During the small hours of December 11, 1964, the Negro singing star Sam Cooke met his abrupt end in a cheap Los Angeles motel. In enraged pursuit of a woman he’d just checked in with, Cooke broke down the motel’s office door. He was wearing only his shoes, undershorts, and suit jacket. The night manager, a fifty-two-year-old black woman, shot him, and then beat him lifeless with a stick. She’d been alone in the office. The woman Cooke was chasing had taken his pants and fled into the street.
When the police arrived, they found him on the floor, wedged between a desk and the unhinged door. He was half upright, slumping forward, as if in a stupor: one leg splayed, the other tucked, eyes closed, head resting on a bloodied wall. His body lay in the city’s morgue for a day and a half, another bit of flotsam washed up from the wreckage of a Thursday night in Watts. Local authorities gave the matter perfunctory attention. The New York Times consigned its brief account of Cooke’s death to page thirty-four.
Only the breathless Negro press, which had charted the progress of Cooke’s career as though it were a pilgrimage, could apply the proper noirish touches to this B-movie scenario’s last wrenching twist. “He died there, one shoe on, the other a few feet away,” Ebony magazine reported. “Outside, its motor still running, sat his $14,000 tomato-red Ferrari, under a sign advertising the motel’s rooms as, ‘$3 and up.'”
In the black America of 1964, Cooke was a personage grand enough for two funerals. Thirty-five patrol cars and fifty policemen in Chicago couldn’t keep a throng of six thousand from caving in the plate-glass windows of the funeral parlor where his body was displayed like a specimen in a natural history museum, encased in a bronze-inlaid casket with a glass cover.
His corpse was flown back to Los Angeles, where it played to packed houses in daylong continuous showings for several days. Street vendors hawked photographs taken in Chicago of Cooke in his coffin. On the day of his second funeral, residents of the neighborhood around the church blasted his records from open windows. Inside, when a gospel diva fainted and couldn’t go on, Ray Charles stepped out of the back pews to sing in her place, and stirred in men who “wrecked churches” for a living tears enough to weep like children.
The way it ended stained a life that the subtitle of Dream Boogie, Peter Guralnick’s new biography of Cooke, represents as a “triumph.” When they heard how he died, many blacks in the grass roots reflexively winced, and shrank in recoil. As they watched the narrative of his public life unfold, the image of Cooke formed by what they saw on television and read in the Negro press had seemed the embodiment of their collective best self. Its tawdry conclusion mocked the idea they’d had all along that the point of Cooke’s story was what it suggested about their own awakening possibilities.
Though it had planted him black and poor on the edge of the Depression in the middle of Mississippi’s “cotton patch,” nature had accorded Sam Cooke a windfall of compensatory graces: brains, beauty, charm, an innate self-assurance, and the supreme gift of a clear, sweet singing voice, which he exercised as soon as he could toddle. The qualities evident in the boy passed intact into a man whom Peter Guralnick, at forty years’ remove and secondhand, still found “utterly beguiling.”
Cooke was the grandson of sharecroppers born slaves who’d graduated from peonage in the Mississippi countryside to a more genteel impoverishment in Jackson. His father, Charles Cook, forsook his hometown for farm work in the Delta when he was a teenager, and soon married a girl he met there.
After two years “making crops” on a plantation outside Clarksdale, Charles Cook decided he could do better by doing good, and answered the call to preach. By the time Sam came along in 1931, his father was pastoring three small churches and working in the household of a Clarksdale cotton baron.
The Depression broke his employer and beggared his flocks, so Charles Cook set out for Chicago with thirty-five cents in his pocket when Sam was two. He found work in the stockyards, landed an assistant pastorate in a Holiness church, and moved his family into an apartment in “Bronzeville,” on the city’s south side.
Within five years Charles Cook had a union job and a job with the union. He also had his own church, and it was booming. All of his children looked good and could sing. The five eldest were part of the show wherever he preached. They did so well he got them a manager. The Singing Children, as they were known, started performing for money.
