One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Seven weeks after my surgery, I am beginning to get around pretty well on my bionic knee. I have to be careful; I have a tendency to try and do a little too much too soon. Matter of fact, I went to the roller derby Saturday night and had to leave early on account of a stiffening sensation (insert joke) signaling the need for an ice pack and rest. Today it felt better, so I went and hung out with some friends. Among them was a thirty-something Canadian who works for one of the cruise ships that sail from here. He also happens to be a classical pianist and very knowledgeable about music. I was giving him a ride back to the ship and chatting about being a writer. I told him that I was finishing a two-part series on Sam Cooke.
“You know, Sam Cooke, ‘If you ever, change your mind?’”
Another blank stare.
“I’ve heard of him.”
“Well, without Sam Cooke, there would probably not be an Al Green.”
I must admit to being a little shocked. I assumed that anyone with a basic knowledge of music and popular culture would have heard of Sam Cooke, but apparently not. When faced with the task of introducing an artist of this magnitude, I defer to the music. The following album sat in storage for 22 years after it was recorded. It was discovered and issued, with well-deserved fanfare, on vinyl. A few years later, it was re-released on compact disc. A couple of years ago, it was remastered and reissued again.
Reading the reviews, you’ll notice a wide spectrum of opinion. No matter, grab whatever version is within your price range. Again, this is a must-have, if for no other reason than it’s a stark contrast to all his other recordings.
Finding A Voice
Sam Cooke made incredible records, some of the greatest in the history of popular music. The only problem?
He was too good.
Witness his first attempt at a secular hit: The “A” side of the single, the one suggested for airplay, was the Gershwin standard “Summertime.” But as so often happens in the music business, a DJ accidently flipped it over and played the “B” side. That song, “You Send Me,” would become his first million-seller, and lead to a deal with RCA.
From the time he left the gospel field in 1956, Cooke and his producers struggled to find his niche, and it was indeed a problem. He was an incredibly handsome young man with once-in-a-lifetime talent, who could sing anything and give it a soulful feel. Realizing this, his producers had him doing everything from standards to spirituals, from “twist” songs to Broadway show tunes. He racked up hit after hit. However, as this album demonstrates, given a choice, his heart belonged to the secret handshake of gospel and the blues that would one day be known as soul music.
One Night Stand
One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club wasn’t even released until 20 years after his death, but in a short 38 minutes it defines the essence of the gospel Boy Wonder.
In 1963, R&B still appealed almost exclusively to a black audience, and there was still an active nightclub scene built around touring acts. Only the very top performers could afford to travel with their own band. Most of the time a house band was used, with decidedly mixed results. On this date, Sam’s road band was led by legendary saxophonist King Curtis, and was anchored by the rock-solid shots of Bernard Purdie on drums.
Still, there’s enough of a loose feel to give it a much needed in-the-moment groove. Every song is in B-flat, and the result is one long segue, which works just fine. The show follows a basic formula: the band plays a warm-up song, and then they introduce “the star of the show.” The crowd sounds about half-lit already as Cooke has to call out three times to get their attention, but then he counts in the song, and with a crescendo from the musicians, it’s on.
For the next half-hour, the gloves come off and Cooke takes them to church. He croons, he shouts, he testifies, he pours it on. “Feel It” morphs into “Chain Gang”…The crowd accents the “ooh, aah” part; he pulls it back just a little on “Cupid”; now he’s slows into “For Sentimental Reasons” and the women scream; a honking sax solo from Curtis tears into “Twistin’ The Night Away.’ He owns them. “Bring It On Home” begins with a mini-sermonette, the band doing a I-VI minor vamp (ask your musician friend) behind him, and then crashes into the song accompanied by the whole crowd singing. The heart-stopping set ends with Cooke exhorting the audience to “take your handkerchief out, and wave it ‘round and ‘round,” while the band, locked in behind, provides an amen corner. The million-dollar voice cracks; now he’s actually shouting to the crowd. Gone is the refined, world-famous pop star, he’s preaching to a congregation filled with the spirit.
Whatever caused him to throw all reserve out the window and bear down without letting up for the last 38 minutes has now run its course, and by the last few bars you can hear the exhaustion creeping into his voice. However, it’s the exhaustion that comes after a singer and the band have grooved as a single entity, and those fortunate enough to be in the audience realize they’ve witnessed the performance of a lifetime.
1963 would prove to be a tough year for Sam Cooke, both professionally and personally. A little over a year later, his often turbulent life would come to an abrupt and tragic end at a low-rent motel in Los Angeles on December 11, 1964. The official version has Sam Cooke pursuing a young woman after she had asked him to leave her alone. According to her testimony, he was intoxicated, belligerent, and ultimately intent upon causing her great bodily harm, at which point she shot him in self defense. To this day, the District Attorney’s conclusions, and the circumstances presented, are still highly suspect in many circles, but no tangible, conflicting evidence has ever surfaced.
Fifty-four years after his death, another tragic shooting has made national headlines. At the rally for Trayvon Martin, following the speeches by Al Sharpton, Dick Gregory, and the child’s family, there was music. The first selection they played that night in Sanford, Florida, was a song played in Grant Park the night of Barack Obama’s election. It’s a song of hope and faith, and destined to take its place along such anthems as “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“A Change Is Gonna Come,” written and sung by Sam Cooke.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano.
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