Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 is an essential soul recording, the greatest live album in history and, most importantly, my favorite record. Sam Cooke is the King of Soul, but a legacy built purely on his studio records would belittle his incomparable talent as a performer.
Live at the Harlem Square Club was almost never released. Recorded in 1963, the record was too raw and powerful for the studio executives who were attempting to sell Sam as a mainstream pop artist.
Cut to 1985, when a record executive named Gregg Geller discovered those recordings and quickly released Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. It's now considered one of the greatest live albums ever recorded, though Geller says he understands what gave his predecessors pause.
"Sam was what we've come to call a crossover artist: He crossed over from gospel to pop, which was controversial enough in its day. But once he became a pop artist, he had a certain mainstream image to protect," Geller says. "The fact is, when he was out on the road, he was playing to a predominantly, almost exclusively black audience. And he was doing a different kind of show a much more down-home, down-to-earth, gut-bucket kind of show than what he would do for his pop audience."
Like watching a goldfish swim in a bowl after visiting the aquarium, listening to Sam's studio recordings after hearing Live at the Harlem Square Club is dissatisfying. Freed from the restraints of the studio, Sam ably demonstrates his range as a performer. Propelling the band through faster, looser arrangements of his hits, Sam drives the audience hysterical with his improvisations, his intensity and more than anything, his implausible voice.
"Bring It On Home To Me" is a microcosm of the record's best elements: the impromptu asides, the band's fluidity, the boisterous passion of the crowd and Sam's complete control over it all. The song opens with more than two extemporized minutes of Sam teasing the crowd into a wild frenzy, and finishes with him effortlessly leading the audience in a call and response prompted with the simple command: "Everybody's with me tonight!" The radio executives were right: Sam's passionate performance at the Harlem Square Club is more than soulful -- it's forceful, sensual and vigorously authentic.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Sam's premature death and I am eternally grateful that this record exists. Without it, our memory of Sam's prodigious talent would be incomplete.
On Monday, Har Mar Superstar wrote about Sam Cooke's last words, "lady, you shot me." But for me, Sam's goodbye is Harlem Square Club's final song, "Having a Party." As it ends, Sam implores the audience:
"I don't wanna quit. I don't wanna to quit now! But it looks like I gotta go now.
"You keep on having a party. I gotta go, but when you go home, keep on having that party. No matter where you at, remember I told you to keep on having that party. If you're with your loved ones somewhere, keep on having that party. If you feel good all alone riding with the radio sometime, riding in a car and the radio is on, keep on having that party."
This week, The Current celebrates Sam Cooke in honor of Black History Month. Listen for Cooke's music throughout the week, and stay tuned for Ella Fitzgerald featured next week.
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