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The Best Supper-Club Soul

by Mosi Reeves

The Best Supper-Club Soul


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Sam Cooke twisting the night away at New York hotspot Copacabana, Marvin Gaye channeling his best Nat King Cole impression, and The Temptations reviving a Kern & Hammerstein chestnut: This isn't what we imagine as classic soul. But they exemplified an era when many of the artists that virtually defined the genre sought a broad middle American audience, whether it was Ray Charles tackling country tunes on his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music series, or Dionne Warwick collaborating with Burt Bacharach and Hal David on jazz-pop smashes like Valley of the Dolls.

Many of these recordings haven't dated well. Recorded and released in 1964, Live at the Copa finds Cooke full of good spirits as he works through standards like "Frankie and Johnny." But it can't compare to the posthumously released Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, where he delivered an incredible rhythm and blues performance in front of an enraptured audience. Aretha Franklin's debut album, With the Ray Bryant Combo, may be the best of her Columbia years as she blended gospel and blues with pop chestnuts like "Over the Rainbow." But it wasn't until she largely abandoned the latter -- or, more accurately, learned to reinterpret those standards in her inimitable voice -- that she grew into the queen we know and love.

Her evolution was symbolic of a transitional period for black music. Listening to The Supremes' 1965 live album At the Copa now, what's remarkable isn't this "black rock 'n' roll group" (as Berry Gordy enthusiastically called them) invading one of the toniest white supper clubs in the country, but rather hearing their audible delight as they run through both No. 1 hits like "Baby Love" and cheery jingles like "Put On a Happy Face." It captured a legendary group at the height of its powers as it expanded the boundaries of soul.

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