Sam Cooke
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963



by Arche USER (94 Reviews)
April 30th, 2020 | 11 replies

Release Date: 1985 | Tracklist

Review Summary: A once-forgotten sweaty live masterclass from one of the original greats of soul.

The story of Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 is at this juncture pretty well recorded, so this will be only a brief recap, as to not seem like I'm conducting any original research. Following huge commercial success with 1957's 'You Send Me' with Keen and a subsequent smattering of singles, in 1960 Cooke signed with the much larger RCA Records, who at the time also worked with names like The Isley Brothers and a certain Elvis Presley. Despite a Billboard #2 the same year with 'Chain Gang' the move wasn't followed with smash success, although the evidence was there that his popularity was growing - the R&B charts saw a #1 with 'Twisting the Night Away' and three following #2's, and he started to consistently threaten the top 10 of the Billboard itself. Thus, RCA decided it was time for a live album, chosen for The Harlem Square Club in Miami during January 1963. However, the results were deemed too raucous for the contemporary pop climate and at odds with the gentle soul image of Cooke they were cultivating, and so they were archived and forgotten about. The singer was shot dead in late 1964, and it was only in 1985 that the Harlem Square recordings were rediscovered, dusted off, and sold to the public.

Fortunately for us, even with the circumstances the recording still sounds absolutely beautiful. The band is clear; rhythmically, the strong snare and ride work somehow don't override the walking bass, while the saxophone's smooth complements Cooke's distinctive gritty delivery perfectly. The murmur and yells of the crowd are ever-present, frequently acting as a backing chorus either with or without the suggestion of their charismatic ringleader, becoming a vital part of the listener's experience in the process while not detracting from the main attraction.

In retrospect, it's hard to know what the executives that commissioned the show were expecting - but if they were expecting the soulful but harmless cooings of Cooke as heard on 'You Send Me' in a live format, they got a very nasty shock. The Harlem Square Club doesn't exist anymore, but reports point to it not being a big establishment, on the corner of 2nd and 10th Northwest. Miami in January still comfortably sits in the upper teens/lower twenties (mid-60s in American parlance). On the floor the venue was packed with rapturous fans of Cooke, while at least 8 performers and early 60s recording equipment crowded the stage. With Cooke brazenly asking clubgoers things like 'is everybody in favour of getting romantic' (as heard at the start of the medley), things must've been close. Intimate. Sweaty. Sure as hell sounds it too, the screams and whoops of the crowd as much the call as the response to Sam's energetic, breathless interactions. Five years later this might've been catnip to a label looking to capitulate on youth rebellion, but such movements were very much in their nascence in 1963.

From opening with 'Feel It (Don't Fight It)', undoubtedly a rallying cry to turn the crowd into plasticine for Cooke and his band, to the closing 'Having A Party' during which Sam regularly interjects cheeky, raucous 'lamentations' at the show's ending, the tracklisting couldn't be a more perfect example of pacing - to whoever's credit that was. Top hits 'Chain Gang' and 'Twisting the Night Away' find themselves spaced apart, the latter worked alongside 'Somebody Have Mercy' to reach the show's fever pitch. Slower cuts such as the medley and 'Bring It On Home To Me' give the dancers a physical rest but devote themselves to eliciting top-of-the-lungs singalongs and call-and-response. The result is less than 40 minutes of a soul pioneer in his absolute element, of lively, heartfelt musicianship and of a crowd utterly entranced by a man arguably approaching the zenith of a career ultimately cut short. It would've been a travesty to keep it hidden forever.

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user ratings (51)

Comments:Add a Comment 
April 30th 2020


Album Rating: 5.0

If you've got any interest in soul AT ALL, do yourself a favour and check this absolute banger out. The kinda show I can only dream of being at.

April 30th 2020


Album Rating: 4.0

Woah man very cool review once again, and I'm very glad you did this one! One of my fave live albums

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Contributing Reviewer
April 30th 2020


I do not have any interest in soul AT ALL, but would like to check this very muchly.

April 30th 2020


Album Rating: 5.0

@dedex: good taste man :3 what I like about it so much is just how GOOD it sounds while keeping that very unfiltered live feeling intact. There's not a lot I've heard that pull it off.

@asleep: i hope I can convince you to give the genre a go ^•^ been getting into it a lot this year and I'm kicking myself for not sooner.

April 30th 2020


never heard cooke live before

this has been highly entertaining

April 30th 2020


Album Rating: 5.0

There's another live album that he did but aside from that there's not a lot out there. Guess there's a few reasons for that - era, career length and audience demographic sadly all come into that I think.

April 30th 2020


Fuck I need to Czech this

Digging: Sematary - Rainbow Bridge

Staff Reviewer
April 30th 2020


Props for reviewing this album.

Digging: Falconer - From A Dying Ember

May 1st 2020


Album Rating: 5.0

I'm kinda surprised it didn't have one already, especially how much more in ratings it has than almost any of his other albums. Ah well, it has one now :]

@TVC - get on it fren

June 9th 2020


Album Rating: 5.0

2020 review finally for this masterpiece

June 18th 2020


Album Rating: 5.0

u know it

atmosphere is nebulous but this album puts you 'there'. Love it.

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