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.