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Globe writer Mark Feeney's complete interview
with author Peter Guralnik



Below is the full transcript of Globe staffer Mark Feeney's interview with Peter Guralnick, author of a new biography on legendary singer Sam Cooke, “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke.” Guralnick, 61, is best-known for his magisterial two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love.” Bob Dylan said of the former, “This biography cancels out all others.”

A Newton native, Guralnick began writing about music for The Phoenix and Real Paper. His other books include “Lost Highway,” “Feel Like Going Home,” and “Sweet Soul Music.”

Do you know what you’ll be doing next?

No. Various things revolving in my mind.

I did a panel a few years ago at the New School on the travails of biography writing and the extent to which one is completely caught up in it. The one thing on which we were all in agreement is that we were unlikely to go into another biography immediately [laughter].

Well, thinking of the Elvis book as one whole, then your last two books, that one and Sam Cooke, have been massive projects.

It’s basically been 17 years on two biographies, with the second actually preceding the first in terms of its inspiration.

Could you ever imagine doing a non-musical biography?

You know, I’ve thought about it. It’s something that interests me no less than a musical biography. The thing is, when I think about it, the catch-up I would have to do is somewhat daunting. Within the framework of a musical biography, I have a background to call on, to some degree. It’s never less frightening to make cold calls contacting people. I’m not a person who’s confident of his reception _ I don’t believe people should, or will, fall over all themselves. So I find it difficult, to a degree, but at least within the framework of music and popular culture I have some idea of where to start. Whereas let’s say I were to go into a political biography, or a literary biography _ [the English novelist] Henry Green, for example, someone I have enormous enthusiasm for, met, wrote about _ it’s something where I would have to learn a new vocabulary of investigation.

I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’ve come to see life as being somewhat less than infinite. So I’m not at all thinking right now of a standard biography in the immediate future. But when I think of things, I think of things within the framework of what I know or of fiction.

One of the reasons I ask is that while reading “Dream Boogie” I found myself at odd moments thinking of Taylor Branch’s two volumes of biography of Martin Luther King. Both your book and his books are as much about a context as they are about an individual. And in fact, the context of “Dream Boogie” and Branch’s books often overlaps. There’s almost a sense in which this book could have had as a subtitle: “Black America in the Cooke Years.”

Certainly, that’s its intention. Truly, Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters” was an inspiration, one I’ve often cited, for the Elvis biography and no less for the Sam Cooke. To some degree, when I started out on the Elvis my aspiration would have been to achieve something along the lines of the Taylor Branch, which isn’t personality centered, which is a broader portrait of an America that’s not frequently portrayed _ or accorded the dignity it deserves, whether you’re talking about black America or poor white America. Either way, I wanted to do justice to the worlds that nurtured the talent and framed the life I was writing about. I don’t mean to make a comparison, but it’s truly an inspiration. If you look at the prologue to the Elvis, in the lobby of the Peabody [Hotel in Memphis], it was certainly inspired by the prologue to “Parting the Waters.”

Did you know the third volume is coming out this winter?

No. I don’t know Taylor Branch. But he’s been helpful to me. He’s always been responsive to my questions, and I’m grateful for it.

The other thing, what I think of in both these books is that the life offers the same landscape as a novel. Each world is filled with great themes, great characters. Now maybe that’s true of all of our lives, to some degree. Some of the people I would write about, if there were the possibility, are totally unknown, and for that reason totally uncommercial. Sometimes people would ask me, “What could you possibly do after Elvis,” in other words, he’s this pinnacle. Well, he’s not a pinnacle. He represents a kind of striving that is common, not to everyone, but to many people, and is just as evident in people who will never be celebrated. And among people I know who have restless, inquiring minds and who have an ambition to do something perhaps not within the framework of recognition within the celebrity culture in which we live, but within the framework of what drives them.

That phrase “restless, striving minds” brings up a number of parallels between Elvis and Sam Cooke. They both had such minds. Also, they shared a label, RCA. Elvis was a fan of the Soul Stirrers.

Isn’t that a wonderful scene with LC [Sam’s brother], backstage?

But then there’s this fundamental difference between them, which I have to assume is part of what attracted you to Sam Cooke. He wasn’t at all passive, the way Elvis was - and at that stage in the entertainment world, it was much harder for any entertainer, let alone a black one, not to be passive.

Exactly, very much so. The difference, I think, is that Sam Cooke, in addition to having a restless, inquiring mind, had an intellectual cast of mind, as well, and a keen analytic bent. That’s one of the things that’s most extraordinary about him.

Elvis was very smart. But he wasn’t very analytic.

That’s right. He was driven in his quest for something that he instinctively believed was out there. And to some extent the unself-consciousness of that instinct was one of the things that enabled him to achieve the grace of his music. But with Sam Cooke, in addition to having that instinctive grasp for music and, ultimately, for composition, he also had the ability to soak up every lesson that was put before him. And to soak up, like blotting paper, a lesson from every experience with which he dealt. Two subtitles I had thought about for the book were “The Progress of Sam Cooke” and “The Education of Sam Cooke.” It’s very much about his education, which is primarily self-education, in a much more disciplined way than someone like Elvis (who was very widely read and would read everything from Booth Tarkington to “Autobiography of a Yogi”). But with Sam there was a sense almost of a pursuit of a broadening knowledge, particularly about the African-American culture that had nurtured him.

Both of them were so intellectually restless. Part of the tragedy of Elvis was that he couldn’t channel that restlessness. Again and again, you show Sam Cooke directing that restlessness, that sense of inquiry, and it’s extending his career. He’s evolving, he’s progressing, he’s educating himself.

One of the most dramatic examples comes right after the first pop session under his own name, for Specialty Records. The day before the session he signs a songwriter’s agreement in which the distribution of the royalties is weighted towards the record owner far more than towards him. Well, he signs it with no real misgivings. Within two months, he’s come to realize that what he signed was an inequitable arrangement, as he sees it. Then he tries to think, okay, how am I going to make this right. The strategy he comes up with is to disown the song, to say that, “Well, sure, I have a songwriter’s agreement with you, but I didn't write the song, my brother did.”

To this day, Art Rupe, who owned the record company, sees this as a fundamental dishonesty on Sam’s part, which it was, and as an unethical approach to business. Because Art Rupe, to his credit, would honor any contract he signed. Yet on a certain level what Sam was doing was applying the lessons he had learned from a very good businessman, like Art Rupe, which is that you look out for yourself. And that was, of course, the spur (although it didn’t take effect for another couple of years) towards forming his own publishing company when, finally, at the urging of [his business partner] J.W. Alexander, he came to recognize that, as good as it was to write your own songs, you made twice the money when you published your own songs, and why should your labor be financing somebody else’s swimming pool.

I want to come back to this issue of control and Sam Cooke. But let's talk a little more about Elvis. Elvis gets 1300 pages from you, and Sam Cooke gets 750 pages. Some people will say that's disproportionate.

I think to some degree the easy response is, why so much about Sam Cooke?

From my perspective, Sam Cooke is no less of a talent, made no less an impact, and in the broader dimensions of the story occupied a landscape which represents the place where one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century was taking place, a drama in which he was unavoidably involved, just as every black person was involved to one degree or another.

So I guess the response I would make to this criticism which we’re postulating would be that Elvis, as I see it, sought to take his place in a continuum of great music and great art. Elvis saw Clyde McPhatter, Bill Kenny, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke as the avatars of what we've come to call American vernacular culture _ but the avatars of something which had nothing to do with commerce. I don't know that Elvis would have defined it quite this way. But it was of far greater importance in the moment.

This isn't disposable culture. This is something which has turned out, in its many varieties (including jazz, I would say), to be America's greatest original cultural contribution to the 20th century. So the point is, it was not Elvis’ conception that he somehow or other rose above this. His entire ambition was to take his place within this tradition. I would say that is an appropriate evaluation of what he did. He changed the culture to a degree, but he was very much changed by the culture and very much influenced by it.

For example, when he returned to Las Vegas, in ‘69, at the press conference somebody referred to him as the king of rock ‘n’roll. He pointed to Fats Domino, who was also in the room, and said, “He’s the real king of rock’n'’roll.”

Now in reality do I think there's a king of rock’n’roll? No. Do I think one should be ranked above the other? No. But I do think the fact of Sam Cooke’s music, the contribution of his art, is incalculable, just as Elvis’ is.

You mentioned that, as a black man, he was inevitably involved in what is, arguably, the greatest American story of the 20th century. He recognized his involvement and he embraced it. Elvis skirted that larger involvement with the ‘60s. I guess that’s another reason to argue for a richness that isn’t there with Elvis.

I think Sam came to see more and more the importance of his active engagement with not just the civil rights movement but with the daily indignities which were foisted upon not just him but everyone. As I’ve tried to make clear in the book, Clyde McPhatter served as an example to him in a way that I hadn’t recognized beforehand. The interesting thing with Clyde McPhatter is none of the people that I interviewed, none of Clyde McPhatter’s peers and contemporaries, had any awareness of this aspect of his life, despite the fact that it was a very public aspect.

Did you ever see Sam Cooke perform?

