Living To Music – James Brown ‘Live At The Apollo’




YEAR: 1963

This Sunday (Sept 4th), at 9pm, you’re invited to share a listening session with some likeminded souls, wherever you might be. This can be experienced either alone or communally, and you don’t need to leave the comfort of your own home to participate. Full lowdown here:

The oldest Living To Music inclusion to date, recorded on October 24th 1962, before Martin Luther King made his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, before JFK was assassinated, before Dylan released ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, and just as The Beatles had started out on their recording career (their first single, ‘Love Me Do’, only released a few weeks earlier). In a modern context, this is ancient history, yet its influence is still felt today, even if people don’t realise the full gravity of Brown’s legacy.

On its release, in May ’63, ‘Live At The Apollo’ would go all the way to #2 on the Billboard Pop chart, a remarkable achievement for an artist whose audience was previously almost exclusively black. Brown had financed the recording of the album himself, and it was released on King Records over the objections of label owner Syd Nathan, who saw no commercial potential in a live album containing no new songs – bands just didn’t record live albums back then, but Brown knew better. In 2003, just a few years before his death, he’d see it named as the greatest live album of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine.

Brown and his band, The Famous Flames, who’d been touring since the mid-’50s,  were already veterans on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ (the collective name given to the string of performance venues throughout the eastern and southern United States that were safe and acceptable for African-American entertainers to perform during the age of racial segregation in the US). His first major R&B hit had been the million selling ‘Please, Please, Please’ in 1956 (which would become famous as his finale track, with Brown theatrically dropping to his knees before being helped up to his feet and having a cape draped across his shoulders as he was slowly led off stage, supposedly exhausted – only for him to throw the cape off and launch into the song once again). By the time of the ‘Live At The Apollo’ recording, Brown was regarded by blacks throughout the US as a showman extraordinaire, announced onstage as ‘the hardest working man in show business’ – the white folk where about to find out why.

To get the full weight of James Brown’s legacy, just think of it in this way – if you condensed his career just to the years 1967-1976, starting with ‘Cold Sweat’, the genesis of funk, and cutting off at arguably his last great single, ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’, he’d be lauded as an iconic artist, one of the true titans. However, prior To ‘Cold Sweat’ he’d already recorded many classic tracks, including ‘It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World’, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, ‘Out Of Sight’, ‘Night Train’, ‘Try Me’ and ‘Please, Please, Please’, not to mention this, his defining album, ‘Live At The Apollo’ – in short, Brown was already one of the greats before he’d unleashed Funk on the world.

Michael Jackson absolutely worshiped James Brown – it’s inconceivable that there could have been an MJ without JB. To say that his vocal style and dancing was influenced by Brown is an massive understatement – it provided the very essence of all he aspired to be and it was no wonder that Jackson laid a kiss on ‘the Godfather’s’ forehead as his body lay in a gold casket in Augusta, Georgia (where Brown had lived) following his death on Christmas Day 2006. Prior to this his body ‘lay in state’ at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the very place where this album was recorded.

Your own memories are always welcomed, and, should you join us for Sunday’s session, it’d be great if you could leave a comment here after you’ve listened to the album sharing your impressions – how the music affected you, who you listened to it with, where you were, plus anything else relevant to your own individual / collective experience.

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10 Responses to Living To Music – James Brown ‘Live At The Apollo’

  1. TC September 5, 2011 at 8:37 am #

    Sunday service at the church of James Brown. I’m enlightened and uplifted.

  2. Paul Wright September 5, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    Before listening to this album my experience of listening to James Brown was quite limited. I knew papa’s got a brand new bag, get Up (I feel like being a) sex machine and possibly a few others.

    This album generally pre-dates everything I listen to (with the exception of a bit of classical music), it was really mad to listen to this knowing and loving so much that came afterwards. This was the first time I’d heard any of these track and it was really quite an eye opener.

    James and the backing vocals had a strong gospel/soulful feel to me. The instrumentals seemed to be a fusion of big band/jazz but more uptempo. I clearly make links to future styles listening to this and possibly how this music influenced their evolution….the obvious being soul and funk.

    I was very surprised listening to Try Me and Medley: Please Please Please; to me these tracks had a resounding similarity to some of the early Reggae music that I know. I was even more surprised listening to Think and hearing sounds that I recognise as Hip Hop!

    Overall the tracks have some great punctuated lyrical and musical sections that suddenly vary in style/tempo….some cool intros and outros as well.

    Throughout the album it is awesome to hear the crowds reaction/interplay with different musical and lyrical movements.

    I was particularly blown away by Lost Someone, a magical listening experience.

