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Today’s desert island disc: Sam Cooke, One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club

Sam Cooke One Night Stand

A review of Sam Cooke’s One Night Stand! (1963)

Sam Cooke is commonly thought of as one of the originators of soul music and also gets frequent mention as a role model for black entrepreneurs in the entertainment industry. A very gifted singer, he ‘broke free’ from singing gospel with the Soul Stirrers and had a short but important secular solo career which ended abruptly when he was murdered in 1964 at age 33.

One Night Stand! is incredible in many ways: as a document of an actual live performance, it removes the manicured studio sheen and presents Cooke at the peak of his vocal power – raw, a little rough around the edges, but spot-on and beautifully contoured throughout. He sings perfectly pitched – and, as an early soul singer, has a knack for presenting the ‘true meaning’ of saccharine pop songs with his voice alone. Many of the tunes here were written with a (white) radio audience in mind, and Cooke did have some crossover success. This nascent musical style, finding its way at the edge of R&B and ‘white’ crooner pop, establishes one of the core tenets of rock ‘n roll and soul music: the song’s not really about what the song claims to be about. Where the lyrics can’t express ‘sex’ and hard living, the tone of the voice can. And Sam Cooke is brilliant at this, preserving the song’s radio potential while everyone at the live show knows – wink wink – what we’re really talking about.

I think that everyone from Aretha Franklin to Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison to Rob Stewart has tried to channel Sam Cooke. His few available recordings belie his importance as inspiration for much of rock ‘n soul. Artful rough edges, vocalizations without lyrics, just the right amount of audience involvement… it’s all here for the first time. (Well, it’s also in James Brown live albums of roughly the same time, to be fair, and in Ray Charles.)

One Night Stand! is certainly not a perfect record. The band – though powerful and (in the remastered version here) great-sounding – feels a little lost at times. Cooke will start off a tune, and you can hear the rhythm guitarist trying to find his way for a bar or two. I’m not sure if this was the Harlem Square Club’s house band, but they sound a little ‘under-rehearsed’ here. It’s testament to Sam Cooke’s powerful singing that this doesn’t distract at all from the music.

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