You've written the most emotionally searing books ever. You've written the funniest book ever. And now you're about to have the best music book ever. A rush and push and this is ours tomorrow, in hand. Take it to the end, man.
The writing is in every aspect of that performance. The helming, the overseeing, the look Cooke shoots to June Gardner to create another beat that allows him to syncopate a vocal, build in another melisma, turn his voice into a horn, situate a descant in a minor key above a passage in a major key. That estuarial blending of lows and highs, major and minor, vocal through-lines and harmonies (with Cooke harmonizing with himself), is what we’re going to have on “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a masterpiece’s version of a masterpiece, and a work of art that is not composed without this gig, where it is also in a very real way composed. Call it a track he didn’t get to within the whole of this performance in which we can adumbrate its emerging form. There is somberness to Live at the Harlem Square Club, despite the energy. Strictly speaking, we have blues numbers here, shouted cries of pain—but the whole thing sounds like the actual spirit of what it means to overcome. Carry on. Live your life like a thrown knife. Or like a shot arrow.
The medley is set up by “Cupid.” “Here’s another song that…” Cooke begins by way of introducing the hit that everyone would have known, as the band races ahead of him. June Gardner pushes these guys like a motherfucker. Cooke forgoes a formal intro and does a little rap: “Tell me, tell me, tell me…,” then sings a single elemental and ornamental word—“Tulipppppp”—before adding, “Maybe you remember this one, a very nice little song.”
The studio version was a mid-tempo number released in May 1961, with a Latin touch, not uncommon in the early part of the decade—Ray Charles was another polystylist Black artist who went to that particular well. The kick in the number came courtesy of Earl Palmer on drums, a powerful player but one lacking Gardner’s fluidity. Palmer can drive a beat, but he doesn’t dislocate a track from its time signature the way that Gardner does on Harlem Square Club.
Gardner frees the pulse, like Elvin Jones would with John Coltrane, but whereas Coltrane took his flights on tenor sax, Cooke uses a voice that is noticeably horn-like. Our earliest music teachers say that the voice is an instrument, and you think, well, no shit, but there’s a deeper layer to the statement; apart from the sense delivered by the words, a voice like Cooke’s, in terms of its timbre and function, is sax-like, pianistic, lute-ish, organ-esque, etc. It is vocal and instrumental at once.
Pretend that you don’t know English when you listen to him sing. Hear the voice as pure sound. Notice how it still speaks to you, right? The carrier of that articulacy has changed, but not the extent. When you free the pulse, as Gardner does, you widen the parameters of the song, and you alter what its identity can be, creating room for another instrument to range further in dominion over the soundscape, because ultimately it is the leader, but also a leader that can take and welcome cues. Turn a cue into a fresh idea. Cooke’s crack band is part of his writing process on evenings like this one. They abet in his unpacking of a temporal palimpsest, serve as allies in composition.
With the studio recording of “Cupid,” guitarist Clifton White builds a framework of nice, clean chords, a kind of fence that might as well have been whitewashed by Tom Sawyer; he’s dirty here, though, greasy and funky, with scuffed and scuzzy chordal blocks that his fretboard partner Clifton Dupree riffs on as part of the dual-guitar attack, adding vibrato to White’s oil-coated rhythmic bedrock. White is the real timekeeper, not the drummer, which is what we expect a drummer to be, and what we get with Earl Palmer on the studio version. The altoist Jackie McLean cut an album in 1962 called Let Freedom Ring. Suffice it to say, Cooke and the boys are ringing it.
On Harlem Square Club, studio tracks have a knack for sounding like they have stood in line and are now casting a vote, with the voice and representation that is their due. They self-assert. They weren’t shackled before—let’s not undersell Sam Cooke’s studio artistry in the years prior to Harlem Square Club. But if there is such a thing as extra-liberation, in song form, these songs are extra-liberated here. Or maybe they are just growing into what they’ve collectively been journeying towards.
Gardner cues Cooke’s entrance into each chorus with a tom-tom roll and a bass drum capper. During the sessions for “Don’t Let Me Down,” John Lennon requested that Ringo Starr provide a beat that gave him the courage to come screaming in, as he put it. Gardner does something similar, but it’s more like companionship, an extra fillip of impetus, a “come on now, buddy, time to send your missive.”
Cooke doesn’t get all guttural even on the coda—which he does sometimes, when he wants to convey substance, and as he did with boosted panache a few numbers back on “Chain Gang.” But the gang is set free now, racing out over the countryside, traveling home—and hoping for a better one than that which had been left before.
Cooke’s voice resembles a trumpet worked with a plunger mute as the song reaches its conclusion. That voice is a clarion call of hard-fought advancement and intended arrival—Gabriel coming to meet Cupid. But in being aware of how the drum rolls send Cooke into the choruses—which are themselves epistolary, like a letter written to an agent of sorts for some help—we are aware of the stakes. The singer, though, has an agency unto himself. He’s one more self-sender. So naturally he cuts loose in celebration of this epiphany and gives his vocal the wah-wah effect near the end, which has an uplifting plangency, a de-pinioning of voice in both a sound sense and a metaphorical one. We all want an equal voice. This voice is second to none.
Earthiness would anchor—this portion of the soul sonata is focused on soaring, and invoking a life form—the cherub of the title—that already does. It’s about getting on the same level, a raising up. The Harlem Square Club version of “Cupid” is a passion piece, whereas the studio take is a praline kiss. The passion is for equity, of being eyeball to eyeball.