If the Cooks were “a family above all,” Sam was the “irrepressible middle child,” set apart by “a life of the mind, that was very different from his brothers’ and sisters’.” He “liked to be by himself a lot…,” his sister observed, “he made up all kinds of things.” A “bookworm,” she called him, “a history buff [who] would read just about anything.” The book he liked more than any other was Huckleberry Finn.
“Sam was a peculiar child,” his father allowed. “He was always headman…. From a kid on what he said went.” Sam organized a neighborhood business, supervising playmates in “tearing out people’s fences [to sell] back to them for firewood.” But he rarely abused the license he had to “freely roam the streets.” Boys who are well brought up in cities learn early not to bring the street home.
After the war, gospel was having its high season as a lively commercial branch of black popular music. In 1947, when there were roughly 3.5 million black American households and she was still unknown to the general public, Mahalia Jackson’s “Move On Up a Little Higher” sold more than a million copies. Chicago, the hub of Afro-Christendom, was the center of commerce in saving black souls. For young men living there in the late Forties who wanted to sing for money, church music was a logical career choice. Sam fell in with four like-minded teenaged boys who decided to call themselves the Highway QCs after a Baptist church in their neighborhood.
Before he was out of high school Sam’s group had earned a local reputation, especially among schoolgirls, who flocked around “the pretty boy who could sing.” Among those he’d taken up with was an eighth-grader named Barbara Campbell who knew, “from the moment they first met,” that she’d found her “shining knight.”
Barbara may have been “green as cabbage” but she was as ambitious in her way as Sam was. Only twelve when they met, she aspired even then to attach herself to a man who could give her the well-fixed life behind a white picket fence she was daydreaming about. Even at seventeen, Sam seemed obviously upward bound. Barbara had a born hustler’s native shrewdness, and saw through his glossy veneer to the square momma’s boy at Sam’s core. Her quarry, she’d already decided, “didn’t stand a chance.”
Before they could step into traffic on the “gospel highway,” the QCs had to wait for Sam to finish high school and serve a month in the county jail. He’d caught a “morals charge” when some dirty pictures he’d shared with a girlfriend fell into the hands of her underage sister. He rejoined the group not so much chastened as painfully aware that some of his tastes were too indelicate for polite company and were best kept out of its sight.
The Highway QCs worked just often enough to stay out on the road and stay broke. They went to ground in Memphis for most of a year, where they sang regularly on radio broadcasts. But they couldn’t get a record deal and limped back to Chicago at about the same time the Soul Stirrers were suddenly without their lead singer.
Rebert Harris, a man of such rectitude and know-how that he was nicknamed “Pop” before he was forty, left the Stirrers when they were at the head of the class of barnstorming gospel quartets, because he’d decided that what he thought of as a ministry was getting too much like show business. Needing a replacement, the group’s middle-aged remnant chose to put their livelihoods in the callow hands of “that little fellow,” as one of its members called Cooke, who was then barely twenty.
Sam’s pangs of conscience over leaving friends in a lurch were no match for his predisposition to be “always moving on to the next thing.” He had slipped away from the Highway QCs before they knew he was gone. In the five years he spent with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke would hang his star high in gospel music’s underlit firmament, but things were rocky for him at the start. His first performance took place in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on a stage just vacated by Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, acclaimed by peers as “the baddest man on the road.” When Cooke was done singing, a Blind Boy hooted in derision, “Boy, don’t you try to holler with us…we gonna lay the wood on you.”
They couldn’t yet know they were already looking at the future from the past. After the show, when the groups mingled with their audience to hawk photographs and souvenir programs, most of the women other men had just “shouted” and “slayed” clustered around young Sam, who had the aura about him of every good Negro church mother’s good son. Cooke was naturally gifted at being likable in public, an asset like money in the bank for entertainers and politicians.
