Written by Hannah Dunleavy


Rated or Dated: Live at the Harlem Square Club

Standard Issue writers revisit an album/film/book/TV series to see if it’s stood the test of time. This week, Hannah Dunleavy is evangelical about Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square.

Sam Cooke - Live At The Harlem Square ClubWhat? Live at the Harlem Square Club, Sam Cooke’s second live album. Recorded in Florida in January 1963, it was not released for another 22 years.

Why? It’s the 50th anniversary of Cooke’s death.

Rated or Dated? OK, cards on the table, this was always going to be RATED. Since I discovered this wonderfully shiny gem, barely a week goes by when I don’t listen to it and marvel at the majesty of Cooke’s performance.

Unfairly overshadowed by that other early ’60s soul classic, James Brown Live at the Apollo, this is easily the better album, not least because 50 years after his death, Cooke’s still the best singer nature’s yet given us.

In a small club in Overton, a predominately African American neighbourhood of Miami, the King of Soul sheds his (but mostly his record label’s) calm and TV-friendly persona and lets rip. The result’s an album so powerful, RCA Victor didn’t release it for fear of scaring off Cooke’s white fans. Let’s call that “terrifyingly good”.

The son of a Baptist minister and already a star on the gospel circuit, Cooke has the audience – no, fuck it – the congregation, in the palm of his hand. By the time he belts out Bring it On Home to Me, you could power small cities with the energy in the room. It’s arguably the greatest single live performance and inarguably the most exuberant three minutes ever committed to tape. It is literally the sound of people having the time of their lives.

But more than this, Live at the Harlem Square Club, recorded seven months before the Great March on Washington, is a snapshot of a pivotal period in US history. Cooke, along with Mohammed Ali, with whom he had a completely charming bromance, had broken into the mainstream in a way no African American had before. To this crowd, he was not just huge talent, but a pioneer and an inspiration.

In October 1963, reportedly embarrassed by not having written Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, he produced A Change is Gonna Come, a song now so ingrained in the national consciousness it was sung at Barack Obama’s inauguration. By the time it was released, Cooke was dead, shot at a motel in circumstances so muddy, the truth may never be known.

He remains the undisputed King of Soul. This album is what the fuss is about. Bring a bit of joy into your day and listen to it. Immediately.


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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.