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:

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 #26: Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba (1960)


The world of African music has been tragically overlooked by the western world. There’s an entire continent rich with musical styles and sounds that many are only vaguely aware of, and that’s just a shame. For those unfamiliar, however, I would highly reccomend this seminal debut from South African singer Miriam Makeba as a starting point. This record was what opened many previously closed eyes to the world of African music, and what a great record it is. Here, she acts as almost an instructor to the western world, providing a sort of gateway to the music of her continent that much of her audience was barely even aware of beforehand. If you wish to expand your musical horizons, this is an excellent album to start with.

Firstly, the album’s background. At the time of the recording, she was in exile. Her South African citizenship and right-of-entry had been revoked in response to her protesting against apartheid, and her longing to return home is palpable on this recording. The songs may sound almost ridiculously happy, but the traditional instrumentation, melodies and African folk tunes and lyrics permeate with an ironic frustration and anger with the current state of her homeland. On this album, I feel like a point is made to showcase her culture, and not the colonialism-leftover segregated culture that ruled at the time. A perfect example of this is “Qongqothwane (a.k.a. ‘The Click Song’),” a traditional wedding song of her tribe, the Xhosa. She seems legitimately joyous singing it, a feeling made even more bitter by her exile. She wouldn’t be able to return home until the end of apartheid in 1990.


Miriam Makeba. Image source:

Context aside, the album is thoroughly enjoyable in its own right. Almost every song is just an absolute joy to hear, with special mention going to “Mbube,” “The Naughty Little Flea,” and “One More Dance.” The cheer is so strong here, if you don’t at least crack a smile, then you are offically dead inside. The instrumentation is simply perfect, with the acoustic guitar, tribal drums, and especially the Belafonte Folk Singers, who provide an album-making chorus underneath most tracks that simply has to be heard.  Charles Colman, who sings (or at least tries to) a duet with Makeba in “One More Dance” is really just the most potent instant-happiness machine I think I’ve ever heard: throughout the entire track as he attempts to deliver his lines, he is consumed by uncontrollable laughter that’s so contagious that you will at least chuckle with him, despite not even knowing what’s so funny. Overall, if you forget about the context the record was made under, this album is one of the strongest feel-good serums you’ll ever find.

Miriam Makeba’s self-titled debut is a landmark in introducing world music to, well, the world. Her ceaseless endeavours to give the music of Africa the exposure it so well deserves were admirable,  not to mention her devotion to civil rights. I give this record my highest recommendation. If you’re even slightly interested, do yourself a favor and listen to it. If you aren’t interested, still listen to it. This album is a joy, plain and simple, and whether you are a complete outsider or avid listener, you can enjoy it just the same.

Favorite Tracks: “Mbube,” “Qongqothwane (a.k.a. ‘The Click Song’),” “Olilili,” “One More Dance,” “The Retreat Song,” “The Naughty Little Flea”

Next Up: A Date With the Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers (1960)

Album Review #25: Elvis is Back! by Elvis Presley (1960)


Guess who’s back? Spoiler alert: it’s Elvis.

It’s been four years since our last Elvis album on the list: namely, his 1956 self-titled debut, Elvis Presley. While I most definitely respect that album’s place in the music history books, I found it to be a flawed record. It had many memorable songs, but it just seemed rough-around-the-edges, and not in a good way. This album, however, is a far superior record, with even more creative songs, wider selection of instruments, and a much more fleshed-out and completed feel to it. This record really proves Elvis’ ability to improve on past mistakes and evolve his sound, and is by all measures better than his debut.

As the title suggests, this was Elvis’ first album after returning from his time serving in the army. With much more creative control than he had had in a while, the King would produce a set of twelve songs on a whole new level of quality and depth than he had even reached beforehand. On this record he brings an immediately noticable country influence, evident in both the guitars and the baritone backup singers used on many tracks. Funny then, that the album’s best song would feature none of those: “Fever,” featuring nothing but bass, snapping, and Elvis’ effortlessly cool vocals, manages to be the album’s most memorable song despite being the most stripped-back track on the entire record. “Make Me Know It” and “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” are also highlights, bringing to the forefront Elvis’ classic fast tempo rock and roll to fantastic results.


Elvis in uniform. Image source:

As always, he can play a mean slow song too. If you’re looking for a more sensitive, tender Elvis, you’ll find it on ballads like “Soldier Boy” and “I Will Be Home Again,” featuring great piano accompaniment, not to mention the country-influenced, Crickets-esque backup vocals. Yeah, they can sound pretty goofy at times, but it honestly just adds to the charm of it all. Elvis consistently proves that he can make slow ballads just as good as fast rock songs (sometimes even better), and these are just some of the best of them on this record alone. He’s versatile, and his albums are all the better for it.

So, if you weren’t swayed by his debut, give his comeback a chance. Even the title seems excited about it, so you know it can’t be that bad. With a perfect 50/50 mix of fast and slow songs, with much more diverse arrangements than his first record, Elvis is Back! is an improvement in every sense of the word. It’s the album Elvis Presley could have been, and really is just a good album regardless of his previous endeavours.

Favorite Tracks: “Fever,” “Make Me Know It,” “Soldier Boy,” “Dirty, Dirty Feeling,” “I Will Be Home Again”

Next Up: Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba