My All-Timers: 31. Sam Cooke — Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

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While re-listening to this record last night, I was telling my wife that I’d be writing about it this week. I paused for a moment, and then started to say that this record just makes me so happy, and I nearly started crying. Becoming a father has probably made me even more of an easily-crying softie than I already was, but this was an odd reaction even for me. Why did I almost weep like a baby simply by thinking about music?

Perhaps it’s because this music, this live album, is a non-stop rush of joy that possesses the inherent quality in music that makes our everyday grind worth the pain, worth the suffering. Any amount of horror can be at least temporarily forgotten with a good beat to dance to, and you will find an absolute party within when you put on Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.

If you know the songs of Sam Cooke, you probably know the soulful ballads like “A Change is Gonna Come,” or the fun pop-soul of “What a Wonderful World” (the “don’t know much about history” song). Most of Cooke’s studio recordings are impeccable. He sang lovely songs and had a lovely voice. But they didn’t swing, and they had very little grit. They were nicely recorded gems from RCA Records, but they didn’t hit you in the gut.

When Cooke recorded a live album in Miami’s Harlem Square Club in 1963, RCA got the tapes and immediately shelved the album. Despite being totally goddamn awesome, they apparently thought it was too awesome, or more to the point, it was too raw and real and it didn’t sound like the Sam Cooke they wanted the public to hear. Harlem Square Club didn’t even get released until 1985, 21 years after Cooke died of a gunshot in a very murky situation at a hotel.

It’s a shame that Cooke’s death is shrouded in such uncomfortable circumstance, and it’s also a shame that he’s not as closely associated with this record, as it’s far and away the best representation of his abilities. This type of artistic high point doesn’t always come in a studio, and it rarely comes in front of thousands of people. But it can quite easily come when you’re packed in a room with a couple hundred people, which is just what happens on Harlem Square Club. When Cooke takes the stage and asks the crowd how they’re doing tonight, he has to ask this question three times to even get the typical response of “WOOOOO.” From the get-go, Cooke knows that he’ll have to work harder than usual to get this room on his side, and if that means his record label won’t enjoy the results, then so be it. All that matters is Cooke and the people in that room.

As the band launches into “Feel It,” it sounds as if they’re trying to escape from the speakers and invade your personal space. Your head might as well be inside the bass drum. Everything about this record is up close and personal, literally as if you’re in the front row, standing right before Cooke (I know I said this about the James Brown live record a few months ago, but it’s especially true here.) “Feel It” sets a quicker tempo than what shows up on the rest of the record, but its essence is felt throughout. The crowd is on top of you, the band is right on top of you, and the tunes come hard.

Even songs like “Cupid” and “Chain Gang,” whose recorded versions are polite and not very threatening, become scorching jams that get the crowd stirred up something fierce. In the “UHH — HAA” parts of “Chain Gang,” Cooke makes everyone chant along with him. On the album closer “Having a Party,” Cooke shows the crowd how to sing along with the chorus, and they all comply with fury. At one point he also commands them to “TAKE YOUR HANDKERCHIEF AROUND,” which I assume means to spin your handkerchief around in the air, since literally everyone in 1963 carried a handkerchief, I guess. Singing, dancing, throwing your handkerchief at people…it would have been so amazing to be at this show.

Just four songs in, Cooke feels so at ease with his audience that he introduces “It’s All Right” with a monologue about staying faithful to your woman and believing everything she tells you, even if all your friends are telling you the opposite. But what you need to do, Cooke says, is come home at night, wake her up and “wait til she wipes all the sleep from her eyes,” and at that moment, Cooke seamlessly begins a gravelly croon and starts the song. It’s one of like, 100 fabulous musical moments from the record, most of which come from Cooke’s vocal improvisations and flourishes. He is a man possessed here, singing with a freedom he obviously never was allowed in the studio.

Cooke’s exhilaration on this record is bittersweet when you realize he died just over a year later. What if Cooke had broken with RCA Records, somehow gotten Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 released, and then become known as an entirely different type of artist? He could have been a badass soul dude of the 70’s, and then probably have matured with age and continued to do incredible things. Cooke had a voice that absolutely would have held up even in old age. It’s just terrible how things ended for him. But for the lack of a long career that we got from him, at least we have this brilliant live record to remember him by.

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