While Peter Guralnick's new biography of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie, is close to definitive, I'll confess I struggled through the book's first third, largely concerned with the pop-soul icon's career-establishing gospel work, in order to savor the remaining 400 pages devoted to his secular success. No, gospel has never been my thing. I appreciate its power and glory, but it simply doesn't stir my heathen soul. If, however, gospel brightens your corner, you would be hard-pressed to find a better collection of classic tracks than this 18-track compilation co-produced by one-time Atlantic Records cronies Joel Dorn and Lee Friedlander.
Cooke is here, sounding sweet as cherry pie as he fronts the Soul Stirrers on "The Last Mile of the Way." So, too, are Mahalia Jackson, Rev. James Cleveland, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Staple Singers and the Stirrers' early '50s archrivals, the Blind Boys of Alabama. Even as unrepentant a sinner as me must confess a certain affinity for this disc. "Most people don't even realize it these days, but gospel music is at the core of American popular music. So many great artists have come out of the music of the black church throughout popular music's history," says Friedlander. Amen to that.