Jul 16, 2008, 06:12AM

INTERVIEW: Erik Greene

A conversation with the great-nephew of Sam Cooke, and author of Our Uncle Sam.

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The music of Sam Cooke is a potent stimulant. It has a way of making adoring fans project endlessly into the thin air of the music blogosphere. It causes secular twentysomethings to suddenly search for salvation.

All in all, it has spawned volumes upon volumes of writing—both professional and “non-professional”—on the man, his music, and his life. Our Uncle Sam is the latest biography to join the Sam Cooke literary canon. Written by Erik Greene, Cooke’s great nephew, Our Uncle Sam traces the singer’s legacy back to his familial origins. Through his relatives’ anecdotes, the story of Sam Cooke takes on a whole new level of intimacy and candor. But Greene’s actions go beyond just the publication of this biography. His work in establishing open discussion of his uncle’s music, life, and death is evident in the comments section of countless college newspapers and blog posts. You might have noticed his clarifications under such names as “Sam’s Neph” or simply “Erik.” It’s this kind of outreach that separates Greene and his biography from its predecessors. For every one of Cooke’s songs, there is a personal story. And Greene has a way of connecting them all.

SPLICE TODAY: During your research for the book was there one anecdote about Sam that stood out for any particular reason?

ERIK GREENE: Personally, my favorite is when Sam had a gig at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar in the summer of 1961. Since Detroit is so geographically close to Sam’s hometown of Chicago, he had scores of friends and family make the journey to see him perform live. Sam, in an effort to make his guests as comfortable as possible, rented out the entire floor of a local hotel for the group.

On the whole, this story emphasizes Sam’s enormous generosity and his attitude that nothing was too good for close friends and family. But not lost in the shuffle were Sam’s nephews Maurice and Eugene, who were 13 and 11 at the time. Not only did they have their own hotel room, Sam told them to feel free to order room service and have it charged to the room. Gene remembers they ordered more food than they had could eat, and the pair almost made themselves sick. It would’ve been easy to neglect the feelings of boys too young to attend the show, but Sam didn’t. He made sure they enjoyed their time in Detroit just like everyone else. It was this level of thoughtfulness that made Sam special.

ST: You've said before that in college Sam's music took a back seat in your life. What was the defining moment that turned your ears back to your uncle's music?

EG: I stopped trying to win over the girl of my dreams the night she matter-of-factly stated she had a new boyfriend. I was living with my grandparents at the time, but wanted to talk my feelings over with my mother. I walked into her living room just as the intro to “Trouble Blues” was playing, and I plopped down on her couch and listened as every note seemed to be directed to my broken heart. That night, I felt the power of my uncle’s voice and was changed forever. Sam’s humming intro to “Trouble Blues” is still special to me and it is the intro on my book’s website.

ST: I've heard you mention that it's easier to identify with Sam's music by having experienced some degree of heartbreak. But don't you think romance and budding affection are themes that are just as prominent in his work?

EG: Probably more so. Songs like “Wonderful World,” “That’s Where It’s At,” “Send Me Some Lovin’,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” “Nothing Can Change this Love”…even second tier songs like “Let’s Go Steady Again” and “One More Time.” Ballads were some of Sam’s most touching and memorable songs.

ST: Many people, before reading your book, do not realize that Sam Cooke's siblings receive zero royalties from his music nor do they have any control over his music catalog. What exactly happened that caused one of the first artists, black or white, to have complete control of their publishing rights to pass on virtually nothing to his family after his death?

EG: There was a lot going on behind the scenes in Sam’s life around the time of his death. In Our Uncle Sam, I show how the ownership of his holding company changed from his hands into the hands of his manager, Allen Klein. At the time of his death, his will was never found and said to have not been registered, leaving his brothers and sisters out in the cold. Over the next few years Allen Klein took control of most of his music catalog, and his ABKCO Records label retains control to this day. Sam discovered irregularities in his holdings and had planned to make major changes in his business and personal lives right before he died.

ST: Sam performed everywhere. Two of his most famous concerts were at the Harlem Square Club and the Copacabana, two clubs that could not be any more different. Was there a certain venue that Sam felt most comfortable in, or did he revel in all audiences?

EG: Sam loved gospel first and foremost, but his talent wasn’t limited there. He also excelled at pop, blues, and supper-club classics. Sam was such a special artist because he knew how to play to the crowd before him, a lesson he learned the hard way at the Copacabana in 1958. That run was important in Sam’s development because it taught him he was at his best when sang songs within his comfort zone.

ST: There is an excerpt in Joe Evans' autobiography Follow Your Heart in which he claims that Sam Cooke once tried to imitate Jackie Wilson's on-stage antics. Do you know of any artists that Sam greatly admired in his lifetime, maybe even wanted to emulate?

EG: When Sam first gained prominence as a Soul Stirrer, it was said he copied the style of R.H. Harris, but this was never really the case. According to his older brother Charles, Sam’s style was all his own. He laughs at Harris’ claim that he taught Sam proper diction because Sam’s diction was better than Harris’ ever was! Sam’s youngest sister Agnes admittedly said Sam would emulate Bill Kinney of the Ink Spots as a kid. As Sam gained prominence, he became the artist more and more singers wanted to sound like.

