Skip to main content

Sam Cooke's 'Dream Boogie'

Biographer Peter Guralnick's book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke is now out in paperback. He 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," "Bring it on Home to Me," "Only Sixteen" and many others. This interview originally aired on Oct. 31, 2005.

43:09

Other segments from the episode on November 8, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 8, 2006: Interview with Peter Guralnick; Review of the film "Mutual Appreciation."

Transcript

DATE September 8, 2006 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"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News filling in for Terry Gross.

Sam Cooke was a celebrated soul singer who also produced his own records and
started his own record label long before that was common. In a few minutes,
we'll hear an interview Terry Gross recorded with Peter Guralnick, whose
biography of the late singer has just been released in paperback. It's called
"Dream Boogie."

Guralnick is also the author of a noted 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," "Having a
Party," "Wonderful World," and "Chain Gang." But before he sang soul music, he
sang gospel and spent six years at Specialty Records with a gospel group, The
Soul Stirrers. When Cooke crossed over, his success encouraged other gospel
singers to try secular music. Let's begin with a taste of the Sam Cooke sound
before he went to 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 going to see the Father
and by his side to stand

There will be no sorrow, no sadness
Just only complete gladness
But any day I know that I, know that I
am-a going home

That I'll shout Hallelujah

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Sam Cooke, recorded in 1954. Before we hear Terry's interview with
music writer Peter Guralnick, let's listen to how Sam Cooke's gospel style
translated into soul music. This is "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.
Whoooaaa

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. Whoooaa

You, you, you send me...

(End of soundbite)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Peter Guralnick, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

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. PETER 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 a 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 Cooke, 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. He--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, on 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 was 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 the 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 teenage 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 teenagers, 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.

DAVIES: Peter Guralnick speaking with Terry Gross. Guralnick's biography of
Sam Cooke is called "Dream Boogie." We'll hear more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2005 interview with Peter Guralnick about
singer Sam Cooke. Before we get back to the interview, let's hear 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.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: 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 was 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 startup 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--on the album "The SAR Records
Story," on the two-CD set, "The SAR Records Story."

(Soundbite of "The SAR Records Story")

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.

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

Mr. COOKE: Thine shall thy glory be.

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

Mr. COOKE: Lest I forget...

Group #1: (Singing) Lest...

Man #1: The glory be?

Mr. COOKE: Thy glory be.

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.

Man #1: Oh. Thine.

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

Man #2: Get the sense of it now.

Mr. COOKE: Thine means yours.

Man #1: Uh-huh.

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

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.

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.

Man #2: Let's do it.

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

Group #1: (Singing) Lead me to Calvary...

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Peter Guralnick's biography of Sam Cooke, "Dream Boogie," is now out
in paperback. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COOKE: (Singing)
Don't know much about history
Don't know much biology

(Announcements)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
We're listening back to Terry's 2005 interview with Peter Guralnick, whose
biography of soul singer Sam Cooke, called "Dream Boogie,"is now out in
paperback. Cooke's hits from the 1950s 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 soul 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: (Singing)
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.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Sam Cooke, recorded in 1963. Let's get back to Terry's interview
with Cooke's biographer Peter Guralnick.

GROSS: It was in 1964 that Sam Cooke was shot to death 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 was 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--he couldn't back down. And it would be an entirely
different story, obviously. I mean, this would be--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 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.

DAVIES: Peter Guralnick speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2005 interview with Peter Guralnick, whose
biography of Sam Cooke is called "Dream Boogie."

GROSS: 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 "A 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: Peter Guralnick, thank you so much for talking with us about Sam
Cooke.

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

DAVIES: Peter Guralnick speaking with Terry Gross last year. His biography
of Sam Cooke, "Dream Boogie," has just been released in paperback.

(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...

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the independent film "Mutual
Appreciation." This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Review: Film critic David Edelstein enjoys "Funny Ha Ha" and
"Mutual Appreciation"

DAVE DAVIES, host:

"Funny Ha Ha," the first film by the 29-year-old director Andrew Bujalski,
made a lot of critics' Top 10 lists in 2004, quite a feat for an independent
film made with a minimal crew, a loose script, and the director's friends.
Bujalski's new film, "Mutual Appreciation," features Justin Rice, lead singer
for the indie pop band Bishop Allen. The film is playing now in New York and
Los Angeles and will open in other cities this fall. Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: I thought about walking out in the first 20 minutes of
Andrew Bujalski's microbudget 2004 film "Funny Ha Ha." It seemed artless,
aimless, like a slice of life that hadn't been sliced thinly enough. But
Bujalski's free-floating comedies of manners, like "Funny Ha Ha," which is on
DVD, and "Mutual Appreciation," which is just opened, turn out to be shapely
and cunning and indelible. In their naturalistic and low key way, they
capture the rudderlessness of a generation, of young people fearful of
defining themselves, who don't know their own feelings, let alone how to
communicate them to others.