The “old heads” in his new business soon recognized in Cooke a distinction that set him apart, though none who ranked high in the hierarchy of quartet singers when he came along ever thought him great. Their art required aggression and fearlessness in amounts Cooke’s nature didn’t permit him to spend. “Sam wouldn’t tackle any song the least bit too high,” one of his colleagues in the Soul Stirrers recalled. “[He] used his head. [Rebert] Harris would tackle any note.” Singing was Cooke’s business, not his calling.
But even those who carped that sex appeal was his distinguishing gift credited Cooke with being “a great thinker,” and knowing how to sell what he had better than anyone else, leaving implicit their judgment that his talent for finesse didn’t equip him for their kind of hard work. He brought a set of tools different from theirs to a workplace in which the task at hand ordinarily required going to unreasonable lengths to transport an audience to a place beyond reason, and so he had to figure out a different way to get them there.
Cooke would learn to “sing hard” but never could without debasing his inherently sweet style, what Guralnick calls his “inclination toward melodic delicacy.” He used his instrument and an adaptive intelligence to avoid having to make the self-immolating commitment voice-shredding singers like Archie Brownlee were willing to make night after night to set their audiences aflame. Indeed, Cooke found his trademark yodel by accident one night in trying to compensate for his unwillingness to stretch too far for a note he knew he couldn’t reach.
He turned the deficit of being too cool for a sweaty occupation into the virtue of sounding modern when times were starting to change. Wherever the Soul Stirrers appeared, droves of teenage girls who thought of gospel as their mother’s music began packing the front rows to see Sam Cooke. “The young people took over,” a Soul Stirrer recalled. “They started this pattern of standing up when the lead singer start[ed] bearing down.”
Gospel music was in its peak season then, and the road seemed to those laboring on it like a long series of widely scattered fields to harvest. To make $78,000 in 1953, the Soul Stirrers logged more than a hundred thousand highway miles. The backseat of a car became Cooke’s living room.
He loved being on the road. After he joined the Soul Stirrers, Cooke felt like a well-funded graduate student on a traveling fellowship. Getting to the next job was the backbeat of the road’s steady rhythm. This preoccupying quality made the road seem like a sealed compartment, out of which the chronic traveler could look upon other parts of his life as being in a suspended state. And, at twenty-two, Cooke’s life already had untidy corners he wanted to keep away from sight.
Barbara, still in her teens, had given birth to his daughter. So had another of Sam’s girlfriends in Chicago, and another in Cleveland. His unattended domestic tangles got knottier when the Soul Stirrers passed through Fresno, California, in the early summer of 1953. Movie-star beautiful, hard-knocked but unhardened, Dolores Mohawk was a slightly disreputable “nice girl,” a particular combination that affected Cooke like catnip. Three months after they met they were married.
When she got the news, Barbara was no less stricken for not having seen much of Sam lately. She’d believed him when he told her he hadn’t “want[ed] to settle down [yet] because he was trying to make a career for himself.” Bereft of that illusion, and any immediate prospect of having Sam, she married the older hustler she thought of as her “financier,” and dreamed of the day her baby’s daddy would come to sweep her away “on a white palomino, like that made-up story of Sleeping Beauty and her prince.”
By 1955, three and a half years of criss-crossing the country with the Soul Stirrers and the concurrent release of nine records had secured Sam Cooke’s place among gospel music’s biggest attractions. By then, he was writing and often arranging songs like “Nearer to Thee” and “(I Want to) Touch the Hem of His Garment” that became the hits that were making the Soul Stirrers more popular than ever.
Cooke based his approach to songwriting on the premise that the best songs told a story, and executed it best when he had at his disposal the narrative material of “the greatest story ever told.” S.R. Crain, the former Soul Stirrer who would later become Cooke’s road manager, has described Sam in the back of a car on his way to a recording session, thumbing through a dog-eared Bible until he found something in the Book of Matthew he could turn into the lyrics of “Touch the Hem of His Garment.”
