RS 439 – Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club (1963)

It is funny how stuff slips through the cracks once you are no longer the youngest generation in your dwelling.  As the tiny despot flails her kung fu grip hands in rage at her loyal subjects, a weary, exhausted feeling sets over, and things like blog posts slip by the wayside a bit.  Of course, as exhausting as she is, the tiny despot inspires love, affection and even admiration – I imagine this is what being an Argentinian during Eva Peron’s time must have been like – at least if Evita lived with us and did not have control of her bowels.  All of this is a long way of saying that looking at the last several posts we have been mostly stuck with breaking down football weeks – and all of this during the rather amazing wide open baseball postseason.  Indeed, the football material won’t cease, but there is certainly more to life than that.

For instance, one of the side pursuits has been starting to peruse the Rolling Stone 500 for album ideas and start documenting the journey.  I started looking at doing it in order, but that bored me, and besides, the exercise is less to argue with Rolling Stone‘s rankings than simply to examine a cross section of work that is allegedly good.  It’s the same sort of instinct that keeps Ulysses high on my “next to read” list despite the almost certain assurance that I will never get to it.  But still, 500 albums is easier to kick around than 100 books (or for that matter one bad book), so lucky me.

Why start with a live album by a guy who Rod Stewart has spent most of his career trying to emulate?  I am not sure exactly, although one night I found myself in a live album kick – partially while the tiny despot had not retired for the night, or was it the morning; I can hardly tell anymore.  Sam Cooke came from a gospel background and ended up being one of the seminal early voices of rock and roll and R&B – and in listening to this performance at the Harlem Square Club in Miami, what really rushes is the power, something which is absent from his songs when you just hear album tracks.  There is a certain smooth coolness to most of his standards, “Another Saturday Night”, “Chain Gang”, “Having a Party”, take your pick.  All of these of course stand up well – they are timeless songs (I still get baffled as to how music like his could not get past the heart of bigots – I mean, this isn’t the Velvet Underground we’re talking about in terms of accessibility), but as cleanly produced tracks, you don’t see the fire necessarily.

But here, it all shines through, in the rare live album which really underlines the virtues of the live performance – the songs sound great, as well they should, but the performance gives the songs a distinct energy that transcends the material.  Songs like “Chain Gang” get supercharged as the “ooh-ah” bit has some extra kick to it, and this version of his “Cupid” elevates what is already a truly beautiful song – extra points for being something I have quelled the tiny despot with.  What particularly crackles though is the performance of a medley including “For Sentimental Reasons” where he leads the crowd through singing along – it is one of the rare cases in live albums where it does feel like “you are there”.  In terms of stuff I’ve listened to this year, it is one my favorite discoveries.

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