Album Review: Sam Cooke Live at The Harlem Square Club

I’ve been on a live soul music kick lately and I finally picked up “Sam Cooke Live at The Harlem Square Club” after I heard Peter Strom spin “Having a Party” from this it at ILHC last year.  I had such a great dance to that song that it’s part of my personal Lindy highlights from last year.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get it since it’s honestly one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.  From any music genre. It’s that good.

From start to finish, Sam Cooke bleeds out energy and passion into the microphone. If you didn’t already believe that this smooth crooner was the man who created Soul music, then there’s no way to deny it after hearing these recordings.

Sam starts right off and tells the listener how the rest of the night is going to roll with “Feel It.” He’s then quick to sweep up the audience into the show getting the crowd to join with every “hooh” and “aah”  on “Chain Gang.”

It’s not perfect, but that’s what makes it such a great listening experience.  On the next track, Cooke starts off singing the wrong song, quickly recovers, joking “Maybe you’ll remember this one” all in one breath before launching into “Cupid.”

That song kicks off a love story that strings together the next six songs on the album.  This is how you get you get the  full Sam Cooke The Entertainer experience.  He introduces each song, priming the audience while the band transitions into each tune.  He starts out a medley of “It’s Alright/I Love You For Sentimental Reasons” by talking to the fella’s out in the audience.  As timeless as the material and performances are, the part where he asks guys not to “go hittin’ on” their ladies (as in smacking them upside the head) when something goes wrong was probably (and hopefully) more applicable back then.

I’m a full blooded heterosexual male, but even I swoon a little bit when he hits that slightly falsetto “baby” that leads into “It’s Alright.”  Why is it alright?  The answer lies in the next part of the medley:  “I Love You For Sentimental Reasons.”   That leads into a full blown audience sing-a-long.  He directs them like his own personal chorus channeling their energy to make each verse crescendo higher than the last.

After that he gets them worked up, the band tears into a blazing “Twistin the Night Away.”  You can imagine the crowd working itself into a tent revival-like frenzy as he’s practically screaming for everyone to twirl their handkerchiefs round and round over and over again.  He weaves that song into the story afterwards because sometimes you just got to have someone to twist the night away with all night long.

This story takes on a slightly darker tone with “Somebody Have Mercy.”  The lyrics of the song suggest a less than perfect relationship.  “When I think about how she do me, the tears fall down like rain, like rain”

This sets up my favorite part of the whole album where he starts pleading directly into the microphone as it doubles as a telephone.   The musicians play the part of greek chorus accentuating and punctuating every step of Sam’s tortured phone call.  When he connects to the operator instead of his lady his soul screams out  his frustration, “I don’t want you operator, I want my baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-by.”

I am very phone averse as all my friends can verify by checking their own phones for the last time we had a conversation that extended past what time we’re meeting for dinner.  I can only dream of being able to speak to anyone, nevermind the woman I love, with the kind of raw passion he let’s out in these two and a half minutes.  And it’s not even a song; just a way to connect the last one to the next.

Finally this mythic operator puts him through to his lover, and just when you think he couldn’t top that epic “baby” he teases out “You Send Me” for a whole minute, stretching out that “You” for about half that time.  That may or may not be an exaggeration since I can’t seem to get myself to out of the tear in the space time continuum that he creates with the soul piercing line.  Mind you he doesn’t sing the song at all.  Just that one line.

Then just when you think he’s spent and the audience can’t take it anymore, the guitar riffs into “Bring It on Home to Me”

But the story isn’t over!  After all that, how could anyone, man or woman, not bring it on home?   In this case, it doesn’t matter, because as he sings the epic coda to this story with “Nothing Can Change This Love.”  If Bring It on Home is the show stopper, then this song brings you to your knees.

If you thought that part was too much, Sam truly does bring it on home with five minutes of joy that inspired me to get this album in the first place.

Of course some readers of this blog are asking, “That’s all great, but can you dance to it?”  Of course you can.  If you can’t then you are probably dead inside . . . and out of it too more than likely.

Listening to most of Sam Cooke’s studio recordings and you’ll hear a smooth crooner.  This is not one of those albums.  In fact it’s not just an album; it’s a road map to help you discover the meaning of life.

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5 Comments

  1. Kate said,

    July 6, 2010 at 1:56 am

    I love Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke had to be one of the best late 50s/early 60s R&B artists of the day and it kills me that his tenure in life ended so early. Foolish as it is, I can’t help by wonder what awesome songs he would have put out. Love it.

  2. nallakim said,

    July 6, 2010 at 4:25 am

    I love the song “Having a Party”… haha.. but so many DJs in Korea played it a lot… Skye and Sylvia make them playing that song a lot

  3. Breanna said,

    July 6, 2010 at 6:05 am

    I was on a soul kick recently, too and you recommended this album to me then, on facebook. I actually picked it up about 2 days ago and am LOVING it! I think my favorite part might be the agonizing way he stretches out the lead-in to “You Send Me”…so good!

  4. SamsNeph said,

    July 6, 2010 at 10:41 am

    “Live at the Harlem Square Club” was an important album because it gave mainstream America a side of Sam most of them hadn’t heard. Thanks for recognizing its significance here.

    Erik Greene
    Author, “Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective”
    http://www.OurUncleSam.com

  5. Mike said,

    July 8, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Whooo, I haven’t listened to this album in ages. I busted it out immediately after I finished reading this post, and dang man, the picture you paint of the concert totally drew me in to the album so much more than ever before! Thanks.


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