Guralnick fills in as much of the background as you could possibly want, giving us life on the road and the odd mixture of offstage cameraderie and onstage warfare that characterised the gospel quartets. If you’re fascinated by Cooke’s story,as I am, you will devour every morsel, although details in parenthesis can break up the flow: at times you need to go back to the start of the sentence to make sense of the whole thing. But this is a tiny point: Sam Cooke is probably as present as he could ever be in this book and if you care about his life or the development of soul music you owe it to yourself to read it.
It's not a one man show, either: the Soul Stirrers had earlier pioneered the use of alternating leads (and expanded the gospel "quartet" to what was actually a five-man group), and the baritone of Paul Foster (above, right) shares most of the vocal duties here. On the earliest recording, Peace in the Valley, you can even hear Foster getting the better, vocally, of the young Cooke, whose voice cracks at one point - but then again that's from the same session where he sang Jesus Gave Me Water, a stunningly mature performance for a twenty one year old.
Details about recordings omitted from the Specialty box set are comprehensively covered on the Sam Cooke Fan Club site, here, although I think I'm right in saying that the master take of The Last Mile of the Way has not been issued on any CD without overdubs - if it has, I'd like to know about it.
Again, I forget the source, but someone said Sam Cooke's voice was a perfect blend of sandpaper and honey. If you've ever felt that there's a bit too much honey on the poppier RCA sides or on his versions of sentimental standards on Keen, then buy this to hear a more finely judged balance of passion and control.
If you're simply looking for the hits then the Sam Cooke Legend set is the no-brainer single disc choice. If you want something more than the hits then the 4 CD The Man Who Invented Soul can be given a qualified recommendation: it includes a lot of sentimental stuff but also has his Live at the Harlem Square Club performance, the best recording of Cook live, singing his hits with a looseness which recalls his gospel days. Depending on marketplace prices, it may be worth getting even just for that recording.
The Sam Cooke play was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the mid nineties (ie before either biography had been published) as part of a series about musical icons including Roy Orbison, also written by McKay. It was repeated in March 2009 on Radio 7, a mainly archival station. Below is a tidied-up version of messages posted on a BBC board at the time of the repeat - not so much a review as an encouragement to listen:
I cannot recommend highly enough the two plays by Neil McKay about Roy Orbison (Take the Night) and Sam Cooke (A City Called Glory). Originally in a series on Radio 4 in the nineties called All Shook Up, directed by Andy Jordan, they are an object lesson into how to do this sort of thing: genuine explorations into what may have been driving these men rather than cut-and-paste biopics as an excuse to play the records.Another entry in this blog refers to Larkin's assertion that if you play Louis Armstrong's record of St Louis Blues the walls will begin to move by a certain chorus. I can't remember which one, but if you listen through all the versions of All Right Now, led by Cheeks, on the Specialty box set I could swear you'll hear a disorientating point well into one of the takes where the space the singers are inhabiting seems to be expanding or changing in some strange way, in direct proportion to the building frenzy of the performance.
Even if you're not particularly besotted with either star these are well worth the effort; and if you do happen to know anything about either man you will know that their lives were packed with plenty of material for drama. But these plays have been expertly fashioned and repay repeated listening. (McKay had the chance to make contact with the Orbison family during or before the writing, incidentally, and chose not to, in order to retain his objectivity.)
McKay uses Orbison's son and Cooke's friend, sometime Soul Stirrer June Cheeks, as choric figures. Cheeks, who never deserted the gospel field - he became a preacher in tandem with his singing - is the touchstone for Cooke as he wavers between two worlds.
This device is particularly effective in A City Called Glory: first a friend and confidante to the young Sam, Cheeks is then split into two as the play approaches its climax: a voice in Cooke's own head as well as the real man desperate to tell his tale, give his subjective but privileged take on what may have happened on that fateful night Cooke was shot.
Although Cheeks was briefly in the Soul Stirrers, he is best known as the lead singer in the Sensational Nightingales, screaming himself hoarse in performances, so it's a neat idea that he is the polar opposite of Cooke in more ways than one. And although Cheeks had been dead for several years by the time of the first broadcast, so presumably it was less complicated to use him as a narrator figure, the choice of a character who is and is not of Cooke's world was inspired.
I have read the two biographies of Cooke (Daniel Wolff and Peter Guralnick) since first hearing this play; it really does still stand up. Both are good but the Guralnick one in particular brings out the sense of his contradictory, elusive nature as he pursues success: capable of immense warmth and charm yet taciturn and dissatisfied in private (Cooke's widow Barbara contributed to the Guralnick book). You emerge from the book not really knowing him fully, wondering whether it's possible to know him, but Neil McKay's play - and I don't know how much information was available to him at the time of writing - feels right: if it wasn't that way then it's still a convincing conclusion to draw from what is known about his life.
Art Rupe's knob-twiddling or on on-the-hoof mike rearrangement, if he'd already given up that take as a master? The combined hypnotic force of the unrelenting pounding of Cheeks' lead and the Stirrers' support?