“Whatever you write,” says Peter Guralnick, “whether it’s a short story, novel, biography, or liner notes, if you don’t end up somewhere other than where you started out, you haven’t done your job.”

Guralnick spent more than two decades researching and writing Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown), a magnificent volume that repositions the singer as one of the most significant musical figures of the rock era. Cooke lived only 33 years, dying a violent death in 1964, but Guralnick devotes more than 700 pages to the tale. Chicago plays a crucial role: the son of a Baptist preacher, Cooke grew up in Bronzeville and starred in local gospel groups like the Highway QCs and the Soul Stirrers before becoming a successful solo artist with a series of honeyed soul hits like “You Send Me.” He’d go on to write more topical anthems that reflected his involvement in the civil rights movement like “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and develop his own label and publishing companies.

Guralnick began researching Cooke in the early 80s, when he interviewed J.W. Alexander, Cooke’s mentor and business partner, for his 1986 book, Sweet Soul Music. “The chapter I wrote about Sam for the book really served as an outline for the biography,” he says. “But it took me 20 years to fully understand the significance of everything that J.W. had said in that original interview.”

In the years that followed, he wrote liner notes for various Cooke reissues (including a 1994 box set of songs released by the singer’s SAR label) and interviewed intimates like Cooke protege Bobby Womack and Cooke’s younger brother, L.C. But for a decade Guralnick was mostly busy working on the two volumes of his acclaimed Elvis bio, Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1998). Afterward he was free to devote himself to Cooke, but the publishing industry was initially cool to the idea. “The response I ran into from a good number of the agents I spoke to was what a bad career move it would be to write about Sam Cooke,” he says. He could’ve earned significantly more writing about bigger rock and pop figures, he says, but money wasn’t the issue. “It wasn’t a matter of choice–I knew I was going to do the Cooke biography,” he says.

He began writing Dream Boogie in 2001–“I actually started on the morning of September 11, which was rather memorable,” he says–finally finishing four years and several drafts later. It’s a complex, panoramic study that vastly improves on the only previous Cooke biography, Daniel Wolff’s workmanlike You Send Me (1995). Guralnick gained access to troves of unexamined documents and session tapes and to Cooke’s confidants and family; Cooke’s widow, Barbara, who had declined all previous interview requests, agreed to talk. In the process, Guralnick’s admiration for Cooke only increased. “Sam might do 38 takes of the same song, but the idea was to dig deeper and deeper into it,” he says. “Whereas with someone like Jerry Lee Lewis or Howlin’ Wolf it was completely different–it was a variation, a unique performance. But with Sam it was always about digging deeper for the true meaning.”

Cooke had complicated and often contradictory impulses as a musician. “He was headed in so many different directions,” Guralnick says. “Even on the last night of his life he was saying, ‘I’m going to Vegas, then I’m going to make movies, and then I’m going to make a blues album that is down-home and gutsy enough that it will reflect the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker.’ How do you reconcile all that?”

Guralnick offers differing perspectives of Cooke, but he’s a famously nonjudgmental biographer. He certainly could have made a villain out of Allen Klein, Cooke’s business manager and musical executor, who’s often depicted as a Mephistophelian figure in histories of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. But even he gets an evenhanded treatment in Dream Boogie. Guralnick dismisses the oft-made criticism that he’s not opinionated enough in his work or harsh enough on his subjects. “People will say, ‘Oh, you just don’t have the guts to say what you really think,'” he says. “But it takes more guts to do what you can to portray people honestly and fairly. I mean, it’s easy to write that someone is an asshole.”

The details of Cooke’s death are decidedly sordid: on the night of December 11, 1964, he was shot repeatedly by a Los Angeles motel manager after chasing a prostitute who’d stolen his clothes and bankroll. Cooke’s final moments were at odds with the classy image he’d cultivated. “I went into the death with J.W. Alexander, and he just kinda shook his head,” Guralnick says. “He saw it as a terrible waste, but never doubted that’s how it went down. Nor do I think did any of the people who were closest to Sam. They all understood how it happened, or at least how it could’ve happened. But for the community at large it was a terrible shock, and shattered this vision they had of Sam as this paragon that went way beyond just being a star. It was as though he was so smooth, how could something so fractured happen to him?”

The book’s narrative ends a few months after Cooke died, when Womack married Barbara, but Guralnick says he could have written at length about the conspiracy theories that have sprung up since then. “They all saw Sam cut down because he was a proud black man in America and white society wouldn’t let him go any higher,” he says. “That’s totally understandable from a metaphorical point of view. It’s just that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support any of those stories.”

Guralnick’s taking a break from biographies for the moment–he’s currently writing his second work of fiction, a collection of short stories–but he’s promoting Dream Boogie on a 15-city tour that brings him to Chicago next month. On November 10 he’ll join DJ Herb Kent, L.C. Cooke, and journalist Dave Hoekstra at a panel discussion and reading at the DuSable Museum; the following night he’ll sign copies of the book at FitzGerald’s, where Otis Clay and others will perform Cooke’s music.

Little, Brown is publishing a reported 125,000 copies of Dream Boogie. That response, Guralnick says, is a testament to Cooke’s continuing relevance today. “One of the reasons his music has sustained over the years is that it’s so open-ended,” he says. “In songs like ‘Having a Party’ or ‘Good Times,’ while they’re written as celebrations of good times, there’s always a sense that we may never have these good times again. And I think that comes through. All of his songs, even the simplest ones, are subject to such varying interpretations they’re almost prismatic.

“You can see this even in ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ which you would think would be limited to its era, since it’s a song so directly about the civil rights movement. And yet it continues to be sung and brought up, like in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. People were saying, ‘A change is gonna come.’ And God knows we still need a change.”

Peter Guralnick

When: Thu 11/10, 7 PM

Where: DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl.

Price: Free

Info: 773-947-0600, ext. 236

More: Reservations recommended

When: Fri 11/11, 10 PM

Where: FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn

Price: $15

Info: 708-788-2118 or 312-559-1212

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Gahr.