At Gramps Tuesday night, the talented Danielle Rollins performed Nite Life, an interactive, audio-visual tour, written by Martine Syms, of the life of Sam Cooke. Rollins sang, asked the audience questions, and showed old videos and photographs. She played clips of music so soulful I felt light-headed, including songs by the Soul Stirrers, the band for which Cooke became the lead singer.
She told stories about Cooke: He once saw a chain gang on the side of the road and stopped at the nearest store and bought a carton of cigarettes to pass out to them—then wrote the song “Chain Gang.” When his performance was cut short on the Ed Sullivan Show, viewers wrote so many letters that Sullivan had to invite him back for another set.
In 1963, Sam Cooke recorded Live at the Harlem Square in Overtown, but RCA wouldn’t release it because it sounded “too black.” Just one year later, he would be murdered by a motel owner in Los Angeles, which many believe was a planned assassination, as Cooke had been becoming more and more involved in the Civil Rights Movement. At the end of the performance, Syms played the album (it was finally released in 1985) and, as Rollins had explained, the Sam Cooke singing at the Harlem Square isn’t the Sam Cooke who sang sweetly on the Ed Sullivan Show. He screams and cries and the audience does it along with him.
“Don’t you know that I’ll always, I’ll always, be a slave, ha-ha, till I’m buried, buried in my grave, but while I’m livin’, bring it to me, bring that good lovin’ baby, bring it on home to me,” Cooke sings, and you feel, as Rollins put it, transported. For the past hour I’ve been sitting in my dark little office drinking wine and listening to Live at Harlem Square. I highly recommend you try it.