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The version of Sam Cooke that everybody knows is the smiling one on the cover of The Best of Sam Cooke, the sweet-voiced, sweater-vested, finger-snapping guy who had charming pop hits like “You Send Me” and “Wonderful World.” The Sam Cooke who made One Night Stand — also known as Live at the Harlem Square Club — is something else entirely: a brilliant musician and master entertainer blasting at maximum intensity.
Cooke came up through the gospel scene in the early 1950s; he spent half a decade singing with the Soul Stirrers, one of the great touring gospel quartets, before he made the treacherous crossover to pop music in 1956. By the time of One Night Stand, he’d spent more than a decade on the road. It was recorded January 12, 1963, at the Harlem Square Club in Miami — part of a month-long tour on which he was backed up by a band led by saxophonist King Curtis, whose “Soul Twist” had recently been an instrumental hit.
When Cooke takes the stage after a minute or so of “Soul Twist,” it is on. He’s deliriously charming, spraying sparks everywhere; he sings far harder than he’d ever sung on record, rasping and imploring, threatening to blow the microphone out. The repertoire is almost entirely hits from the previous couple of years, but the band is gleefully bashing through them, and Cooke finds the burning veins of sex and prayerfulness in the sweet little tunes he’d been crooning on the radio, transforming “Cupid” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” into sweaty, magnetic come-ons. It’s the best album Cooke ever made — and, for reasons that now seem baffling, it went unreleased until more than 20 years after he was killed in late 1964.
One Night Stand is far rougher and more raucous than anything Cooke’s label RCA was releasing in those days. (James Brown’s epochal Live at the Apollo, whose success inspired a little wave of R&B live albums, had been recorded a couple of months earlier, but wouldn’t be released until May.) Cooke had plenty of studio recordings in the can, anyway: he’d just finished his album Mr. Soul, and six weeks after the Harlem Square Club gig, he’d record his subtle blues LP Night Beat. One Night Stand didn’t actually appear until 1985, by which point there was a small but eager audience waiting for a recording of the “real” Sam Cooke.
Well, “real” is relative: the gentle, string-sweetened confections that the Brill Building production team Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore were putting together for Cooke in those days seem to have been exactly what he wanted to be recording, and are no less “real” in terms of their craft or intentions. They were often hits, and they’re pretty; One Night Stand is just hot.
Cooke’s stage performances weren’t always as intense as the Harlem Square Club set (see, for instance, the only live album he ended up releasing in his lifetime, 1964’s buttoned-down Sam Cooke Live at the Copa). But his long apprenticeship in the Soul Stirrers taught him how to work a crowd and how a tiny turn of phrase or flourish of voice can be spun out in endless, startling ways. The songs he was singing by early 1963 were all secular, but the way he sang them that night was unmistakably in the mold of his gospel years.
Cooke had briefly shared the Soul Stirrers’ microphone with a singer who had a powerful influence on the tone of One Night Stand — one who was famous within gospel circles and all but unknown outside them. Julius Cheeks was the star frontman of the Sensational Nightingales on and off from 1946 to 1960; he was a thunderbolt of a vocalist, roaring and growling so hard that he eventually blew his voice out altogether. For a short while in 1954, Cheeks joined the lineup of the Soul Stirrers that also included Cooke. (If you listen to the only song on which they both solo ��� “All Right Now,” which went unissued in its full glory until 1992 — you can hear the origins of the way Cooke pushes One Night Stand’s “Having a Party” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” over the top.)
And the road warriors of gospel knew that all their might and conviction meant nothing if they couldn’t get the crowd to catch the spirit along with them. One Night Stand isn’t a performance for an audience, it’s a performance with the 750-plus people crammed into the club. It’s no accident that Cooke starts his set by gasping a high-speed version of “Feel It (Don’t Fight It)” — it’s a seduction addressed to everyone in the room at once, but it might as well also be an invocation of the Holy Spirit.
He chats with the crowd, shooting off wisecracks between lines of songs; he feeds them the lyrics of “For Sentimental Reasons” (the only song here besides “Soul Twist” that he didn’t write himself); he teases them with a slow, smoldering refrain of “You Send Me” that becomes an even more erotically charged version of “Bring It On Home to Me” when the band kicks in. A minute later, you can hear the crowd singing along with “Bring It On Home to Me,” because how could they not?
There haven’t been many pop singers who could sing more ferociously than Cooke does on One Night Stand; there have been fewer still who had anything like his precision and grace. But where none of them can match him is the crackling joy of this performance — the contagious delight Cooke takes in his own mastery, and in the crowd roaring for more of what he’s giving them.
Douglas Wolk is a freelance journalist and critic who writes about music, comic books and other things for TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and a bunch of other places. He’s also the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Live at the Apollo. He also wrote the Judge Dredd: Mega City Two comic series, recently collected as a graphic novel.