Maybe it’s because I’ve read Peter Guralnick’s comprehensive 2005 Sam Cooke biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke that the newest entry in the generally wonderful PBS series American Masters, Sam Cooke – Crossing Over, which debuts on PBS tonight, seems a little bit skimpy to me. An hour simply is not enough to tell the story of one of America’s greatest musical lives.
The basic facts of Sam Cooke’s life are by now pretty well known. His father was a preacher at the First Baptist Church in Chicago Heights, and by the age of 17 Cooke became the lead singer for one of gospel’s greatest groups, the Soul Stirrers. Seeking a larger audience, he left the world of gospel music to become one of the world’s biggest pop stars. The road was anything but smooth. He escaped a terrible car accident while on tour in 1958 with minor injuries, while bandmate Lou Rawls was badly hurt, and his chauffeur was killed. His ex-wife was killed in another accident while driving a car that Cooke had given her. His 18 month-old son Vincent died when he fell into the family’s swimming pool.
Sam Cooke overcame all of these tragedies, along with the brutal racism that he faced when touring the south, to become a driving force in the civil rights movement with his classic song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He was the first black artist to cross over on a large scale, the first to reach #1 on the pop chart, and the first to start his own record company. His hits, mostly written by Cooke, included “You Send Me,” “Cupid,” “Twisting the Night Away,” “Bring It On Home To Me,” and “Chain Gang,” a song inspired by seeing prisoners at work while touring the south.
Cooke was one of the founding fathers of soul music, and continues to inspire artists to this day. Contemporaries like Smokey Robinson, James Brown, Bobby Womack, Earl Palmer, Billy Preston, Herb Alpert, Mel Carter, and Lou Rawls are on hand to sing his praises, as are Cooke’s brother, sister, and niece. There is some terrific footage from Cooke’s television appearances on American Bandstand with Dick Clark, and the Mike Douglas Show. It would have been nice to hear from Aretha Franklin who also came from the gospel world, and was mentored by Cooke. In 1963 they both refused to perform for a segregated audience in Memphis.
In December, 1964, Sam Cooke was shot to death by a motel manager named Bertha Lee Franklin. Despite all his success, he was a failure when it came to being faithful in his marriage. He had gone to the motel with a prostitute named Lisa Boyer. What happened then is disputed. Boyer claimed Cooke tried to rape her. The evidence points to the more likely scenario in which the woman was trying to rob him, taking his clothes while he was in the bathroom. He ran out after her, dressed only in his jacket. He began to bang on the motel manager’s door, thinking that she was in cahoots with the prostitute. He was shot point blank and died on the scene. The ruling was justifiable homicide. Some 60,000 people filed past his casket.
Sam Cooke – Crossing Over is narrated by actor Danny Glover, and is a decent entry point if you know nothing about the life of this musical giant. But if you are at all familiar with his story, it will all seem a little too cut and dried. Sam Cooke deserves a deeper examination of his life and music, a video record as extensive as Guralnick’s book was.