He had an uncomplicated talent for creating several variations on about three melodic themes, which later served him well as a writer of music for mass markets; the pop music business prefers it if creativity is reiterative, since, being rarely prophetic about what will sell, it relies on what is already known to have sold.
Cooke had begun to chafe at splitting his songwriting royalties with the group’s other members. He rankled at the half-share of his publishing rights raked off by the proprietor of Specialty Records. For singing on Soul Stirrers records Cooke was paid at the unvarying rate of fifteen dollars a side and a one-fifth share of the group’s penny-and-a-half royalty on every record sold. Accordingly, the most Cooke made for any of his gospel records was about $180.
Cooke recognized that the teenagers he was seeing in his audiences amounted to a tiny sliver of a demographic bulge that consisted of millions of others he would never encounter in his current places of business: white kids, more and more of whom had taken to buying records made by and intended for black people. He couldn’t help but notice that a “rock and roll” show headlined by black acts had done $124,000 of business in New York over the Christmas weekend of 1954.
He’d caught the scent of fresh opportunity wafting his way from the vast, fertile territories that fell under the shadow of Ed Sullivan’s smile. Within a year Cooke slipped away from the Soul Stirrers. “There wasn’t a big fight,” one of them said. “He just didn’t show up.” Six months later he was on The Ed Sullivan Show.
What got him there was the confluence of a black producer of early rock and roll named Bumps Blackwell, who saw that “white girls are buying the records these days,” and a facile ditty of Sam’s, “You Send Me,” that nobody else thought worth recording. A white caterer to black tastes, Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty Records, blundered and let Cooke get away because he couldn’t imagine any among the rhythm-and-blues and gospel singers he had under contract wanting a career like Nat “King” Cole’s. But a month after its release in the fall of 1957, “You Send Me” was number one on the pop charts, at that moment more popular among white kids than “Jailhouse Rock.” After it sold more than a million and a half copies, Cooke said he felt like “one of those Cinderella singers, like Elvis Presley.”
However wistful and innocent “You Send Me” contrived to be—and however sweetly sung—the song itself justified the disdain many felt for the quality of music being sold to children, and earned the misgivings of the musicians around Cooke who’d scoffed at it. But these judgments were expressed without reference to the modern school of popular songwriting’s insistence that any song’s commercial prospects rise or fall on the gripping strength of its “hook,” a line or phrase ingratiating enough to catch the ear and clinch the sale.
Cooke alternated the lines “Darling, you send me,” “Darling, you thrill me,” and “Honest you do” over and over and over, stretching them, bending them, soaring and swooping with them, until “it almost seems that sound replaces meaning.” The song was beside the point. It could have been “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Cooke’s voice was the “hook.”
What the church audience had identified in it as hope and uplift, white adolescents heard as winsome and youthful, and they were drawn, too. “Pop audiences heard that yodel… like it was a shiny new thing,” said Solomon Burke, a singer who became known in the mid-Sixties as “the king of rock and soul.” “But if you knew Sam from gospel, it was him saying, ‘Hey, it’s me.'”
Sam Cooke so disarmed the sons and daughters of Eisenhower’s America that he became the first black to play the male romantic lead in music for white girls. This marked “You Send Me” as a watershed moment in the mass-marketing of black popular music, which in the ensuing half-century has become one of America’s leading exports.
Still, that breakthrough hadn’t succeeded in transforming much about Cooke’s workaday reality. A rock-and-roll singer lived as gospel singers did, mainly by the wages of performance earned one night at a time, often with a half-dozen other acts packaged on bus tours that wended through forty cities in six weeks.
In the late Fifties the conventionally wise were not convinced that rock and roll was here to stay. Cooke and his advisers believed that an entertainer could sustain a permanent career only in “legitimate” show business. From the moment he left the Soul Stirrers and added the “e” to his name to make it look classier, the prize Sam eyed was Las Vegas.
