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Tease from upcoming 33 1/3 book on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

Thursday 9/17/20

Thought I'd share a little peek of what is coming in May...


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Sam Cooke is ten days shy of his thirty-second birthday on the evening of January 12, 1963, when his record label, RCA, installs eight microphones at various strategic points in Miami’s Harlem Square Club to record what is intended as the singer’s second live album.


Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi—an area of blues lore, where legends persist of men meeting the devil at crossroads, forking over their guitar to be tuned, selling their souls in the process—Cooke has returned to a Dixie that has died, and a Dixie that also may never completely die.

He’s a northerner though, albeit in the circumvented sense that a displaced Southern African American every really leaves the South, in terms of his or her make-up—that is, a knowledge of the price and preciousness of freedom is all but baked into Sam Cooke’s bones.


Cooke grew up in Chicago, where generational talents like Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters had also once emigrated—for Chicago might as well have been a different country—making a sort of musical Valhalla on the shores of a Middle Western lake. It is in Chicago where Cooke’s father preached, and now the famous son lives in Los Angeles, in a home with a pool—he’s made good, walks around with a couple grand on his person—which will play a pivotal role in his story when his one-and-a-half-year-old son, Vincent, drowns in the coming summer.


Cooke himself has less than two years of life remaining. He will die in mysterious, ugly fashion—one of those deaths that prompt endless theories and talk of conspiracies regarding the mob and the FBI—early in the Christmas season of 1964, when bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles are telling their audiences just how jazzed they are by this singular artist.


The original cover of the Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 LP features Cooke in a white dress shirt, bathed in a nimbus-y light. The light is centered on the chestal cavity—where Cooke builds his sound—rather than the head—and it all but ripples with magenta cross-hatching. The Cooke of this cover has a stained-glass quality, all the more so given his gestural pose—cupped right hand beseeching, mouth agape in the manner of someone creating a quavering, held o-sound, be it with an “oooh,” “whoahhhh,” or “God”—as the left hand grips a Neumann electro-static microphone, fingers tightened into a triumphal fist—the kind that punches the air in hard-won exultation.


But it is a peaceable fist, one for striving and getting on—not mere conquistador-ing—similar to what we see in Eugène Delacroix’s mid-nineteenth century canvas, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, in which a man of earth wages battle with the supernal. We are not exactly sure why Jacob wrestles the winged-figure in the arbor—perhaps it is a test, one which he must not fail, at least in his own mind. That is how Sam Cooke holds the tool that will render him audible to every last club-goer, the mic as pulpit. He will test this audience. He will test himself. He’ll test us now, still.


Colored lights blink throughout the space, which must have lent a leftover Christmas vibe to what is a barn-like hall. If we are away in a manger, it’s a fittingly low-rent mid-twentieth century version, a hall meant to pack ‘em in, not bum rush the cover of Architectural Digest.

Tinsel decorations remain. The simple, lo-tech soundboard—all that was available in these early days of remote recording in clubs—is upstairs, in the manager’s office, capable of three track recording. A lot of sound is going to be jammed into a tight recording window, a soul Louvre on the back of a stamp. This will prove a boon, and give the document its Pangeaic-heft, a feral solidity that still possesses a cometary blaze, advances upon a shore like a tide whose time has come to make further explorations up the beach. Had some deity put you in charge of the elements for a spell, you’d have thought, “hmmm, I can do something with this sound. Knock the weather for a loop. Change the shadows across the face of the moon.”


Which was the exact opposite response that the higher-ups had at RCA when they heard what Cooke and his all-Black band had wrought. They didn’t just shelve this sucker for its through-the-roof-quotient of denuded, raw, real humanness—they left it in the vaults until 1985, when presumably a marketing person said, “Might be safe enough now, people like Sam Cooke on the oldies stations, we don’t really have anything else in the can, let’s slap out Harlem Square Club.”


And so this glorious vessel slipped free of her moorings, and was finally slapped out at that.