No, just on television. I remember that quite well. I’ve always believed that I saw him on “The Tonight Show” singing “A Change is Gonna Come,” but that might be a case of false memory. But no, I very much remember seeing him on television. But it’s like wishing I’d seen Sonny Boy Williamson or Elmore James. It’s funny because I saw Jackie Wilson so many times _ and ushered shows, many shows, where he appeared at the Donnelly Theater, which was then called the Back Bay Theater, which was across the street from the Christian Science Center.

You write that African-Americans “created a culture that had, in many respects, both with and without acknowledgment, defined the American cultural mainstream.” That's completely right, of course, but how commonly do you think that view is held?

I think it’s commonly held. I don’t mean to suggest it’s in any way unique to me. Go back to Carl Van Vechten (whether or not that was an appropriate recognition). Go back to the turn of the last century, or before. But the reason it’s not more popularly held is that, really, to a large extent, we’ve been sold a bill of goods in this country. What has tended to be a democratic culture has turned into a majoritarian culture, one which turns increasingly away from the melting-pot theory, which fueled so much of the 20th century, towards a kind of blind groping for success as defined by material goods and as defined by an elitist sensibility. More and more, perhaps, it’s turning into a celebrity culture rather than an elitist one.

But in any case the turn away from regionalism is something which, to some degree, mirrors the turn away from African-American culture. But the point about African-American culture, it’s always been ignored. That’s been true since 1619, with the introduction of the slave trade. What I'm saying here is too obvious, though.

Within certain circles it may seem too obvioud, but outside those circles people aren’t aware of that at all.

On a simple level, you have rap, you have hiphop. You have it clearly dominating contemporary popular culture, right across the board, black and white, suburban and urban, middle class and downtrodden, on every level. The point is the broader implications are ignored. While the surface elements are both admired and emulated _ the dress, the talk, the style _ the history and the roots of the culture are something that never come into play. Perhaps because in terms of our popular culture, or our broad-based majoritarian culture, we live so much on the surface. Within our political culture, the same holds true: that premises are never examined, that slogans are taken for policy, that pure politics is imagined to have substance. Why that is I don't know. We’re an easily distracted culture.

Well, this issue of distraction, in a funny way, brings us back to Sam Cooke. Reading the book, I found myself of two minds. On the one hand, there’s just hit after hit that everybody knows, young people, old people: “Cupid,” “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Bring It on Home to Me.” They’re just part of the aural fabric of our culture.

Right.

But on the other hand, do you think young people are that aware of Sam Cooke? Is that a name that registers with them?

No, I don’t think so. But I think, on a certain level, are young people aware of Ray Charles? To some degree, as we increasingly become a disposable society, I think the sense of history _ not simply as a living thing but as having had any impact or value on our lives _ is lost to a considerable degree. It’s an odd thing, because you see with all the books about Benjamin Franklin, or the popularity of David McCullough’s writing, or the popularity of history in general within a certain segment of the society.

It’s become a niche.

Yeah, yeah. But it’s become a large niche in terms of its popularity and the commitment to conveying a sense of immediacy, what McCullough calls the sense that people in the past weren’t living in the past. It’s at odds, certainly, with this widespread ignorance. But again if you look at what defines our popular and political cultures any sense that you could take lessons from the past has not simply been ignored it’s actively dismissed _ and dismissed almost as laughable. Could there be a parallel between Vietnam and Iraq? Well, if you bring that up you're a pantywaist. You’re just somebody who just is not living in the real world.

At the same time, what it's interesting about Sam Cooke is that his work has continued to live in so many different ways. Ultimately, the significance of any artist’s work is the work itself, not whether people know who wrote it or not. The extent to which Andrew Marvell continues to be a presence in our lives, or John Donne, or Shakespeare, they lead to other things. The people who take their lessons from them may not necessarily be able to point back and say, that's where I got it from. But, clearly, the work continues to have an impact. What’s been interesting to the degree that I’ve encountered responses to the book before actual publication is people saying, “I know those songs. I didn’t realize Sam Cooke sang all those songs.” There’s just a sense of the presence of those songs in various versions. You have James Taylor on “The West Wing” singing “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Part of the fascination of Sam Cooke - even as it obscures him for young people - is his being a kind of cusp figure. He emerges in the ‘50s, but it’s the late ‘50s, after the initial eruption of R&B and rock’n’roll. He lives into the ‘60s, but he dies just as the British Invasion is really getting underway. It’s as if he falls between the two standard eras. Does that ring true to you at all?