He was booked too soon into one of its antechambers, the Copacabana in New York, to audition for a job as Sammy Davis Jr. had a few years earlier. Ill-prepared to face adult white audiences for the first time, badly served by handlers who outfitted him in other performers’ hand-me-down routines, he flopped as a lounge act. In the wake of this disaster, Cooke ditched Blackwell, the manager who’d crossed him over the bridge from the sacred to the profane, and enlisted with the William Morris Agency.
He may have reckoned he’d be better off having white men around to deal for him with other white men, but Cooke had resolved to become the property of himself. An apt student of the craft of making records and the rough-and-tumble business of selling them, he felt he knew enough about both by then to make his own decisions.
Having disentangled himself from Keen Records, the one-horse outfit that brought his early pop hits to market, Cooke looked to align on favorable terms with a major label capable of getting his records onto every retailer’s shelf and Top 40 radio station playlist in America. Recognizing copyrights as the real estate of the music business, Cooke became the publisher of his own songs. He aimed to be what only Frank Sinatra then was: a recording artist with his own record company.
In 1959, Cooke joined Harry Belafonte on RCA Victor’s otherwise all-white roster of contract players, and started his own label, SAR Records. He hoped to tap the rich vein of gospel talent as raw material for the making of records with church feeling but not too much church flavor, which he was convinced would sell to the masses. SAR Records released fifty-eight singles and five albums in five years, an impressive output for an operation run on a shoestring.
As sure-footed as he was in negotiating his career, Cooke’s casualness about stepping over the messes piling up in his life’s untidy corners kept others scurrying to clean up after him. “Usually,” said Roy Crain, “when [Sam] was with a woman awhile he didn’t want her no more.” A girl in Philadelphia was paid off to resolve a paternity suit, and so was another in New Orleans who’d made a similar claim.
When the time came to dispose of Dolores Mohawk Cooke she was bought cheaply, for $10,000 and a new car. She died not long after their divorce in the car Cooke had settled on her. Shaken and mournful, he dropped everything to bury her in Fresno. But then he often seemed to care most about people once he thought of them as part of his past.
Six months after Dolores died he was married to Barbara. They’d gotten back in touch when a road show Cooke was starring in trundled through Chicago in the spring of 1958. Barbara and his daughter were living above a pool room with her married “gangster” of the moment, by whom she was pregnant.
Determined not to lose this last chance at her best chance, Barbara had an abortion and played her hand. She’d calculated that Sam “wanted his little girl [and] would take [her] and the baby both, but not with some other man’s child.” Barbara then plied Sam’s sister with a fur coat to get her to tell him that she’d been arrested and welfare was going to take his daughter away if he didn’t get them both to Los Angeles. He sent her a plane ticket.
Once there, “even though he had never really suggested [it] as a possibility,” Barbara moved into his apartment and never left. She arrived just in time to hitch a ride with him to the Hollywood Hills. One day Barbara would have a picture taken there by a photographer from Ebony who posed her celebrity husband pretending to serenade her in the kitchen of their “sprawling, vine-covered, cedar-shingled Cape with a swimming pool in the front, a four-car garage, a children’s playhouse, a big living room with a fireplace, and a spacious studio with floor-to-ceiling speakers….” By then she would have learned that nothing is so demoralizing to the dreamer as a life untransformed by the dream come true.
Barbara Cooke’s voice stands out among the others in Peter Guralnick’s book the way her husband’s had amid the aural clutter of Top 40 radio. It bespeaks an old pain. Guralnick is not Sam Cooke’s first biographer but his book is enlivened by being the first to have her as source material.
His kind of journo-biography depends on sources whose memories encouraged him to create the sense of felt immediacy in readers he seems to put inside the room while “Chain Gang” is being recorded, or Barbara Cooke’s heart broken. Guralnick also had the unprecedented cooperation of his subject’s last manager, Allen Klein, who is now the sole proprietor of Cooke’s remains and long the fiercest keeper of his flame.
