James Brown was one of the best performers in any genre of popular music – a dynamic performer who would strut, leap and do splits. Both Mick Jagger and Iggy studied his moves and adapted it. And this isn’t even mentioning the famous cape routine during “Please Please Please”.
Live at the Apollo captures Brown and his band at their peak in the early 1960s. It’s vintage Brown – sexy, sweaty soul music. And Brown leads a tight ship – there’s no filler here, every single note that is played has a purpose. Of course, an audio recording of a James Brown tells half the story. The leaps and splits aren’t presence, but Brown’s charisma shines through. And as great as Live at the Apollo is (indeed it’s one of the best ever), it only confirms what you probably already know about Brown in 60s. (And chances are if you don’t know, you might not be interested in the album anyway.)
But Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club -recorded in 1963 is even better than Live at the Apollo. Between the two of them, you have some of the best soul music ever recorded. Brown was able to translate the power of his live performances into his studio singles. Cooke’s singles on the other hand, never offered a hint of the power he would display on Live at the Harlem Square Club. Even his other live album Live at the Copa sounds stuffy in comparison. Live at the Harlem Square Club is the live album that Cooke made for his own audience – the ones that truly like to dance – instead of people dressed in suits and ties. And from the moment it begins, you know that you’re in for a party.
Every single song is transformed into an entirely different animal. “Chain Gang” and “Twisting the Night Away” are played at breakneck speed, but with a precision and looseness only a seasoned band could pull off. The original version of “Chain Gang” sound kind of cheery, but here the song shows its skin and Cooke’s non-verbal grunts only add to the drama (or add sexual tension) depending on your viewpoint. On “Cupid” when Cooke laments that he’s in distress and doesn’t want to bother the fabled God of Love, there’s a sense of irony that was never present in the studio version. ”Having a Party” turns into the musical party of the century. About 30 seconds in, Cooke laughs into the microphone and even without seeing the smile on his face it’s totally infectious. ”Everybody’s dancing to the music!” Cooke declares, “On the radio!”. It’s impossible to hear this song and not want to get onto your feet.
An that’s probably what is most important about Live at the Apollo – the music. In a time of civil injustice, and changing tides (musically and culturally) the performances Live at the Harlem Square Club offered a sort of salvation for those in attendance. (Unfortunately, the album wasn’t released until 1985.) Cooke didn’t want people to have a good time. No, “that’s not all Sam will for you,” He shouts mid-way through the album. He forces you to.