360°Sound spoke with Boston-based writer Colin Fleming about his new 33 1/3 book on Sam Cooke’s classic album Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. Fleming’s music writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Daily Beast and Salon, among many other publications.
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 was shelved for over 20 years, finally seeing a release in 1985. In this exclusive interview, Fleming discusses the genius of Cooke and why this record is one of the greatest live soul albums. The book is out now on Bloomsbury Academic.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
360°Sound: Please start by talking about your personal connection to Live at the Harlem Square Club and how your feelings about it evolved once you started writing the book, if they did.
Colin Fleming: I think the way a lot of people know [Sam Cooke] first was on oldies stations. And you can kind of leave Cooke behind. You hear “You Send Me” and “Wonderful World,” and you just think that’s perfect oldies material. You’re missing out on this album-oriented artist, this concept album artist in some ways. The more I got into the music, I just started exploring more and I came eventually to this record. With Cooke, it’s not like Grateful Dead shows where you’re getting lost in a sea of live recordings. You really only have the two. The other one [1964’s Sam Cooke at the Copa] is slagged off a lot. And it doesn’t really deserve its reputation. I think part of its reputation comes from just how good this particular other record is, this all-timer of a record.
As I got older, I started going through life stuff. I had a stroke in my 30s and a horrific divorce and no friends and no family. I was up at like four or five in the morning, walking the streets of Boston trying to find a way to keep myself going. This was something I listened to when I was doing that. When I wrote about that in the book it occurred to me – a lot of the [33 1/3 books] take this kind of approach where they go down this memoiristic rabbit hole. I don’t really believe in that kind of writing for myself.
I think if you’re going to write about something with a record that’s personal you have to do so in such a way that you’re tapping into truth that other people can recognize emotionally, critically, and intellectually. You can’t just be like, ‘This is a thing that happened to me, so you should care about it.’ I wanted the book to have some first person but to have it always be about this journey, these ideas, this album, and ultimately more than the album.
So why was the album shelved for all those years? Was it because the label at the time deemed it to be “too Black”? And I know Sam Cooke had some other releases around that time.
I think it was a combination of what you said. Also, we can point to examples of albums that were live and were sort of quote, unquote “very Black” – James Brown and his Live at the Apollo albums and Bo Diddey’s Beach Party. But I think part of the issue here is that it was counter to what the label wanted Cooke’s reputation to be, that he was not this earthy in-concert guy.
I’m like 10 years old in ’85 when this album came out, and I just remember like we’re driving in the car and there’s Cooke on the radio. That’s how I thought of this guy. So that brand was still persisting until the actual release of this album, and I think this album helped usher in a different way of thinking and also a different type of reputation for Cooke as this serious artist, this thoughtful artist.
Even when I was first started writing professionally, I wasn’t encountering anyone writing about [Cooke] as a writer. I just didn’t see it. The idea that Cooke sat there with a guitar, like John Lennon or Bob Dylan, and wrote songs was just foreign to every text that I encountered. That’s exactly what he did. He wrote boatloads of songs. That’s who he was, and he just was never looked at that way. He was looked at purely as this voice.
You write about how people will say Cooke is the greatest singer ever, not because he has the best voice but because he’s the best singer-writer.
It’s almost like with the Beatles. Paul McCartney had so much more range than John Lennon. But I don’t know that McCartney was necessarily a better singer than Lennon. It’s the same with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Holiday has nowhere near the vocal chops of Fitzgerald, but I think people tend to connect more on an emotional level with Holiday, which is no knock on Fitzgerald. Cooke is that way in the rock and soul idiom, where he doesn’t have this, ‘Wow, I can’t believe your range’ type of thing. He sings in kind of a consistent groove. He’s a bit like Lennon in that way.
He sometimes hit certain notes that you don’t really see coming, but he’s more of a communicator I’d say. He’s very much a writing-to-reach-you kind of singer. When I started doing this book, people would say to me often that [Cooke] is their favorite singer. I really put it down to that connective element in his voice. He spoke about that in some of the TV clips with Dick Clark. You really get the sense that for Cooke, getting over that notion of connectivity is what matters to him more than anything, more than ‘behold the beauty of my voice.’ I think this is the album where it crystallizes the most.
