Review #240: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Sam Cooke

Karla Clifton
3 min readFeb 18, 2022

#240: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Sam Cooke

After listening to Otis Redding’s Otis Blue (#178), I fell in love with Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” so much so that it started messing with my Spotify recommendations. That song is slow and reflective, so I wasn’t prepared for a sweaty, nonstop live album. Songs like “Chain Gang” surprised me, because he sounds like a grizzled, sexy showman, not necessarily a socially aware chanteuse.

This was released over 20 years after it was recorded, because (according to the RS blurb) Cooke’s label RCA “shelved it out of fear that Cooke’s raw performance might alienate crossover (read: white) audiences.” I thought they were being cute but in 2013, RCA executive Gregg Geller said pretty much exactly that. “The fact is, when he was out on the road, he was playing to a predominantly, almost exclusively black audience. And he was doing a different kind of show … than what he would do for his pop audience.” What a delight that they eventually realized they were sitting on a gem.

My favorite, obviously, was “Twistin’ The Night Away,” which is definitely my second-favorite song about twisting. Some of the other speedy songs were “Feel It (Don’t Fight It)” and “Having a Party.” Just when you think you’re having a good time, it becomes clear that the audience is having a much better time: they shout through all of those songs.

Did you know on an initial rerelease of this, they turned the audience sounds way down? They brought it back up on the 2005 rerelease, which makes it that much more thrilling, especially on “Medley: It’s All Right/For Sentimental Reasons.” He helps the audience sing along by shouting out the lyrics before they come up. The whole thing is made perfect by his repeated declaration that “I love this song!”

Cooke is charismatic, dynamic, and dare I say hilarious? During “Somebody Have Mercy,” he asks what’s wrong with him, then shouts, “It ain’t that leukemia!” I guffawed.

For every fun partying song was an intimate love song. “Bring It on Home To Me” was my favorite of these. It’s exciting because it has a huge climax in the middle, and then rolls into this ecstatic, anguished blues. Also I love when he says his own name. “Cupid” and “Nothing Can Change This Love” were also great.

Cooke died the year after this was recorded in what was ruled a “justifiable homicide,” though reports differ on whether or not the murder was actually justified. Seems a shame that we only have one more album from him on the list, and it’s a Greatest Hits album. But I’ll take what I can get.

Best Sleeper Song: “Soul Twist” is just the introduction, but it features a sax solo that is worth mentioning.

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