A Night Out With Sam Cooke: 'Harlem Square' Turns 50 Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 has been called one of the best live albums ever recorded. But it was shelved for more than 20 years by executives at Cooke's record label, who feared what the mainstream would make of his fiery performance.

A Night Out With Sam Cooke: 'Harlem Square' Turns 50

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Fifty years ago today, Sam Cooke stepped onstage at a club in Miami.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, what do you say let's all get together and welcome him to the stand with a great big hand. How about it for Sam Cooke? All right. All right.


SIMON: More on that recording in a moment. But first, a little history. Sam Cooke started singing in a church choir on the South Side of Chicago. He joined the Soul Stirrers, one of the country's biggest gospel groups, but when he struck out on his own, Sam Cooke hit it big with a mainstream audience singing popular songs that struck gold.


SAM COOKE: (Singing) Don't know much about history, don't know much of biology, don't know much about a science book, don't know much about the French I took...

SIMON: By 1962, his record label decided it was time for a live album and someone picked out a warm Miami date early in 1963, January 12th at the Harlem Square Club. Now, Harlem Square was small club in downtown Miami. That night it was packed with some of the singer's most devoted fans from his gospel days.


COOKE: (Singing) Oh, make me want (unintelligible) when I got the feeling. Oh, don't fight it. No, don't fight it. Baby, just feel it. Yeah. Don't fight the feeling...

SIMON: The result was loud, raw, artful and raucous. But it wasn't the Sam Cooke the label was looking for try to sell to mainstream audiences. RCA decided to tuck The Harlem Square Club recording into their archives. Now, let's cut to 1985, when a record executive named Gregg Geller discovered those recordings, and quickly released "Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963." It is now considered one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. And Gregg Geller joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

GREGG GELLER: It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Now, as we mentioned, this is considered one of the greatest live albums of all time. Why?

GELLER: Well, I think it, you know, it just captures the fervor of both Sam and his audience in a way that very few live recordings do. I mean, it almost accidentally picks up, even in its imperfections, the excitement of that night in that club at that time.


COOKE: (Singing) Everybody, come on, sing along with me. It's your party. I think of you every morning. I think of - everybody - every morning, and I dream of you every night. I dream...darling, I'm never lonely. Darling, I'm never, never...

SIMON: As a record executive, Gregg, why do you think the people who proceeded you didn't want this album released?

GELLER: I thought about that a lot. You know, Sam was what we've come to call a crossover artist. You know, he crossed over from gospel to pop, which was controversial enough in its day. But once he became a pop artist, he had a certain mainstream image to protect. And the fact is that, you know, when he was out on the road, he was playing to a predominantly, almost exclusively black audience. And he was doing a different kind of show. You know, a much more down home, down to earth, gut bucket kind of show than what he would do for his pop audience.

SIMON: Let's listen to another bit from that recording.


COOKE: You feel like you wanna twist a little while now. I said do you feel you wanna twist a little while? All right. Let's go. A-one, a-two, a put it anywhere. Oh yeah. That's it. (Singing) Let me tell you about a place, somewhere up in New York way, all where the people are so gay, twisting the night away. Oh man, they have a lot of fun, they putting trouble on the run. Oh man, you find the old and young twisting the night away. They're twisting...

SIMON: Just a year after this recording that we've been able to listen to today, this Harlem Square performance in Miami, Sam Cooke died of a gunshot wound in 1964. The circumstances are still in dispute. He was just 33 years old. It's hard not to hear this and ask how big he might have been.

GELLER: He was very much involved in his own record company - a company called SAR Records, for which he signed and produced young talent. Perhaps he would have pursued that further. He certainly would have continued as a recording artist and a songwriter. Would he have become like Marvin Gaye, let's say, making albums of more topical concerns? I mean, certainly toward the end of his life he recorded a song name "A Change is Gonna Come," which has gone on to become something of an anthem sort of in retrospect for the civil rights movement.


COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river, in a little tent, oh, and just like the river, I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come...

GELLER: He was a multi-talented individual with very wide range of interests. And I think his talent could have taken him just about anywhere.

SIMON: We want to go out with some music. What would you like us to play?

GELLER: Oh, my God. From the Harlem Square Club album?


GELLER: Maybe "Nothing Can Change This Love."


COOKE: (Singing) If I go a million miles away, I'd write a letter, each and every day. 'Cause I know that nothing, nothing can ever change my love I have for you...

SIMON: Gregg Geller, record producer who helped reissue Sam Cooke's "Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963." It was recorded 50 years ago today. Gregg, thanks very much for being with us.

GELLER: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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