A Moment In Time: Sam Cooke Live @ The Harlem Square Club 1963

Sam COOKE - One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club –  Horizons Music




In 1984, Sweet Loretta (my wife) and I went down to New Orleans for our honeymoon and in the first day we were in New Orleans we came across a cool record store! When we walked into the room it was filled with the sounds of Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963.  In a moment, we were both overwhelmed by the sounds we were hearing…a live show featuring Sam Cooke!

The unfortunate tragedy that frames the embattled history of this legendary recording is label politics and race. When Cooke’s label, RCA-Victor caught wind of the tapes of this show, they found its furious, Chitlin’ Circuit ambiance unappealing, citing that it would alienate his pop (aka white) audience and obstruct his debonair image. Because of his mainstream success, executives weren’t invested in marketing him exclusively as a straight-up soul man either. Originally slated to be released by the title One Night Stand, its planned release was shelved and languished in RCA’s tape vaults for two decades.

Shelved for over 20 years, Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, stands alongside Otis Redding's Live in Europe and James Brown's Live at the Apollo as one of the finest live soul albums ever made. It also reveals a musical, spiritual, emotional, and social journey played out over one night on the stage of a sweaty Miami club, as Cooke made music that encapsulated everything he had ever cut, channeling forces that would soon birth A Change is Gonna Come, the most important soul song ever written.

As I was putting together this particular blog post when I came across a writer named Marc Hogan who wrote a wonderful piece on Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963 which was featured in Pitchfork Magazine (pitchfork.com)



One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is a monumental soul artifact, one of the greatest live albums of all time, and, in its defiant partying from the depths of the segregated South, a veiled precursor to the explicit activism of A Change Is Gonna Come, which wasn’t released as a single until after Cooke’s death.


In a scant 10 tracks and 39 minutes, the album captures one of the most beguiling figures of 20th-century music as close to the peak of his powers as he was ever recorded, sounding grittier and more seductive than you’ll hear on those good-times oldies blocks but still every bit in command. Now, 60 years later, it’s a righteous celebration that collapses the decades.

Ahead of the performance that would end up on One Night Stand!, Cooke was in a fascinating flux. At the start of 1962, he was already the best-selling singles artist on RCA after Elvis. That October, while James Brown was in Harlem recording what would become his classic Live at the Apollo—and when nuclear tensions peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis—Cooke was touring the UK with Little Richard, who dashed off for a Liverpool bill headlining above the Beatles. The appreciative reaction overseas helped encourage Cooke to incorporate more gospel fervor into a reworked set, which he debuted at the Apollo, complete with hanging-on-the-telephone You Send Me riff, on November 2. 


On the same Apollo bill was another soul luminary, saxophonist King Curtis, who Cooke cajoled into joining him on an upcoming Southern tour even though, as a revered session player, he could have made more money at home.


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

No one seems to remember how it was decided that two RCA engineers would be flown down to record Cooke’s January 12, 1963 performance in Miami. The Harlem Square Club was a 2,000-capacity building within the Little Broadway district of the segregated city’s historically Black neighborhood of Overtown.

The engineers set up their equipment—eight microphones and a three-track mixer—during a 4 p.m. matinee, adjusted it once the crowd exploded for the first evening show, at 10 p.m., and then gave up all hope of getting back to the stage before the late show, at 1 a.m., which would be immortalized on One Night Stand!

It’s the strongest full-length Cooke ever laid to tape. His studio albums—even the best, August 1963’s wee-small-hours blues opus Night Beat and February 1964’s expansive Ain’t That Good News—were lavished with strings, choirs, and superfluous cover songs aimed at white swells with fat wallets. 


Live at the Harlem Square Club showcases a tight, guitar-driven band that King Curtis’ fiery sax takes to another level; Cooke’s vocals, while still as melismatic and controlled as ever, are gorgeously rough-edged. Aside from King Curtis’ introductory Soul Twist—a 1962 instrumental hit—and a wry rendition of the Nat King Cole standard (I Love You) for Sentimental Reasons that’s tucked away at the back end of a woozy medley, One Night Stand! is all Cooke originals. It’s an ode to spontaneity and evanescence that feels as elaborately plotted as a concept album."



