Sam Cooke’s Wild Side

<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Live-Harlem-Square-Club-1963/dp/B000002W7N">RCA</a>


Sam Cooke
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
RCA

Eighty years ago last Saturday, Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He started out as a gospel singer, and when he switched to recording secular music his smooth style made him an instant success. In the short 33 years before he was killed by a motel manager in Los Angeles, California, he wrote and recorded 29 Top 40 soul hits. In 2008, Rolling Stone ranked his voice as the fourth-greatest of all time, behind only Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley. But Cooke didn’t always stick to the polished sound that made him famous. As his often-overlooked album Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 reveals, there were two very different sides to Mr. Soul.

Live at the Harlem Square Club wasn’t released for 22 years after it was recorded. The delay was due in part to the singer’s sudden death, but no doubt also to the fact that the album didn’t sound much like the Sam Cooke many fans of his recordings had come to know. He performed a spoken-word version of “You Send Me,” for example, that turned into a sped-up, drum-heavy, “Bring it on Home to Me” in which he shouts, “Everybody’s with me! Everybody is with me tonight!” And everyone was. It was a strikingly unpolished take on “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and seven other of Cooke’s biggest hits.

Cooke was a businessman who founded his own record label and knew how to sell music. (He added the “e” on the end of his name because he thought it made him seem classier.) He saw that in order for a soul song to have widespread appeal on radio stations and in places like roller-skating arenas, it needed to be pretty. As a trained gospel singer, Cooke could, in the words of Van Morrison, “sing anything and make it work.” And that’s exactly what he did on his studio recordings. But Live at the Harlem Square Club offers a taste of what he sounded like when wasn’t trying to “make it work.” The songs are wild, the timing is loose and the instruments are loud. “That sounds pretty good to me!” Cooke called out toward the end of the concert.

It’s impossible to know exactly why Cooke changed his sound for live performances. A clue, however, might be found in a story U2’s Bono told about the first time Cooke played a Bob Dylan record for the young singer Bobby Womack: “Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.” In Live at the Harlem Square Club, he wasn’t selling records, he was telling the truth.

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.