03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
by Daniel Wolff, with S.R. Crain, Clifton White and G. David Tenenbaum
Rock and roll has heard few voices as lovely and seen few personalities more beloved than Sam Cooke. Crossing over from gospel to pop in the '50s, he became one of the founding fathers of rock and roll and one of its first black superstars. His melding of gospel's rousing rhythms and yearning vocals with pop resulted in a string of Top 40 hits—"You Send Me," "Chain Gang," "Bring It on Home to Me." He helped create the genre that came to be known as soul music and influenced stars like Otis Redding, Lou Rawls, Al Green and even Jimi Hendrix, who toured as Cooke's guitarist in 1963.
Sadly, Cooke died a year later, at 33, shot by a motel manager at a hooker's haven in South Los Angeles under circumstances that remain murky after 30 years. Wolff and his collaborators fill a glaring void with this first and richly detailed study of one rock star whose seeming made-for-the-movies story has never been touched by Hollywood.
Of his subject Wolff writes: "Life seemed to pop off his fingertips...." Cooke's tragic flaw, he argues, was not born of his violation of the gospel code that condemns the crossover from spiritual to secular music—"You can't serve the Lord and the devil too," warns one old bluesman. Wolff believes that Cooke, a lady-killer even during his gospel days, was doomed to die during an illicit tryst-gone-wrong because of the very magnetic sexual energy that helped make him a star. (Morrow, $23)