Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke

part three

They saw their father as a stern but fair man, but their mother was someone they could tell their secrets to. She treated their friends with the same kind of gentle consideration that she showed all of them, never reluctant to add another place to the table or take a mattress and lay it on the floor. "I don't know where one of you all might be," she told them by way of explanation, "maybe someone will help you some day in the same way." If any one of them was in a play and just said "Boo," why, then, to their mother, they were "the best booer in the world."

None of them was ever really singled out. Papa whipped all of them equally, and Mama rewarded them all the same -- but even within the family Sam stood out. To L.C., bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, someone who by his own account, and everyone else's, too, "always thought like a man," Sam was similar -- but at the same time altogether different. "Hey, I thought I had a personality. But Sam had the personality. He could charm the birds out of the trees."

If you tried to calculate just what it was, you would never be able to figure it out. There were other little boys just as good-looking, and there were undoubtedly others just as bright -- but there was something about him, all of his siblings agreed, whether it was the infectiousness of his grin, or his unquenchable enthusiasm, or the insatiable nature of his curiosity, he possessed a spark that just seemed to light a fire under everyone he was around. He was a great storyteller and he always had something to tell you -- but it was the way he communicated it, the way he made you feel as if you were the only person in the world and that what he was communicating to you was something he had never told anyone else before: there was a seemingly uncalculated spontaneity even to what his brothers and sisters knew to be his most calculated actions. He was always calling attention to himself. "He loved to play little pranks," his sister Agnes said, "and he could think of more jokes than anyone else." But why his actions failed to cause more jealousy or resentment than they did, no one could fully explain. Unless it was simply, as L.C. said, "he was just likeable."

To his older sister Hattie, Sam always had his own way of doing things. Sam and L.C. and Charles all pooled their collection of marbles, "but Sam liked to be by himself a lot, too, and he would take those marbles and have them be like boxers in the ring -- he made up all kinds of things."

For that same reason, to his ninety-eight-year-old father looking back on it all thirty-two years after his son's death, "Sam was a peculiar child. He was always headman, he was always at the post, from a kid on what he said went. He'd just be walking along the street and make a song out of it. If he said it was a song, it was a song all the way through."

The others could see the contributions their next-to-youngest member made even to such familiar spirituals and jubilee numbers as "Deep River," "Swing Down, Chariot, Let Me Ride," and "Going Home," not to mention the more modern quartet style of Birmingham's Famous Blue Jays and the Five Soul Stirrers from Houston, both of whom had recently moved to the neighborhood. Spiritual music was at a crossroads, with the older style of singing, which the Reverend Cook favored -- "sorrow songs" from slavery times along with the more up-tempo "jubilee"-style rhythmic narratives of the enormously influential Golden Gate Quartet -- giving way to a more direct emotional style. This was the new quartet sound, with five- or six-member groups like the Stirrers expanding on the traditional parts while featuring alternating lead singers who egged each other on to a level of histrionics previously confined to the Pentecostal Church. Their driving attack mimicked the sound, as well as the message, of gospel preaching, and their repertoire, too, frequently sprang from more accessible personal testimony, like the "gospel blues" compositions of Thomas A. Dorsey. To the Singing Children it made little difference, they sang it all. Their repertoire was aimed at pleasing their audience, but they were drawn to the exciting new quartet sound. Anything the Soul Stirrers or the Blue Jays sang, they learned immediately off the record. But Sam's ability to rearrange verses or rhyme up familiar Bible stories to make a song was not lost on any of them, least of all the Reverend Cook.

It wasn't long before the Singing Children had a manager of their own, a friend of their father's named David Peale who owned a filling station and had plenty of money. He set up church bookings for them, established a firm fee structure ("We charged fifteen cents' admission, and we wouldn't sing if we didn't get paid"), drove them to their engagements in a white Cadillac limousine, and collected the money at the door. They had quite a following, according to Agnes, still too young to join the group. "Everywhere they went, they would turn the church out."

Sam accepted Christ at eleven, in 1942, just after America had entered the war -- but like all of his brothers and sisters, the religion that he embraced seemed to have less to do with the Church of Christ (Holiness) or their father's strictures than the simple precepts that Reverend Cook had taught them: show respect to get respect, if you treat people right, they in turn will do right by you. At the same time, as Reverend Cook was equally quick to point out, there was no prohibition in the Bible against worldly success; in fact, there were many verses that endorsed it, and as proud as he was of his ability to put enough food on the table to feed a family of ten -- and to have recently acquired two late-model limousines, a radio, a telephone, and a brand-new windup phonograph -- he was equally determined that his children should learn to make their own way in the world.

Sam took this lesson in the spirit, but perhaps not quite in the manner, that his father intended. He established his own business with a group of neighborhood kids, with his brother L.C. serving as his chief lieutenant and himself as CEO. "Yeah, tearing out people's fences and then sell it back to them for firewood at twenty cents a basket. We did that; Sam didn't do it -- he get the money. Sam would have me and Louis Truelove and Slick and Dan Lofton (there was about five of us) to go tear out the fence and chop the wood up -- naw, they didn't know it was their fence -- and then as soon as we get the money, he take half of everybody's but mine."

He was a mischievous, inquisitive child, always testing the limits but, unlike L.C., not inclined to measure the consequences of his every action. He went to the movies for the first time at around thirteen, at the Louis Theater at Thirty-fifth and Michigan, somehow persuading his younger brother to accompany him. "I said, 'You know Papa don't believe in it.' He said, 'Nobody gonna say anything, and you ain't gonna tell anyone.' I said, 'Noooo . . .' 'Then how he gonna know?'

