Monday, August 15, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On #38 - Sam Cooke - Live at The Harlem Square Club

I love to listen to Sam Cooke’s Live at The Harlem Square Club so loudly that my ears are ringing by the end of it. When it’s playing, I can almost see Miami's Harlem Square Club in 1963, when the concert was recorded. I imagine a small, dark place with a low stage at one end. The room is packed; Sam Cooke stands above the crowd on the stage, impeccably dressed in a suit with narrow lapels and tie, slightly under the lights, always smiling. During the opening number, "Feel It," Cooke yells at the crowd, “If you feel the feeling let me hear you say, OH YEAH!” And the crowd screams OH YEAH! so loudly that I picture the tiny club bouncing off the ground and pulling apart at the seams like a caricature of a swinging joint in a cartoon from the 1940s.
The album seethes with energy. Cooke's voice is forceful and full of emotion, but still wonderfully smooth. Keith Richards once said that listening to Cooke sing is like having a great weight lifted from you; it's a release. Very accurate description. Sam Cooke's singing makes me feel the way I do on stressful days when the sun is shining brightly and I stop to take a breath and I notice the day's warmth and I feel relieved. And that’s just his studio recordings. The Harlem Square Club album pushes Richards’s analogy to the limit and beyond. On every number, from “Chain Gang” to “Bring It On Home,” Cooke hits notes that’ll make all the nerves in your body stand on end and tingle. And the crowd is right there with him, too, singing along, hollering, howling in ecstasy.
I bought Live at the Harlem Square Club on used CD more than fifteen years ago, when I was first getting into Sam Cooke. Soon thereafter I purchased Sam Cooke Live at the Copa, which was recorded in 1964. I was eager to listen to it, because I loved the Miami recording so much and I expected more of the same. But this recording had nowhere near the energy of the Miami concert. Performed in front of an all-white crowd, the same songs sound like Bailey's Irish Cream - smooth and intoxicating, but sweet and syrupy, lacking that dangerous bite that says “It’s party time!” When I listen to it, I picture the scene in Goodfellas where the main characters are sitting in the front row at the Copa with their mistresses and Joe Pesci's character makes racist comments about Sammy Davis, Jr. I see small round tables covered with white tablecloths, each with its own dim lamp, and white couples in suits and evening gowns. They don't dance; they don't even bob their heads.
Played side by side, the two recordings form a poignant document of America a year before passage of the first real civil rights act. They also make for a fascinating portrait of the artist in the last year of his life. Cooke was one of the earliest and most successful crossover performers, and he was about to hit it really big. In the months after these two performances he signed with a powerful Hollywood agent, appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and performed a screen test for The Cincinnatti Kid. At the same time, though, he was hanging out with notorious black Muslims at a time when the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, was at its most powerful and popular and frightening to white America – he produced Muhammad Ali's single, "I Am the Greatest,” for instance, and he attended Ali's world title bout against Sonny Liston with Malcolm X.
It’s worth owning a copy of both for historical comparison alone. But the powers that be at Sony Legacy were wise in choosing the Miami show for reissue on 180-gram vinyl. Played at the appropriate volume, this platter will transform even the most suburban home into a hot and hoppin’ nightclub for one of the greatest performances of all time.
- Joe Miller

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