Sam Cooke emerges from this biography perhaps even more intriguing than he had previously been, and for that one has to thank Daniel Wolff. "You Send Me" is a solidly written effort that not only helps the reader understand the late singer, but establishes his place in music and in American society.
For Mr. Wolff sees Cooke (1931-1964) as more than an uncommonly gifted singer who became a star in the fields of gospel, rhythm and blues and pop. Cooke's rise from modest beginnings in South Side Chicago to international fame coincided with the changing situation of blacks in America.
Cooke grew up in a rigidly segregated society in which blacks were not encouraged to join mainstream America. As a young gospel and R&B; singer in the 1950s, Cooke likewise became frustrated at the barriers in reaching white audiences.
"His achievements were all about crossing over: whether it was passing through the restrictive covenants around Bronzeville [the nickname for black South Side Chicago], going from gospel to pop, integrating the Atlantic fairgrounds on Dick Clark's show, or making it at the Copa," Mr. Wolff writes. "And his stubborn insistence that he could reach everyone remains a goal in a country whose connections and divisions are reflected in its music."
Mr. Wolff writes knowledgeably about gospel and rhythm and blues, which isn't surprising since he has covered those areas in numerous magazine articles. He goes into great detail in describing the history and milieu of black gospel, and I suspect some readers might feel they've been told more than they need to know. Yet it's through supplying such context that we see how Cooke learned to sing with such conviction and emotion, and why it was such a difficult decision for him to leave the gospel field for the "wicked" world of rhythm and blues.
Certainly Cooke was a remarkable singer, but he was also a prolific songwriter whose hits included "You Send Me," "Only Sixteen," "Chain Gang," "A Change Is Gonna Come," "Wonderful World," "Cupid," "Twistin' the Night Away" and "Bring It On Home to Me." And, unlike many pop-music contemporaries -- white and black -- Cooke was acutely aware of how the music industry used up performers. He negotiated for better arrangements with his record companies and lived in style.
The author delves capably into Cooke's personal life, showing the many paradoxes of the smooth, utterly charming man who was loved by millions and yet was strangely alone most of his life. Cooke moved from one setting to another, comfortable with whites while being revered by blacks. But, Mr. Wolff suggests, it wasn't as easy at it seemed.
Cooke was not known during his time as especially race-conscious -- if anything, with his carefully cultivated, squeaky-clean image, he seemed completely unoffensive to most whites. Yet Cooke closely watched developments in the civil rights movement. He became friends with Muhammad Ali at a time when some other prominent blacks thought it was too risky to be associated with the boxing champion.
Mr. Wolff's inquiry into the bizarre circumstances surrounding Cooke's death -- he was shot to death in a seedy Los Angeles hotel by its female manager after he had apparently picked up a prostitute -- is thorough and compelling without being sensational.
To this day, the debate continues about Cooke's death. Though he was married at the time of his death, his womanizing was
legendary. But, say some of his friends and fans, why would Sam Cooke, when he could have almost any woman he wanted, consort with a prostitute? And why would this gentle man charge a much smaller, older woman, as the hotel manager asserted when she said she had fired in self-defense?
Still, the great strength of "You Send Me" is Mr. Wolff's ability to see Cooke within the context of his times -- to show how the singer was affected by the civil rights movement, and how he and other entertainers in turn influenced the movement. As Mr. Wolff writes:
"He came of age in post-Depression America, and his family was part of the great migration into the cities. Like many members of his race, he was shaped by the black church, with its tradition of turning oppression into hope. And like millions of others, Sam wanted his part of America's midcentury economic bonanza."
In "You Send Me," Mr. Wolff has attempted an ambitious work, and through diligent research and perceptive writing, has XTC succeeded admirably. There is little to quibble with and much to commend in the most satisfying music biography I've read in years.
Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.
Title: "You Send Me: The Life & Times of Sam Cooke"
Author: Daniel Wolff
Length, price: 424 pages, $23