Fifty years ago, the soul singer Sam Cooke was on his way to the studio, late as usual and lacking songs. His producer, Robert Blackwell, had been riding the young star for new material for weeks. "So Sam said, 'Well, hand me the Bible,'" Blackwell recalls in this exhaustively researched biography. "He was thumbing through it... and he said, 'I got one.'" Cooke put the song together in front of the producer's eyes. That song, "Touch the Hem of His Garment", is two parts gospel, one part doo-wop, a premonition of the formula that, when inverted, led Cooke to the top of the American pop charts a year later with "You Send Me".
Some critics see Cooke's crossover as a betrayal, but Peter Guralnick sees it as proof of his songwriting genius, another deft decision by the ultimate professional. Dream Boogie is an attempt to get beyond that stage presence without completely defrocking Cooke. The book succeeds, thanks to Guralnick's magnificent storytelling powers.
Born in Mississippi in 1931, Cooke lived and breathed singing from dawn to dusk. Young Sam spent a lot of time in church, but it was on a street corner that he was discovered - in Chicago in 1947, by Lee and Jack Richard, two brothers who were starting a band. Thus began Cooke's musical apprenticeship proper, in storefront churches and gospel challenges.
Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers in 1950, and seven years later launched his solo career. Given that Cooke's leap prefigured the direction of the music industry, there is plenty of gossip about behind-the-scenes jockeying in the Los Angeles music scene of the late Fifties.
Occasionally, the reader is apt to wish that Guralnick had spared us one more wrinkle in the tale of how Sam left Specialty Records or added a bit of context from life beyond music. For Cooke, though, there was no other world, and Guralnick - who also wrote Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, a superb two-volume study of Elvis Presley - approaches his life with a kind of Method-actor totality.
This is a long book, but it reads fast, perhaps because that's how Cooke lived. Our all-American hero wound up at a cheap motel on the outskirts of Los Angeles at 2am in December 1964. High and drunk, he was robbed by a hooker and then shot through the heart by a motel manager. It was an ignoble end to a life not charmed, but driven to one purpose: wooing the world.