The twelfth of January was a Saturday, and it was hot one in Miami. The temperature had approached summertime levels earlier in the day, and was still up around 70 after midnight as Sam Cooke prepared to go on stage for his third show of the night. The venue was the Harlem Square Club in Miami’s historically black Overtown District, and the place was packed full of fans who’d forked over their $2.50 for tickets. Those who’d paid an extra dollar had themselves a table, not that many would be sitting for long.
The showcards said that there would be an album recorded that night, to be titled One Night Stand. It was to be Cooke’s first live album, a logical next step after his label, RCA Victor, released a greatest hits album a few months earlier. Sam Cooke, once a gospel prodigy, was now a sensation on the pop charts, riding high on a series of smooth numbers like “Cupid,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and “Bring It On Home to Me.” He was well on his way to being one of the label’s most bankable stars.
After doing a matinee show for a teenage crowd, Cooke did the first of two shows for the adults around 10 p.m. In a preview of what was to come that night, the crowd was so dense that the engineers couldn’t even get to the stage to adjust the microphones. The decision was made to record the late show with the equipment as it was and hope for the best.
The best is exactly what they got. Around 1 a.m., saxophonist King Curtis moved to the microphone and introduced the star.
“How about it for SAM COOKE!”
And out he came to give one of the great live performances ever recorded—powerful, joyous and raw. Cooke is absolutely electrifying in this set, and the audience lets him know it. There is so much wonderful back and forth between the performer and the audience here, and it’s incredible to think we almost never heard it. As brilliant as the concert was that night, it was also, sadly and predictably, not even close to what RCA Victor wanted.
Sam Cooke was one of the biggest stars in music in early 1963, but because of the energetic style of the performance, who the audience was, and (perhaps more significant to the moment) who the record label felt the audience should be, the recordings were shuttered away in a vault and only released as an album two decades after Cooke’s death.
* * *
In the early 60’s, Overtown was a working and middle class African-American enclave that was sometimes affectionately referred to as Harlem South. According to historian Marvin Dunn, it was “the very heart of black Miami.” Sam Cooke would spend time in the area in the coming years visiting his friend Cassius Clay, a young boxer who lived in the neighborhood and would soon become the heavyweight champion and change his name to Muhammad Ali.
On the eastern side of Overtown, at the corner of NW 2nd Avenue and NW 10th Street, sat the Harlem Square Club, a venue considered to be an essential stop for black R&B and Soul performers working the southern U.S. circuit. It was a great place for Cooke to do a live set.
Live at the Harlem Square Club shows one of the two sides that Cooke would present to the public. There was a more manicured side, smooth and tailored for a wider market. This was the side that made the record executives comfortable, that wooed white audiences who would never have listened to or looked for Cooke’s gospel records. That was a huge economic force, and the image presented to that audience was a golden ticket for the label.
Sam Cooke performing on Shindig! in 1964. (Image: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images)
Then there was the Sam Cooke that got on stage at the Harlem Square Club, which was much closer to the Sam Cooke that took the mic most nights in front of audiences who adored him. Not people who “liked” Sam Cooke, but people who truly loved him, who shouted and cheered through the song, sang along with him, and knew him personally when he was first coming up in Chicago. That’s the audience you hear on that warm Miami night.
I hear pride in that audience, but I also hear the knowledge that this is their guy. It’s not that they’re getting a different Sam Cooke. They’re just getting more of him than most people ever get. And I believe they know it.
* * *
The track I’ve picked comes about ten minutes in, when both the album, and the show, reach a high point they never leave. Cooke has already kicked things off with “Feel It,” before swinging through two of his biggest hits: “Chain Gang” and “Cupid.” Now he dials things back, opening with an extended intro to another hit, “It’s All Right,” moving through the number, then segueing flawlessly into “For Sentimental Reasons.”
This is when Cooke truly brings the audience into the set. The extended intro is what sets the tone for it, with Cooke asking the audience if they’re ready for the song (“Is everybody in favor of getting romantic?”), then offering some advice to the men in the audience. It’s playful and fun, a clear setup for the song, but it draws everyone in. The pay off comes later on. He’s bounced off them a few times in the first few songs, but now he makes them partners in the evening. It’s a master class in crowd control.
