in 1949 when in Memphis he got picked up by the
police for going into a whites-only park and he got cuffed around by them, and
spoke of it to the end of his life.

So that humiliation and that indignation--he wrote "Change is Gonna Come," I
would say, within a month or so. What scared Sam the most about the song was
it came to him almost unannounced. It came to him in a dream, and this is
what he told everybody. He played the song for his wife Barbara, for J.W.
Alexander, for Bobby Womack, for Leroy Crume from The Soul Stirrers, and told
them all essentially the same thing, which was that the song had just come to
him. It had come to him unannounced. Unlike other songs which he worked on,
this song simply presented itself in its complete form, and it scared him. He
didn't know where it was coming from, and he and Bobby Womack talked about it,
and his feeling was it felt like death. And I can't really interpret what
that means. I mean, I don't know whether it was the sense that he was not in
control of what he was saying. It's such a beautifully written--it's a
beautifully crafted song, both the melody and the lyrics. And it's typical of
Sam in the sense that rather than being yoked to a specific event, it starts
from a generality, from a saying that can apply, `A change is gonna come,'
that can apply to almost anything. And it's the reason I think that the song
has continued to have currency all these years.

GROSS: Do you think that if Sam Cooke had lived that "A Change is Gonna Come"
would have been the start of a new direction for him, a new, more socially
engaged type of songs?

Mr. GURALNICK: You know, I think the thing about Sam is that you need a new
word. I mean, you think about the bifurcated personality. Well, with Sam,
you need a multiple of `bi-' that would represent 20. He really intended to
go in every direction at once, and I think one of those directions would have
been, you know, a more socially conscious one in the fact that in that same
year in 1964, he started the first of what were intended to be a series of
soul stations--he called it Soul Station #1--which were kind of neighborhood
and storefront locations which would offer talented but sort of disaffected
black youth the opportunity to come in, to try out, to rehearse.

Along with the idea of doing some things that were more socially conscious, he
had committed to doing a civil rights concert for Dr. Martin Luther King, but
at the same time, he also intended--he had just signed a movie contract. He
intended to go to Las Vegas. All of these things in a sense, for most people,
would cancel each other out, and you would tend to think, well, if he goes in
that direction, he can't possibly go in this other direction. That means he
won't do this thing. But in Sam's mind, I think he believed he could do it
all, he could appeal to everyone across the board, and he was not inclined to
limit himself in any way. But what it would have meant in practical terms
would be Las Vegas, sort of the glitz, the Sammy Davis Jr. approach, would
that have canceled out the direction he was going with "A Change is Gonna
Come" or even with a song like "Keep Moving On." I think there's no way of
telling. At the end of his life, he literally was moving in about seven or
eight different directions.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Sam Cooke's recording "A Change is Gonna Come."
Peter Guralnick, thank you so much for talking with us about Sam Cooke.

Mr. GURALNICK: Well, thank you. I really enjoyed it.

(Soundbite of "A Change is Gonna Come")

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent. Oh, and just
like the river, I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time
coming, but I know a change is gonna come. Oh, yes, it will. It's been too
hard living, but I'm afraid to die. And I don't know what's up there, beyond
the sky. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna
come. Oh, yes, it will. I go to the movie...

GROSS: Sam Cooke. Peter Guralnick's new biography of Cooke is called "Dream
Boogie." Today the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame begins a weeklong tribute to
Cooke.

Coming up, critic at large John Powers considers the new movie "Good Night,
and Good Luck" and the evolution of TV news. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: How the age of TV news infotainment is foretold in the
film "Good Night, and Good Luck"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Now that George Clooney's movie "Good Night, and Good Luck" has been out for a
few weeks, our critic at large, John Powers, has some thoughts about the
impact of the film, about Edward R. Murrow, CBS and McCarthyism.

JOHN POWERS:

When you live in a politically polarized era, as we do today, too much of the
culture is seen through the prism of the immediate historical moment. Last
year, for example, Philip Roth's novel "The Plot Against America" was widely
viewed as an oblique commentary on America's right-wing drift. It was that,
but it was also something much more: Roth working through fears, childhood
memories and his own tricky relationship to his Jewishness.

