A City Called Glory by Neil McKay

Contact Us

BBC Radio 7, 11 April 2009
Originally broadcast in 1994, this musical biodrama recounted the short but colourful life of Sam Cooke (Lennie James), whose most famous hits included "Wonderful World." Shot dead in a lonely motel at the age of thirty-three, Cooke's career was one of continued incident as he took his first tentative steps towards stardom (under the stage name Dean Cooke) and subsequently became a superstar - using his real name - with a string of million-seller songs, regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a slew of record labels providing him with extra income.And yet there was always a sense in McKay's play that Cooke was searching for something he could never find. It might have been emotional satisfaction, physical love, peace with God, or a combination of all three.
The narrator Cheeks (Al Matthews), Cooke's bosom buddy from his earliest years, treated us like fellow-drinkers sitting opposite him in a bar, sipping quietly on our bourbons as we listened to what he had to say. This conceit worked very well, as Cheeks gradually told us more and more about Cooke's idiosyncrasies. In the beginning all we knew about him was that he had turned his back on his religious upbringing in rural Kentucky in search of fame and fortune. Once these objectives had been achieved, Cooke tried and failed to rediscover his religious roots, but found that no one wanted to help him anymore. In fact they openly rejected him at one concert in Chicago as they booed him off stage. As a failed pastor perpetually on the lookout for a loan (that he could never pay back), Cheeks sympathized with Cooke: both men ultimately failed to achieve what they had hoped for. Cheeks used the experience to acquire a certain degree of self-knowledge; Cooke, on the other hand, did not know where to stop. He brought about his own demise by taking a young woman to a motel and forcing her to have sex against her will. When she refused, he suddenly experienced a pang of conscience, and asked her to wait in his rom while he went to freshen up in the bathroom. When he returned, the girl was gone; this drove Cooke into such a frenzy that he banged on the door of the neighbouring room, convinced that the girl was hiding there. Terrified, the African-American occupant shot him several times in self-defence.
As with Take the Night, the play about Roy Orbison broadcast the previous week on Radio 7, A City Called Glory presented a warts-and-all portrait of a 1960s icon, focusing in particular on his personal shortcomings. As portrayed by James, Cooke emerged as a talented performer but an emoitional wreck, whose death in a sense represented a welcome release from torment. The production was directed by Andy Jordan.