Sam Cooke’s Wild Side

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

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


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.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly 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