For a writer good at empathy, a problem with having sources is that the more time he spends with them, the more prone he will be to like them, and inclined to their point of view. Until he designated Guralnick the official teller of his tale, Klein had fended off unauthorized disturbers of Cooke’s tomb as pointedly as he defended his ownership of everything of value Cooke left behind.
After more than forty years of earning his reputation as “the most aggressive kind of music industry hustler” (as Guralnick puts it mildly), Klein has chosen to confide his unfading devotion to a lost love. An artful storyteller needs characters to keep a narrative moving along under the weight of amassed detail that is the diligent biographer’s obligation. When one presents itself that is ready-made literature, artistic imperatives demand he be given his head.
Allen Klein was a striver from Newark, who’d been an accountant with a firm that kept and audited the books of music publishers and small record labels. He found his niche in the entertainment business by using his inside knowledge of record company accounting practices to extract $100,000 from one that owed Bobby Darin unpaid royalties.
Klein steered into the path of Cooke’s career when he was selling more records than anybody at RCA except Elvis Presley, yet hadn’t played a white nightclub in four years. Cooke was chagrined at being thirty-two years old and still out on the road grinding for nine months a year while Paul Anka was celebrating his twenty-first birthday during a two-week engagement in Las Vegas.
The trajectory of Cooke’s career had landed him among white kids and black adults. While Cooke engaged most black audiences in grown-up venues like theaters and nightclubs, he was still being packaged and sold to whites as an item in the boys’ and junior-miss departments. Winning over middle America’s children hadn’t served to introduce him to their parents. Feeling far from Canaan, he seethed with discontents.
When he met Cooke in the spring of 1963, Allen was “just smitten.” He told the man who’d introduced them, “I want him bad.” Klein wooed and won Cooke by redoing his contract with RCA and shaking out $110,000 in overlooked royalties in the process.
In the name of shielding Cooke from confiscatory tax rates, Klein came up with a scheme to create “a kind of holding company for his income.” Rather than have a contractual relationship with Cooke, RCA would buy his output from a company that employed him. To safeguard the tax benefit that was the reason for its being, Cooke “would not own, hold stock in, or serve as a controlling officer of the corporation.”
Sam was told that naming this enterprise of convenience after his daughter “would stamp it as his own,” but Tracey Ltd. was wholly owned by Allen Klein. In return for some shelter from taxes, a couple hundred thousand of RCA’s dollars, and creative independence that in effect he already had, Cooke backhandedly put Klein into the music business as the owner/ operator of a Sam Cooke franchise.
From this toehold Klein would climb until he had Rolling Stones and Beatles in hand, “but none of it could hold a candle to his dedication to Sam.” When Cooke had proposed that Klein manage him, Allen felt like an ugly duckling kissed by a swan. In that “tender moment,” Guralnick reports, Allen was “flooded” with “the kind of feeling he had learned from early rejection to steel himself against.”
Determined to prove his worth, Klein threw himself into getting Cooke back to the Copacabana. He wheedled an engagement for Cooke out of the Copa’s skeptical management. He assembled a crack team of writers and arrangers to put together an act suitable both to Cooke and to the supper club milieu.
Apart from a snippet of “You Send Me” tucked into a medley, “Twistin’ the Night Away” was the only piece of original material Cooke would venture at the Copa. The twist was the only dance Sam could do onstage, and audiences there were likely to be the first he’d ever faced who might be impressed by his performance of it.
Ten days before Cooke was scheduled to open, a twenty-by-one-hundred-foot billboard that featured “the tallest figure ever to be erected in the Times Square area” was hoisted into place atop the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street. Underneath a forty-foot cutout of the singer beaming with open arms, the sign’s legend read, “Sam’s the Biggest Cooke in Town.”
On opening night, Allen surprised Sam as he was about to go onstage with the gift of a Rolls Royce. At week’s end, Cooke was inducted into show business legitimacy with the ceremonial bestowal of souvenir cufflinks by Jules Podell, the Mafia representative who “owned” the Copa. “You know,” Cooke told Klein in the afterglow of this redemptive triumph, “you’re better than Colonel Parker… Because Elvis is white.”
