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 #35: With The Beatles by The Beatles (1963)

With the Beatles, The Beatles

This album is hard for me to review. Not because of how ludicrously important it is to music as a whole, (I had no problem reviewing Elvis Presley or Kind of Blue, after all) but simply because of how close and personal it is to me. This right here is, like, all I would listen to as a kid, and as such almost every track holds a deep-rooted nostalgia factor to me. I’ll try to review this record as objectively as I can, but in this instance that will be pretty much borderline impossible. Anyways, as the first of seven Beatles albums included in the book, (but not the first Beatles album, as Please Please Me sadly did not make the cut) this album has a lot of hype to live up to. Thankfully, I would say that it absolutely does.

First off, simply for clarity, every Beatles album I will be reviewing will be the original U.K. release, and not the butchered and gutted North American versions released by Capitol. In addition, going forward, if there are two separate versions of a specific album, I will be reviewing the version with more content. If the two versions both contain tracks unique to each other, I’ll be reviewing a sort of “composite” version containing all tracks, such as, for example, Aftermath by The Rolling Stones or Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Alright, back on topic. This album, or at least the crappy Capitol version Meet the Beatles, was their big breakthrough in America, and hearing the plethora of grade-A pop songs on this record, it isn’t difficult to see why. Right from the get-go, “It Won’t Be Long” explodes with superb guitar hooks and “yeah” chanting, and the follow-up, “All I’ve Got to Do” sports some fantastic vocal harmonies. “All My Loving” is just a hypnotic whirlwind of guitar strumming and harmonized lyrics, and to be perfectly honest, every single track on this album has something going for it. I think my personal favorite would have to be “Till There Was You,” which is really just beautiful. It serves as a nice break from the energetic rock and roll populating the rest of the record.

The Beatles 1963, fanpopdotcom.jpg

The Beatles, c. 1963.

From left to right: John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr.

Image Source:

While this is certainly the better album by a longshot, I think its predecessor Please Please Me deserves a mention as well. It’s looser, less refined, and generally just less developed as With The Beatles, but its collection of tracks is still quite strong; the opener, “I Saw Her Standing There,” is as good as anything on its follow-up, “Love Me Do” is fully deserving of its status as first Beatles hit, and of course their cover of “Twist and Shout” is simply essential. With The Beatles is still the superior album, however. It just seems to know what it’s doing so much more, and each and every melody, harmony, hook and bridge just feels more well-thought-out. Please Please Me is more of a picture of the learning artist than the artist at its peak, and With The Beatles a portrait of the artist that has improved upon itself and truly refined their craft.

In summary, With The Beatles is one of the best showcases of their pure, basic pop-making expertise of their discography. Each song is short and to-the-point, and every hook and melody is memorable and well-written. Later albums would see them drop their mop-top personas and dive head-first into innovation and experimentalism, but if you’re looking for a good picture of their music-making skill in its most basic form, there’s no better place to start than here.

Favorite Tracks: “Till There Was You,” “All I’ve Got to Do,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “All My Loving”

Next Up: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (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:

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 #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

Album Review #14: Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard (1957)


What can I really say about this one that hasn’t already been said? Here’s Little Richard is a true classic of early rock ‘n’ roll that still holds up almost sixty years later. It’s short, at only about twenty-eight minutes in length, but I personally find it to be to the album’s benefit. It leaves you wanting more, and with the sheer amount of energy contained in this record, any longer and it would simply tire out.

Pretty much all of the tracks here are great, but of course the opening track “Tutti Frutti” is a standout. Simply put, it is one of the most iconic songs of the entire decade, and is exciting, catchy and just plain fun. “Ready Teddy” is great for the same reasons, with really the entire album exuding pure energetic frenzy like no other album at the time did. “Oh Why?” is a change of pace, with sad and lonely lyrics and a great singing performance. Every song here is excellent, without a single wasted moment to be found.

This album is a true landmark in rock’n’ roll, paving the way for the entire genre to follow. It’s short, sweet, and if you haven’t already given it a listen, do so as soon as possible. It’s not that long, after all. It’s worth it.

Favorite Tracks: “Tutti Frutti,” “Ready Teddy,” “Oh Why?”

Next up: Dance Mania by Tito Puente and His Orchestra (1958)

Album Review #8: The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957)

The Chirping Crickets cover

Jeez, 25 minutes? A little on the short side, wouldn’t you say? Anyways, this is a great album, and one of the most important records for the future of rock as a whole.

The songs are simple. No flair, no solos, no extravagance. Just basic, stripped down love/rejection songs—the longest of which is only two and a half minutes—with a simple message and catchy melodies. The Crickets certainly knew what they were doing, and in this case the simplicity really benefits the album. “Not Fade Away” is probably my favorite track, with a great stop-and-start structure filled with a strong feeling of restrained energy. “An Empty Cup (And a Broken Date)” is another highlight, and a rather sad one too, with a slow tempo and some pretty depressing lyrics. Buddy Holly is a great singer, able to sing thoughtful ballads and energetic rock songs with equal mastery, and the backup vocals accompany the music with a country-like harmony. The instrumentation isn’t complex, usually only utilizing the standard guitar/bass/drum combo, but I find that the music’s simplicity is really its strongpoint. It really works well for the music that they play: flashiness is unneeded, only good ol’ catchiness and rhythm.

A shadow of tragedy looms over some albums, and sadly this one is no different. The Crickets would only make two albums before Buddy Holly left the band to pursue a solo career. One year later, while touring with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and Jiles “The Big Bopper” Richardson, the airplane they were aboard lost control in the wintry conditions and crashed, killing the three of them plus Roger Peterson, their pilot. The tragedy may have become known in later years as “The Day the Music Died”, but their music truly did live on, having a massive impact on the course of music history for decades to come. I would highly recommend the album Chantilly Lace by The Big Bopper, and Self-Titled by Ritchie Valens is an absolute must-listen (the fact that it isn’t featured in this book is seriously a crime). Listen to these albums, and keep their memory alive.

Next Up: The Atomic Mr. Basie by Count Basie (1957)