Album Review #38: Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke (1963)

Live at the Harlem Square Club (v. 1), Sam Cooke

This album is a bit of an interesting one, in that despite it being widely considered a classic 60’s record, it wasn’t actually given an official release until 1985. You can thank the geniuses at RCA Records, who apparently thought the recording was “too rough and gritty” for Sam Cooke’s clean pop image. This would eventually prove to be one of the most baffling record label decisions of all time, as it would become an immediate classic almost as soon as it left the archives 22 years later. The album really is quite astonishing, being without a doubt the greatest showcase of Cooke’s out-of-studio abilities of his entire tragically short career. We may never truly be able to understand record label executive’s thinking, but we can sure understand that they kept from the masses a true classic of live rock and R&B.

Side A

The album kicks off with an incredible intro of roaring, growling saxophone before “Mr. Soul” is introduced onto the stage. He takes a moment getting the crowd riled up before launching into the first song on the setlist: “Feel It.” The music on this record is loose, even a little sloppy, but this style serves the music very well. The energy in his voice is tangible, and the strumming of the guitar and bashing of the drums work together beautifully to create a loud, foot-stomping sound that would make any crowd go crazy. Next up is “Chain Gang,” punctuated by angry grunts and a ridiculously catchy vocal melody. The instrumentals are more of the same, but that’s not really a negative, as they just work so well with pretty much any song Cooke sings. It’s on this track that he first brings audience participation into the mix, with the crowd providing the song’s signature grunts throughout the second half. After that comes a song that’s much more sweet and gentle, the love ballad “Cupid.” I really can’t stress enough just how well Cooke’s voice promotes the music his band plays: be it loud and fast or soft and tender, he pulls it off with utter perfection on pretty much every track. This is even further exemplified by the following track, “It’s All Right / For Sentimental Reasons.” This is probably my favorite of the album’s nine songs. “Is everybody in favor of getting romantic?” Cooke calls to the crowd, with a resounding yes from the crowd. He starts it off with a spoken intro before jumping into his rough-but-powerful vocals, delivering each lyric with emotion and care. “Oh, I like this song!” he interjects between lines, and boy does it show. Probably the best part comes in the track’s second half, where the audience starts shouting out his lines for him. I don’t blame them one bit: his performance is simply so engrossing that, were I there in the crowd that night, I don’t think I’d be able to control my excitement either. The side wraps up with one last fast-and-exciting song, “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and the sheer momentum he’s built up by this point in the set is frankly astounding. The messy but highly enjoyable backing band is in full swing here, accompanying Cooke’s electrifying vocals with pure excellence. He can barely even contain himself onstage, and it’s with this track that I think his sheer talent for live performance is best on display.

Sam Cooke thoughtontracks[dot]com

Cooke in the recording booth, coffee in hand. Image source: thoughtontracks.com

Side B

The record’s second side starts with “Somebody Have Mercy,” yet another passionate track with vocals sung with Gospel levels of emotion. The tense buildup of the second half is great, and its euphoric, explosive climax is simply one of the record’s finest moments. The song then seamlessly transitions into the next, “Bring it on Home to Me,” which takes the previous song’s energy and maintains it incredibly well. Cooke’s vocal melodies are truly one of R&B’s greatest, and this is one of the best places to hear it. The crowd’s still loving it, once again participating in the music with call-and-response shouting and the best sounding singing a large unorganized crowd is capable of pulling off. Up next is “Nothing Can Change This Love.” It’s short compared to the surrounding tracks, but it still proves itself to be a sweet and memorable pop tune that shines bright despite being sandwiched between much more prominent tracks. The final track of the setlist is “Having a Party.” It closes the album off excellently, although the fact that it closes the album off at all could be seen as a negative. “I don’t wanna quit!” he shouts, and you can tell the audience shares the sentiment. This is a performance that you just don’t want to end.

Just over a year after this live album was recorded, tragedy struck. To this day, the circumstances remain shrouded in mystery, but all that is known for sure about what happened can be summarized as the following. On December 11th, 1964, Bertha Franklin, manager of the Hacienda Hotel in Los Angeles, was confronted by Sam Cooke, who burst into her office half naked, seemingly in a daze. Franklin believed he was going to attack her, and in response pulled out a gun and shot Cooke in the chest. She maintained her stance that it was in self-defense, but many to this day refuse to believe her version of the story. Firstly, there were no witnesses other than Bertha Franklin herself. Secondly and perhaps most damningly of all, Cooke’s body was found to have been badly beaten in the autopsy report. To this day nobody knows the truth of what really happened, and both sides carry valid points and arguments. Either way, fans were utterly horrified and distraught. 200,000 people attended Sam Cooke’s funeral a week later, and he remains regarded as one of R&B’s greatest talents.

