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The Black Elvis

By Dustin Rowles | Pajiba Storytellers | July 20, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Pajiba Storytellers | July 20, 2010 |

Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

During the same few years that Elvis Presley was transforming black gospel music into crossover success with mainstream audiences, Sam Cooke — an actual black gospel singer — was doing the same, charting 29 Top 40 Hits between 1957 and 1964, which coincided approximately with Presley’s breakout success. Like Presley, Cooke was also born poor in Mississippi, and also like Presley, they both found their initial inspiration in their religious upbringings. Moreover, during the height of each man’s career, they were both massive teenage heartthrobs; Elvis with white women, and Sam with black women.

The major difference between the two, of course, was that Sam Cooke has one of the best voices in the history of pop music. He wasn’t the showman that Elvis was, but the man could sing the fucking roof off of a skyscraper. The other difference was that Elvis Presley’s music was candy — it was massively popular, but largely frivolous, while Cooke could inject sophistication and intelligence into his songs. And he could deliver a vocal, too.

When you listen to Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and especially Otis Redding, you hear the undeniable influence of Sam Cooke.

He had an interesting life, and a sometimes controversial career. After taking over as lead singer for the Soul Stirrers, Cooke struggled with his transition from gospel superstar to pop-music superstar. He was eventually booted from the Stirrers after his secular music alienated his gospel base, which is when Bumps Blackwell took over his contract, making Cooke the huge pop success that he was. Even after becoming a huge pop music superstar, however, Cooke temporarily flamed out during a two year period, as he fought with his record company over royalties before starting his own label and becoming one of the first African-American musicians to do so.

In 1963, Cooke heard Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and — so distressed that he hadn’t come up with that song before a white man had — he would write one of his most powerful songs, the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, a song played upon the death of Malcolm X, and a song paraphrased by President Obama in his presidential victory speech. Also, one of the single greatest pop songs in the history of music.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” wouldn’t be released until 1965, a year after Cooke’s mysterious death. He was shot by Bertha Franklin, the manager of seedy motel that Cooke was staying in. Cooke was found naked, but for a sports coat and his shoes. There is a lot of controversy surrounding his death. Bertha Franklin claimed to have shot him in self-defense, after Cooke threatened her because the manager wouldn’t tell Cooke where Elisa Boyer was, a woman that had either accompanied Cooke back to his hotel to rob him, or was kidnapped and nearly raped by Cooke, depending on which version of events you believe. There’s also a third version of the events: a grand conspiracy to murder Cooke, a theory supported by Etta James. No one really knows the true circumstances surrounding the death of Cooke, but it would make for one hell of a compelling mystery.

A movie, should Hollywood deem to make one, could easily be based on Peter Garulnick’s brilliant and exhaustive 650-page biography charting the rise and fall of Cooke. It’s a inspirational and dark story ripe for telling, but no one in Hollywood has dared yet to take on the project, which is rife with complexity and ambiguity. If they did, there’s only one person in my mind perfect for the role, a man who I’ve been seeing as Cooke ever since his Oscar-nominated turn in Hustle & Flow: Terrence Howard (who, coincidentally, is also attached to a Marvin Gaye biopic, a singer who would die under similarly strange circumstances). Add to that Denzel Washington as director and Bumps Blackwell, and there ought to be enough star wattage in A Change Is Gonna Come to give it a modicum of mainstream success and, with hope, she new light on Cooke’s brilliant catalog of gospel and pop music.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.