During the small hours of December 11, 1964, the Negro singing star Sam Cooke met his abrupt end in a cheap Los Angeles motel. In enraged pursuit of a woman he’d just checked in with, Cooke broke down the motel’s office door. He was wearing only his shoes, undershorts, and suit jacket. The night manager, a fifty-two-year-old black woman, shot him, and then beat him lifeless with a stick. She’d been alone in the office. The woman Cooke was chasing had taken his pants and fled into the street.
When the police arrived, they found him on the floor, wedged between a desk and the unhinged door. He was half upright, slumping forward, as if in a stupor: one leg splayed, the other tucked, eyes closed, head resting on a bloodied wall. His body lay in the city’s morgue for a day and a half, another bit of flotsam washed up from the wreckage of a Thursday night in Watts. Local authorities gave the matter perfunctory attention. The New York Times consigned its brief account of Cooke’s death to page thirty-four.
Only the breathless Negro press, which had charted the progress of Cooke’s career as though it were a pilgrimage, could apply the proper noirish touches to this B-movie scenario’s last wrenching twist. “He died there, one shoe on, the other a few feet away,” Ebony magazine reported. “Outside, its motor still running, sat his $14,000 tomato-red Ferrari, under a sign advertising the motel’s rooms as, ‘$3 and up.’”
In the black America of 1964, Cooke was a personage grand enough for two funerals. Thirty-five patrol cars and fifty policemen in Chicago couldn’t keep a throng of six thousand from caving in the plate-glass windows of the funeral parlor where his body was displayed like a specimen in a natural history museum, encased in a bronze-inlaid casket with a glass cover.
His corpse was flown back to Los Angeles, where it played to packed houses in daylong continuous showings for several days. Street vendors hawked photographs taken in Chicago of Cooke in his coffin. On the day of his second funeral, residents of the neighborhood around the church blasted his records from open windows. Inside, when a gospel diva fainted and couldn’t go on, Ray Charles stepped out of the back pews to sing in her place, and stirred in men who “wrecked churches” for a living tears enough to weep like children.
The way it ended stained a life that the subtitle of Dream Boogie, Peter Guralnick’s new biography of Cooke, represents as a “triumph.” When they heard how he died, many blacks in the grass roots reflexively winced, and shrank in recoil. As they watched the narrative of his public life unfold, the image of Cooke formed by what they saw on television and read in the Negro press had seemed the embodiment of their collective best self. Its tawdry conclusion mocked the idea they’d …