James Brown - Live At The Apollo - Review
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critics' view

Syd Nathan never wanted this record made. The King Records founder had a long history of working with black performers, ever since the late 40s when he decided to get into "the race business" after initially only concentrating on "hillbilly accounts." This is a man who had not only started his own independent label, but also bankrolled his own recording studios, pressing plant and distribution network. He was keenly aware of talent, using A&R; reps (who would later be his scapegoats when pressed by the FCC during the payola hearings of the 50s) to snatch up big band singers and bandleaders, in the hopes of transforming them into viable sensations for what would one day be called "crossover" appeal. He tried country, blues, doo-wop and R&B—; he might not have capitalized on every opportunity (most notably letting The Platters go to Mercury in 1953, only to witness them become the most successful vocal group of the decade), but he was certainly willing to try.

Nathan signed Macon, Georgia performer James Brown in 1956 to his King subsidiary, Federal, despite a less than favorable view of the "Please, Please, Please" demo (in short, "That's the worst piece of crap I've heard in my life"). Brown and his band, The Famous Flames, had already toured the South when he was signed for $200 to Federal, but he had yet to convince Nathan and Federal to allow him to record with the band. It wouldn't happen until Brown and the Flames scored a hit called "Mashed Potatoes" under the pseudonym Nat Kendrick & The Swans for another label. After Brown hit regionally with "Please, Please, Please" in 1956 for Federal, Nathan's original appraisal appeared to have been off the mark. That is, until Brown's next nine singles in a row flopped. Badly.

Brown and the Flames finally scored a national hit with their eleventh single for Federal, "Try Me", which granted him further stay on the label. Nathan was rewarded, too, as over the next four years, the band earned its reputation as the best in the biz, performing as The James Brown Revue ("Star Time"), and saddling its frontman with several well-applied titles: "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "Mr. Dynamite" and ultimately, "The Godfather of Soul." By 1962, Brown intended to showcase his act with a live album, especially after seeing Ray Charles hit with In Person in 1959. He'd played Harlem's Apollo Theater several times, but when Nathan refused to pay for a live recording on the basis that he wouldn't have a single to promote it, Mr. Dynamite had to take matters into his own hands.

Brown personally funded the recording of his Wednesday night show at The Apollo on October 24th, 1962. He and the Flames had been there all week already, and Brown was counting on the raucous crowds who showed for amateur night to give him the kind of support he knew Nathan couldn't ignore. For his part, Nathan had reluctantly sent one of his people to supervise the recording, but could hardly have expected it to result in this album. It's more than a little strange to think King had originally issued Live at the Apollo with canned applause and screams because not only were the Apollo faithful in full "support" of Brown's revue, that night has gone down in rock and soul history as arguably the finest live performance ever captured on record. Not bad for a guy who'd been one flop away from failure only a few years earlier.

Live at the Apollo was issued in 1963 and became an instant hit. Not only did it satisfy Brown's small legion of diehard fans— to the tune of being played in its entirety during the evenings on some R&B; radio stations— for the first time, it brought the undeniably intense celebration of his live show to young audiences throughout the country. This might not have been very important in another era, but just as Live at the Apollo can be seen as a symbolic transformation of R&B; into Soul, for a myriad of events, 1963 marked the dawn of a decade when sharing experiences and points of view across an entire culture meant more than just crossover success. It was the true beginning of the 60s, and Brown's half-hour Wednesday night set figures no less prominently than Dylan bringing protest music to the masses or The Beatles arriving in America the following year as musical signposts for A New Day.

Emcee Fats Gonder's introduction to the show is as fine a setup as a performer could ask for: "So now, ladies and gentlemen, it is Star Time. Are you ready for Star Time?!" The Flames give hits upon each Brown hit that Gonder lists, and the eager crowd responds with due enthusiasm (i.e., screams, lots and lots of screams). The band then drops a cutting version of Brown's "The Scratch" to urge the Man onstage. And what do you think Brown should announce as soon as he arrives? Two years before "I Got You", and he lets us have it: "You know, I feel alright!"

The band launches "I'll Go Crazy" with the slash of Les Buie's guitar and the sting of horns. "If you leave me, I'll go crazy," sings the leader, and the audience can already barely stand themselves. Horn punches accentuate the message Brown has taken with him to this day: "You gotta live for yourself, and nobody else." Just as soon as he's delivered the advice, Brown pleas to "Try Me! SCREAM! Try Me!" His trio of background singers, Bobby Byrd, Bobby Bennett and "Baby" Lloyd Stallworth, echo the sentiments, while the band locks the bluesy shuffle in tighter than the tension on Clay Fillyau's snare head. And again, before you can catch your breath, the band is already into the post-jump intro to "Think". Star Time was a lesson in speed, endurance and shared inspiration: If you gave the band everything you had, they'd return the favor tenfold.

Then, things get really good with a dit-dit-dit-DOOO and the ultra-cool, slow burning blues seduction of "I Don't Mind". With each beat, falling just behind where you expect it to land, Brown and his angelic backing choir deliver a fatal blow to any woman within earshot: "I don't mind, and I know you're gonna miss me." Jesus. Just in case you didn't think he was serious, good luck surviving "Lost Someone", ten minutes of gospel-tinged balladry somehow slower and lower than the preceding number. The Flames horns (led by trumpeter Lewis Hamlin) maintain a faint bond to Count Basie while at the same time handing Brown the razor-sharp precision he demanded. Between each declaration of passion, the horns serve an upturned figure, just enough to hold the audience in their place lest they faint from what must by then have been a steamy auditorium. And can I get a medic to those two girls JB was singing to at the end?

The Flames were masters of pacing, and roll out a six-minute medley of their hits to keep the show rolling, including "Please, Please, Please" (twice!), "You've Got the Power" and "Why Do You Do Me". The audience doesn't miss a beat, of course, and the only thing more powerful than Fillyau's bass drum kicks are their shrieks. And then things get REALLY REALLY good: "All aboard!" "Yeah!" "All aboard!" "Yeah!" "For NIGHT TRAIN!" Brown ends the show with his then latest hit, running down a list of cities in which he was quickly becoming a household name. He even gets his band excited when name checking New York City. "Night Train" is full of complex polyrhythms and demands total precision from the musicians, but you can hardly blame them for getting swept up in this show.

The original Live at the Apollo ended after "Night Train", but the newly expanded and remastered version contains four mono single-edits of songs from the show that Brown issued to tide over fans unable to catch one of his 300 yearly shows. 40 years later, the few remaining folks either unaware or somehow unconvinced of the power of the record have little excuse not to put down the bucks for this budget-priced edition. Beyond its significance in rock and soul history, and for Brown as an artist, this music translates so far beyond barriers of style or taste, it's one of the few albums that could accurately be described as essential. Fats Gonder said it best: "It is indeed a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time… James Brown & The Famous Flames." Amen.

Dominique Leone
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