An Unrestrained Live Performance Brings A Whole New Perspective To Sam Cooke’s Music

camjameson
Written by camjameson
/ 10 mins read

Across the last century of popular media, there’ve been a handful of musicians so prolific that they’ve earned themselves legendary titles amongst listeners, whether it be Michael Jackson’s ‘King Of Pop’ moniker, Funk visionary George Clinton’s well-deserved ‘King Of Funk’ title or the colloquial term of endearment ‘The Boss’ attributed to the spirit of American Rock music himself Bruce Springsteen, but only one royal entity comes to mind when you hear the term ‘King Of Soul,’ that being the infallible Sam Cooke, Motown & Soul’s short-lived guardian angel of the fifties & sixties music scene. Cooke was a legend amongst his peers, paving the way for such prolific acts as Marvin Gaye & Aretha Franklin, but – unsurprisingly – the majority of those who recognize his music have absolutely no idea how impactful he was as an artist & personality as his decidedly African-American-leaning sensibilities were painstakingly downplayed by industry execs who wanted him to pursue a more mainstream Pop identity, his producers literally white-washing his music for the sake of record sales instead of capitalizing on the extreme power he had to move Black audiences to action with his intimately-relatable performances & lyrics; I mean, if you were to poll mainstream listeners from the last three decades, they’d likely all describe him as being nothing more than a quaint little Diner-Pop performer whose music you’d find in cheery period-pieces about wholesome sixties-era ideals, as his legacy has been watered-down to present only the most idyllic character who aligns with mainstream interests – One glaring example of this effort to de-Black-ify Cooke is his incredible 1963 record Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963, a record his label refused to release until 1985 because RCA Victor “viewed the album as too gritty and raw and possibly damaging to his Pop image, quietly keeping the recordings in their archive.” Cooke’s ability to capture the unspoken anguish of the African-American existence & his intoxicating stage-presence drove the audience wild, the raucous event creating much more auxiliary noise & astonishingly-disruptive behaviour than most execs had ever seen in a live performance before, thus leading them to deem the entire ordeal to be unfit for the Pop audiences they’d been aggressively marketing his more-restrained Pop music to – In no uncertain terms, the label’s prejudiced perspective of Cooke’s mesmerizing presence led them to shelve his music out of fear it would affect their bottom-line, such blatant racism even persisting up through its second-pressing as part of a 2000 box set wherein the audience was turned-down to negligible levels to maintain the softer sound the industry had advertised him as, in essence removing the very soul of this Soul musician’s work. Luckily, the 2005 remaster remedies this atrocity by giving audiences the raw, frightfully-enchanting Cooke we all deserve, culminating in a collection any classic audiophile would absolutely love to have propped-up on their night stand, a gem of an album deserving of the utmost respect for what it had initially set out to achieve.

The Definitive Sound Of The Sixties

I grew up in a family heavily-invested in carrying on the traditions of African-American-inspired vintage music, with my grandfather being a Jazz musician, my father being a professional Funk & Swing performer & my brothers dabbling in the undeniably Black-originated genre of Techno music, carrying the flame myself for future generations by studying Jazz, Blues, Classic Rock & Punk, all of which have their origins in African-American sonic techniques from over a century ago; As such, I’ve naturally found myself enjoying the works of Sam Cooke from time to time, but it wasn’t until recently that I really understood the full breadth of his influence, literally designing the sonic identity of the mid-century Rhythm & Blues movement as well as becoming one of the most-successful crossover artists in music history, his transition from Gospel to Pop serving as an entryway for general audiences to discover the more spiritual side of Soul in Ray Charles & the rather intimidating presence of James Brown on the Funk side of things, producing somewhat of an evolution on the groundwork Nat King Cole had lain in years prior – If you’re still unsure exactly what this era-defining sound is I’m gabbing-on about, you needn’t look further than his most beloved number “Cupid,” a song whose soothing melodies & inoffensive lyrics are so recognizable they’ve essentially become shorthand for the school-dance atmosphere in movies over the last fifty years, embodying a so-called ‘simpler time’ before freak-dancing, sexual independence & non-standard gender-norms were…well, the norm. It’s a slow yet bubbly ballad of innocent romanticism that uses some sort of musical-wizardry to will people into each-other’s arms, the gentle rocking of its tender Blues walk guitar lines & warm glow of its Motown-esque vocal harmonizations bringing out the most caring attributes of everyone within earshot, turning us into our best selves as we try to woo a prospective partner into an adolescent marriage through slow-dancing whilst leaving a little room for Jesus in-between per the chaperone’s incessant requests. Another example of this iconic retro sound is the other heavy-hitter on Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963, the jubilant Classic Soul number & obvious inspiration for 69 Boyz narrative-based dance hit “Tootsie Roll,” Cooke’s upbeat “Twistin’ The Night Away.” How many times have you danced along to the brilliantly-uplifting rhythms of its drum sequences? Could you even count on your available appendages how many milkshakes have been ordered at a diner in a movie whilst this song nonchalantly chimes away in the background? It – in addition to “Cupid” – is as synonymous with pre-seventies Americana as ‘the dab’ is with millennials, instantly transporting the listener to another time entirely & subconsciously shifting your mood towards positivity before you’ve even had a chance to recognize what’s happening to you & for that alone there is immense worth in this album, but there’s still so much more to discover amidst the tracks of Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 that give it more value than you could ever have expected if you simply stuck to his studio records.