The last year and a half Cooke lived was marred by the drowning of his two-year-old son, who wandered into their unfenced swimming pool while Barbara was inside the house. After that, relations between them hardened into cold and brittle impasse.
For a while Barbara fixated on a little boy about her dead son’s age who belonged to a “hooker friend.” She brought him home, and would have kept him, but for his mother’s trying to sell him for a higher price than Sam would pay. An embittered Barbara “had her tubes tied so she couldn’t have any more babies with Sam.”
Nothing served Cooke in these circumstances but his habit of the road. Barbara was sure that’s where she’d lost him, anyway. He’d been “square and clean,” she once lamented, before he “got out there….”
When the habituated traveler is home for long, the street becomes the road’s equivalent. But in Los Angeles “there was no real home [for him] to return to.” Barbara no longer bothered to conceal boyfriends, explain disappearances, or curtail her goings around. Cooke’s nightly rounds encompassed music industry watering holes and grittier spots he favored on the city’s underside. He was a familiar to winos, gangsters, hustlers, players, and whores, who thought him a natural king preserving his common touch. “If I should die before I wake…,” Cooke used to crack, “put two bitches on each side of me….” And “he would laugh.”
As soon as he heard Cooke had been killed, Klein rushed out a press release disputing the news accounts. “The story of Sam’s death as reported is impossible…,” he wrote. “Sam was a happily married family man….” Then he flew to Los Angeles, where Barbara “pumped him for information” about her dead husband’s finances.
Allen, who scarcely knew her, found himself “unnerved by Barbara’s sheer intensity, her near-ferocity….” They were natural adversaries. “Every time I looked at him,” she said, “those beady little eyes shifted away….”
Barbara eschewed riding to the funeral with the Cook family, who “never thought her good enough.” She came in her husband’s Rolls Royce instead, in the company of his protégé, Bobby Womack, who was dressed in the dead man’s clothes. Two months later, on the day she was named executrix of Sam’s estate, Barbara announced that she and Womack would marry as soon as he was old enough not to need his parents’ permission.
Cooke was thirty-four when he died, and hadn’t thought to leave a will. Barbara gave his family nothing. She cashed in all the assets she could reach, then sued to dissolve the publishing company so she could sell her half of that too. With the tax man circling overhead in a slow descending spiral, she ended up taking “the bargain basement price of $75,000.”
Barbara had brought the house down trying to get at her money, and Klein bought up the pieces as they fell. Since Cooke’s death, Klein has possessed him as no one ever could in life. Allen, not Barbara, is truly Sam Cooke’s “widow.”
A couple of weeks after he died, just as the year of Freedom Summer turned into the year Lyndon Johnson declared on television that “we shall overcome,” Sam Cooke’s valediction was heard. Imbued with the poignancy of a posthumous release, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which was recorded about a year before his death, was received as Cooke’s last will and testament, and because of its timing—Selma was at full boil—came to serve as an informal anthem of the civil rights movement.
In the view of Jerry Wexler, a co-founder of Atlantic Records who’s been around long enough to have renamed “race music” “rhythm and blues,” Sam Cooke was “the best singer who ever lived, no contest.” Wexler added that he based this appraisal on Cooke’s work as a gospel singer, since little of what he did later was as good. Stripped of its adorning strings and French horns, “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a secular hymn, the bookend to “Jesus Wash Away My Troubles,” which was Cooke’s goodbye kiss to the Soul Stirrers and arguably his purest performance.
That he once had applied himself to the gospel highway’s hard disciplines was a reason no other singer of pop music could ever sound like Sam Cooke. When news of Martin Luther King’s assassination reached Rosa Parks, Guralnick reports, she was at home with her mother. “In the midst of their tears, holding each other and rocking back and forth, they played …’A Change Is Gonna Come.'” Cooke’s “smooth” voice, she said, “was like medicine to the soul….”
March 9, 2006