Sam Cooke's Live At Harlem Square Club: A Lesson In Pure Soul

While less celebrated than 'Sam Cooke at the Copa', it was on one legendary night in Harlem when the legendary soul man really came into his own...
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While less celebrated than 'Sam Cooke at the Copa', it was on one legendary night in Harlem when the legendary soul man really came into his own...

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'Sam Cooke at the Copa' is by no means an unpleasant listen. To the contrary, it’s a glorious example of Cooke’s technical prowess, his extraordinary control. But therein lies the problem; in choosing to counsel clarity over unbridled ebullience something precious was lost in translation: soul.

At the heart of soul music—as Peter Guralnick (author of Sweet Soul Music) elegantly articulated—lies a “‘knowledgeable apprehension’ akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s famous definition of suspense”. These brief pockets of calm foreshadow a release of tension (think Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, James Carr’s ‘The Dark End of the Street’ and Solomon Burke’s ‘Cry to me’); a tension rooted in the church and its music.

Cooke, like many of soul’s greatest exponents (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and James Brown) began his career as an itinerant gospel singer. His stint with the Soul Stirrers (a prominent gospel group that’s still active to this day) taught him the valuable art of bringing an audience to the precipice by playing on this “knowledgeable apprehension”.

The Soul Stirrers’ recital of ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ (video below) illustrates this perfectly. With each foot-stomping, blood-curdling roar Cooke and Co. are imploring onlookers to reciprocate their passion, to ride on their wave of energy. You see this same fervour mirrored in the performances of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, James Brown and countless others. More than anything, this is what defines the genre: an insistence on feeling over form.

In championing form over feeling, Sam Cooke at the Copa felt neither definitive nor representative. He deserved a live album that showcased his ability to convey rawer emotions than the lilting swing of Copa could ever aspire to.

Of course, context is all important to this narrative. Considering that the Copacabana club historically enforced a “no blacks” policy during the 40’s and 50’s, and the audience would’ve been predominantly (if not, entirely) white, it’s hardly surprising that Cooke was disinclined to cut loose.

Thankfully, in 1963, Cooke sung in far more comfortable surroundings at the Harlem Square Club—a venue situated in Miami’s African-American Overtown neighbourhood. Live at the Harlem Square Club (not released until 1985) captured a magical night, one brimming with pure, unfettered zeal. Suggestions that Cooke’s crossover into secular R&B had dulled his ecclesial sensibilities were dispelled in a performance inspired by his formative years.

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Right from the opening salvo (the song ‘Feel It’) Cooke establishes a call-and –response dynamic redolent of an African-American pastor during a worship service: “I said if you feel it, feel it, say oh yeah!” Cooke’s congregation happily oblige the impassioned pleas, generating a communal atmosphere at odds with the Copacabana gig.

A powerful interpretation of ‘Chain Gang’ follows as he struggles to supress laughter, clearly savouring the joviality sweeping the room. Another of his big hits—“Cupid”—then makes a welcome appearance, complete with that melisma Cooke so masterfully executes.

Part of this record’s intrigue lies in the disparity between numbers performed on both nights. ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’, in particular, is a different beast at each locale—especially with regards to the musicianship of the Harlem rendition. Spurred on by their frontman’s urgency, the band plays with an increased intensity—all squealing sax solos and punchy drum beats.

The absolute highlight of the Harlem set undoubtedly arrives in the form of ‘Bring it on Home to me’ (video above). At this point in the evening the audience are audibly in rapture, so Cooke calmly eases to a simmer, developing that “knowledgeable apprehension” with surgical precision, before unleashing a torrent of frisson-inducing guttural screams. This is the real Sam: liberated, euphoric and enchanting.

Ultimately, ‘Bring it on Home to me’ is the standout track on a downright spectacular album, one every bit as important as James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, and one that typifies a golden era of showmanship.