Listeners enjoy polished art. Understandably so. The recorded album, as I’ve written several times, is an art form—curated, calculated, intentional. There is beauty in these forms of engineered pieces of art. Albums like Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On, ranking first on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All-Time, Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland, Joni Mitchell’s 1971 Blue, the Strokes’ 2001 Is This It, Nina Simone’s 1965 I Put A Spell On You leave an impact; they last, and their sounds reverberate for all of time.
We pay tribute to these perfected albums and our favorite singers’ musical prowess, putting them on Spotify playlists, playing them at our dinner parties, placing them on our turntables. For good reason. Albums are meant for the listener. I’ve advocated listening to albums in their entirety, studying these artworks in the context and order they were meant to be received. But I’d like to go even further with my recommendations and take a deeper look into the art of the live album.
There are only so many ways to adequately express in writing the beauty of the live album. I’ve accepted the challenge, and I look to Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 album, released in 1985, to help me out.
The “King of Soul,” Sam Cooke was one of the most influential soul singer-songwriters of all time. He paved the way for some of the biggest names in music—Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. He’s also a beautiful vocalist. In 1963, Cooke played the Harlem Square Club in Miami, Florida. RCA Records sent down two sound engineers, Bob Simpson and Tony Salvatore, to record the evening. According to Peter Guralnick’s The Triumph of Sam Cooke: Dream Boogie, Salvatore described the legendary club’s atmosphere that night as “‘a scene out of a movie, the whole building was rocking.’”
The album’s ten tracks include several of Cooke’s classics, “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” “Twistin’ The Night Away,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” and “Bring It On Home to Me.” The show started at 22:00, and Cooke was welcomed to the stage at 01:00. Cooke opens with “Feel It (Don’t Fight It),” encouraging a joyful feeling in the room. He speaks to his audience, harnessing this restless energy, reaching out to his listeners with a charmingly raspy tone.
The medley of “For Sentimental Reasons” and “It’s All Right” is remarkable. Roughly three minutes and five seconds into “It’s All Right,” Cooke transitions, in a beautifully smooth manner, one that I cannot quite describe in writing, to “For Sentimental Reasons.” The shift has always left the sweetest echo in my ears. Cooke ends his rendition of this song with a call- and-response sequence, bringing everyone into his work. You can feel the room working together.
RCA Records recorded Cooke’s album during the United States’ Civil Rights Movement, and this live album spoke directly to Cooke’s efforts for racial equality in America. Guralnick describes the social efforts felt in this album: “There was nothing soft, measured, or polite about the Sam Cooke you saw at the Harlem Square Club; there was none of the self-effacing, mannerable, ‘fair-haired little colored boy’ that the white man was always looking for. This was Sam Cooke undisguised, charmingly self-assured, ‘he had his crowd.’”
Cooke’s voice sounded alive in part because he wasn’t performing or hoping to mimic the recordings on his album. He wasn’t trying to replicate. He was participating—living and communicating with an audience that shared his passion. The album, to an extent artists likely cannot achieve solely through a polished recorded version, is remarkably honest.
What does this live album do that makes it so important to listen, that drew me to writing on the subject in the first place? What makes this Sam Cooke live album so special?
Arriving at this conclusion, trying to figure out my why for this piece was a feat in itself, but I was able to boil it down to the lasting (occasionally cheesy) notion that there really is beauty in imperfection. And you can feel it in Cooke’s album.
For me, you can hear this tendency most in the album’s rendition of “Bring It On Home To Me,” which is my favorite song of all time. I have in fact successfully narrowed it down to one song. Cooke’s 1963 version does not follow the perfect sound listeners know of in the standard track. He does not even commence the track’s original legendary melody until two minutes and thirty-eight seconds into the Harlem performance.
The buildup is tremendous. The soul singer starts his rendition by narrating an interaction between himself and his love interest. He belts out these raw, seemingly improvised, long notes and carries the room into the main melody. You hear all the in-betweens, side-comments, and cries of the audience. It’s a bit chaotic. You cannot quite predict the track’s trajectory on first observation. After a few dozen listens to the album, though, I’ve realized, that this attribute is almost the best part. The song’s disorganized nature encapsulates what makes the imperfections of the live album so memorable: listeners aren’t hearing a performance or even a version of Cooke’s art, but a snippet of life and pure, unadulterated emotion.
I could probably write a couple thousand more words on this album, but that would likely be a pointless task. The best way to understand what I’m trying to convey about the live album starts by listening to Cooke’s 1963 performance. When the greatest singer-songwriters record their concerts, it’s our job to listen. Not because these albums are perfect renditions of our favorite songs, but because they’re not.