The protagonist of "Funny Ha Ha" is Marnie, played by Kate Dollenmayer. She's
a 23-year-old between jobs and quietly smitten with Alex, played by Christian
Rudder, who's just broken up with his girlfriend. Does Alex like her? He
might but he's adorably diffident in a way that comes to seem calculated.
That said, Marnie doesn't communicate her affections very forcefully. She
drinks a lot at parties, she lies around, she floats. Floating, indecision,
the indefinite, the nonaction is set outside Boston, in midsummer, and has a
midsummer formlessness, the languor you feel in those hazy dog days before the
sudden sharpness of fall. After a while the passivity becomes very amusing,
and Dollenmayer more and more fun to watch. She's the sort of beauty whose
self-effacing vibe would make her less than magnetic to really handsome guys
and madly irresistible to nerds, who think that maybe they'd have a shot. The
nerd here is played by Bujalski himself and he's cringeworthy, so
self-deprecating it would be a sign of self-disrespect for Marnie to end up
with him.

In "Mutual Appreciation," the protagonist, Alan, played by Justin Rice, is a
little more defined although he's still a floater. He's a singer-songwriter
who's just arrived in New York with no job, no band, and with an income, we
later learn, from his parents. He spends much of his time hanging out with
his old friend Lawrence, played by Bujalski, and Lawrence's girlfriend Ellie,
played by Rachel Clift. They seem grateful to have him around for company.
They ply one another with beer, lots and lots of beer, and even hang out on
the bed together, Alan in the middle, the threesome looking somehow both
comfortable and anxious over their vaguely sexual mutual appreciation. Here's
the opening seen, just Alan and Ellie on that bed making small talk.

(Soundbite from "Mutual Appreciation")

Ms. RACHEL CLIFT: (As Ellie) I'm sorry I'm being such a bad hostess.

Mr. JUSTIN RICE: (As Alan) Don't--you're not being a bad hostesss, don't
worry about it.

Ms. CLIFT: (As Ellie) Aren't I? This guy at work, Julian, he says that I
have an iron deficiency?

Mr. RICE: (As Alan) Are you vegetarian?

Ms. CLIFT: (As Ellie) Yeah.

Mr. RICE: (As Alan) I knew this woman once who was vegetarian and she was
fine for 10 years and then all of a sudden her iron deficiency kicked in. She
was so tired that on the way to the doctor she had to pull over and take a
nap.

Ms. CLIFT: (As Ellie) Well, did she ever make it to the doctor?

Mr. RICE: (as Alan) Oh yeah, she's had a nap, twice.

Ms. CLIFT: (As Ellie) And so she takes her iron pills and she's fine now?

Mr. RICE: (As Alan) She's fine. She started eating meat.

(End of soundbite)

EDELSTEIN: There's an attraction there, but action is a long time in coming
and there isn't much of it. Still, the exchanges are deft and amusing. As
Alan, Rice is a mouth-breather with a dazed affect. He might be Jerry
Seinfeld's less finicky kid brother. It's a shock when he plays and sings
with passionate intensity. We've had no indication that he's anything but a
dilettante with a sense of entitlement.

That's a knock on Bujalski, that his characters exist in a vacuum, with few
references to culture or politics. But one artist's vacuum is another's
poetic distillation, and there's something about "Mutual Appreciation" that
spoke more directly to my inner slacker than any film since, well, "Funny Ha
Ha." By slacker I don't mean idler, I mean the part that avoids commitment yet
longs for something other than chaos, something rooted. Watching the movie, I
had too irreconcilable urges: to get blotto and to clean my office.

With its half-hearted breakups and halting declarations, "Mutual Appreciation"
is a tapestry of indecision that is, once you get on its curious wavelength,
hugely entertaining. The piece de resistance is a scene in which a drunk
Alan, in search of a late night party, stumbles into an apartment where three
young woman, among them Kate Dollenmayer, sit chatting in dime store wigs.
They fall on Alan like nymphs out of Greek myth. They coerce him into a
dress. They make it impossible for him to ignore his own formlessness. It's
funny ha ha and, like all the work of this brilliantly original young
filmmaker, funny strange.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

DAVIES: This week the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins celebrated his
76th birthday. We're closing with one of his recordings. For Terry Gross,
I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of music)
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 3)

We conclude our tribute to Sondheim by listening to archival interviews with collaborators and performers, including Stephen Colbert, James Lapine, Paul Gemignani and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

52:30

'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1)

Sondheim, who died Nov. 26, was the lyricist and composer who gave us Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and other shows. In 2010 he spoke about his writing process, from rhyming to finding the right note.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue