Celebrating what would have been music legend Sam Cooke's 80th birthday – from an Atlantic City perspective.
NOTE: SEE WEB EXTRA "Sam Cooke & Bob Dylan: A 'Change' in the 'Wind' AT THE END OF THIS STORY (Page 2). SEE PHOTO GALLERY HERE. Also, see sources, references and thank you's on this related blog post.
At right is video from last year's "Club Harlem" exhibit, featrung Ralph Hunter, of the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, as well as interviews with decendants of the former owners of Club Harlem.
A banner with the name Slappy White on it hung across Kentucky Avenue all summer.
The late comedian and actor (who died in Brigantine in 1995) was booked for the entire season at Atlantic City’s famed Club Harlem. On this particular summer night, however — July 24, 1964, to be precise — hanging above the banner was yet another banner. It read: “Sam Cooke.”
(LEFT: Photo courtesy of Atlantic City Free Public Library)
The 33-year-old soul pioneer, who was on the verge of cementing his place as one of the greatest entertainers in the world at the time, was booked at the club from July 23 to Aug. 5. It was his second consecutive summer at the club.
After years of enormous recording success with songs he had written, recorded and performed around the world, now-classics such as the monumental hits “You Send Me,” “Cupid,” “Wonderful World,” “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Chain Gang,” to name but a mere few, Cooke was invigorated by the rise of the Civil Rights movement at the time, and had penned what would become the movement’s anthem following his death, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” just months before.
Sadly, Cooke wouldn’t live to see the end of the year – one of his most accomplished and prolific.
The line of patrons waiting to get inside Club Harlem on this Friday night — a well-dressed crowd of both blacks and whites — stretched south down Kentucky Avenue towards Atlantic. Across the street, as on most summer nights, there was also a line waiting to get inside Grace’s Little Belmont, a lounge where Sammy Davis Jr.’s mother tended the bar. Davis was slated to appear at Club Harlem a few weeks after Cooke.
Cars and taxis whizzed by dropping off club-goers.
Elsewhere in the city, Ramsey Lewis was at the Wonder Gardens, the Cole Bros. were at The Gables, and, direct from Puerto Rico, Diablito and the Davalos Orchestra was booked at the Around-The-World Room on Albany Avenue. The Steel Pier was advertising the Beatles “sharing their first full-length hilarious action-packed film” on Aug. 5.
Like several night spots in Atlantic City at the time, Club Harlem offered an assortment of entertainment with summer-long acts that year such as Larry Steele’s revue “Smart Affairs of 1965,” which the headline act that week would essentially star in; the “Larry Steele Girls,” a group of gorgeous young dancers that worked seven days a week during the summer, usually until the next morning; Slappy White as emcee; and Johnny Lynch and his Orchestra.
Club Harlem actually housed two showrooms — one up front, the cocktail lounge, where Chris Columbo led the house band behind Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson on this July night, and the main showroom in the back where patrons paid a cover fee to see the headlining acts.
A week of shows went by before Atlantic City Press columnist Ted Schall offered a review of the scene happening over at Club Harlem in the July 29, 1964 edition. The tiny piece, entitled “Harlem Hit,” reads: “Larry Steele has mixed, blended and baked an entertainment-rich cake which he serves with a flourish at the Club Harlem in his ‘Smart Affairs of 1965’ [show]. Recording star Sam Cooke provides a delectable and flavorful icing. Ingredients follow a recipe of fast-faster-and torrid for the hard-working, well-drilled line of girls and boys dance and cavort about the Harlem stage with unbelievable energy.” Schall adds that the “lovely statuesque show girls add interest in the glamour department, helping to pace the show between solo spots.”
The columnist singled out show girl Patti Harris for her “dancing segment” during a “Caribbean spectacular,” and a few other acts and ended with: “Topping the bill is recording star Sam Cooke, who is at home in any mode [and] has the happy faculty of sweeping his audience with him into whatever mood his song dictates and during most of the stint, the mallets provided at the Harlem’s tables beat out a rhythmic accompaniment to his vocalizing.”
Cooke appeared at Club Harlem with a band that included bongos, guitar and bass guitar (one of which was played by Bobby Womack, likely the bass, according to Cooke’s award-winning biographer and music writer Peter Guralnick), with Lynch’s band filling in the holes for Cooke’s set.
At the time, Cooke, who would have been 80 on Jan. 22, 2011, was at the height of his career. Nobody in the Club Harlem audience that summer would have guessed that he was only months away from his tragic, early death.
A gospel sensation as a young man growing up in Chicago before venturing into the world of mid-1950s pop music, where he had unmatched success — and respect — as a black recording artist at the time, Cooke, according to Guralnick’s 2005 biography, the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, was a complex man.
Known for his majestic, almost angelic voice, which never hit a bad note, Cooke was “one of the most phenomenal successes in the history of show business,” at the time, as the Press described him in a July 30, 1964 profile and interview with the singer. He was not only a pioneer in the realm of soul music — he essentially created it — but a visionary who, by the time of his death on Dec. 11, 1964, had started his own publishing and recording companies, realizing the importance of owning his own songs. It was something that was very rare in 1964, especially for a black artist.
Months before the Club Harlem shows, in January 1964 Cooke, an avid reader of James Baldwin and other modern voices of the time, according to Guralnick, recorded a song that he had just written at the end of 1963. It would become one of his most popular songs, even though he rarely performed it live.
Inspired by and in response to the “protest singers” of the early 1960s and the whole Hootenanny scene, Cooke penned “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He performed the song on the Tonight Show in February 1964, and according to Guralnick, who describes the events during the show taping in spectacular detail in his book, it was a milestone for Cooke, his bandmates, his friends, his manager at the time Allen Klein, and for America.
The larger role that Sam Cooke played in the Civil Rights movement of the mid-to-late 1960s, Guralnick says during a recent phone interview for Atlantic City Weekly, “was in writing a song that became the theme song for the Civil Rights movement, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ which has persisted to this day as an emblem of change and as a ... symbol of the movement as it’s continued.”
The single was never released during Cooke’s lifetime, but it was no secret that during his last two years alive he was becoming increasingly aware and responsive with regard to America’s Civil Rights movement and the segregation and racism that perpetuated it. In the autumn of 1963, Cooke was arrested in Shreveport, La., after refusing to leave a “brand-new Holiday Inn,” when the “man at the desk” said there were “no vacancies,” even though Cooke had called earlier and made reservations for he and his wife Barbara, according to Guralnick’s book.
Following the historic March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, featuring Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a host of musicians, Cooke was given a copy of the new Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album and was blown away by Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
As Guralnick writes in Dream Boogie: “He was so carried away with the message [of the song], and the fact that a white boy had written it, that he [said] he was almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself. It wasn’t the way Dylan sang, he told Bobby Womack. It was what he had to say.”
Prior to his Atlantic City engagement, Cooke made a triumphant return to New York’s Copacabana. According to Guralnick, Cooke’s stint there in the late 1950s was poorly received and the feeling stuck with Cooke until he put “the crowd away” at the venue upon his 1964 return.
Working out the Copa show for a while with Sammy Davis Jr.’s arranger, Cooke and his partners cooked up a show that still sounds amazing 47 years after it was recorded for the 1965 Sam Cooke at the Copa (RCA) album.
On the record, which is among four Cooke albums that are currently being offered in high-resolution digital audio files via an agreement between ABKCO Records and HDTracks — the others are Keep Movin’ On, Ain’t That Good News, and the career retrospective (that includes the hard to find recording of “A Change Is Gonna Come”) Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 — Cooke performs both “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer,” among his hits new and old.
A couple weeks later he would start his Summer 1964 residency at Club Harlem.
Guralnick says he doubts very much that Cooke would have played the same set that he performed at the Copacabana while in Atlantic City. The author says the same about Cooke’s Club Harlem stint the summer beforehand — when he was booked July 11-17 — in relation to his now-famous 1963 “chitlin circuit” gig at the Harlem Square Club in Miami, Fla. The gig was captured and released on the 1985 album Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963: One Night Stand, which captures “a harder, grittier version of the Sam Cooke that [was] known from his records,” as Guralnick writes in the original liner notes for the album.
“The thing is,” says Guralnick, “is that the Harlem Square [recording] was at the beginning of 1963 and he had brought a completely revamped show into the Harlem Square after touring England with Little Richard and just seeing the energy that Little Richard put into his show and the way that Little Richard just commanded attention and took over the audience. So Sam and his business partner J.W. Alexander flew home from England, went to California, worked out a show, which is essentially what the show at the Harlem Square is. And they had debuted it at the Apollo [in Harlem] in [late] 1962. I would doubt very much that he did that exact show at the Club Harlem [during his engagement there in 1963 from July 11-17]. From what I understand the Club Harlem was much more of an uptown [club], what we think of as a Las Vegas show. So it would surprise me if Sam had the identical show to what he was doing at the Harlem Square at the Club Harlem.”
With regard to the summer of ‘64 Copa show and Cooke’s stint at Club Harlem a few weeks later, Guralnick adds, “The show he did at the Copa was completely different from any show he had done before. ... You know, fully orchestrated and there was a lot of trauma putting that together, which is in the book, but the thing is he went almost immediately following the Copa to Club Harlem. And the interesting thing is that [his manager] Allen Klein ... was responsible for getting him back into the Copa — it was Sam’s long-held dream to return to the Copa and triumph. And Allen, who had recently become his manager, supported [his return to the Copa] all the way. ... But Allen went to see Sam at Club Harlem and said the show at Club Harlem was way beyond the Copa show. As much as the Copa show was hailed [Cooke went] way beyond it in energy and connection with the audience.”
The repertoire may have been similar, adds Guralnick, although not identical. “I would guess that Sam would’ve put more of an emphasis on songs like ‘Bring it on Home to Me’ or ‘Chain Gang’ [at Club Harlem],” he says. “I’m sure he would’ve [sung] a lot of those same songs [but] considerably more down home and considerably more soulful
Sam & the Show Girls
Cooke was no stranger to the Jersey Shore, having worked joints down in Wildwood as far back as 1958. Guralnick’s book notes that he played the Hurricane Room in Wildwood the same summer he debuted at Club Harlem.
It was during that first Club Harlem stint that he fell for one of Larry Steele’s dancers, a gorgeous young woman named Betty Jo Spyropulos.
“He tried to flirt with me in 1963, but I had a boyfriend that summer,” Spyropulos tells Atlantic City Weekly during a recent phone interview from her Long Island home. “In 1964 I was supposed to have that same boyfriend, but it [didn’t work out,] so Sam and I got pretty close that summer.”
Patti Harris, now an Atlantic City icon, veteran dancer, educator, artist and visionary, was a young (and also gorgeous) dancer at Club Harlem in the early 1960s. By 1964 Steele had her name advertised as one of the dancers to catch at his club.
Although Harris, a dancer and instructor still based in Atlantic City, doesn’t remember too much about appearing in the show with Cooke, she does remember that the superstar had bought a dog for one of the other dancers while he appeared at the club in 1964.
Yvonne Walton concurs.
Walton was going to school at Morgan State in 1964. That summer she was brought to Atlantic City to perform in a dance production for which she was never paid. “I needed to find work to pay for the apartment I was renting in Atlantic City that summer,” she tells Atlantic City Weekly.
First hired as a cigarette girl, Walton too became one of the Club Harlem show girls.
Once the dancers in Larry Steele’s dance production, who would open all the headliner bills and then be asked by management to sit at the bar so that men could buy them drinks all night and boost the booze revenue, told Steele that the cigarette girl Walton could dance, she was hired instantly and would go on to dance at Club Harlem every summer through her college years.
“The main show in the back room would start at 8pm,” recalls Walton, who now resides in Atco, N.J. “We [Larry Steele’s dancers] would open every show. We’d work seven nights a week, including the Breakfast shows [6am every Sunday morning] on the weekend.
“You had to dance or participate in every show. You didn’t have a choice.”
Walton didn’t drink and says that she never liked to be touched or “have a strange man put his arm around my shoulder.” So, instead of sitting pretty at the bar with the rest of the dancers following the end of the show, she would quietly sneak upstairs and hide in the dressing room to read a book.
The back room — the main room — in Club Harlem could hold a couple hundred patrons, recalls Walton. In 1964 when Cooke was in town, the house was always packed, she says.
“We enjoyed working with him very much,” says Walton. “He was such a nice person, you know? Really, really nice and very friendly with everybody. We all took pictures with him. I had my roommate from college come down and my mom came down. They were so excited. He even took a picture with me.”
Walton remembers that “his manager,” Klein, took some of the dancers out to dinner at a “nice restaurant.”
“And [Cooke] would always say, ‘Hi girls, how you doing?’ He was very gregarious, just a really nice person. He never got out of [line.]”
Like Harris, Walton remembers Cooke buying a little dog for one of the dancers.
“I think Betty Jo had a closer relationship with Sam,” says Walton. “She was just so pretty; all the entertainers at the club were crazy about her. And she was so personable and nice.”
Betty Jo Spyropulos grew up in Indiana, where a producer caught wind of her talent and put her in a production that wound up traveling to Michigan. The show included the Four Tops, Jackie Wilson and other luminaries.
