Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke

part four

The war impinged in various ways. Most directly because Willie was in the Army Corps of Engineers overseas -- he was in one of the first units to cross the Rhine, and they eagerly followed the news of his division's movements and looked forward to his letters home. Sam and L.C. explored the city, roaming far beyond the confines of the neighborhood, sometimes walking along the lake all the way to the Loop and back, a distance of some three miles, and observing a hub of activity, a sense of entitlement and economic well-being, from which they knew black people were systematically excluded. They read the Chicago Defender, too, the pioneering Chicago journal that served as a kind of Negro national newspaper, and took a job selling the weekend edition of the paper on the street every Thursday night when it came out. Their growing interest in girls took them to the skating rink up by the Regal Theater on Forty-seventh Street, where all the big stars of the day appeared -- but, true to the strictures of their father, while they may have gazed longingly at the marquee, they never ventured inside to see the show.

They continued to sing every chance they got, going from apartment to apartment in the Lenox Building, with Sam performing pop numbers by the Ink Spots he had learned off the radio and L.C. taking care of the business end. "Sam would do the singing. I just get the money."

The Singing Children continued to perform all around town, wherever their father was preaching or their manager could get them bookings. For all of his reluctance, Charles was a more and more compelling performer who was not about to be distracted from his song. One time when he was little, L.C. watched in amazement as "this lady got happy and jumped up and grabbed Charles -- I mean, she was shaking and wiggling him all around -- but he never stopped singing. She wouldn't have had to shake me but one time, brother, and I'd be gone, but Charles was bad." At the same time, Sam's gift was increasingly apparent to Charles, who couldn't help but recognize the gulf that existed between a God-given but unwanted talent like his own and the wholehearted commitment that Sam brought to his music. But each of the children, with the possible exception of Hattie, was at this point disaffected in his or her own way. Charles at eighteen couldn't wait to get out of the house and out from under his father's rule. Mary, a year and a half older and working at Reynolds now, too, was going with a young minister at Westpoint Baptist across the street whom she would soon marry, and simply felt that she was "too old to be getting up there singing": it was, in a sense, embarrassing to her.

Even Sam seemed tired of living so much in his father's shadow. "This Little Light of Mine" was the Reverend Cook's favorite song, the one he would sing almost every Sunday before he would preach, and one day, when he was around fifteen, Sam announced, "Papa, I can beat you singing that song." Reverend Cook, never one to take a challenge lying down, said, "Son, I beg to differ. That's my song." But he agreed to let Sam test his theory.

When Sunday came, Reverend Cook announced that his son was going to sing with him, and Sam strode confidently to the pulpit in front of the whole congregation. "All right, Papa," he said, "you start." No, Reverend Cook replied, it was his song, and Sam could start. Then, just as Sam got the people right where he wanted, his father held up a hand and said, "Okay, boy, you can back up now." Bewildered, Sam said, "What you talking about, Papa?" But his father just said, "You can stop singing, it's my song, and it's time for me to sing." And so he did, according to L.C. "Papa took that song, and he wore Sam out with it. Afterwards, Sam said, 'You know I was getting ready to turn it out.' And Papa said, 'Yeah, you was getting ready, but I turned it out. Like I told you, it's my song.' And Sam laughed and said, 'Yeah, Papa, it's your song.'"

To his brothers and sisters it was one more example of Sam's stubborn belief in himself, perhaps the closest that any of them could come to their father's sense of divine mission. And while they chuckled among themselves on those rare occasions when Sam got his comeuppance, no one ever thought to question his good intentions, merely his common sense.

The one time they saw his confidence falter was when the whole family went to hear the Soul Stirrers at a program at Christ Temple Cathedral, the Church of Christ (Holiness)'s mother church at Forty-fourth and Lawrence. It was the first time that any of the Singing Children had seen the Stirrers in person, and they were expecting to get up and do a number themselves. But when they heard R.H. Harris' soaring falsetto lead, and upon its conclusion second lead James Medlock just matched him note for note, they looked at one another with a combination of astonishment and fear. "I mean, we thought we were bad," said L.C., "but that was the greatest sound we ever heard in our lives." They were mesmerized by the intricate patterns of the music, the way in which Harris employed his patented "yodel" (a falsetto break that provided dramatic counterpoint to the carefully worked-out harmonies of the group), the way that he interjected his ad libs to visibly raise the spirit of the congregation, then came down hard on the last bar of each verse without ever losing the thread of the song. That baldheaded old man just stood up there flat-footed and delivered his pure gospel message, with the women falling out like the Singing Children had never seen. After a couple of numbers, Sam shook his head sorrowfully and turned to his younger brother. "Man, we ain't got no business being up there today," he said. And though the others all tried to persuade him otherwise, Sam remained resolute in his refusal to sing.