It doesn't ring false. But it doesn’t ring to me particularly [laughter]! One reason that Sam Cooke’s music has endured to such an extent is that it’s not of a particular time and place. Like Ray Charles, he was an integral part in the development of the gospel-based soul sound. On the other hand, he conceived of himself, to some extent, as a Cole Porter, as an Irving Berlin. Now his manager, Jess Rand, thought this was a somewhat of a laughable ambition. But the acceptance that his greatest songs have achieved is achieved by a craftsmanship which, I think, allows them to transcend literal meaning and allows them to transcend their time. “What’d I Say” doesn’t define Ray Charles, by any means. But the impact of it can define a certain sense of Ray Charles. Whereas “Wonderful World” is a song that can be sung by any number of singers _ perhaps none doing it as well as Sam Cooke _ and it is the standard Sam meant it to be. Or “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a universal sentiment. It grew out of the civil rights movement, grew out of Sam’s own experience. But the concept of “A Change is Gonna Come” can be applied to anything.

The timelessness of Sam Cooke, leads to another interesting issue: his contradictory ideas about respectability. On the one hand, he had a social idea of respectability that was ahead of its time: his interest in his African-American roots, his racial pride, his political forthrightness. On the other hand, there was his idea of performing respectability: he so badly wanted to play the Copa again.

Las Vegas, Sammy Davis Jr.

As you were saying, he saw himself as a Cole Porter type, an Irving Berlin type. Was that a creative tension in his art, do you think?

I think it was a bifurcation that might have boded ill for the future. I don’t see how the two sides would have been easily reconciled. The Copa show, singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on [the NBC television series] “Shindig,” I don’t see these as high points of his art. I can’t say that he wasn’t as drawn to this aspect of performing as he was to the other. What’s so remarkable, at least in the life he lived, was that these two things could coexist and he could create a song like “That's Where It’s At” or “Shake” at the same session where he does something that is altogether middle of the road. You have to go back to this idea of a restless, creative imagination. He truly believed he could be, if not all things to all people, then that he could appeal to all people. On the one hand he was determined never to abandon his base (both for commercial reasons and out of a genuine commitment to African-American culture and what would later be known as black power or black self-determination). Yet there was a part of him that, without selling out, was absolutely determined to be seen without color. He believed that he was no less a star and no less deserving of the prerequisites of a star than the biggest white star in the world.

That’s kind of a show-biz ideal. The ultimate star appeals to everyone.

Yeah, yeah: That’s where you have Elvis and Bill Clinton both [laughter]! And I daresay the sensibility is quite common.

Yet at the same time he had this classic show-biz ideal to aspire to, and which he largely achieved, he had a rare insight into the future anti-show biz of rock culture.

That's right, the Rolling Stones, the Animals.

He understands that the singer-songwriter paradigm is taking over. He says to [singer] Bobby Womack when Womack's complaining about the British Invasion, “They don’t sound as good, but the people believe them more.” That's it, he understands it, he's totally got it! Yet a large part of him isn't interested in that, even though he understands it. [Copacabana nightclub owner] Jules Podell means more to him than...

Well, I’d say means as much to him. The thing is, again, I think he correctly sees this is coming too late for him. Whatever he might have liked to do, this is not the direction he can go in. It’s one of the reasons why, increasingly, he talks about the success of the artists he’s recording [on his label, SAR Records] being the greatest satisfaction he can take. I don’t know if he actually believed it. But there you have a third element. That’s a trifurcation. Again, it’s this indomitable creative urge; it’s the one thread that runs throughout his career. It comes out in any number of ways, and I believe whatever form it took it would never have been quelled _ but also would never have found its way into a single channel. SAR Records you can see, in a sense, as Sam’s other voice. What direction SAR Records would have taken, who knows exactly? SAR Records could have been the first rap label, had Sam survived. I think he was that open.

That’s the whole other dimension of Sam Cooke. He’s this great singer who also, had he lived longer, might have been [Motown Records founder] Berry Gordy, too.

Exactly, yeah. He was taking care of business every day. When I say he was driven by a creative impulse, look at the songs he wrote, look at the way he went around with his spiral notebook _ I think he began seriously writing in ‘55 _ it wasn’t as if, “Oh, I'm going to write a hit now.” He was constantly writing. He was writing as much for other people as much as he was writing for himself. He couldn’t stop himself from writing. Who knows, maybe he would have written novels someday.

There’s that CD compilation you wrote the notes for, “The SAR Records Story.” The outtakes of him in the control room are fascinating.

Oh, he had his vision. Again, you have this almost bifurcated approach. On the one hand, anybody who tries to exert that much control in the studio is going to get a sterile result. But in Sam’s case he clearly had a sense of exactly how he wanted the song to sound and what the meaning of the song was. He’ll emphasize the diction, he’ll emphasize the pronunciation, he’ll emphasize the stresses. Under ordinary circumstances, you would think this would be the death of creativity. Yet he was also so charming and so inspiring in the studio who knows what the result might otherwise have been. In some cases, I think he was working with fairly limited talents, or undisciplined talents, yet he was able to get results that were something close to the universal appeal he was looking for in his own music.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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