As appeared in Tuesday's issue of the New School Free Press.
Sam Cooke makes me wish I were black.
Sure, white people can claim the vocal stylings of John Lennon, Levon Helm and Buddy Holly but they're nothing compared to the rawness and power that Cooke's voice has over his listeners—a combination notably apparent on Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.
Cook (he added the "e" because he thought it sounded classier) was born January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi (now home to the Delta Blues Museum). He began as a gospel singer and eventually starred with the hugely popular Soul Stirrers. In 1957, he took a secular turn with "You Send Me," which spent six weeks at the top of the R&B charts.
In the next seven years, Cooke had 29 Top-40 hits, including "Chain Gang," "Wonderful World" and "Cupid." His public image was clean-cut, but in private he lived the sort of life preachers warn against. Cooke's music was closer to R&B than almost anything else on popular radio.
That's why Harlem (from the name of a Miami club) is such a great album: It's not over-produced. All you hear are drums, guitar, bass, King Curtis' sax, Cooke and the screaming crowd. The opening track says it all: "Feel It."
Although the takes of "Cupid" and "Chain Gang" are fantastic, "Bring It on Home to Me" might be the high point of the album. It starts with Cooke singing like a preacher, the band waiting for his cue. Once they kick in and Cooke sings, "If you ever change your mind/About leaving, leaving me behind," the holy/secular line is blurred forever.
I return to my previous statement of, to quote Lou Reed, I wanna be black when listening to "Twistin' the Night Away." It's sexy and catchy and in this performance, Cooke teases the audience to "wave the handkerchief 'round." The album ends with "Having a Party," and Cooke's voice has grown hoarse, which he exploits. He implores "Mr. DJ" to "keep those records playing/'cause I'm having such a good time/dancing with my baby."
The following year, at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, Cooke was shot to death by the hotel's manager. The details are sordid. It was a sad ending to the life of one of the great gospel/soul/pop singers. In 1986, he was in the inaugural class of musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Live at the Harlem Square Club was reason enough.