There aren’t too many bands that will tell you they discovered their sound by failing to be someone else. The Savants of Soul may be a little young to remember the greats of the Motown era, but they were inspired none the less. Before they became a ten-piece Motown soul band, three of them were experimenting with their soul-influenced, punk sound in a garage. They were digging the Motown vibe but couldn’t help but play it with a little grit in it. When they discovered a 1963 vinyl masterpiece, Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, they suddenly had permission to put their stamp on it. Playing it didn’t mean they had to be a cover band lacking the proper credentials to justify the effort. In the depths and outer reaches of Sam Cooke’s brand of soul, they found a punk energy that connected the 60s sound of Motown to their own generation. Kinetic energy was the link between two very different genres, as the music comes alive through movement.

     From that burst of inspiration, the core of The Savants of Soul started to recruit the rest of their tribe. They put together a horn section and found their lead singer, building their vision of an energetic soul band. Developing their sound has been an evolutionary process. Their original music is written with the goal of recreating 60s soul to the best of their abilities. In failing to do that, they’ve honed in on their unique sound. The writing process varies with the song. It may be a group effort or a collection of individually written parts. However it comes together, it’s a representation of their band identity – savants of soul music, as they understand it and feel it within themselves. The sound of the instrument isn’t just an interpretation of the notes played. The soul of the player feeds the transcription, and the energy with which he plays it becomes part of the music. Put that energy on the stage in the form of ten different players and you have the Motown explosion of The Savants of Soul. Their live show is cutting edge Sam Cooke at The Harlem Square Club.

     COOKE, SAM LIVE AT THE HARLEM SQUARE CLUB 1963 2005 REMASTERTo get a sense of The Savants of Soul on stage, one must be familiar with the history of that inspirational performance. Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club was recorded on a January night in 1963. RCA Victor, Sam’s label, had decided in late ’62 that it was time for Sam to record a live album. They chose the night and the location in Overtown, Florida, a once exclusively black section of Miami following the segregation laws of the day. The club was packed with Cooke’s most devoted fans from his days of singing gospel. They found the results of that recording “too loud, raw, and raucous” for the pop star image they were cultivating for him, so they shelved the tapes for over two decades. It wasn’t until 1985 when they were discovered by executive, Gregg Geller, that they were quickly released. His defense of their shelf life was that being a crossover artist, from gospel to pop, was controversial back in the day. Once he became a pop artist, he had a mainstream image to protect. On the road, he played to almost exclusively black audiences and did a different kind of show than what he did for his pop audience. The original mix is the one that drew rave reviews. In 1985, Bruce Eder of AllMusic rated it as “one of the greatest soul records ever cut by anybody.” In 2005, on the occasion of its remaster and 20th anniversary release, Steve Leggett of AllMusic noted the rougher side of Sam Cooke and his exceptional vocals, saying, “Here he explodes into one of the finest sets of raw, secular gospel ever captured on tape.” When Rolling Stone included the album on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, they captured the essence of this performance: “Cooke was elegance personified, but he works this Florida club until it’s hotter than hell, while sounding like he never breaks a sweat……when the crowd sings along with him, it’s magic.”

     SAVANTS OF SOUL SUNDAY BEST AMAZON IMAGEThe magic Sam Cooke created that night, with all those bootleg moments that encapsulated his grit, raw power, and gospel-like delivery of emotion, is exactly what The Savants of Soul shoot for in their live shows. The songs need a space to breathe in to maximize their potential, and the stage is where that happens. Their debut album, Downtown Sound, was released in 2014, validating the fact that it comes alive in a downtown setting. The recording appears to hold back some of its grittier tendencies, saving them for a live audience. They’ve just released their new EP, Sunday Best, with four new songs that showcase their blues-infused soul with a jazzy flair, albeit with a gospel bent straight out of the Book of Revelations. Chelsea Oxendine has the lion’s share of vocal duties and she proves that her voice is worthy of a horn section. On the title track, “Breezy Sunday,” her vocal turns that breeze into a hurricane. As the eye of the storm, she delivers like a sermon, leaving no doubt you’ve just been taken to church. “For Another” brings out the blues in Chelsea as she laments the loss of a lover. The band puts their full-bodied sound behind her to lend support to a broken heart. Justin McKenzie goes solo on “Mr. Medicine Man,” pleading for healing like a sinner at a tent revival. Zack Emerson’s mournful keys solo sounds like a church organ, adding poignancy to the cry for help. The highlight of the EP is its finale, “Second Chance Lover,” a duet featuring Justin and Chelsea. The vocalists dig in here, saving their grittiest for last, and the band follows suit. It’s big musical energy just begging for a stage.

     SAVANTS OF SOUL GROUP PIC COLORED LIGHTSThe Savants of Soul are the type of band Sam Cooke would appreciate. Their home base is Gainesville, Florida, not that far from where his historic performance took place. He went into a small club, surrounded by his most ardent supporters, and was essentially himself. He let out what was in his musical soul, paying no mind to an image his label was trying to sell. It would take 22 years before the real Sam Cooke received the recognition he deserved for that recording, and his true sound, grit, and soul was revealed to the world, regardless of color. The Savants of Soul don’t fit the stereotype for a soul band, nor do they have any real connection to that era. What they do have is an appreciation for the music, a soulful desire to create and play it, and the energy to infuse the performance with authenticity. They can’t recreate the exact sound of Sam Cooke in The Harlem Square Club, nor should they. Their vision is to make music that starts with soul at its core, add the blues, gospel, and jazz notes that fit with a punk attitude, and capture the rawness of that night in January, 1963 when they perform it. Failing to be Sam Cooke is like Sam being free from his pop star image. It leaves room for the unexpected, and occasionally, the performance of a lifetime.


The Savants of Soul are…….

Justin McKenzie – vocalist

Chelsea Oxendine – vocalist

Austin Van Wie – guitarist

John Gray Shermyen – bassist

Zack Emerson – keyboardist

Alex Klausner – drums

Jason Beverung – trombone

Mandy Moo – trumpet

David Rinehart – tenor sax

Ray Vigil – alto sax/baritone sax 

Listen to Sunday Best on Spotify:

Purchase Sunday Best through iTunes:

Listen to Downtown Sound on Spotify:


Purchase Downtown Sound through iTunes:

Visit The Savants of Soul’s website:


Purchase tickets to The Savants of Soul and Cumberland Blue at

The High Watt Nashville on July 12:

For additional live performance opportunities, please visit their website.

Listen to Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club on Spotify:

Purchase the album through iTunes:!-live-at-harlem/id304822401


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Bev Miskus

Blogger of all things music related in Nashville and beyond.

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