A Tale of Two Sam Cookes

Sam Cooke from Billboard, 1965

Sam Cooke was essential to desegregating audiences in the United States, but there were still two sides to the man as a performer. The King of Soul had huge crossover success, with songs like “You Send Me” hitting the top of both the Pop and R&B charts, but the Sam Cooke that white audiences saw was different from the Sam Cooke that black audiences did.

Sam Cooke at the Copa, released in 1964, shows Sam playing to a predominantly white audience at the famous Copacabana in New York City. Despite being a club in the north, it would have been a tense situation for Cooke. His friendships with Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were widely known, as well as his involvement in the growing civil rights movement. Although the Copacabana had allowed black performers at the venue since the mid 1940s, the same was not the case for customers; the dining room was not integrated until 1957. Artists like Sammy Davis Jr. were routinely heckled by racists in the audience, and Sam Cooke had a reputation for refusing to play to segregated audiences.

Luckily, the show went off without a hitch, but there’s something about that live album that has an air of discomfort from Cooke throughout. The setlist relies more on standards than his own material, though “You Send Me” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” do make welcome appearances, among others. Sam is far more comfortable with his own songs than he is singing old show tunes like “The Best Things in Life Are Free”, and it shows. There’s tension throughout, as one can’t help but wonder if Sam was worried that something would go wrong. He had played the Copa before, but a live album was different, and Sam had already recorded one live album that the label decided against releasing. He hits his stride from time to time, especially in the second set when he can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but it feels like a different Sam Cooke. The only time he truly seems to let loose is when he injects new energy into the Bob Dylan protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the song that would later inspire him to write his own, “A Change is Gonna Come”.

Luckily for us, that earlier, rejected live recording would eventually see the light of day. Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 had been recorded in January of 1963 in Miami to a mostly black audience. RCA Victor, Cooke’s label, had thought of the recording as “too gritty and raw,” and worried that it would damage Sam’s image with white audiences. There’s a real energy throughout that often borders on sexual, and label management were concerned that white people wouldn’t accept this from a black man.It wasn’t until Sam Cooke had been dead for more than 20 years that audiences finally had the opportunity to hear this absolute revelation of a live album.

Few artists can boast that a live album is the best work they ever did, but it may be true in Sam Cooke’s case. The album is pure, unadulterated perfection from start to finish, with Cooke and his band in absolute top form throughout. Renditions of classics like “Nothing Can Change This Love” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” exceed their studio originals, and the version of “Bring It On Home To Me” with the extended introduction may be the finest five minutes of popular music ever recorded.

The legacy of Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is that it is now regarded as one of the greatest live albums of all time. It is pure Sam Cooke in all of his glory, and a testament to his genius, his talent, and what soul music can be. It stands as a singular monument to the genre, and is absolutely indispensable listening, contrasting the historical curiosity of Live at the Copa. Make no mistake — Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is the real Sam Cooke; Live at the Copa is the shadow of Sam Cooke that bigotry often forced him to be.

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