Now comes "Good Night, and Good Luck," George Clooney's film about the CBS
newsman Edward R. Murrow's celebrated battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The movie is being treated as a liberal feel-good picture, offering an
historical analogy between the Red scare and what Clooney sees as the climate
of fear created by the Bush administration. But while Clooney is an unabashed
liberal, only an idiot would think that we're in a new blacklist era--heck,
Sean Penn won an Oscar--or that condemning McCarthyism is a uniquely liberal
position. On the contrary, when Ann Coulter wrote a book defending
"Tailgunner" Joe McCarthy, she was whacked by the likes of Bill O'Reilly and
The Wall Street Journal.

Judging from the response, "Good Night, and Good Luck's" main selling point is
Murrow's courage in standing up to McCarthy, a civics lesson about dissent
that induces nostalgia for days when men were men and reporters took a stand.
Yet what the movie's actually about is a reality far darker and far less
triumphant. Its real theme is the inherent debasement of mass news in a
commercial culture, a process so powerful that even brave individuals can't
stop it. You see, news is a product that must be able to pay for itself. In
practice, that means getting ratings, finding corporate sponsors and newsmen
becoming purveyors of fluff, and that's precisely what we see happening in the
film. Murrow's show "See It Now" has to fret about alienating its sponsor,
Alcoa, when it goes after McCarthy, and Murrow himself must placate CBS by
hosting the celebrity interview who "Person to Person." All this is clear
when Murrow, played by David Strathairn, talks about the upcoming McCarthy
broadcast with the CBS apparatchik, well-played by Jeff Daniels.

(Soundbite of "Good Night, and Good Luck")

Mr. JEFF DANIELS: (As Sig Mickelson) You know how many "Person to Persons"
you're going to have to do to make up for this?

Mr. DAVID STRATHAIRN: (As Edward R. Murrow) And Judy and her daughter Liza
next week.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Mickelson) No, no, no, you're interviewing Rin Tin Tin.
I'll talk to Mr. Paley. Alcoa won't pay for the ads, and we probably won't,
either, but nobody'll stop you.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: (As Murrow) How much are the ads?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Mickelson) Three thousand.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: (As Murrow) I'll split it with Fred. He just won't have
Christmas presents for his kids this year.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Mickelson) He's a Jew.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: (As Murrow) Well, don't tell him that. He loves Christmas.

POWERS: Even when the McCarthy broadcast proves successful, the pressure on
Murrow doesn't let up. It doesn't matter that CBS head Bill Paley admires
Murrow personally, or that he thinks "See It Now" is a terrific show, or that
he strongly believes McCarthy deserved to be taken down. Paley still pulls
"See It Now" from its regular slot. And why? Its audience is too small, and
Paley has a network to run, so he makes a rational business decision. And if
he didn't make it, he would be replaced. You see, Murrow may be an icon, but
that's how commercial TV works.

As it actually happened, Paley didn't shrink "See It Now" right after the
McCarthy broadcast. Clooney has telescoped the time for dramatic effect. No
matter; the point still stands. Although Murrow's name was synonymous with
serious broadcasting, what CBS really wanted him to do was unserious: to talk
to celebrities; you know, ask Liberace about his plans to get married. That's
where the ratings were. And Murrow, who enjoyed being a player, may have
groused, but he went along with it.

That's why, in the end, "Good Night, and Good Luck" may be most valuable as a
kind of bleak creation myth. It shows how, from the early days of TV news, a
template was put in place that would eventually produce what we have today:
endless coverage of Natalee Holloway, newscasts that cross-promote the latest
episode of "Desperate Housewives" and Ted Koppel being replaced on "Nightline"
by three hosts, one of whose great credentials is that he made a sleazy but
highly rated show about Michael Jackson.

Like it or not, the age of infotainment was in the cards from the very
beginning. And for all his highfalutin speeches about how television can
educate, illuminate and inspire, Murrow could do nothing to slow it down.
Seeing it now, his famed anti-McCarthy broadcast looks less like the flowering
of a golden age than a blip on the radar of packaged commercial news, rather
like Shepard Smith and Anderson Cooper unexpectedly exploding with anger
during Hurricane Katrina before returning to their usual sleek selves. Small
wonder, then, that Murrow always wished his audience good luck, for even back
in the 1950s, Clooney's film suggests, a not-so-good night was already
descending on TV news.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and the author of "Sore Winners."

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) You, you're driving me crazy. What did I do?
What did I do? My tears for you...

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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