This is from my upcoming 33 1/3 book on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, which argues that the most important song in the history of of this country was written in large part on a concert stage in Miami's Black neighborhood of Overtown. The book comes out in September, and is available for pre-order now.
Eventually I fell asleep on those long evenings of Night Beat and “Lost and Lookin’,” arising feeling older than I was, aches in my sides and calves, in need of energy and a renewal of purpose—a reminder of what true purpose is.
I think we look to works of art for these reminders, especially works of art that connote their own sense of purpose. They can double as a kind of playbook the subject, the primer that is not piecemeal, but rather infuses every last back alley of who we are with the reminder of why we need to push on. Sometimes you push on without knowing what you’re pushing on towards. A work of art like Live at the Harlem Square Club makes you move. And as Cooke had sung, you gotta.
I’d pull myself out of bed, swallow some Advil, throw on a couple sweatshirts in the dead of winter, and I’d take to the Boston streets at three or four in the morning. I’d walk for upwards of twenty miles, and I walked most of those miles with Live at the Harlem Club playing in my headphones. Again and again I’d listen. I’d think about being sent, trying to self-actuate, to think less about my absence of a destination and more that I was moving. My feet were literally beating on pavement, but something else drummed in my heart and Sam Cooke helped with that beat, which was very faint for quite some time. It is the song of one’s self, the person one seeks to rediscover, and the shedding of older layers as the new person emerges. In that way, we are not so different than from how Sam Cooke wrote his songs in real-time moments and his superfluidity of past, present, future.
When I was a kid I watched a lot of Boston Bruins hockey games. There was this player named Nevin Markwart. He was no star—a third line checker—but he stood out because of his energy. He raced across the ice as if shot from a particle accelerator, and he didn’t just pop people—he left his feet to try to deck his opponents like he was hell bent on driving both them and him through the roof of the rink. I’d play hockey at seven, eight-years-old in the driveway, pretending I was Markwart, tossing my body into the garage doors as though imaginary foes were skating there, just about rattling the whole house, likely to the horror of my parents, who’d sometimes stick a head out from the breezeway to tell me to chill.
Listening to Live at the Harlem Square Club on those winter mornings as an adult, when it felt like the rest of the world was asleep, encountering neither friend nor foe, nor living form save the rats of Boston, was Markwart-esque, a new understanding of energy. I don’t believe there is a record with more energy than this one. It makes you wish to leap forward into a person you’ve never been, whom you need to be.
There are only a few musical documents in a comparable energy category. The electric half of Bob Dylan’s set at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966. Otis Redding’s Live in Europe. Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live at the Star Club, Hamburg. The Beatles’ long medley on Abbey Road. The beginning of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The Stone Roses’ attempt to prove they still had it as a live band at Glasgow Green in 1990. The orgastic “Sing Sing Sing” finale to Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall gig.
These are rocket launchers. They are not just sonic and cerebral experiences—they are physical experiences, as much as playing in a football game, dancing a ballet, having sex, pushing yourself through a workout, or trying to walk your way out of the lowest circles of an existential crisis of the soul when you are not sure on one Sunday if you will live to see the next.
In Miami, Cooke entreats the crowd to stay with him, to come with him, pledging that he will never leave them. He doesn’t mean that he won’t blow this town to play somewhere else in a week. Certain works of art walk beside you in this life, which is what they are built to do; the figurative side of walking side-by-side. They’re potentially always there. The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan remarked, “Heroism is endurance for one moment more.” In Overtown, in an era of the dehumanization of the Black people attending this gig, Cooke is helping his brothers and sisters to endure. He provides a secular form of faith. We need not pray to God, but we do need to look within for forbearance, for that heroism. He’s by the side of these concert-goers, and always will be in the consequential sense. More importantly, he can help you stand by your own side, so to speak. Art props us up until we can ourselves get better at the job. You self-prop, you self-send, and eventually you arrive where you should and deserve to. Had I been in that crowd on that night—just as you can be in that crowd now, after a fashion, every time you cue up the album—I would have felt richly propped. Not only propped—I would have felt loved. Which might be the miracle of art like this—because even theoretically I could barely imagine what love was.
The tactility of Live at the Harlem Square Club is unlike that with any other record. To listen to it is to feel as if you’re physically being touched. That’s partially why Markwart came to my mind, that image of an extreme attempt at extreme touching—throwing yourself bodily into someone at twenty-five miles per hour isn’t exactly a limp-handed handshake or a palm in the small of the back.
