Acclaimed biographer Peter Guralnick's admiration for and love of gospel and soul legend Sam Cooke's music has yielded two magnificent projects. One is 2005's Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, a 650-page biography built around more than 350 interviews with insiders, family members and associates. It's almost as exhaustive as the treatment Guralnick gave Elvis Presley in his landmark volumes Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love.
The other Cooke project is Sam Cooke: Legend, a feature-length 2003 documentary featuring narration by Jeffrey Wright that uses a lot of the material Guralnick assembled during his research. Directed by Mary Wharton, whose other projects include works on Joan Baez, Phish and gospel music, the Grammy-winning Sam Cooke: Legend blends interviews with Guralnick's patented blend of analysis, reflection and commentary on Cooke's life, influence and impact.
The film receives its first Nashville screening at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, as part of Vanderbilt's excellent "International Lens" film series — which not only offers free screenings of notable recent features and documentaries, but includes an introduction by a visiting filmmaker or Vanderbilt faculty member. For this week's screening, the guest is none other than Guralnick, currently writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt, who views it as part of his overall mission to put Cooke's importance in perspective for general audiences.
"Along with Ray Charles, Sam Cooke is the progenitor of modern soul music," Guralnick says. "For him to leave gospel music and have a No. 1 hit record right out of the box was incredibly important. He made a very clean-cut hit record, and his music evolved over a long period of time. He certainly was an inspirational figure to many gospel artists, and his example showed them what could be accomplished in the secular field."
Long after his untimely death in 1964, Sam Cooke enjoyed mythical status in the African-American community. If the former Soul Stirrers vocalist had been simply the first black artist to have a No. 1 pop hit — with "You Send Me" in 1957 — his influence would still have been major. But he was also among the first to start both his own record label and publishing company. He courted a broad audience across racial lines with silky-smooth singles such as "Only Sixteen" and "Cupid," yet maintained active involvement in the civil rights movement when doing so could have meant career suicide.
Guralnick started research on Cooke almost 30 years ago, talking to Cooke's longtime friend, associate and business partner J.W. Alexander. In helping to assemble the doc with filmmaker Wharton and an "instrumental" assist from VH1's Bill Flanigan, Guralnick says he was as aware of what he didn't want as of what he wanted.
"I didn't want this to be another of those projects where someone interviews three or four English rockers and they talk about how much they enjoyed hearing Sam Cooke," Guralnick says. "It was important that we hear from the people who knew him, and also from people like Dick Clark and Allen Klein who worked with him and his music."
Sam Cooke: Legend also includes interviews with Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls and Lloyd Price, as well as surviving family members L.C. Cooke, Charles Cooke, Agnes Cook-Hoskins and Linda Cooke-Womack, among many others. A bonus is the presence of a young, exuberant boxer then known as Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali.
Guralnick is keenly aware that many fans remain deeply suspicious about Cooke's Dec. 11, 1964, shooting death at the hands of a hotel manager in Los Angeles, which ended his brilliant career at age 33. Thus far, he says, he's discovered nothing that supports alternative explanations of his slaying.
"Sam Cooke was an extraordinary individual, a brilliant man and someone whom the white establishment at the time was definitely worried about and afraid of," Guralnick says. "I've heard the conspiracy theories, and I'm open to listening to whatever people have to say in that regard. But I've read the police and ballistic reports and newspaper accounts of what happened. So far, I've not found anything or seen anything that refutes the official versions of what happened."
What Guralnick knows for certain is that Cooke's death came just as he was actively fighting for change in the music industry, and was making headway both as a performer and a business executive.
"I hope when people see this film they get an understanding of what a singular talent he was and what a loss his premature death was for everyone," Guralnick says. "If he were alive, he'd definitely see the election of Barack Obama as the ultimate fulfillment of his song 'A Change Is Gonna Come.' "