It was during the war that they first heard their parents talking openly about segregation, about what you could and couldn't do both inside and outside the neighborhood. Their father was growing increasingly impatient with the lack of visible racial progress, and he was beginning to grow impatient with his own little ministry as well. More and more he was drawn to the traveling evangelism with which he had started out in Mississippi and which he had never entirely given up. "He was just kind of a freelance fellow," Church of Christ (Holiness) bishop M.R. Conic told writer David Tenenbaum, and soon Charles Cook started traveling again in ever-widening circles, shifting his exclusive focus away from his little flock. He thought he could do better for himself and his family.

The Cooks by now had moved around the corner to 724 East Thirty-sixth, and David, the baby of the family, who was born in 1941, would never forget his fifteen-year-old brother Sam getting in trouble with the neighbors, not long after they moved in, when the couple downstairs became involved in a noisy altercation. "We was all up there having fun, and [heard] this commotion on the floor below, so Sam goes out and leans over the banister and calls out, 'What's all this noise out here?' The guy shot upstairs -- I mean, he was serious -- but we all went back inside, and Sam said, 'Well, that's all right, he won't make any more noise.'"

With the war over, Willie went back to work at the chicken market, Mary settled into married life, and Charles enlisted in the air force at the age of nineteen. He was stationed in Columbus, Ohio, and despite his unwavering determination to quit singing altogether the moment he turned twenty-one, he joined a chorus that traveled widely with a service show called Operation Happiness.

But that was the end of the Singing Children, and the extension of another phase of Sam's singing career. Just as he and L.C. had gone from apartment to apartment in the Lenox Building, serenading the various tenants with one of the Ink Spots' recent hits, they had begun in the last year or so to greet passengers alighting from the streetcar at Thirty-fifth and Cottage Grove, the end of the line, in similar fashion. Sam's specialties continued for the most part to derive from the sweet-voiced falsetto crooning of Bill Kenny, the breathy lead tenor for the group that had dominated black secular quartet singing (and in the process enjoyed a remarkable string of number-one pop hits) for the last seven years. Among Sam's favorites were Kenny's original 1939 signature tune, "If I Didn't Care," the group's almost equally influential "I Don't Want to Set the World On Fire," and their latest, one of 1946's biggest hits, "To Each His Own." As in the apartment building, Sam would sing, and L.C. would pass the hat. "People would stop because Sam had this voice. It seemed like he just drew people to him -- he sang the hell out of 'South of the Border.' The girls would stop, and they would give me dimes, quarters, and dollars. Man, we was cleaning up."

Sam and L.C. harmonized with other kids from the neighborhood, too ("You know, everybody in the neighborhood could sing"). They sang at every available opportunity -- Johnny Carter (later lead singer with the Flamingos and Dells), James "Dimples" Cochran of the future Spaniels, Herman Mitchell, Johnny Keyes, every one of them doing their best in any number of interchangeable combinations to mimic Ink Spots harmonies, "singing around [different] places," as Sam would later recall, just to have fun.

His mind was never far from music; one day, he told L.C., he would rival Nat "King" Cole, another Chicago minister's son, whose first number-one pop hit, "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," was one of Sam's recent favorites. But somehow he never seemed to contemplate the idea that he might have to leave the gospel field to do it. Nor did he allow the music to distract him from his main task of the moment, which was to finish high school. Reverend and Mrs. Cook were determined that each of their children would graduate from Wendell Phillips -- and it seemed as if L.C. was the only one likely to provide them with a real challenge ("Everybody else liked school; I didn't"). Sam saw education as a way to expand what he understood to be an otherwise narrow and parochial worldview. Reading took him places he couldn't go -- but places he expected one day to discover for himself. He was constantly drawing, caught up in his studies of architectural drafting at school but just as quick to sketch anything that caught his interest -- he did portraits of his family and friends, sketches to entertain his little brother David. In the absence of inherited wealth, he placed his faith in his talent and his powers of observation, and despite an almost willful blindness to his own eccentricities, he was a keen student of human nature. Which was perhaps the key to his success with girls, as his brother L.C. saw it, and the key to his almost instant appeal to friend and stranger, young and old alike.

His father had full faith in all his children, but perhaps most of all in his middle son. He was focused in a way that none of the others, for all of their obvious intelligence, ambition, and good character, appeared to be -- and Reverend Cook had confidence that neither Sam's mischievousness nor his imagination would distract him from his mission. It was Sam's mark to sing, as his father was well aware. "He didn't bother about playing ball, nothing like that. He would just gather himself on the steps of buildings and sing."

It was a gift of God, manifest from when he was a baby, and the only question in Charles Cook's mind was not whether he would achieve his ambition but how.

Then one day in the spring of 1947, two teenage brothers, Lee and Jake Richards, members of a fledgling gospel quartet that so far had failed to come up with a name for itself, ran across Sam singing "If I Didn't Care" to a girl in the hallway of a building at Thirty-sixth and Rhodes. He was singing so pretty that Lee and his brother started harmonizing behind him, and it came out so good that they asked him who he was singing with. "I don't sing with nobody," Sam told them, and they brought him back to the apartment building where they lived on the third floor, at 466 East Thirty-fifth, just a block away, and where Mr. Copeland, the man who was training them, and the father of their fourteen-year-old baritone singer, Bubba, had the apartment at the back.

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