The name of music writer Peter Guralnick may not resonate with rock music fans the way names like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer do, likely because his work is informal, thoughtful, and restrained compared to that of many of his self-aggrandizingly, flamboyantly gonzo contemporaries from the early days of rock writing coming into its own. For example, his scholarly ‘90s Elvis Presley biographies Last Train to Memphis, Careless Love, and the mind-bogglingly granular Elvis Day by Day serve serious students of rock history as valuable counterpoints to the notoriously lurid sensationalism of Albert Goldman’s work on the subject.
On November 4th, Guralnick will be releasing two of his works—Sweet Soul Music and Dream Boogie—as enhanced e-books. In addition to being optimized for e-readers, the e-books will include troves of supplemental A/V material, including audio of his original interviews with figures like Ray Charles, Bobby Womack, and Solomon Burke, and newly purpose-shot video interviews. I was watching one of those video interviews when something I thought interesting jumped out. Guralnick was talking about the legendary soul singer Sam Cooke with the great Stax songwriter, singer, and producer William Bell, and of the brilliant and tragic talent behind indelible songs like “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” and “Another Saturday Night,” Bell rather bluntly asserted that “Sam started the afro.”
The idea that someone could have “started” the way a significant number of people’s hair grows normally would seem absurd absent the context of the ‘50s, when many African-Americans, quite literally second-class citizens in the US, straightened their hair in aspirational imitation of white hairstyles, especially if they were public figures like entertainers. The common men’s hairstyle was called a “process” or a “conk.” Some of the most spectacularly vertical conks were sported by James Brown, Esquerita, Little Richard, and Muddy Waters. An amazing sequence of photos in Waters’ Electric Mud LP shows his conk’s creation step-by-step. But Waters was a holdover. That LP came out in 1968, by which time processed hair was becoming passé.
Perhaps it’s because I’m from a post-boomer generation, but I’ve long been accustomed to Jimi Hendrix getting a great deal of credit as the musician who popularized the afro. Not that Sam Cooke was without conspicuous black identity bona fides; he did, after all, write the immortal and still-potent “Change is Gonna Come.” Seeking clarity, I turned to Guralnick himself, who literally wrote the book on Sam Cooke—the aforementioned Dream Boogie is it, in fact. (He also wrote the movie on Cooke.) It turns out that the man is as dizzying a fount of knowledge in conversation as he is on the printed page. Compared to the thoughtful depth and detail of his answers, my questions sound embarrassingly boneheaded, so I’ve replaced them in the following Q&A with pictures of celebrated afros.
Sam started wearing his hair natural back in 58. He saw it as a point of racial pride, and he preached it as a point of racial pride. And Otis Redding stopped processing his hair after talking with Sam—this is what Roger Redding, Otis’ brother, told me long, long, ago, and which I’m sure is true, because Sam’s brother L.C. had told me the same thing. So he went out there at a time when a large percentage, by far the majority of African-American singers were straightening their hair, Sam was out there doing it natural, and making a point of saying “I don’t want to try to look like somebody else, I’m proud of being myself, I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of my race.” And he articulated it to—not to interviewers, because nobody was interviewing him about it—but he articulated it, and I’ve heard this again and again, to other singers of that era.
This was a very unusual thing to do. I’m sure it wasn’t unique, in fact I know it wasn’t unique, but it was quite unusual, and it took a degree of self-awareness. Sam was somebody who was an inveterate reader, he just read anything and everything, from War and Peace to The New Yorker to Playboy, and he started reading black history, both African history and African-American history. He read John Hope Franklin, he started reading a great deal of that history, and really immersed himself in it, and in new people like James Baldwin and Malcom X, who were his peers.
On the night of the first Clay/Liston fight, when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, and he won the title, after the fight, Sam Cooke, Clay, Malcolm X and the football player Jim Brown went back to Malcolm X’s hotel room in the Hampton House, and the FBI had an informer there, and were extremely concerned! They saw this as a potential nexus of sports and entertainment superstars getting together on a political agenda. Sam was very serious—I don’t mean to make him out to be a crusader, but he was an extremely aware person, and extremely well-read. He once told Bobby Womack, if you want to expand your writing, you’ve got to read. You can’t just keep writing songs about “I love you I love you I love you.” You want to expand your horizons by reading. Bobby was a total disciple of Sam’s, and could describe Sam’s lessons almost word-for-word. I don’t know whether he ever became a great reader but he took the point.
One thing I think I’d emphasize, Sam’s hair was neither accidental nor happenstance. It was a well thought out response what he saw as white cultural domination and the willingness of the black community, in many instances, to see that as something to which to aspire, to want to look white, like the majority population, and he said that was ridiculous. He embraced James Baldwin’s point that this is a community of incredible joy, creativity, appreciation of life, a community that should celebrate itself, not to try to imitate anybody else.
Sam saw Black Power arise to some degree, with the Black Muslims who were preaching self-reliance, that was sort of a variation on Booker T. Washington I suppose, in a sense, though they wouldn’t have taken it that way. But the point is that was a proclamation of separateness, of black power.
So there you have it. Guralnick’s mention of that Cassius Clay story reminded me of this wonderful clip of Clay and Cooke singing together. The song is “The Gang’s All Here,” and it saw release on Clay’s LP I Am the Greatest!, which, yeah, exists. While you’re enjoying that, I’ll be starting research for my own scholarly work on the Jewfro.