In spite of the tragedy that loomed in the near future, this live recording remains an engrossing document of a man at the absolute peak of his musical talents. Live at the Harlem Square Club is one of the greatest live recordings of the decade, and any fan of classic rock and R&B owes it to themself to give this record a good listen. This one has my top recommendation.

Favorite Tracks: “It’s All Right / For Sentimental Reasons,” “Somebody Have Mercy,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” ” Feel It,” “Bring it on Home to Me”

Next Up: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus (1963)

Album Review #32: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)

Green Onions, Booker T and the M G s

If Jimmy Smith broke new ground by opening the gate for the organ to enter the world of mainstream music, Booker T. and The M.G.s were the ones to truly refine it to its peak potential as an artform. Whereas Jimmy Smith used it as a jazz instrument, providing mostly cool backing to the other performers, The M.G.s used it as a Rock and Roll instrument, bringing it to the forefront of the band and unleashing its full potential as an artistic tool. Coupling the organ with an electric guitar, bass, and drums, they created an iconic, instantly recognizable sound that both ties it to its time period and never grows old.

Although the M.G.s changed their lineup quite frequently, it is their original lineup, featured here, that is most well-known. Maintained from their debut until three years later in 1965, it featured Booker T. Jones on the Hammond organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Lewie Steinberg on bass, and Al Jackson Jr. on drums. While it’s hard to deny that Booker T.’s organ is the highlight of the ensemble, credit must be given to Steve Cropper’s guitar. He has a distinct playing style that compliments the organ quite well. The band’s overall style is unmistakably theirs, and still holds up very well today. It sounds somewhat like a strange marriage of classic rock and roll and baseball stadium music, and it is absolutely a good thing. Even the covers on this record sound more like M.G.s songs than their original artist’s. You could listen to a song of their’s that you’ve never even heard before, and still easily identify it as their song, and that really is the mark of a band who’s perfected their craft.

Booker T. and The M.G.s rollingstonedotcom

From left to right: Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson Jr., Lewie Steinberg.

Image source: rollingstone.com

When it comes to tracks, boy does this album pack a punch. Right off the bat there’s the title track, their most successful single and one of the most recognizable songs of the first half of the Sixties. The organ on this track is borderline perfect, providing without a doubt the most memorable melody of the entire record. Cropper’s guitar plays with short, chopped-up notes that go excellently with the organ line underneath it. The whole track really is just a joy to listen to, and is absolutely deserving of its enduring popularity. Up next is “Rinky Dink,” a nice, catchy tune with a great guitar hook, and after that is a superb cover of the Ray Charles staple “I Got a Woman” that more than does the original justice. However, with the exception of the final track “Comin’ Home Baby,” Side B kind of just falls flat, at least compared to Side A. It isn’t bad, but just isn’t really as interesting as the first side. “Comin’ Home Baby” is incredible however, with a quiet, subtle mood and strangely sad organ part that wraps up the album quite nicely.

So even if the second side wasn’t the greatest, this album is more than worth a listen. Even if you’ve never heard of the band before, “Green Onions” and to an extent the songs that follow it are so ingrained in American culture that you’ve more than likely heard it before without even knowing it. And their success is deserving: they created their own style and refined it to perfection, further solidifying the organ as an acceptable instrument in popular music. Even regardless of its importance, it’s just a fun listen. I would highly recommend this one.

Favorite Tracks: “Green Onions,” Rinky Dink,” “I Got a Woman,” “Comin’ Home Baby”

Next Up: Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (1962)

Album Review #31: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles (1962)

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Ray Charles

Ray Charles’ previous album on this list, The Genius of Ray Charles, was really just a warmup. This is Ray at his peak. Every track is passionate, soulful, and moving, even the fast and upbeat ones. This record is pure innovation at its finest. It’s just bounding with creativity, and each of the twelve tracks on display here are Ray Charles at the absolute pinnacle of his artistic abilities. He takes classic country songs that you would never think would be compatible with his R&B/Big Band style and makes them work beautifully, making the old standards feel new and exciting while retaining the emotion of the original. It’s a perfect fusion of the old and the new, and it holds up marvelously even today.

It was certainly a radical creative decision. His current audience would be averse to the country, and the country crowd would be averse to the jazz/R&B. It seemed, to the record executives at least, to be career suicide. But somehow, against all odds, he pulled it off. It wasn’t chance either. Ray Charles’ genius as a musician turned the album that would never be a success into a cultural phenomenon, winning over the critics, the public, and even his own fans in one fell swoop. Listening to it, his mastery of the artform is impossible to deny. Each and every lyric is sung with emotion and passion so strong you can feel it in your chest, and the arrangements that back his vocals are masterful, perfectly complimenting the lyrics with soul-melting harmony. Most of the album is slow balladry, but the one or two fast big band tunes are exciting as anything on The Genius of Ray Charles. No matter what kind of song it is, Ray just seems to know exactly what to do to make it perfect.