"After that we went all the time -- me and Sam had a ball. One time there was no seats, and Sam called, 'Fire!' Shit, they wanted to put our ass in jail. But we got a seat. We used to get tripe sandwiches at this little place on Thirty-sixth, they be all covered with onions and pickles, and you get in the theater and just bite down on it, and everybody in the show want to know, 'Who got them tripe sandwiches?'"

Their older sister Hattie still hadn't gone to the movies herself. "I wanted to go so bad, but I was scared of a whipping. Everyone in our group was going to the show, and I had to tell them I couldn't. They even offered to pay for me, 'cause I was too embarrassed to say, 'My daddy won't let me.' But then I finally do go, and who do I see first thing in there? Sam and L.C. And they said, 'Girl, we was wondering when you was going to wake up!'"

Sam, as L.C. saw it, "said just what he thought, whether you liked it or not. If Sam thought something, he would tell you, it didn't make no difference. One time we was going to the movies at the Oakland, on Thirty-ninth and Drexel, and we stopped to get some caramel corn. We come out of the store, and here are these three fellows, and one of them says, 'Hey, man, give me a quarter.' And Sam just looks at him and says, 'Hey, man, you too old to be out here mooching. Why don't you get a job?' He say, 'Hey, man, what you say?' Well, Sam and I put our popcorn on the ground and get ready to fight. But then one of the other boys say, 'Hey, man, don't mess with them. Don't you know they're Charlie Cook's brothers?' Said, 'Charles'll come down here and kill everybody.' So that's what made the boys back up. But Sam didn't care. He said, 'I got a quarter, and I'm going to the show with my quarter. You need a job!'"

His imagination was inflamed by the cowboys-and-Indians movies that ran at the Louis and at the Oakland Theater, too, and when they got home, he and L.C. played at all that "cowboy jazz," which, of course, inevitably led to yet another brotherly fight. There was no question that Sam lived in the world as much or more than any other member of his family: he was bright, he was daring, he was driven by ambition. But at the same time, much of the vision that fueled that ambition came from an interior view, a life of the mind, that was very different from his brothers' and sisters', that was almost entirely his own. Radio, like the movies, offered a vehicle of escape; he was completely caught up in the comedies, dramas, and ongoing serials. But books were his principal refuge from the humdrum reality of everyday life. He and Hattie (and later Agnes) were the readers in the family, each one taking out five books at a time, the maximum you were allowed, from the Lincoln Library on Thirty-ninth. They read everything -- adventure books, mysteries, the classics (Sam's favorite was Huckleberry Finn) -- and they swapped the books around, so that in one week, by Hattie's estimation, they might read as many as ten books apiece. "I mean, the whole family read. We would take turns reading tales out of different books, because our parents, even though they didn't go far in school, really valued education. But Sam was really a bookworm, he was a history buff, but he would read just about anything."

He started high school at Wendell Phillips, just a ten- or fifteen-minute walk from home, over on Pershing near the library, in the fall of 1944. His big sister Mary had recently graduated, Charles was entering his senior year, and Hattie was a junior, but Sam, despite his slight stature and some initial reserve, quickly made his mark. It was impossible, his classmates would later acknowledge in the Phillipsite, the high school yearbook, to imagine Sam Cook "not being able to make a person laugh." His teachers described Sam as "personable and aggressive," which might charitably be taken as a stab at summoning up something of his bubbling good nature, his vast appreciation of life in all of its dimensions. But whatever his schoolmates' or teachers' opinions of him, however much or however little he may have impressed them, he was probably better known as big Charlie Cook's brother than for any accomplishments of his own. And although he sang in the glee club, where sufficient notice was taken of him that he was given a solo at the Christmas show in his junior year, few of his classmates seem even to have been aware of the existence of the Singing Children, let alone their celebrity in certain circles.

He took over his brother's job at the Blue Goose when Charles started driving for a fruit-and-vegetable vendor. According to his little sister, Agnes, "Sam always drew a crowd, the kids would go in the grocery store just to talk to him." And he joined one of the local "gangs," the Junior Destroyers -- more like a teenage social club, according to his brother L.C., which served as a badge of neighborhood identification and mutual protection. "We had to belong to a club to go to school," according to Sam, but he enjoyed the growing sense of independence, the thrill of confrontation not infrequently followed by unarmed combat, above all the camaraderie of belonging to a group that was not defined by his father's church. Everyone's memories of Sam at this time come back to his laugh, its warmth, its inclusiveness, the way he would indicate, simply by timbre, that for him there was no such thing as a private joke. There was another boy in the gang, Leroy Hoskins, known to everyone as "Duck," whose laugh was so infectious that Sam vowed he would one day capture it on record.

For all of his social skills, he continued to insist on his own idiosyncratic way of doing things, no matter how trivial, no matter how foolish this might sometimes make him seem. Charles had by now started working the 3:45 to 11:45 P.M. shift out at Reynolds ("I lied about my age. I got the job because I loved clothes; I was always the best dresser in the family"), and L.C. was working as Charles' assistant on the fruit-and-vegetable truck and pestering Charles to teach him to drive. "I was eleven, but Charles taught me, put me on two telephone books in my daddy's car so I could see. He was gonna teach Sam at the same time, but Sam said, 'No, man, I'll learn myself.' You couldn't tell Sam nothing -- he had to do it on his own. He tried to put the car in gear with his feet on the brakes instead of the clutch, almost stripped the gears in my daddy's car. Charles said, 'Sam, you gonna strip the gears.' He said, 'No, man, don't disturb me now.' You know, sometimes I think he thought he was the smartest person in the world."

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