Elvis Presley’s masterful biographer delivers a brilliant depiction of “Mr. Soul.”
Guralnick, author of the definitive two-volume Presley bio Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999), has grappled with Sam Cooke before—in his fine 1986 R&B history Sweet Soul Music, in his script for the 2003 VH1 film Legend and in numerous album notes. His magnificent full-length treatment of the great gospel/R&B/pop vocalist was worth the wait. Guralnick follows the Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred singer from his groundbreaking tenure in gospel’s Soul Stirrers through his sudden (and, in gospel circles, controversial) ascent to crossover stardom in the late ’50s. He offers a fascinating portrait of a driven, ambitious African-American performer at work on the “chitlin circuit” and in the lily-white pop business, amid the ferment of the era’s civil-rights conflicts. Guralnick notes that Cooke was also a pathfinding black music entrepreneur: In 1959—the same year Berry Gordy started Motown—he founded his own independent label, SAR, where he midwifed the careers of Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls and Johnnie Taylor. Cooke conquered New York’s Copacabana nightclub and the English concert stage, and became close to such black political and cultural figures as Malcolm X and Cassius Clay; his potential appeared unlimited when he was shot dead in a mystifying incident at a Los Angeles motel in December 1964. Guralnick offers a deeply reported study of this complex man, deftly counterpoising accounts of Cooke’s charm, intelligence and seemingly effortless art with measured accounts of his anger, remoteness, ruthlessness and lifelong womanizing. The author is equally at home with the fine points of the gospel road, the machinations of the record industry and the sweeping political and racial tumult that was a backdrop to Cooke’s meteoric career. The writing is as relaxed, graceful and affecting as a superior Cooke performance. It’s another unsurpassable work by one of music’s most knowledgeable and sensitive chroniclers.
To use a gospel-music term for a hot gig, Guralnick turns the house out.