Live at the Harlem Square Club : Sam Cooke (#38)

Sam Cooke | Live at the Harlem Square Club (January 1963)
RCA Records
Rhythm and Blues / Soul – 37:29

“Music is to the soul what words are to the mind.”

Modern popular music is filled with artistes leaving us before their prime. There is the infamous ’27 Club’ which nobody wants to join; the list of members who died at the age of 27 reads like a who’s who of musical genius: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse. Of course, not all of the sad demises of our pop idols happens at that point in their life and there are just as many who have died in tragic circumstances well before their prime at a different age – Elvis Presley and John Lennon spring to mind. Often it leaves you wondering what they could have produced if they had lived longer. Would they have continued to push boundaries and take music in new directions? Or would they simply grow old and fat, playing their old hits on the oldies circuit, a shadow of their former self? Often you can’t help but wonder what records would have been produced had they lived.

Among the first casualties of the popular music charts was soul singer Sam Cooke, who was killed in rather sordid circumstances at the age of just 33 in December 1964; controversy continues to surround the exact story around his shooting at a motel in Los Angeles. It was a depressing ending to a life that had been built around his talent. My knowledge of Cooke were the cross-over pop songs; tracks like Wonderful World or Bring It All Home to Me. Great songs but not ones to place him among the soul legends. His voice always sounded too soft; his style too smooth. Little did I realise there was much, much more to Cooke’s talents.

Starting out as a gospel singer, he initially found a smaller audience singing highly spiritual songs. However, he wanted more and quickly began turning out more secular numbers, despite the risk of alienating his original audience. The record executives were hoping to appeal to a mass audience, apparently without realising what they had on their hands. This all changed when they decided to record a live album, choosing the Harlem Square Club in Miami as the location. What they didn’t realise was that the largely African American crowd who turned out to see Cooke would lead to a sound that was far too raucous for the sensitive ears of Middle America. Upon hearing it, the record bosses quickly shelved the recording, where it remained undiscovered for 20 years before being found and released to wide acclaim in 1985.

Listening to Cooke sing on Live at the Harlem Square Club, it is easy to understand the nervousness. There is powerful rawness to his sound; this isn’t the pleasant man crooning on the record players in the bedrooms of the respectable teenagers but the scream of passion from a man giving his all. Suddenly it becomes clear why Sam Cooke was so revered by those who saw him. His presence smashes through the speakers and into the room with you. There are many live shows which I would have loved to have seen; this is now definitely on the list.

Things kick off with (Don’t Fight It) Feel It, with the MC introducing ‘Mr Soul’ to the stage. As the band strikes up, you can feel the crowd rise to the occasion and Cooke does not disappoint. The music is tight and within seconds Cooke has found his groove. Here is a man who is in his element and he is clearly enjoying every minute. The music barely lets up as he moves into Chain Gang; it is a cry for freedom that resonates, with Sam’s grunts adding to the feeling of a man who knows what it is like to have to fight for everything he has. Cooke brings real emotion to everything which he performs: his next number, Cupid – another of his hits, is a heartbreaking call for the god of love to help him get the girl.

There is not a single song on the album which fails to hit the mark; many live sessions will have the odd dud but each one of the tracks that Cooke performed at Harlem Square Club was a bona fide classic. He brings a cool sexiness to his medley It’s All Right/For Sentimental Reasons; you can feel the sweat pouring off you as he rocks into Twistin’ the Night Away. Bring It On Home to Me remains one of the greatest songs ever and Cooke’s rendition is achingly beautiful; pity any woman who tries to resist his soulful passion. His set comes to a close with Having A Party; an apt choice given how much fun has been had to this point.

Sam Cooke was a truly great singer; it is a shame that RCA Victor was too scared to ever allow him to give his all while he was alive. Death is always tragic but when someone of such talent is taken away, it is a heartbreaking moment. He has been dead for more than 50 years yet it still feels depressing that he his career was cut so short. Still, he was able to produce a fantastic body of work, with Live at the Harlem Square Club arguably his greatest achievement. Rather than mourn the man, put on this incredible record and let his voice take you to a place where everyone is having a party.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Live at the Harlem Square Club here:


Next time: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus