Wednesday, January 13, 2010

443. Live at the Harlem Square Club- You will boogie.

Artist: Sam Cooke.

Album: Live at the Harlem Square Club.

Year: Recorded in 1963, released in 1985

Genre: Soul.


  1. Feel It
  2. Chain Gang
  3. Cupid
  4. Medley: It's All Right/For Sentimental Reasons
  5. Twistin' the Night Away
  6. Somebody Have Mercy
  7. Bring It On Home to Me
  8. Nothing Can Change This Love
  9. Having a Party

I know it’s an odd thing for a guy doing this blog to say but I’ve never been a huge fan of studio albums. I prefer the feeling of a live show recorded warts and all with no overdubs and everything as it was on the night. A few album’s back I wrote about How Will the Wolf Survive by Los Lobos and from my raving you might have assumed I listen to this album all the time. In fact I rarely put my copy of Wolf in my CD player but I often listen to live Los Lobos shows. If you wonder why I’m a fan of live releases and not studio recordingss then whack Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club in your ears, it’s about as good as live albums get.

It’s actually surprisingly easy to bugger up a live release. One way to do it is to overdub sections and fiddle with things so you lose the feeling of a live band. This practice is surprisingly more widespread than you’d think and lots of live releases feature guitar solos, percussion or extra vocals that were added later in the studio. This turns the audience into just another instrument to be faded in and out at will until it feels like just another studio release. The Rolling Stones even had an early live album that was primarily made up of tracks they recorded in the studio with audience noise added later which is definitely just cheating. The other way to stuff up a live disc is to record it so it sounds like it was all recorded on a mobile phone by someone in the back row of an auditorium. Often the audience is so up front and centre that the aural range does a better job of recreating a party with an album in the background than a live show. Sadly every live Beatles album ever is like this. Beatles convert recordings exist more as audio documents of their fan's deranged hysteria than the band themselves.

While it was made before the Fab four took off, the people who recorded Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square club did a magnificent job of capturing the perfect live album. You can clearly hear the band and Cooke’s vocals but the audience comes through loud and clear and their evident excitement is really infectious. The overall effect makes you jealous you weren’t there but glad that this recording is definitely the next best thing.

Thankfully the guys onstage are as good as the backstage boffins setting up the mics. This is soul music at its finest: at its worst it’s great and at its best it’s flat out brilliant. Twisting the Night Away was always a song that I was pretty much indifferent to but the version on this album is truly magnificent. King Curtis swings on the saxophone and Cooke doesn’t just sing he commands. The man is issuing orders up there on stage. You will twist! And you know they do. Twisting is one of the few songs when you can’t hear the audience and you know it’s because the entire club was basically just a huge corkscrew of happy groovers making communal arsewits of themselves on the dancefloor. I know they were dancing because I certainly was. When I first heard this I could barely contain myself and felt irresistible boogie urges. It was only due to an incredible sense of restraint on my part that my fellow train travelers weren’t treated to the sight of a 36 year old twisting his way down the carriage with an extremely foolish grin on his face. I had to content myself with some frantic toe-tapping. And it’s a great example of the other reason I love live albums. The single version of twisting is okay but when you get a great band in front of an audience everything lifts up several notches and the track cut in the studio just pales in comparison.

There isn’t a low point on this album. Cooke transforms Cupid draw back you bow from a slightly lame and pissy track into a great number. The guy clearly has a midas touch. Bring it On Home To Me has been done by loads of people but Cooke blows them out of the water here and cranks out a version that makes you forget anyone else ever stood in front of a microphone. The only people who can come close to doing this song as well as Cooke are the other people in the audience who can’t stop singing along.

If you haven’t heard this album then I urge you to check it out. It’s the best new thing I’ve heard so far on the countdown and I can’t recommend it enough.

Highlight: Twisting the night away is the Everest in an album of Himalayas.

Lowlight: It’s nine tracks long and consequently far too short.

Influenced by: Blues and Gospel.

Influenced: Everyone whose ever played soul music since.

Favourite Amazon customer Review Quote: "This is perhaps the greatest record of all time. I've played it for my friends, and they love it, I've played it for my mom and her friends and they love it, me and my dad sit around and get drunk and listen to it.
I have had this album stolen by from me by roomates, friends, relatives, it is a classic album, that everyone can enjoy.
Sam Cooke was the greatest singer of the 20th century. He makes Sinatra etc look like a f***ing joke."

-Isn't that cool? I starts off so happy and then flings in a zinger at the end.

So do you think Sam Cookes or is he just a big Harlem Square? Let me know below.

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