M.R. James was an English writer of ghost stories and a provost at King’s College. Each year, on Christmas Eve, he’s invite his colleagues and favorite students to his rooms, where he’d read a terror tale he had written, altering it as he went along, just as Sam Cooke alters his earlier songs, producing new compositional product in real-time. James himself was a buttoned-down fellow, but his stories were somatic like Sam Cooke could be somatic. Yes, there were various monsters in James’ weird fiction, but it wasn’t just that there was this hairy revenant in a given tale, but that in reading the prose it was as if the hair of the revenant was being rubbed up and down your face. An intense, inescapable tactility. M.R. James represents the horror version. Cooke signifies not necessarily the post-horror version, so much as the “I feel you, we’ll carry on” version. The “I got you” version.
On the Harlem Square Club medley of “It’s Alright”/”For Sentimental Reasons,” Cooke advises what to do after a bad fight with one’s lover. He’s caught up in this moment, unfiltered as he is throughout the gig—for all of the impeccable control, it’s also a raw, compositional brainstorming session—and cautions that you shouldn’t go hitting her, which shouldn’t need saying, but there it is. He’s in front of a crowd but also singing as if there is no one else within 100 miles. The band does this honeyed, aureated vamp behind him, but Cooke isn’t quite ready to start—he hums instead, as if to himself, taking the time to give himself that pleasure. It’s a sweetly Onanistic series of hums, a private moment that’s okay for us to witness.
The singer’s girl has been unfaithful. She may be in repose, post-coitus, from the earlier portion of her evening with someone else. And the singer, utilizing the same cadence as the one used with the hums, now begins to articulate words that have a hum-like aspect. They are words, sure, but they are as much caresses. They are ghost notes that touch us.
“It’s alright,” Cooke sings, repeatedly, “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright.” The selflessness might seem imponderable at first. I think of Christ washing feet, but there is also horror—not the Jamesian horror of ghosts and their tactility, but the physicality of betrayal. The smell of the another on the person one loves. The presence of the seed of another, even. “It’s alright,” Cooke sings, “It’s alright.” He assuages. There is nothing like this on record. The Who featured an extended coda of expiation on “A Quick One (While He’s Away),” but for all of the earnest sentiment, tongues were in cheeks. Whereas, this is stark emotional nakedness, euphonically rendered, peaceably intended, even if guts are all but laid out on the floor.
The singer is leaving in a few minutes—perhaps he could share a ride with Schubert’s young man from Winterreise—which we know because he tells the woman that if she ever needs him, he’s only a phone call away. “Just try me,” Cooke adds, and I am honestly not sure if he says it, sings it, or hums it. You barely know if it’s a voice or a horn.
That hard evening concluded—but also one of patience and clemency—the second half of the medley finds us at a future point in time, when the singer is perhaps with someone else. And now it is working, the romance, the connection. Cornell Dupree plays augmenting, decorative lines on his guitar that frame the singer’s well-spoken Valentine with just the right amount of gilding—nothing tacky, just a bit of gold coloring surrounding the words.
Again, we have the self-pleasure angle—Cooke sings, “Oh, I like this song,” editorializing on his own work, and showing himself some love in the margins. “I’ve given you my mah-mah-mah-mah-mind,” he sings, taking the hard “i” and converting it into a soft “a” that offers a bumper crop of stretched “h’s”—one of his power moves. When Sam Cooke writes these possibilities into his vocals, you know it’s playing-for-keeps time. Immediately after, he wants to engage the crowd in call-and-response singing. “Everybody!” he exhorts, and the way that everyone does join in—exactly where they’re supposed to—on “I think of you every morning,” makes one think Cooke had been rehearsing with these people for a couple weeks.
When I heard this the first few times, I wondered if it had been overdubbed in later. They’re bang on. The crowd sounds like a whole damn city singing along. “You’re sounding good,” Cooke opines, coaching them up. Trust me—these people know they sound good.
“I dream of you every cottonpickin’ night,” Cooke ad libs—writes—and yes, of course he is playing off of an activity associated with slaves and that everyone at that club associated with slavery. The crowd roars in vocal unison. “Hold my hand, fellas,” Cooke says to his band, and Cooke and Gardner do this kind of vocal-drum duet on the outro, Cooke going high, Gardner going low. They’re like that cypress tree in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, bridging soil and heavens.
We can think of the Harlem Square Club set as one big song, which is getting worked and reworked, revealing the assorted images of various levels of underdrawing, this kind of painting-in-reverse so as to move forward. The gig is the composition. The soul sonata.
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 Cooke studio version 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, but also 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 Live at the 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” pep talk.
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.