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