Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sam Cooke Aims His Simplicity High

Black Elvis

I note with interest that Peter Guralnick has taken over rock history's Sam Cooke concession. It's Guralnick who annotated the specially remastered 30-track centerpiece of Abkco's new Cooke campaign, the miraculously career-spanning Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964, as well as 2001's polemically progress-proving Keep Movin' On, the remastered Sam Cooke at the Copa, and others. He also scripted Abkco's 70-minute biographical DVD Legend, and if all goes well, his ink-and-paper biography should appear in 2004. Guralnick being award-winning Elvis biographer Guralnick, I assume his book will supplant Daniel Wolff's authoritative 1995 You Send Me--whatever our procedural disagreements, he is a dogged researcher and fabulous storyteller. Some will hope that he ties up the loose ends of Cooke's ugly death in 1964, when he was shot by a motel manager after being robbed by a prostitute, but I want dirt on Guralnick's quondam business associate, Abkco acronymsake Allen B. Klein. I also wonder whether this principled resister of critical fancy will venture any Presley analogies. Wolff doesn't, and neither, Lord knows, does Arthur Kempton, who bases a long section of his new r&b history, Boogaloo, on Wolff's work. But listening to Cooke as I read Wolff and Kempton, I found the similarities inescapable.

Wolff does note that Cooke's appeal to black teenagers paralleled Elvis's appeal to white ones, which is fundamental, although the equivalence wasn't precise--where Elvis inspired male imitators as well as arousing the girls, Cooke was a pure heartthrob. He was just 19 in 1951, when he replaced 34-year-old Rebert Harris in the Soul Stirrers, who Harris had forged into the definitive gospel quartet. Not until 1953 did he conquer the churches by devising his so-called yodel--the casually fluttered high note that surfaced pop on "You Send Me" in 1957. Yet from the first, other Soul Stirrers noticed that even when he was outsung, which was often, the crowd flocked to this handsome, polite, well-groomed high school graduate: "They like the boy. You can't help but people like him!" And from the first he was attracting females much younger than the church ladies it was gospel's mission to transport.

For many admirers, Cooke's gospel phase, which lasted almost as long as his pop career, sets a standard. Hyperbolic sage-entrepreneur Jerry Wexler, who once called Cooke "the best singer who ever lived, no contest," supposedly (I don't believe it) refuses to listen to his pop records. Kempton prefers Cooke's gospel work--"the only emotional content he could rely on to give his singing more depth, honesty, and coloration than he could otherwise provide"--without pretending it approaches that of Rebert Harris, Julius Cheeks, Archie Brownlee, or others Wexler doesn't mention. Among the rock-oriented, it's a truism that in his final years, which culminated prematurely with the magnificent "A Change Is Gonna Come," Cooke was returning to the rough authenticity of the Southern church, promising newer and greater triumphs in the soul years up the road as he read through his extensive black-history library and rejected Sammy Davis Jr. for Muhammad Ali. But this judgment misses what was most profound about Sam Cooke: his shallowness.

Take Cooke's renowned 1955 live version of the self-penned gospel hit "Nearer to Thee," which climaxes Specialty's three-disc Sam Cooke With the Soul Stirrers. His voice generating the grit he normally left to hard lead Paul Foster, Cooke whips up cathartic release in a classic performance whose excitement is nonetheless generic; Cheeks got something similar every night without trying so hard. In contrast, "You Send Me"--an all but lyricless song I heartily disliked as a 15-year-old and don't love now--was something never heard before. It was the B side of a major-key cover of "Summertime" because no one credited the commercial potential of a record that delivered nothing but Cooke's naked voice--its lucid calm, built-in smile, and mildly melismatic whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh. Backup singers so white they make Presley's Jordanaires seem hep rendered the dumb concoction even weirder by accentuating the likelihood that this wimp was a Negro. Flipped instantly by r&b jocks, it was a No. 1 pop smash nationwide.

Professionally--until he ran up against Klein, who turned out to control the holding company set up to keep RCA away from his client's money--Cooke was a prodigy. He produced himself, owned his own publishing, started a successful label, and earned top dollar on the road. Thus it computes for Kempton to observe that he "was cautious in his art so that he might be daring in the conception of his life"; Cooke's much-bruited songwriting ability, Kempton complains, was good mostly for "facile ditties." But in the end this misses the point almost as thoroughly as encomia to his unalloyed genius. One writer who grasps the paradox is Stephan Talty, who in a striking essay published in First of the Month calls "You Send Me" "a masterpiece of nothingness," identifies the secret of Cooke's gospel singing as joy without reverence, and devotes more than 400 words to "Chain Gang," which everybody knows is one of the strangest pop records of all time and then takes for granted: a black-history buff moved by an actual Georgia road gang to purloin their sound and banalize their longing for freedom. "Who else but Cooke," Talty asks, "could see this tableau, the prisoners chanting in a call-and-response pattern as old as slavery itself, and think 'Top 40 hit'?"

If there's an answer to this question, it's Elvis Presley. Not specifically--he didn't have that kind of racial chutzpah. But he did have that kind of omnivorousness. Talty sees Presley as Cooke's obverse--"If Elvis channeled gospel depths (and thus black history) through the voice of a Southern white boy, Cooke claimed the other half of the bargain"--and if that seems murky, it's probably because the truth is too close for him to focus on it. These were matched teen idols who craved universal acceptance and universal power. They were also dreamboats with gorgeous voices and studious manners who got more ass than Casanova. The few others who dared aim so high lacked either the right charisma (Bobby Darin, Paul Anka) or true pop touch (Jackie Wilson).

The very real differences between the two went well beyond skin color. Songwriter Cooke was much more intellectual and inquisitive (if not more intelligent), while Presley was the natural rocker (better dancer, too). Cooke also aspired to sophistication when the moment was right; he was far readier to cosset the moneyed adult audience at the Copa than Elvis was in Vegas six years later--by which time his earliest fans were moneyed adults themselves. But although close comparison reveals more melodrama in Presley's singing, the two shared something new--a vocal transparency that came across naive and unpremeditated. Their songs, especially the slower ones, were so simple-minded, melodically as well as lyrically, that pop connoisseurs still dismiss them as witless and banal. Sometimes I do too--but not without recognizing the aesthetic audacity their witlessness required.

In part their leap owed the fluid class structure of an America never so prosperous before or since. It was the right time for poor boys to prevail without kowtowing. But mostly it was about teenagers. Cooke and Presley made their pop moves just as American teenagers were making theirs. No matter how lowest-common-denominator the guidelines in the songwriting handbooks Cooke studied and quoted, Tin Pan Alley never conceived an audience whose mean age was 16. It never tried to make the world sing along to sentiments so blissfully uncomplicated they could stimulate vaginal secretions in listeners who'd barely begun to menstruate. And like it or not this was a wondrous thing. To my way of hearing, the assiduously rehearsed, alertly reconceived tightness and musicality of Cooke's Copa set boils down to schlock--handcrafted schlock, like most schlock that goes over, but imbued with complacency when all is said and sung. In contrast, the silly likes of "Cupid" and "Only Sixteen" reach out to the disempowered as surely as "Touch the Hem of His Garment" and "Nearer to Thee." It should go without saying that this kind of disempowerment is in crucial respects temporary--more privileged than it knows, and hence unrealistically hopeful. But the confluence remains inspirational nonetheless.

Since I am not now and never have been a pubescent female, and don't happen to be one of those who are deeply touched by the physical reality of Cooke's epochal voice, my personal connection to this aesthetic achievement will always be compromised. But I'm awed by it. Unlike Stephan Talty, who in a telling omission never mentions "A Change Is Gonna Come," I don't feel betrayed by Cooke's inevitable abandonment of his grandest pop dreams--blame the pains of business, the righteousness of the civil rights movement, the ennui of the pussy quest, the swimming-pool death of his one-year-old son, and age. When he regaled an all-black r&b audience at Miami's Harlem Square Club with hard-edged revvings of hits suitable and not, it was hardly what Talty brands "his biggest sham." But it also wasn't a birthright finally reclaimed. Neither was "A Change Is Gonna Come," which while consciously informed by both blues and gospel was sparked by his envious respect for "Blowin' in the Wind," now in retrospect the lesser creation. He couldn't have repeated it any more than "You Send Me"--strokes like that are unrepeatable, just stages on the road. I have no idea whether Cooke would have politicized soul music, gone Vegas, or both, and neither did he. But I'm certain he would have continued to interpret his times and his heritage with a complexity his simplicity somehow comprehended.

Village Voice, Aug. 12, 2003