Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
SAM COOKE | Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
Selected by Brandon Ousley
In the studio, Sam Cooke was a consummate pop crooner, whose delicate, caramelized voice charmed the reserved and mild. By the early sixties, his success and stature as a groundbreaking R&B crossover sensation loomed large in the music business.
But when Cooke stepped into Miami’s Harlem Square Club on the warm night of January 12, 1963, he let his hair down. He delivered a blistering 37-minute set that showcased his raw, gospel-rooted R&B spark before a predominantly African American audience.
Backed by late great saxophonist King Curtis and Cooke’s road band, which notably included guitarists Clifton White and Cornell Dupree, bassist Jimmy Lewis, drummer Albert “June” Gardner, pianist George Stubbs, and saxophonist Tate Houston, Cooke exudes a burst of hell-raising, down-home energy that feels neither measured nor rehearsed. The interaction between the performer and the enlivened Miami audience is natural and uninhibited all at once, as Cooke’s candor shines with each phrasing he sings and interjection he utters. If that quality isn’t enough to prove how dynamic his showmanship was, his distinctive voice and the peerless musicianship certainly is. Cooke attains a delectably gritty timbre that compellingly matches the fire and precision of his backing band, as they prowl through a reinvigorated run of his hit singles.
One can’t help but to feel the gutsy passion he imbues on the once-genteel offerings of “Cupid,” “It’s All Right,” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” When he takes on show-stopping classics like “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Having a Party,” and “Feel It (Don’t Fight It),” they’re revamped into gleeful, sweltering expressions of spiritual and secularized power.
The show hits its almighty climax when Cooke spills his guts out over an emotionally intense, love-fest trilogy of regret, longing, and commitment with “Somebody Have Mercy,” “Bring It on Home” and “Nothing Can Change This Love.” By the time the band drifts into “Bring It on Home,” Cooke can’t help but to yip, yearn, and holler pure devotion to a crowd of frenzied female fans, while orchestrating a call-and-response engagement that incites their electric impulses. It’s a thoroughly gratifying and transcendental experience that makes one believe, or even wish, they attended this show themselves.
The unfortunate tragedy that frames the embattled history of this legendary recording is label politics and race. When Cooke’s label, RCA-Victor caught wind of the tapes of this show, they found its furious, Chitlin’ Circuit ambiance unappealing, citing that it would alienate his pop (read: white) audience and obstruct his debonair image. Because of his mainstream success, executives weren’t invested in marketing him exclusively as a straight-up soul man either. Originally slated to be released by the title One Night Stand, its planned release was shelved and languished in RCA’s tape vaults for two decades.
In 1964, a slick, genial performance was captured at the Copacabana in New York City, which resulted in a live album, Sam Cooke at the Copa being issued that same year. In striving to solidify Cooke’s position as a crossover entity that could break racial barriers, executives vouched for Cooke to perform at upscale, white-designated supper club venues, singing a suave mix of pop standards and show tunes. It was a dramatic contrast from the loose, unforced intimacy he exhibited for the largely black base he performed for at the Square Club.
When this storied Miami show finally surfaced in 1985 as Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, it garnered universal reverence not only as a watershed in soul music history, but in the realm of famed live recordings as well. It best represents Sam Cooke as one of soul music’s undisputed progenitors. One full listen to it and you’ll never want the feeling to end. You’ll most likely repeat it.