At a party back in the late 1980s, someone brought the soundtrack to the movie “Animal House.” Sam Cooke’s music featured prominently on that soundtrack. I borrowed the cassette tape and thus began my relationship with R&B music that hit after the first wave of rock n’ roll had hit and right before the height of the Civil Rights Movement. When I first heard Cooke’s voice and the music he created, I had found something that resonated more deeply than mere entertainment. That’s what prompted me to scrape together about $10 worth of change to purchase a cassette of One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.
In general, I’ve always preferred live records to studio records because they usually reflect more of what audiences would have experienced in hearing artists live. Studio records tend to be too polished (nowadays, digital music tends to clean things up even worse) to get the full sense of the music and how it could feel. The Harlem Square recording was certainly a record that provided its own experience of what it might have been at the iconic venue in Miami’s African-American Overton neighborhood.
In the early 1960s when Cooke toured, part of what the artists dubbed “the chitlin’ circuit,” he performed mostly in front of black audiences providing more energetic, intimate and expressive shows than for the white audiences who saw him at large pop music shows. Harlem Square captures the full capacity of Cooke’s energy. It’s gritty, sweaty, visceral and a little feral. When I first played that tape, I knew many of the songs but, in truth, I had no idea of the depth of what I was hearing.
The first few songs included the popular standards like “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Those songs highlight Cooke’s voice for sure, but those first songs more uptempo and had so much more energy than the radio versions. It wasn’t simply hearing Cooke interact with the audience — he was wild, but clearly in his element as a performer. I recognized those songs, but they were different in this live recording almost to the point that they were different songs. About halfway through listening to the album I got the feeling I was hearing something that might have been dangerous.
Emerging on the heels of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino, Cooke’s popular success, perhaps more than anyone, paved the way for a new generation of soul singers like Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin. Cooke was a superstar with his crooner’s voice that rivaled Frank Sinatra and his intense energy that rivaled Little Richard. That intensity combined with Cooke’s friendship with folks like Malcolm X, NFL star Jim Brown, and a young Cassius Clay had drawn the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, who spied on Cooke as they did numerous leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Cooke’s charisma and the power of his live performances would have made him particularly notable to the infamously paranoid Hoover because he had a committed fan base of both blacks and whites. Hearing the rawness of Cooke’s performance at Harlem Square, no matter what the lyrics of the songs, reveals the power of joy, sadness, romance and rage amplified through a supernatural being, not just a Rhythm and Blues singer.
After the frenzied energy of “Twistin’ the Night Away,” the seventh song on the record is called “Somebody Have Mercy.” At first listen, the lyrics aren’t all that specific but the rising heat of the performance make hidden meanings explode. Eight years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Cooke defiantly wailed, “I’m going down to the bus station baby with a, a suitcase in my hand. I’m gonna grab me a arm full of Greyhound and ride just as far as I can.” Having heard the “race problem” described as a tinder box, it would have been hard to miss the code embedded in the line “I’m standing here wonderin’ baby will a cotton pickin’ matchbox hold my clothes? I’ve got such a long way to get there and I got some time to go.” But the real danger wasn’t in the lyrics but in the attitude of Cooke’s performance — it was glorious for all of it’s pain, guts, courage and spirit.
The power of the recording’s authenticity comes from more than the songs. Crowd screams and applause, involved wails and shouts, singing along, and their responses to Cooke’s questions are part of every part of the album.
On several songs, particularly “Bring It on Home to Me,” the recording picks up the sound of Cooke clapping out 8th notes. These kinds of in-the-moment effects are reminders that this was a moment in time, a moment of ultimate presence. These are probably the kinds of things that RCA felt made the recording subpar for release until the tapes were rediscovered 20 years later. For a music lover, however, this stuff makes Cooke and the Harlem Square come to life as if we were right in the midst of it all.
Perfection is not always found in precision, but in complete expression and release of something too deep for words. The melodies may wander or the improvisations may be numerous, but the very guts of the songs get laid bare and punch us in the face.
The other day, I got the vinyl record version of One Night Stand!. Hearing it on vinyl, the reverb and the unrestrained elation of the crowd conveyed the beautiful chaos of a moment, an almost perfect moment.
News Herald Correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of Road Signs radio show, and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at email@example.com.