I just finished reading Dream Boogie: the Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick, a fascinating biography of the legendary singer who was tragically shot and killed in a Los Angeles motel in 1964 at the age of 33. I’ve enjoyed reading other books by Guralnick, all of them related to music. Sweet Soul Music took a look at the southern soul artists of the 1960s; Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love both documented the life of Elvis Presley; and Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home were books devoted to American “roots music,” focusing on musicians in genres ranging from Blues and Country to Rock and Soul.
Dream Boogie is more than just a biography of Sam Cooke; it’s also a revealing historical snapshot of the USA in the 1950s and early 1960s, an era when the country was still wrestling with the injustice of racial inequality and outright hate and bigotry. There is a fascinating cast of characters populating this book; well-known musicians such as Bobby Womack (who scandalously married Cooke’s widow only a few months after Sam was buried), Little Richard, Johnnie Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples, Clyde McPhatter, Lloyd Price, Roy Hamilton, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Herb Alpert, Lou Rawls, Etta James, Ray Charles, and many more. Their reminiscences of Cooke and those musical times make for engrossing reading. A young boxer named Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) also makes several appearances (he calls Sam Cooke up to the ring on the night he defeated Sonny Liston), as do Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Cooke’s ruthless business manager Allen Klein.
One of the more interesting, and frequently quoted acquaintances of Cooke’s is a woman with the so-good-you-couldn’t-make-it-up name of Lithofayne Pridgeon. It may not be accurate to call her a groupie, but she obviously knew who was who in music circles of that era. Before dating Sam Cooke she was also a girlfriend of the singer Little Willie John. Later, in the early 1960s, she introduced Sam Cooke to her newest boyfriend, a young guitarist by the name of Jimi Hendrix. While doing a bit of online research I ran across a very colorful statement that Lithofayne, also known as Faye, made about Hendrix:
“He was well-endowed. He came to the bed with the same grace a Mississippi pulpwood driver attacks a plate of collard greens and corn bread after ten hours in the sun. He was creative in bed, too. There would be encore after encore, hard-driving and steamy like his music. There were times when he almost busted me in two, the way he did a guitar on stage.”
Lithofayne, from what I gather, is still alive and well. If that’s the case, she should think about writing her own memoirs. This woman undoubtedly has scads of other amazing stories to tell about the musicians she met over the years.
Last year I belatedly purchased a couple of classic Sam Cooke albums on CD. One of them, One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club, was a 1963 live recording in Miami (and not the Harlem in New York City that most would assume) that has been hailed by many fans as one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Indeed, this is a lively album that showcases Cooke’s raw and sweaty side, as opposed to the neat and manicured version that you hear on his studio albums. The only complaint made against the newest “remastered” CD version is that Cooke’s vocals have been cranked up so much that they drown out the rest of the band. And that’s not a trivial criticism; his band at this club date included the masterful King Curtis on saxophone and Cornell Dupree on guitar. Cooke’s label prioritized other studio albums, as well as a Copacabana live concert on their release schedule, so this live album was never issued while he was alive. In fact, it never appeared on record until 1985 and the remastered CD with the bonus cuts didn’t materialize until 2005. It’s too bad that Guralinick’s book doesn’t tell us more about the recording of this important album, especially what it was like to be a member of the audience at the show. Sadly, the building in Miami that housed the Harlem Square Club is no longer standing. So much for historic preservation!
The other Sam Cooke album I got was Night Beat, a moody, downbeat classic that veered more toward blues, as evidenced by his covers of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” Charles Brown’s “Trouble Blues,” and the traditional “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”. Whatever the inspiration, it was a deeply heartfelt album that flowed seamlessly. Not a collection of singles but a thematic album. With an absence of lightweight pop tunes, it didn’t rocket up the charts, but the mournful, passionate songs stirred a cauldron of emotions within the souls of many listeners, making this album a favorite for many Sam Cooke fans. Night Beat also featured a 16-year-old organist by the name of Billy Preston who would soon record many noteworthy albums of his own. Guralnick wrote the liner notes for the CD reissue of Night Beat, and he raves about this album, calling it “one of those moments of pure transcendence that can only arrive mysterious and unbidden even in the midst of the most fully committed creative life.”
King Curtis, one of the musicians on Cooke’s Harlem Square album, features predominantly in two other great live recordings too. His own album, Live at Fillmore West, is chock-full of hot, steaming instrumentals, including “Memphis Soul Stew” and “Soul Serenade”. Unlikely cover versions such as “Whole Lotta Love”, “Ode to Billie Joe”, “Mr. Bojangles”,” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” are also given the funky treatment thanks to Curtis’s sax work and Billy Preston’s keyboard wizardry. Then there is the “other” Live at Fillmore West album, this one by Aretha Franklin, which was recently re-released as a deluxe 2-CD version. Yes, both the King Curtis and Aretha Franklin albums were recorded at the same Fillmore shows, from March 5-7, 1971. King Curtis was the opening act for Aretha at those shows, and he also was a member of her backup band. Busy guy! And if you want to be an absolute completist, you might search for the now out-of-print offering from Rhino Handmade label: Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West.
On a further Sam Cooke note, and just to make his life story even more convoluted and bizarre, his daughter Linda ended up marrying Cecil Womack, the younger brother of Bobby (who later divorced Barbara Cooke after a decade of marriage). Linda and Cecil eventually formed their own act, Womack and Womack, and released several very good albums, including Love Wars and Radio M.U.S.I.C. Man. I’m told that one of Sam Cooke’s grandchildren is also a singer. Family tradition indeed!