A Snapshot Of Debauchery We Often Underestimate

When taking a look back at the music of our parents’ generations, we typically write it off as being either embarrassingly-corny or overly-hopeful narratively, so relatively innocent in comparison to today’s constant onslaught of mental health issues & promiscuous dating routines in modern music that it feels almost alien to us, but the performances within Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 do a spectacular job of showing their generation was anything but the proper individuals we’ve always imagined them to be; It’s packed to the gills with unmistakable audio capture of one of the wildest parties ever put to record back then, illustrating just how controversial the subversive music style was at the time & the incredible power it had to move a generation of peoples towards artistic & personal freedom in a time when the masses – especially those of African-American descent – were expected to submit to anachronistic views of decency & refrain from any acts that would go against religiously-ordained ideals – Just look at tracks like “It’s All Right / For Sentimental Reasons”: Though an admittedly-generic composition in its original studio rendition, the live experience allows you to enjoy all the cultural frustration & subtlety of sexual desire Sam Cooke has boiling up inside, his gritty vocal fry & decidedly-loose demeanor going against all the codes Popstars were encouraged to uphold, this emotionally-empowering energy made all-the-more prevalent as the screams of adoring fans blare out in the background for the entirety of the recording, showcasing the same sort of problematic fanaticism young audiences displayed in the early days of The Beatles which had started whipping evangelical citizens into a frenzy around the same time; Even “Somebody Have Mercy” gets a bit out of control along its runtime, with the crowd absolutely having the time of their lives amongst like-minded peers as Cooke croons ever-so-elegantly in his signature bad-boy timbre about being confident in yourself in times of trouble, asking listeners to keep their spirits high whilst exhilarating Blues walk chord progressions push the song forward over a real driving drum sequence tailor-made for getting your groove on, providing a sonic outlet for them to dance their angst & troubles away that they just couldn’t find on mainstream radio – It’s easy to forget how phenomenal performances like this were with a modern perspective, but the live aspect of Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 really does breathe new light & understanding into songs such as these, connecting you with the wills of an entire generation & bringing us together as one continually-struggling human race on this tiny-ass planet.

Blues & Soul Mentalities In Their Simplest Forms

At the end of the day, any number of Sam Cooke’s legendary numbers from his all-too-short career can tell you how important he was to the Soul movement & the music industry as a whole, but there’s really nothing like putting yourself in the shoes of those who got to actually experience his greatness first-hand, Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 easily sitting as one of the most iconic live records of all time, even edging out a lot of the standard studio performances which top the list. Whether it be the somber pining of songs like “Bring It On Home To Me” that acknowledges the only reason worth living is love itself, the youthful vigor of controversial numbers like “Chain Gang” or the persistent message of hope in other such as “Nothing Can Change This Love,” every single tune manages to capture the very essence of Soul & Blues music themselves, banking on the inherent human desire to be someone with the emotional performances Cooke gives & utilizing some truly-impressive live audio mixing to bring the whole experience to you in exquisite detail – While we can all agree that the reasoning behind preventing audiences from hearing Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 was clearly a bunch of racist bullshit, it’s almost more offensive that audiences of the day – including Cooke himself – didn’t get to experience this record in all its glory, as it had the potential to touch the hearts of millions in ways people desperately needed to be spoken to in one of the most traumatic periods in recent American history. On the bright side, Cooke’s aging demographic is slowly dying out yet records like this continue to find their way into the ears of younger listeners, ensuring that future generations can learn from the magnificent musical progress of the past & use it to maintain artistic creativity for millennia to come…or at least I hope so – Fingers crossed!

2. Track List (10)

3. Official (10)

4. Live

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5. Featuring Remixes

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9. Album Info

Songwriter

  • Sam Cooke