In this setting, Cooke’s hits take on new life. After a few words from King Curtis and a friendly greeting from Cooke, Feel It (Don’t Fight It) sets out a pair of favored Cooke themes, the transcendent powers of good music and young love, at an uncharacteristically breakneck pace; even if you wanted to fight the feeling, you’d have to catch it first. 



Cupid arrives almost in quotes—Maybe you remember this one, Cooke begins, a very nice little song, nice and sweet—and accentuates the original’s Caribbean feel and stretches out the onomatopoeic sss when Cupid’s arrow goes straight to my lover’s heart, while Cooke’s chuckles drive home the irony that for all of the tragedies in his life, he surely never had to pray to a minor Greek love deity. 



Cooke livens up his dance craze tie-in Twistin’ the Night Away, here interpolated with part of Chubby Checker’s The Twist, by exhorting everyone to ‘take round’ their handkerchiefs; his ‘take the, take the, take the’ ad libs feel as jubilantly insistent as a Chuck Berry guitar lick!



Cooke’s interplay with the crowd also transforms the material. Chain Gang was always an unusual pop hit, with lyrics about forced, largely Black labor, and the propulsive Harlem Square Club version posits an alternative universe where the Clash covered this instead of I Fought the Law. But there’s a secondary type of release in a mass of people shouting “uhh” and ‘ahh’ as Cooke purrs, ‘Oh yeah’. 



In a full-throated sing-along of (I Love You) for Sentimental Reasons, at least one woman’s voice stands out on its own, filling out the harmony. Other voices squeal. Not unlike Apollo 11, the 2019 moon-landing documentary using unreleased archival footage, it feels like you’re bearing witness to a key historical moment from an uncannily intimate perspective.

Part of the tension of One Night Stand! comes from Cooke’s purposefully sappy celebrations of love positioned alongside his real-world cynicism. The front end of the Sentimental Reasons medley is the Cooke original It’s All Right, a song of unconditional devotion that’s introduced as advice for men who hear that their lovers have been unfaithful—they should try a little tenderness, obviously. 



The second-to-last song of the set, ‘Nothing Can Change This Love’, seems like a swooning love song that’s all cake and ice cream in the lyrics, but Cooke’s cackling laughter, King Curtis’ yearning sax solo, and the band’s ragged minor chords emphasize the cracks in the studio original’s cool reserve.



One Night Stand! crests—as does, arguably, Cooke’s entire career pre- A Change Is Gonna Come —with an incredible rendition of Bring It On Home to Me, then a recent non-album single and Cooke’s most gospel-charged solo side to date. This song gon’ tell you how I feel, Cooke begins, and he doesn’t let the audience down; if you listen closely, you’ll hear a thumping sound that can only be Cooke pounding his chest. The band is raucous, Cooke exudes joy, and the crowd sings along like it’ll keep the lights from going on, Cooke from leaving, them from having to go home to 1963 reality. Cooke recognizes it, too: Everybody’s with me tonight!

One Night Stand! ends not with a protest song, despite the tumultuous times, but with a manifestation of communal joy that the powers that be couldn’t take away. 



The song is the featherlight yet floor-stomping soul groove Having a Party, which neatly bookends the album by name-checking King Curtis’ set-opening Soul Twist and then adds yet another perfect Cooke lyric: ‘The Cokes are in the icebox’, he sings, recognizing the poetry in the details of everyday mid-century existence. The mood is euphoric, shaky, the right amount of too much.

I gotta go, but when you go home, keep on having a party', Cooke announces at last, in a farewell that feels like a benediction. ‘If you’re with your loved ones somewhere, keep on having that party. If you feel good all alone riding with the radio some time, riding in a car and the radio is on, keep on having that party.’ 

Live at the Harlem Square Club stands as a reminder that somewhere in between too-hard living and fearful dying—who knows what’s up there beyond the sky, anyway?—we surrender ourselves to Saturday night. Cooke told us how he felt, and now everybody is with him.


It just don't get any better than that 

for sure!








Leave a comment