Two Nights with Sam Cooke

ALLOW ME TO ENGAGE in a bit of opinionating: of all the soul singers to have twisted, stomped, grooved, sashayed and stepped lightly across a stage, of all the gravelly, gritty, sandpapery, velvety, silky, buttery voices to have barked and crooned into a mic, none could touch Sam Cooke. I concede the beauty and the wonder and the soulfulness of your Al Greens and your Marvins and your Arethas, but when it’s all tallied — the salty added to the sweet, the high and the low, the heart and the groin, the gutter and the stars — there’s only one Sam Cooke; one Sam Cooke perfectly defined by two very different nights on two very different stages.

The man born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but known to the world as Sam Cooke, was raised in Chicago and introduced to music at an early age. His adolescence was spent travelling and performing in churches with his siblings until his graduation to the gospel supergroup the Soul Stirrers, with which he spent six years, got signed to Specialty Records, and recorded the pop single “Lovable” under the name Dale Cook. This prompted his exit from the Stirrers and his flight to Keen Records where his secular music career began in earnest, recording hits like “You Send Me” before signing with RCA Victor (but not before starting his own SAR label and signing acts like Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor). With RCA Victor songs like “Chain Gang,” “Twisting the Night Away,” “Another Saturday Night,” and “Bring it on Home to Me” made him a staple on both the R&B and pop charts, allowing him to taste success at the upper echelons of the industry, playing the best rooms and booking the biggest shows.

Cooke’s success was tainted, however, by the drowning death of his little boy in a backyard pool in 1963, causing the singer to turn inward, and soon thereafter to record his Civil Rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come,” which was not released until shortly after his death, of gunshot wound, in December of 1964. The gun was held by the night manager of a Los Angeles motel, who claimed she fired the weapon into the torso of 33 year-old Sam Cooke in an act of self-defense.

And yet, within that single entity called Sam Cooke there are contained any number of dichotomies, contradictions, and complimentary opposites.

Significantly, two of the most prominent contrary aspects of Cooke — smooth crossover pop sensation and bluesy, sweaty, floor-stomping soul shouter — are encapsulated in a pair of live recordings, documents of nights spent on two very different stages with two very different bands, before two very different audiences. Both, it should go without saying, were triumphs.

The latter of these nights occurred within the legendary Copacabana Club in New York. Cooke sauntered into the club with a few of his own musicians (including Bobby Womack on guitar) and joined Joe Mele’s house band to record Sam Cooke at the Copa in July of 1964. The Copa’s clientele were an upscale crowd, moneyed, and mostly white. They sought an evening’s entertainment that would move them without actually requiring them to rise from their seats. Theirs was a passive desire for distraction.

The Sam Cooke they got that night was a supremely gifted entertainer, a man in full tailored control of his considerable stage faculties, and a singer with a repertoire that leaned toward safe, skippy and light, though peppered with a few topical numbers (Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”) to get the well-heeled patrons’ hearts going. Cooke had them on a string that night, yanking them back from the edge when things threatened to become too hot. He was smooth, urbane, sophisticated, possessed of a high gloss sheen; the consummate professional songman, ably recovering from a flubbed lyric during “If I Had a Hammer,” the wide smile on his face clearly audible, eventually turning the tune into a singalong, the Copa audience clapping politely in time.

Cooke left most of the grit backstage that night, giving his upscale crowd the radio friendly version of himself they’d have been familiar with from hits like “Cupid” and “You Send Me.” He greeted them with a swinging “The Best Things in Life are Free” and sent them home with a mid-tempo “Tennessee Waltz”. He was cordial and energetic, smiling and suave. He was exactly the Sam Cooke they wanted him to be.

RCA Victor thought enough of the performance to release it. They pressed the record and it landed in the laps of a public who knew this as the only Sam Cooke. For decades this was the only live performance of Cooke’s that record buyers could get their hands on. As such it served as the official document of his stage persona; pleasing in almost every way, and consistent with the expectations of most listeners, but still only half the story.

A year and a half earlier, Cooke had hit Miami in full stride with a band in tow made up of his own regulars augmented by saxophonist King Curtis and his band. The record company engineers set up their equipment at the Harlem Square Club and sound-checked during the afternoon matinee. The last set, the one actually captured on tape, was the 1:00 am slot, and the sounds it contained perfectly matched the hour: late night.

Here words fail, for all you really need to know about this live recording — One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, recorded January 12, 1963 — is contained in the first “whoa” Cooke uttered during “Bring It On Home to Me”. If that single syllable doesn’t make the hair on your arms stand up then you must have a dead heart, and you’ll probably never get anything out of soul music. It’s all there: seduction, frustration, resignation, suffering, ecstasy, passion, lust, abidance, pain. In a word: life.

But to elaborate, that set, which began with the MC introducing Cooke, who strolled into the club at the last possible moment and strode coolly up onto the stage, confident and collected, but ready to rip the back wall off the place, presented an altogether different Sam Cooke than the one the Copa crowd would see the next year. He’d been taking notes on Little Richard’s performances, and he aimed to rock the rafters like Richard, as well as to seduce every last woman in the room. By all accounts he succeeded at both.

There wasn’t a bit of pretense involved. Cooke and the band — more a bar-walking R&B unit than a polished dinner club pop orchestra — sounded as though they were letting loose at a rent party, a kitchen hootenanny. Cooke’s stage banter was loose and assured, wisecracking, at times verging on entendre. He was never more at ease than on the blues “Somebody Have Mercy,” a half shouted, half spoken bit topped off by a pair of honking Curtis solos. “Somebody have mercy on me,” Cooke said, and the shouted replies suggest he wouldn’t have had trouble finding someone to do just that, and more.

“I feel alright now,” said Cooke in the midst of the shout-along rendition of “Having a Party” that capped the evening. “I don’t want to quit!” he shouted, though his time was nearly up. The party would rage on, but his performance had drawn to a close.

For reasons probably known only to those directly involved, the Harlem Square recording, though of decent sound quality and featuring such a blistering performance from Cooke, and indeed the whole band, was shelved, and remained a footnote until rescued, restored, and released in 1985. Overdue though it was, it was a case of better late than never, for only upon hearing it can we form a complete picture of Cooke as a performer.

The Copacabana and Harlem Square performances seem, on the face of things, to represent a disconnect in the story of Sam Cooke. Just a year and a half apart, they sound like the work of two different artists. What’s more, the fact that the earlier date, that feverish Saturday night in Miami, wasn’t even available for a couple of decades suggests it wasn’t meant to be a part of the official story of Cooke’s career.

But taken together, these two live records are complementary pieces showcasing the two poles between which Cooke could swing, depending on his audience, both highlighting core elements of his talent. In both instances his voice is what’s most crucial, that voice and what it could express: the starched and the sweaty, the uptown and the down home, the radio friendly Cooke and the after hours version. They come together to form a fitting composite portrait of an artist who spent his too-brief life playing off contrasts — whether, as in early in his career, the gospel and the secular, the sublime and the earthy or, as during the height of his fame, the refined showman that appeared on The Tonight Show, and the gravelly-voiced soul shaker who travelled the “chitlin circuit” appearing in black night clubs and halls across the US. In the person of Sam Cooke, these two sides were not contradictions, but modes, styles, different ways of moving his audience — any audience — and sending them out into the night, dazed and moved, and confident they’d seen and heard one of the best shows of their lives.

Originally published at on May 29, 2013.

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