Counterbalance: Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

We'll never know just what Sam Cooke would have accomplished if he had lived, but it's painfully clear that we missed out on something incredible.
Sam Cooke
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

Klinger: So I forget why exactly, but awhile back I was looking over the Great List’s breakdown of the most acclaimed albums of 1985. (was I reliving my high school days? researching Tears for Fears? pretending I was working? Theories abound.) Anywho, I noticed something fascinating. One of the most acclaimed albums from that year was a 22-year-old live recording from Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. Digging a little deeper, I was suddenly reading reviews that suggest this album was actually superior to James Brown’s Live at the Apollo which is a strong statement to say the least. My world suddenly seemed topsy turvy. Old timey records were on the Pazz & Jop Poll. Critics were besmirching the Godfather of Soul himself. Dogs and cats were cohabitating. My intriguedness grew. I needed to lie down.

Before I did, I pulled the CD off the shelf. I hadn’t really sat down and listened to Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 in years, but Mrs. Klinger has informed on several occasions that if she ever had access to a time machine, her first order of business would be to prevent Sam Cooke’s murder. Sometimes her love for Sam Cooke makes me uncomfortable. Regardless, after one listen I immediately understood why this album resonated so much with critics in 1985. I’m prepared to go on at length about it here 30 years later. After this week of intensive listening, I’m sure you’re ready to go on as well. So let’s compare notes. Go on, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: Still waiting on the Counterbalance accounting department to sign off on the time machine expenditure. You hear me, Dave? Turn off the Pink Floyd, get your ass out of that bean bag chair and do that paperwork. It is a wonder that our non existent company, full of non existent employees gets anything done. In the meantime, I will add “prevent Sam Cooke’s murder,” to the long list to things we get our hands on that time machine.

In all seriousness though, I was only vaguely aware that Cooke was murdered. For many years I thought he was still alive. Turns out I had him confused with Smokey Robinson. Doing research for this week’s piece I stumbled down the rabbit hole that is his untimely death and was surprised to find nothing but conspiracy and loose ends. For anyone unfamiliar with the circumstance surrounding Cooke’s death, it is worth a look.

I have had the Sam Cooke’s career collective, The Man Who Invented Soul, for many years and make it a point to listen to most of it at least once a year. Turns out Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is included in that collection but since I rarely made it to the fourth disc, I never spent much time with it. Sitting down with this week’s record, I was hoping for something close to the transcendent experience of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo or as forceful as Otis Redding’s Otis Blue / Otis Redding Sings the Blues but came away a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I will listen to Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 all day long but the suggestion that it is comparable to Live at the Apollo starts and stops with the word ‘Live.’ Granted, the comparison is unfair for several reasons. First, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 wasn’t released until 1985, giving Live at the Apollo a lengthy head start. Second, Brown was building upon the foundation that Cooke laid down for him, expounding on the many variations of soul music while incorporating elements of rock and roll with a showmanship that leaps off the wax. Third, Cooke was still living in a pre-rock world when he made this record. The Beatles and the Beach Boys had yet to change the face of music. The concept of the album as art was still several years off and yet Cooke went out and made a live record, now a staple in the music industry, that can almost rival anything that came after it. Quite the amazing feat, if you ask me.

Klinger: Hold the phone, Mendelsohn. You weren’t listening to the box set version of this album the whole time, were you? Because if you were, by all accounts you were doing it wrong. RCA, the same geniuses who sat on this record for 22 years, also later decided to remaster the original LP and cut back on the crowd noise. In the process, they completely ruined the whole thing. This album is about capturing the electric energy of this live performance, and the crowd is an integral part of that. Listening to them sing along on “For Sentimental Reasons,” or engaging in a call and response during “Bring It On Home to Me,” or just buoying up Cooke with their bustling undercurrent of activity throughout, you understand the power of live performance. Cooke obviously got it too — his glee nearly jumps out of the speakers at you all throughout the album.

In his autobiography, Keith Richards talks about the difference between old records and newer ones. New records, he says, are about recording instruments, while old records were about recording the room. And while their nearly contemporaries, that’s the difference between Live at the Apollo and Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 — the former is a recording of a performance, while the latter is a recording of an event. Which sort of brings us around to why Cooke’s lost album caused such a stir when it was finally released. It showed a side of tougher, grittier side of Cooke that was on its way to being lost to nostalgia. I’ve read more than one review now that’s all but dismissed Cooke’s studio output as syrupy and milquetoast (mmm… syrupy milk toast…), which is of course completely unfair, but such was the excitement that surrounded the unarchiving of this recording.

Mendelsohn: I don’t know. This unnamed critic does have a point. Cooke is definitely a consummate performer with a voice as sweet as honey, but his studio output, while delightful to the ears, might be considered a bit dull. As a result, I never made it to the remastered version of Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 because by the time I rolled around to the fourth disc of his career retrospective, I normally had a stomach ache from all of the milquetoast. Although, once I found out there were multiple releases of this record I spent a little time comparing the records and have found the original release from 1985 to be much more enjoyable. The crowd energy is palpable, egged on by Cooke’s punched-up performance and roughed-up vocals. Why anyone would try to cut that out is beyond me. But then, questioning the music industry is an exercise in futility.

Klinger: First of all, it’s generally not a good idea to listen to an entire box set all at once. It’s like those steaks that are free if you can finish them. By the time you’re done, you’ve had more than you can really stomach. I’ve gotten pretty far into The Man Who Invented Soul over the course of an evening, but I’ve always had my wife nearby. Touch that eject button at your peril. And I’d also like to point out that while Cooke brings an edge to the proceedings that is not always there in the studio, he’s never too far from the consummate entertainer within. I believe he even uses “whom” during a “Chain Gang” improvisation (“See my woman… whom I love so dear…”) — any singer who automatically goes to the correct use of the objective case has one eye on the mainstream world of 1963.

Mendelsohn: Cooke’s hits take on a life of their own when he is on stage. His understated studio performances of “Chain Gang”, “Cupid” and “Somebody Have Mercy”, pale in comparison to the live work. There is an excitement and raw energy that propel his music. Plus, I love the off notes, the crowd response and hearing Cooke huff into the microphone is magical. Even the album cover is sexier, with the neon and stage lights, wiping away that wholesome image that follows Cooke’s brilliant but rather staid studio output. And then there is the backing band, playing off Cooke’s energy and pushing the crowd into a frenzy. That horn section is on point and I love I’ve and take between Cooke and the sax solos in “Twistin’ the Night Away” and then again in “Somebody Have Mercy.” That signature sound comes courtesy of King Curtis, an up and coming trendsetter in the soul scene who’s career was also tragically cut short.

Klinger: OK, I’m with you that the feel on Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is more energized, and that’s a big reason why people were so enamored of this album when it came out. It also helps explain why the loss of Sam Cooke was so influential. We might have found it odd that Otis Redding covered a handful of Cooke’s tunes on Otis Blue, but it makes more sense when you realize how devastating his loss was to the black community. 200,000 people showed up for his funeral. Cooke was not only positioning himself to conquer the mainstream, but he was also doing so without losing touch with his roots. In fact, he was bringing more strains of gospel and blues into his studio recordings as his career progressed (I almost had us discuss his penultimate studio LP Night Beat here). We’ll never know just what Sam Cooke would have accomplished if he had lived, at least not until Mrs. Klinger gets her DeLorean, but it’s painfully clear that we missed out on something incredible.