'Harlem Square' first appeared in 1985, 21 years after Cooke’s untimely death at age 33— murdered, under murky circumstances, at a LA motel in December 1964. Just under two years prior, on January 12, 1963, Cooke had been at the top of his game, taking the stage at Miami’s Harlem Square Club to deliver a powerhouse 39-minute set that anticipated the harder-edged black R&B looming just around the decade’s corner, presaging the later work of artists like James Brown, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and on and on.
In the studio, Cooke was a skillful pop crooner, voice pouring out onto the mic like melted caramel. But onstage in Miami, Cooke’s instrument is exquisitely ragged, like a guitar with just enough distortion piled on to make its amplification palatably masculine. The Cooke on Harlem Square is recognisable, but also simultaneously degraded and improved. It’s precisely this ramshackle quality—no doubt coupled with the highly audible sound of the Harlem Square Club’s rowdy all-black clientele—that likely caused Cooke’s label RCA-Victor to squirrel the recording away into its vaults for over two decades.
Harlem Square definitely gets an A+ for momentum. Each song rolls right into the next, with Cooke pouring his guts out over a loosely assembled continuing narrative of love, infidelity, heartbreak, and, eventually, bittersweet redemption. After quick MC intro, Cooke joins his band—guitarists Clifton White and Cornell Dupree, bassist Jimmy Lewis, drummer Albert “June” Gardner, pianist George Stubbs, and saxophonists King Curtis and Tate Houston—for the stellar midcentury get-pumped banger “Feel It (Don’t Fight It)”, acting as a rallying cry for the audience to cede their higher functions in the name of passion.
Next, Cooke drops the hammer with his 1960 hit “Chain Gang”, ably reproducing the song’s percussive grunting for the live audience. Taken literally these guttural vocal exertions are meant to conjure the sound of a jailbird’s pickaxe. But the “efforts”—to use some video game terminology—can, of course, be just as easily mistaken for a different kind of physical act. Like having sex, is what I’m getting at. This at a time when any reminder of a black man’s physical self was considered scandalous to an absurdly high percentage of white folk.
Cooke’s follows “Chain Gang” with yet another of his greatest hits, “Cupid”—made all the more charming by a near-miss false start that Cooke smoothly covers over with some impromptu stage banter. Later, he interjects “Oh, I like this song!” as if genuinely noticing how great the tune is for the very first time.
After “Cupid” Cooke slows things down for a medley of the ballads “It’s All Right” and “For Sentimental Reasons”, kicking off the one-two punch with a plea for all the men in the audience to forgive their lovers’ transgressions and to “not beat” on their women. Ah, the ‘60s! The studio version “Sentimental Reasons” is barely tolerable do-wop kitsch. Here though, the song comes to life, culminating in the first great sing-along of the record as Cooke corrals his rambunctious audience through the tune’s final chorus. After the medley’s brief slow-dance respite, things pick back up with Cooke’s 1962 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Twisting the Night Away.” Cooke then reaches way down into his guts for a searing “Bring It All Home to Me,” continues the set’s loose conceptual narrative.
Honestly, I’m not sure if this “concept album” framework is intentional or just something I’ve imposed on the record. Either way, it hangs together. But if so “Home” is inarguably the story’s climax, which makes “Nothing Can Change This Love” its emotional catharsis, Cooke and his band hanging on an elongated moment of suspense before exploding into the penultimate track’s warm embrace. It’s a moment of relief and release that puts a final, upbeat piece of punctuation at the end of our unnamed lovers’ rollercoaster romance.
Harlem Square concludes with “Having a Party”, a feel-good coda that acts as a little bit of an end-credits tune—Cooke once again getting the crowd involved to belt out the song’s refrain like secular gospel. It’s the perfect end to a complete, compact experience that in the moment functions as complete triumph.
The second great tragedy of Cooke’s career—other than his murder, which I guess would have to be #1—is the fact that it took so long for this amazing album to see the light of day. But here it is now, collar unbuttoned, sweat running down the length of its spine, holding out a hand for you to come dance with it.