Ray Charles kalamudotcom

Image source: kalamu.com

The album’s first track, “Bye Bye Love,” doesn’t pull any punches. It’s explosive, energetic, and so catchy it should be considered a cognitohazard. That said, at the same time it’s bizarrely sad. The lyrics, like the majority of the album, are a pretty depressing tale of lost love, and despite being completely at odds with the tone of the music, it weirdly works. The backup singers will stick in your head for days, and the percussion drives the song along excellently.The next track, “You Don’t Know Me,” is my personal favorite song off the album. Here, Ray trades out the brass band for a string section, and goes full on depressing string ballad with lyrics about unrequited love and isolation. The chords and harmonies are haunting, and Ray’s vocals are just painfully sad and mournful. He sure does know exactly what to do to pull at your heartstrings in a moment, and he doesn’t hold back. The rest of the album keeps up the standard set by the first two tracks, and even though most of the lyrics deal with the same topic, it still feels fresh throughout. He may not have written the lyrics, but the way he performs them with every inch of his soul, he might as well have. The final track, “Hey Good Lookin’,” ends the album on a more uplifting note, dropping the doom and gloom and leaving the record on a happy, upbeat big band tune that’s a welcome shift from the rest of the record, and does a great job of helping your mood recover before it closes.

This album is indispensable. Not only did it help bridge barriers in a time of severe racial tension, but it also broke down the barrier between genres for future style experimenters, all while simply giving the world an excellent album to enjoy. It’s without a doubt Ray Charles’ greatest achievement, and anyone interested in his music should give this record a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “You Don’t Know Me,” “Bye Bye Love,” “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” “Hey Good Lookin'”

Next Up: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)

Album Review #20: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

the-genius-of-ray-charles

The Genius of Ray Charles is an interesting record. Split in half stylistically, with Side 1 containing six Big Band Jazz/R&B tunes and Side 2 six soulful string ballads, it tries (and succeeds) to accomplish a lot of different things. It takes a lot of musical skill to pull off something like this,  but luckily for us Ray Charles possesses such a talent, tenfold.

In my opinion, the highlight of the album has to be its opening track, “Let the Good Times Roll.” It’s almost stupidly catchy, and Ray’s vocals are excellent. In all honesty, it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard on the list so far. Also from Side 1, we have “Two Years of Torture” and “When Your Lover Has Gone.” While he saves all the outright ballads for Side 2, these two songs are still pumped full of the blues. His singing throughout the album is filled with emotion and passion, giving weight and meaning to each lyric he sings.

ray-charles-imdb

Image Source: IMDb.com

Side 2 displays a much different style of music from the first. Eschewing the sometimes-harsh, always-loud brass band in favor of a softer string section (plus oboe and backing vocals), for the album’s second half Ray offers the listener an excellent selection of heart-felt ballads. “Am I Blue?” is the best out of all of these, with “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” being a very close second. As with Side 1, his vocals are excellent, with great amounts of expression in each line.

It may seem a bit egotistical for him to name his album The Genius of Ray Charles. Not so. This album more than justifies its grandiose title. With a perfect 50/50 balance of genres, with each half good enough to be an excellent EP on its own, this record is a true classic that any music lover should hear.

Favorite Tracks: “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Two Years of Torture,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Am I Blue?,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”

Next Up: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)

Album Review #6: This is Fats Domino! by Fats Domino (1956)

This is Fats Domino cover

First off, let me say something: the book has a major error in the entry for this album. It lists the wrong title, citing the admittedly confusingly similar album This is Fats!, released a year after the correct album, This is Fats Domino!. The track listing and accompanying short essay is for the correctly titled album, so that will be the album I review here. Hopefully this will be the only major error made in this book, but I’m only six albums in at this point, so that’s difficult to say.

Anyways, this album didn’t impress me as much as I had hoped. It’s a quality album, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t make that much of an impact on me. The opening track, “Blueberry Hill”, is very good, with great jazz instrumentation and a memorable vocal performance. It was one of his biggest hits, and for good reason too. However, this is one of those albums that sadly makes the huge mistake of making the best track the first track, and a lot of the following songs just don’t meet the expectations that “Blueberry Hill” sets. There are still quite a few good songs though, such as “What’s the Reason I’m Not Pleasing You”, “Reelin’ and Rockin'”, “Poor Poor Me”, and the instrumental “The Fat Man’s Hop”. The instrumentation is very good throughout, with particular note going to the piano, saxophone and percussion.

Overall, I wasn’t quite disappointed, but I wasn’t quite impressed either. I don’t have a positive or negative opinion. I’m just kind of indifferent, to be honest. There were several good tracks, but it just didn’t really do much for me. What are your thoughts?

Next up: Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra (1956)