A few weeks ago at the Lyric Theater in Miami, I witnessed one of the best jazz performances I’d ever seen. Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Trio absolutely crushed the official kickoff concert for the second annual Miami Beach Jazz Festival with their ethnic, hypnotizing combination of piano, bass, and percussion. The decision to host the event at the Lyric Theater intrigued me, as well. Built in 1913 and only recently reopened, the venue is quite old for Miami, a city that was incorporated in 1896.
The Lyric Theater proudly stands in Overtown, a part of Miami that used to be known as “Little Broadway” and “The Harlem of the South.” Comprised of African, Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican, Trinbagonian, and Barbadian immigrants, these segregated, working-class residents began some of the first businesses owned by African Americans at the turn of the 20th century.
In its heyday a few decades later, African American authors, athletes and other celebrities frequented and stayed in Overtown, and the musicians—including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammy David Jr., Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Aretha Franklin—would often throw afterparties for the locals after entertaining the white folks in the city.
In the late-1960s and early-1970s, however, Overtown began to decline after the extension of Interstate-95 bisected the area and urban renewal plans went decidedly wrong. Now, Overtown is known as a crime-ridden neighborhood with more than half of the people living under the federal poverty line.
Before the performance, I walked outside the theater and headed north along NW 2nd Avenue for a couple of blocks toward the perpendicular NW 10th Street. I knew the Harlem Square Club—one of the most famous venues of Overtown’s golden era—was supposed to be at the intersection of 10th Street and NW 2nd Avenue.
But as I looked across the street at the hallowed intersection, I saw a ramshackle coral-colored apartment building to the northwest, a parking lot to the southeast and two empty lots.
Even though I knew the physical presence of the Harlem Square Club had long ago endured the racist, classist fate of destruction, I still felt a certain nostalgic sadness burrowing within me. At a local dive bar a few blocks away, I poured out a little, thinking of Miami’s history and humanity, before returning to the Lyric for the show.
Sam Cooke’s Live At the Harlem Square Club is not just the best live recording of all time, but it’s also the album that has impacted me the most intensely, in the most varied ways, from start-to-finish. My parents, with their ridiculously good taste in music, introduced me to Mr. Soul as a youngin’ reared in the suburbs south of the Mason-Dixon line, but I didn’t discover this record until after I’d already lived in Miami for almost four years.
By now, I own three copies of Live At The Harlem Square Club—the CD I bought first at the now-shuttered music store across the street from the University of Miami, the 2008 vinyl reissue with insightful liner notes that I found at Sweat Records (the greatest local record store in the 3-0-5 and possibly the galaxy), and this gem of a limited pressing that I simply couldn’t live without.
Unlike at Live At The Copa, which was released and recorded in 1964, Sam Cooke performs only his classic originals at the Harlem Square Club, and imbues each of them with a grittiness, speed, and improvisation unheard in previous recordings. In fact, RCA supposedly refused to release Live At The Harlem Square Club until more than 20 years after his untimely death for fear of tarnishing his sweet sound and clean-cut image.
Saxophonist “King Curtis” Ousley, whose soul-saving solos perfect this performance, opens Live At The Harlem Square Club with a brief brass introduction and welcoming message. Within 90 seconds, Sam seems to burst onto the stage, instructing the “Towners,” as they still call themselves, “Tonight…don’t fight it. We’re gonna feel it.”
The extremely short 36-minute set encompasses a range expression—from the most effervescently celebratory to the type of heartbreak that makes you physically double over while listening. Sam strains every vocal chord and muscle to convey the depth of each emotion and you can hear the cracking vibrato as he reaches within himself to do so. Likewise, the band plays with a certain freedom and abandon as Jimmy Lewis’ bass acts like a rhythm guitar and Albert “June” Gardner’s varied percussion crackles like the old reeling tapes that captured this performance.
Just as Sam sings his heart out at the Harlem Square Club, the people of Miami give it right back to him equally hard. In fact, his interaction with the adoring, frenzied audience is one of the first things you realize about Live At The Harlem Square Club. During the call-and-response part of “Chain Gang,” the crowd mimics Sam’s guttural grunts of, “Huh! Ha!” clearly without any additional amplification. Later, in “Somebody Have Mercy,” Sam follows his regular line, “Tell me what is wrong with me,” quickly ad libs, “It ain’t that leukemia. That ain’t it!” so as to publically dispel a rumor propagated at the time. And in the “For Sentimental Reasons” part of the medley, the ladies sing an octave above Sam, giving the song a harmony we didn’t even know it needed.
But the most poignant moment of this give-and-take, this interpersonal realness, comes in the transition between “Somebody Have Mercy” and “Bring It On Home To Me.” Sam begins free styling a narrative about “fussin’ and fightin’” with his baby. He tells us how much he wants to talk to her, but when he calls, the operator picks up the telephone. “I don’t want you, operator!” he says before howling, “I want my baby!” letting the last syllable languish and tumble. When Sam finally reaches his baby, the crowd suddenly becomes his disciples, nodding and hemming along with Sam’s admissions and pleas in gospel-like fervor. Trying to convince her of his endless love, he offers a bluesy, guttural snippet of his pop standard, “You Send Me” amongst the audience’s screams of glee before coming back down into the most yearning version of “Bring It On Home To Me” ever.
Live At The Harlem Square Club is a record of tension and release, one that’s deeply personal, and yet, so comprehensively aware. The rawness and authenticity that’s captured on Live At The Harlem Square Club offers rare insights into both the individual and the times in which he was living. It helps paint a more complete portrait of the artist for the man he really was.
But simultaneously, the connection between the hard-working people and the showman himself seems to create a unique aural depiction of the socioeconomic struggles of the early 1960s. Steve Rosenthal at The Magic Shop in New York City mixed this reissue flawlessly, to the point where listening to the record transports you to a different time and place: You are one of the 750 people overstuffed into the small club. You are living in a segregated society the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and John F. Kennedy was assassinated. You are at the party of the century on the eve of destruction.
Clearly, you don’t have to understand Miami’s complicated history or live in the splendor of its diversity and eternal summer to understand why Live At The Harlem Square Clubis such an important record. But I know it and I do, and it makes me love this record and Sam Cooke even more.
Hilary Saunders writes things, often about music. Follow her on Twitter @Hilary_Saunders.