    Wasn’t sure what expect on this one Greg; very cool to hear music that links past, present and no doubt future.

    All the best


  3. greg wilson September 6, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

    As the previous comments highlight, the Gospel roots of Brown’s music is apparent here. The performance marks something of a crossroads with Gospel, Blues and Rhythm & Blues moving into Soul, with Funk bubbling away in there ready to be unleashed in a future time.

    Although Brown is now best known for his Funk recordings, this album illustrates why he was known as the ‘Godfather Of Soul’ beforehand, with tracks like ‘Try Me’, ‘I Don’t Mind’ and ‘Lost Someone’ oozing that deep down feeling and honesty of expression. As Arthur Conley sung in 1967’s ‘Sweet Soul Music’, having paid tribute to all-time greats Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and Lou Rawls, ‘spotlight on James Brown, he’s the king of them all.’

    The intimacy of the recording is really something – hearing the individual shrieks and screams from the audience, or a lone voice shouting ‘sing the song James’, as was the way in church, illuminates that reciprocal vibe. There’s genuine communication between performer and audience, not just in terms of call and response, but an even more direct connection of the soul. The raw emotion is tangible.

    The Famous Flames were an amazing band, able to drop into the groove at the drop of a hat –instantly speeding up and slowing down with apparent ease. This was honed during years on the Chitlin’ Circuit, perfecting their craft and becoming ultra-tight, as Brown famously demanded of the musicians he worked with. This is made all the more impressive when you realize he’s constantly ad-libbing, giving the band cues for the changes as he goes along.

    An aural insight into one of the great performers, ‘Live At The Apollo’ is a precious document.

  4. Nadia September 6, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    The tension between freedom and control is at the core of this and of Soul itself I think. There is a sense of an incredible power of feeling that is being harnessed and directed that seems to reflect the politics of the time. Its easy to see why James Brown became synonomous with the movement and effectively a political leader. He is clearly representing something really important for the audience here. Pride, Power, Respect. Music that helped change the world.

  5. Dan Soulsmith September 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    I’ve just listened to Live At The Apollo twice in a row! I love it!

    I’ve dug out my book ‘Funk’ by Rickey Vincent. (Spotted that this book is also on you bookshelf Greg – from your black & white blog header photos.) Anyhow, sure enough this album is listed as the first ‘Essential Funk Album of the 1960’s’, with 4 stars, and the tagline “hottest jam of all time”.

    I’ve never listened to this album and I’m not overly familiar with any of the tracks. I like how it shifts tempo, from fast, polyrhmic proto-funk? tracks to slower swinging soul numbers.

    It’s a jam alright!

    It’s great how the audience responds to the different track tempos, the breakdowns and especially JB’s direct interaction.

    Greg, thanks for pointing out that on this recording JB is ad-libbing while orchestrating his band. I had wondered. Genius JB live! & at the age of 30!

    JB talking to his band does remind me of this classic sketch: http://youtu.be/li1-52ZZuZo

  6. kermit September 8, 2011 at 8:07 am #

    i remember being a kid and my uncle leeroy blasting this out at his house nearly everytime i went round there .what a brilliant album cheers greg for letting me get that warm feeling of being a kid again best choice yet my friend….keep em coming….blessings

  7. lec September 8, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Just loved this, the whole rhythm and soul revue vibe, the fast and the slow mixed in together, the screaming audience, the FUNKIEST horn section and the screams he does so well, blending with the softer side of James.
    Bloody loved it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. cezza September 12, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    Was suprised when this album initially started, with the R&B side of it, as ive always been familiar with James Browns purely funk sound. Listening with friends was great, the intense relationship between him and the adoring crowd, as was said, close your eyes and your almost there. Great ride, with the rough along with the smooth and boy was he smooth!

  9. BrianE September 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

    Interesting to hear this as mainly I’m familiar with the funk grooves etc. The well rehearsed arrangements were apparent as Brown was notorious for working everything out and fining/firing musicians if they didn’t play it right throughout his career. Interesting from a historical point of view and to hear how the crowd loved it! The music was much more ‘raw’ then anything I have heard by him and the recording wasn’t brilliant as the technology used to mix live recordings has come on 100% since those halcyon days. It was good to hear though

  10. Vicky Dutton September 14, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Well what can I say, such a treat for a Sunday evening! I had to get up and dance around my living to the funky sounds! Always been a James Brown fan, you hear such emotion and power through his music. Raw sounds, screams straight from the groin and the amazing horn section. So much inspiration, you can hear so much within his music. Love the way the audience react and the way James interacts, Oh Yeah!

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