The number actually has three crescendos. The first comes at the end of “It’s All right,” with Cooke’s voice soaring before he moves into “For Sentimental Reasons” (his only cover of the night). The crowd is ready, picking up on immediately on his cues. And Sam Cooke, performer that he is, conjures up the kind of moment that makes the album legendary.
Just as he gets to the first chorus, he cues the audience in. He knows the crowd, knows they’re coming to him with the same gospel traditions he came up with, and they don’t miss a beat. Cooke cues them in, quickly saying:
Everybody! Come along sing with me this middle part…I think of you every morning!
And the crowd starts singing. Cooke drops off after “I think of you…” and the crowd finishes the line, and the whole evening has shifted to another space.
He keeps it up, each time shouting the next line before it starts so the crowd, even those who don’t know the words, can sing along. And they do, and there’s so much happiness in it that the crowd keeps singing right into the next verse, while all around you can hear the shouts and hollers of people overcome by the emotional power of it all. In those moments, right through to the next chorus, the Harlem Square Club might as well be a church.
COOKE: One more time! I think of you—
AUDIENCE: Eeeeevery morning!
COOKE: And I dream of you—
AUDIENCE: Eeeevery night!
You can’t say enough about what the band does here, keeping the swaying rhythm going hard enough to be felt, but soft enough that the singer is always at the center. It’s so tight that the audience can’t help but fall right on the beat, and Cooke has the freedom to cut loose and be the star that he is. It’s a symbiosis between performers and crowd that borders on magic. By the end of the song, the venue itself has become a character in the performance.
* * *
Sam Cooke was killed in December of 1964, and there is enough material on the strange and tragic circumstances of his death to fill a documentary. In the time between his set at the Harlem Square Club and his death, RCA Victor had dragged their feet on releasing the album. The set wasn’t the Sam Cooke they wanted. It was too fierce, too intense for the smooth image they were cultivating for mainstream (which is to say white) tastes. After his death, the tapes stayed in a vault. The years ticked by. One person after another who worked on them left the studio or passed away, and one of the great documents of one of our great songwriters in his prime was in jeopardy of being forgotten.
But stories persisted. Conversations floated around about tapes of this great live show hiding away in some forgotten studio nook. But for years the stories didn’t reach the right ears at the right moment. Then, in 1984, word reached Gregg Geller, an A&R man who had recently come aboard at RCA Victor. According to Sam Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick, Geller heard about the tapes from colleague Joe McEwan, who in turn had heard about them from Cooke’s former business partner J.W. Alexander. Geller did some digging and found the tapes, found out who had the rights (Allen Klein, a legendary mover and shaker in the music business), and struck a deal to release the album.
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 was released in 1985 to marvelous reviews that placed it as one of the best albums of that year, or any year. It is now considered one of the great live recordings in history.
All of that is fascinating. If you’re like me and, as Dan Carlin says, “addicted to context,” you want that story. But you don’t need it any more than you need the awful tale of Cooke’s death to realize what we lost when we lost him, or how profoundly lucky we were to have him. And not just him, but every voice recorded that night, all those voices that sang along on “For Sentimental Reasons,” people caught up in the moment who had no idea their presence would become a part of history.
There’s this great photograph I have of my grandparents on their honeymoon. They’re dancing, my grandfather in his army uniform, my grandmother smiling with a flower in her hair. I show it to people often. And one of the things I point out is the man in the corner, some stranger with a drink in his hand, leaning against the bandstand and smiling at the happy couple. I’ll never know who that man is, but I like that all these years later, he’s still part of our family’s story. He’ll always be smiling at my grandparents, many years ago.
It’s another thing I think about when I listen to this track. All of the people in that room on that warm Miami night, when everything was perfect, and their favorite singer was in his prime. All recordings are time capsules in a way, but live recordings even more so. The Harlem Square Club is no more. Sam Cooke is gone. Many people in that room that night probably are too. But none of it’s gone when we listen to it. They’re all there in full voice, waiting like those old tapes to be rediscovered, heard, and loved.
(Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)