ST: Clearly there was a considerable amount of imitation and emulation in the 70s soul era. One of the most blatant Sam Cooke imitators was Louis Williams, who fronted the once popular Ovations. Williams, an unbelievable singer in his own right, did everything he could to match Sam's timbre and mimic his between-lyrics banter. But beyond just that, Williams even reworked Sam's songs. For example he took the Soul Stirrers classic "He's So Wonderful" and turned it into the Ovations hit "It's Wonderful To Be in Love." Now I know Sam was a proponent of spreading his music any way he could. But do you think in this instance, Williams' emulation crossed a certain line?

EG: I’ve always thought Louis Williams sounded closer to Sam Cooke than any other male singer I’ve heard. His vocals and phrasing were blatantly Sam, especially on the song “It’s Wonderful to Be in Love.” But while Williams’ style may not have been original, I agree with your assessment of his immense talent. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, and I think Williams’ bore his sound out of pure admiration of Sam.

ST: One of the hardest things for "Cookies" to digest is the tragic death? of their hero. When Sam died, it seemed that everyone was affected. (Solomon Burke responded by writing "Got To Get You Off My Mind." He apparently also received a notice that day that his wife was filing?for divorce.) What do people not know about Sam's death and its impact on the music community?

EG: Though I write my book from the family’s perspective, I’m wholly aware of the amount of respect my uncle garnered from other artists. The respect amongst Sam’s peers came from more than just his talent onstage. His generosity, pioneering business efforts, and genuine good nature made him as popular amongst other artists as he was with his fans.

Sam’s death was tragic within the music industry not only because he was well-liked, but also because of what he symbolized—a black man in America not afraid to challenge a corrupt industry of which artists knew all too well. In addition, the bizarre story surrounding his demise was even harder to accept, especially amongst those who knew him well. Friends and family could tell you the thought of Sam Cooke taking a woman to a seedy motel against her will was unfathomable when it came to the man they knew, and artists who performed, toured, and knew him intimately would attest the same.

ST: Soul music has persisted for decades while other genres have come and gone. Although maybe that's a bit unfair to say, considering that even disco is experiencing a renaissance right now. With labels like Numero and Vampisoul growing in popularity by distributing these "forgotten" nuggets of American soul music, one has to ask, what is it about soul, and Cooke's music, that makes it still relevant today?

EG: Sam was a musical genius, and his collective efforts have helped make his popular hits timeless. Besides possessing a one-of-a-kind voice, he was an excellent songwriter, producer, and arranger. He wrote most of his major hits including “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Cupid,” “You Send Me,” “Having a Party,” “Only Sixteen,” “Wonderful World,” and “A Change is Gonna Come.” While his lyrics have sometimes been downplayed for their simplicity, I believe it’s this simplicity that makes them so special. Sam sang to the common man—about everything from God to love to socio-political issues—and he never fell victim to having all of his songs sound the same. I say in Our Uncle Sam “good music is eternal, and has the ability to transcend all age barriers,” and the longevity of Sam’s legacy is proof of that.

ST: You personally have done a tremendous job of scouring the web for articles about Sam Cooke in blog posts and college newspapers, leaving comments and initiating some very interesting discussions. What is so valuable about these group discussions? And is there something more intriguing about these "non-professional" sites as platforms for this sort of discourse?

EG: Family, friends, and customers who’ve ordered my book constantly direct me to interesting blogs, discussions or pieces of information they come across pertaining to Sam Cooke. I read all of them and answer some. Blogs and “non-professional” sites are important because a lot of times they involve one person or an exclusive group (college newspapers, for example) expressing themselves in what’s almost akin to singing in the shower—there may not be anyone listening, but it makes them feel good to vent just the same.

I take pride in addressing these venues, mainly because bloggers have no idea there’s a community of people who share the same love for Sam’s music, respect for his accomplishments, and questions and thoughts about his death. To me, there’s nothing more pleasing than introducing myself to a die-hard “Cookie,” and letting them know they’re not alone. Personally, my family had no idea Sam touched so many lives until the first Sam Cooke Fan Club Tribute was formed by fans on a Yahoo message board, so there’s no reason why its growth shouldn’t continue via the Internet. Sam Cooke’s contributions to the music world were so important, that if there’s a solitary voice yelling in the wind, I feel compelled to let them know there are others of us out there.

ST: Do you have a favorite song or album of Sam's that you play more than others?

EG: I’m often asked this question but my answer is complex, simply because there are too many! Since Sam’s career was so diverse, I tend to break it up into gospel and pop. Within his pop songs however, there are popular songs I like and some that are not so popular, so here goes:

From his gospel works, my favorites are “Jesus, Wash Away My Troubles,” “(I’m So Glad) Trouble Don’t Last Always,” “Lord Remember Me,” “Any Day Now” (few male singers could sing that song effectively) and “Just Another Day.”

As far as his popular works, my favorites are “Bring It On Home to Me,” “That’s Where It’s At,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” and “Summertime.”

Among his “second tier” songs, I love “Trouble Blues,” “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” “Willow, Weep For Me,” and “Love Me.”

The true gold is found in his versions of the classics: “To Each His Own,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Lucky Old Sun,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and “I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

Our Uncle Sam can be purchased from Amazon.com or directly at www.ourunclesam.com 


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