She came to Atlantic City in 1960 to work with Larry Steele and spent five years working the summer season (June to Labor day) at Club Harlem. She says she struck up a close relationship with Cooke during that summer of 1964 residency.
The dancers in Larry Steele’s annual revue arrived in the resort in early June and then rehearsed for three weeks until the show opened at Club Harlem in late June, running through Labor Day. The dancers worked seven nights a week until 6am, including Sunday’s legendary 6am “Breakfast Show,” which would attract all of the entertainers in town that weekend.
“He bought me a Yorkshire Terrier, which we named Cookie and I remember driving up to New York City from Atlantic City in a Rolls Royce that Allen Klein gave Sam for the Copa gig [pictured on page 577 of Dream Boogie] because Sam had a photo shoot or something.
“I was about 24 years old, and had worked with many stars at the club by that time, and I wasn’t really impressed with his Rolls Royce and things like that. I remember he had a blank check to get whatever we wanted and I went to buy the dog with Sam’s driver — I forget his name — after we dropped him off at the photo shoot in New York.”
According to Guralnick, this would not have been a rare thing for Cooke to have “girls” in the many cities he performed. “Sam and his wife Barbara had a pretty open marriage,” he says.
Spyropulos remembers that she and the driver picked up Cooke after getting the dog “for about $150.” They named the dog Lady Cookie Harlem the II, of New York.
“That was the name. It was registered with the Kennel Club,” Spyropulos recalls.
Spyropulos tells Atlantic City Weekly that she doesn’t believe that what has been the long-time story of Cooke’s death — which a jury declared a “justifiable homicide” in the official court case — is the real story behind the entertainer’s murder.
“When I went to the wake in Chicago, and I got to see Sam through his glass-top coffin, one of his cousins was there and he told me that the story of Cooke’s death was false and that he’d been dead for a longer time than what was believed,” says Spyropulos.
To this day she doesn’t think that Cooke could have been killed by a $3-a-night California motel manager (Bertha Lee Franklin) because the two, as accused, got into a very violent altercation.
“I have so many good memories of Sam,” says Spyropulos. “And I always defend him because of how his death was reported. He was always a gentleman and so clean cut.”
Although she spent a lot time with Cooke where he was staying in Atlantic City that summer, Spyropulos doesn’t remember where in the resort it was. She does remember going to some off-the-beaten path after-hours joint that Cooke knew of, to get breakfast.
“I had been working in Atlantic City for several summers and thought I knew of all the places to go but Sam, one time, took me to this place to have breakfast. It was an after-hours place, but it was like at somebody’s house.”
Spyropulos says that, sensing that the superstar was interested in her, she used to always pop in to Cooke’s dressing room between sets to let him know she’d be at the bar. The dancers were not permitted to leave the premises of the club.
“Five minutes later, he’d just appear right next to me at the bar,” says Spyropulos. “I saw that he had a liking for me so I would do it all week. We never got to talk much at the bar though, because there were so many people trying to talk to Sam. People would just come out of nowhere.”
Spyropulos also remembers the night Cooke’s wife Barbara came to see the show.
“His wife came to one of the ‘64 shows,” says Spyropulos. “And before that I would always wait in the wings of the stage and hold a towel for him. But the night his wife was there I didn’t do it because I didn’t think it was right. And he came running from the stage all the way upstairs to the dressing room, put the towel in my hand, and led me back down to the stage.”
There were two headliner shows a night at Club Harlem. One started at 10:30pm and one at 1:30am.
Nearby a BBQ joint called Sapp’s was busy, as was the club across the street, Grace’s Little Belmont.
“Pop Williams [who was an owner of Club Harlem] didn’t want us to go to the other bars,” recalls Walton. “One time, my mom was in town and we went over to the Little Belmont. And later Pop said, ‘You know you’re not supposed to be doing that.’ And he was serious.”
The businessman wanted to keep all the money on his side of Kentucky Avenue.
And on most nights during the summer season the avenue (dubbed “KY & the Curb”) was packed with party seekers of all stripes. Blacks, whites, men, women, all stood in line wearing their suits, ties, heels and stockings.
“The whole street was filled with people all night long,” remembers Walton. “People and all the entertainers in town would all come down and just have a good time. Kentucky Avenue was the place to go in A.C. Nobody was afraid of anybody hurting them or harming them. It was like New York City.”
The action, says Walton, went all night long at the club, and nearly every entertainer who came to town “had to make it over to Club Harlem” at some point.
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