How did you become interested in Sam Cooke [see review of Dream Boogie]?
I knew I wanted to do a biography of Sam from the moment I met his business partner and friend, J.W. Alexander, in 1982 when I was working on Sweet Soul Music. The one thing I grasped from that interview was that the Sam Cooke he was portraying was as complex, charming, ambitious and mercurial as his music. It was an interview I came back to again and again.
Your book discusses, through Sam's career, the role of the gospel scene of the late 1940s and early '50s as the crucible of soul music.
There had been a sense that teenage gospel quartets like the Highway QCs, Sam's first group, were going to take the world by storm and compete with pop music on its own terms. As it turned out, that didn't happen in the way they envisioned. Sam got picked up by the Soul Stirrers, one of the most accomplished gospel quartets in the country, but behond that, the real opportunities were in pop music, and the people who set the tone were Ray Charles with "I Got a Woman," then Sam when he crossed over straight to the top of the pop charts with "You Send Me." That was the signal to all the other singers the way was open to them, too.
His determination to achieve success is palpable.
He was brought up to believe not just in material self-advancement but in setting high goals for yourself, and at every stage, whether it was when he left the Highway QCs for the Soul Stirrers, or when he decided to go solo, he never wanted to leave behind those who meant a great deal to him, so he would keep certain people around him throughout his career. At the same time, he wouldn't let his loyalty to them impede his own progress. He saw early on what he perceived as the flaw of the system, which was that other people were living off the fruits of the working man's labor. So he realized the only way to get ahead was to own your own music. He then expanded that ambition to owning not just his own music, and he founded a record label that in many ways embodied black pride and self-determination.
What might Cooke's career have been like if he hadn't died so young?
It's conceivable he could've gone into politics, or his record label would've become successful enough to allow him to withdraw from performing. He spoke of that as being his ambition, but it's difficult to imagine someone with Sam's performing charisma being satisfied with being out of the spotlight. He had so many ambitions going in so many directions, and his aim was really to achieve them all.