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Posted by on May 27, 2010

Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, aka the greatest live performance ever

I will be the first to admit that my posts of late have been a touch academic, perhaps slightly less personal than they should be. I do hope to make up for that in this post with the single greatest live performance I have ever heard, anywhere, in any musical genre. And it comes from a man many might associate with some relatively humdrum music from the 1960s.

Sam Cooke was born in 1931 and died in 1964 at the young age of 33. He was considered to be one of the pioneers and founders of soul music (even the name of his backing band was The Soul Stirrers). According to Wikipedia, his contribution in pioneering soul music led to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and eventually popularized the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown. No small feat there.

I suppose I should give some context to this choice of music. I grew up listening to 1960s music from the backseat of any number of Volkswagens my parents had between 1975 and 1991 (when I started to drive myself). We listened to 1960s music. Nothing else. And my father (outside of The Beatles) had a love of soul/Motown music. We listened to Otis Redding, Sly and the Family Stone, and Aretha and a whole bunch of others. Then there was Sam Cooke. His “What A Wonderful World” lyrics (don’t know much about history, psychology, sociology-Sam, go to school!) elicited many a response from my brother and sisters. Either way, I knew Sam Cooke. The radio version.

In Dayton, Ohio during my undergraduate years, I stumbled across a live album from Sam Cooke, called Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. I took it home and listened to it, read the liner notes, and listened to it again. And again. And again. Sam is mesmerizing, stringing the audience together in one mash of lyrics, dialogue, and back and forth with the audience. It is almost like one 65 minute song. It was the most brilliant thing I had ever heard. I generally don’t like live albums all that much (I am that one person who doesn’t, apparently), but this was different. It took me somewhere. I could hear the excitement, the oohs and yeeaaahs and triumphant applause at the end of every song. I could hear the drinks clanking, the chatter in the background, the whole thing was so palpable. I could almost feel the sweat and the heat and the banter. The banter is what really separates this track from others. He is talking to this audience at this time and it just so happens that it is being recorded.

The liner notes are otherworldly. If you can find them, please do digitize them. From what I remember, this recorded album was the third show of the night, at 2:00 AM, at that hour when reality starts to set in. Sam Cooke helps them forget all of that for a few minutes. His voice is slightly hoarse and he is screaming a bit. I played it at my wedding reception (twice) and my original album, making its way from Dayton, Ohio to Korea, featured prominently in the wedding of a friend as well.

Either way, that is a lot of explanation for a brilliant track. Here is Bring it on Home to Me from Sam Cooke. Listen carefully for the oohs and aahs. Sorry to make you read so much to get to an MP3, but I wanted to do it justice. It is just that good.

Sam Cooke-Bring It On Home to Me (Live)

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