This is a far different Cooke than what’s on the studio albums. Talk a little about the sound of this album and how it differed from his studio recordings.
Sometimes the arrangements could be saccharine in the studio. That was also something that dogged Billie Holiday. This particular live album is almost like the small band aspect of [Cooke’s 1963 studio album] Night Beat but faster and more extemporaneous. Cooke is making up a lot of it as he goes along. He’s saying some things that he might want to take back, like he makes a joke about leukemia at one point because he’s just so carried away in this moment of his artistry.
It’s a very rare example of an artist in the actual process of not just making the art of the moment, but the art of the next moment. There are those two short films of Picasso and Jackson Pollock and you watch them create a painting in real-time. I feel like that’s what this particular album is.
And you have this crack band. Cooke didn’t often have a crack band in the studio. Andrew Hill [the late jazz pianist] had this album Point of Departure, and these guys played together — this amazing band — on this one album in 1964. They’re not together anywhere else really, but it might be the best small group in the history of jazz. And it was like a day. Cooke kind of had a version of that with this particular traveling band. I think he was pretty jazzed to be working with guys who could play instrumentally at the level that he was thinking and writing and singing.
The crowd adds so much to the recording. Their singing is great. As you wrote, it’s as if they rehearsed.
What it makes me think of is bootlegs. When you get an audience recording you hear all the ground-level stuff. When you get soundboard [recordings], you don’t really hear that. This is like a soundboard recording with the best aspects of an audience recording mixed in with it. It’s not like that annoying guy who’s talking to his buddy the entire time. It’s people who are participating. And when he tells them to do things, like near the end, it’s like, ‘Did he let these people in ahead of time?’ They’re really good. They’re just in this groove with him. He paces the actual show so well. It’s the whole show; this is what you actually would have heard in real-time. As he gets more amped up, his pace increases, their pace increases with him.
There’s just this union between band and singer and singer-writer and audience. I think this is integral for Cooke because he’s doing everything he’s doing and he’s inching his way to his most important song [“A Change is Gonna Come,” recorded and released in early 1964, less than a year before his death]. In many ways, these people were encapsulating in that song, and I think they were feeling him in a very real way. He was as well. I think that’s part of the reason why “A Change is Gonna Come” becomes this anthem of not just Black community but transcendent humanist community.
The segue from “Somebody Have Mercy” to “Bring It on Home to Me” is probably my favorite transition of any live album. I especially love the part, “I say I don’t want you operator, I want my baaaabyyyy.” [38-second mark on YouTube link below]. Discuss how the sequencing and Cooke’s ad-libs add to the energy of the show.
I think he gets freer with the ad-libs as he goes along. What I like about that is it’s almost like a comfort factor. When people come to know each other better, they drop more of the ceremony, and they interact more naturally. I feel like the concert is this relationship, this progression, of people, in a way, getting to know each other with this sonic commonality. You get to know somebody, you’re out and you hit it off with them. You just become liberal in your speech, your less guarded, and you express yourself more candidly and with more vulnerability. I find that’s what he’s doing.
It’s just one of those built-in reasons that makes people connect with this. They might not think about this at a conscious level but at a subconscious level I think we respond to that. I think that’s what Cooke is doing here. He knows when to issue these emotional wallop-type moments.
Of all the transitions in the history of recorded sound, I don’t really know of many that are more volcanic than that one. He does that version of “You Send Me,” which isn’t even noted on the cover. That was his big song, the thing he’s most known for, and he turns it in to this atomic deconstruction that doesn’t even get its own title it’s so far afield from where it started.
And then he hits that note, that volume, his voice is the loudest instrument of the night at that point, and then when they segue into “Bring It on Home to Me.” You gotta be kidding me. He’s gone so far. It’s just, ‘Wow.’ And then you think, ‘How’s he going to top this?’ And he ends with “Having a Party.” The thing with the crowd at that point, we don’t have visuals, but I almost imagine all these people in a conga line going around singing along as he’s doing that coda at that end. There’s so much implied movement, physical movement, in that room we can’t see, and then he’s gone. There’s not like that fake exit you get with James Brown. That’s it. There’s the show. There’s no encore. There need not be an encore. It’s completely satiating at that point. You don’t want any more. He ends on the perfect note.
To purchase the book, click here.