February 18, 2008


Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali, 1964A live album must capture a point in time and make that point both specific and eternal. The album sounds and vision must be a perfect representation of that year but the crowd, its mood, and their excitement must be universal and immediately understandable. You must be transported in time and say "That was an amazing show. If that concert happened tomorrow in my hometown I would be there and pay whatever amount."


Sam Cooke invented soul sometime in the late 1950's or at least that's what his 2000 Box Set titled The Man Who Invented Soul suggests. Sure, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and many other lesser known artists make their own creation claims but Cooke's Promethean status does ring more true than false. Unlike the others Cooke owns a seemingly endless string of terrific singles that charted on both the white and r&b charts. His third single, the 1957 "You Send Me", knocked Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock" from it seven-week-long number one perch. This event was no anomaly; Sam Cooke's perfect voice and beautiful songs were every bit the King's equal.

In 1960 signed with RCA garnering a $100,000 advance ($700,000 in 2008 terms). In the same year baseball's top earner, Ted Williams, made only $90,000. Sam Cooke was bigger than baseball.

He took that money and started his own record label in 1961; a pioneering move for any artist at the time. The crossover hits kept coming and in 1963 RCA recorded one of his concerts at the Miami, Florida's Harlem Square Club. Their inspiration was surely James Brown's 1963 Live at the Apollo Theatre recording which unexpectedly became a runaway commercial success. (Check out Cashbox Magazine's year-end list for 1963. How out of place is #25 Live at the Apollo?) Could Sam Cooke's Harlem Square Club performance repeat the JB phenomenon? We never were able to find out. Cooke's Harlem Square recordings were bagged and didn't see the light of day until 22 years later.

Harlem Square's 1985 release saw significant fanfare. Critics hailed Cooke's resurrected grittiness, tense sexuality, and hoarse frenzy. New York Times critic Jon Pareles named it the year's second best album wedging it between R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction and Husker Dü's Zen Arcade. Suddenly, it was argued, the public had heard the real Sam Cooke. Only, in 1985, the public was too busy watching Witness and seeing Harrison Ford fall in love with Kelly McGillis while Cooke's enchantingly saccharine "Wonderful World" played in the background. Which perfect side of Sam Cooke had really reappeared?


When I listen to Harlem Square what year does it sound like? 1963 or 1985 or is it transcendent? None of the above. Harlem Square sounds even older than 1963. It doesn't capture JFK, Dr. No, the Beatles, progressive politics and Camelot. Instead, it sounds like segregation and that was more Eisenhower, Little Rock, and the 50's, right? Wrong. My history is mistaken.

1963 was the high tide in the establishment South's pro-segregation battle. Newly elected Alabama governor George Wallace proclaimed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!" the same January week that Harlem Square was recorded and in June of the same year stood in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama in an attempt to prevent black enrollment. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter From Birmingham Jail that April and gave his I Have A Dream Speech that August. Medgar Evers was murdered that June. In October Sam Cooke and his band were arrested for attempting to check into a whites-only Louisiana motel. He subsequently wrote his greatest song, "A Change is Gonna Come".

The hopeful, steadfast, strength of "A Change is Gonna Come", however, doesn't appear on Harlem Square. The album feels resigned to guarded emotions and grudgingly accepting of its segregated milieu especially when heard alongside its defiant, end-of-the-world-level orgasmic Live at the Apollo contemporary. Harlem Square itself isn't sad. Cooke doesn't sound sad, relaxed and tired yes but not sad. And while his and his band's soulfulness and passion is unquestionable the album makes me very sad. The crowd screams and responds to Cooke's calls but they sound muted; there's something missing in their eagerness. Despite Cooke's soothing voice and loving melodies the room feels tight, steamy, and full of tension.

The concert marks a distinct moment in time but it's a time I hope never happens again. The 1963 South is not a place I would ever want to relate to and Harlem Square is not a concert that I would have wanted to be at. Harlem Square may sound old and dated to these young ears but that is a wonderful thing. The older segregation seems the better this country has become. Let it sound 45 years old, let it sound 100 years old, let the past die, and let the future continue.

1 comment:

Eurowags said...

Wow, that's a great way to put the album in its historical context - many things I was not aware of. Interesting to see how your interpretation of time and place influences your view on the album. The contrast with his song "Change Is Going to Come" is particularly insightful.

I had no idea that this album was not released until 1985 until today. Wow! Funny bit about the Witness movie and the use of a song of his.

Also, rather interesting to see how your interpretation of the crowd reaction somewhat differs from mine. I don't see it as muted enthusiasm, but rather as enthusiasm expressed in a way different than what we are used to today. I see it as a reaction typical of many southern blues houses, even today. If this is the case, then your interpretation of the racial implications and associations of this recording has solid support.