James Brown Live at the Apollo
By Greg Tate
Every show James Brown performed at the Apollo was likely extraordinary in some way; he didn’t acquire that “Mr. Dynamite” moniker by being a wallflower. However, the three shows recorded in 1962, 1967, and 1971 represented a watershed moment for Brown and for black American music. No other artist is more identified with the Apollo than Brown, and these recordings reveal why. As his own performances set the bar for stage presentation and excitement in rhythm and blues, every aspirant who took the stage in the wake of Brown had to shoulder the burden of audience expectations he’d engendered. To this day, Brown’s Apollo recordings are the template for many performers who hope to hold an audience rapt for two hours or more.
Throughout his career, Brown was attuned to the mercurial shifts in public taste and musical innovation that continue to make rhythm and blues the seedbed of American pop radicalism. When Brown was a fledgling organ and piano player in 1930s Depression-era Georgia, he spent hours trying to cop boogie-woogie licks and swing standards such as Count Basie’s “Three O’Clock Jump” (he felt he never developed the technique to play it). In the ‘40s he became enthralled by Louis Jordan’s music, especially “Caldonia”—a song whose rollicking big band blues and outrageous lyrics may have later inspired Brown’s own fearless way with jazz quotation and the King’s English. Brown was also a devotee of gospel music, and before his plunge into the sinful world of ‘50s R & B was known to be a melodious and charismatic church singer well-respected in the Toccoa, Georgia area where he came to reside after being released from juvenile prison at age nineteen.
It’s no surprise that Brown’s first hit, 1956 “Please, Please, Please,” was a torch ballad rather than an up-tempo, juke joint number. From singing gospel in his local church, Brown had learned how to milk a single line until the church members said “Amen.” Perhaps only an artist who’d already learned to respect the hypnotic power of repetition would have heard a pop hit in a song that repeated one word seventeen times as verse and chorus. By the time Brown and his band, the Famous Flames, brought the song into Cincinnati’s King Records studio, they knew well its frenzying impact on R&B audiences. A radio station demo of the song had brought the tune to the attention of King’s A&R honcho, Ralph Bass. King’s owner was the race-record industry magnate Syd Nathan, a fireplug of a cantankerous entrepreneur whom Brown remembered as a squat, stogie-puffing “Edward G. Robinson type”. Brown was to find his business acumen frequently undermined by Nathan’s lack of musical taste and vision. When Nathan heard Brown and his band rehearsing “Please” in his studio, he flew into a rage, fired Bass on the spot, and shut the session down. Nathan not only objected to the song’s incessant pleading—as its only reason for being—but even the tune’s chord changes, which Nathan’s own house arranger had convinced him were “wrong” and too dissonant for the marketplace. After some cajoling and conniving by various parties, the “Please” session resumed—though Brown left the studio wondering whether the song would ever be translated from tape to vinyl. In fact he would not know until weeks later, when it began to ascend the national charts and became his first million-selling single.
“Please” established what would become a tradition in Brown’s career of achieving his greatest success by flaunting orthodoxy, pushing against the grain, and liberating his own avant-garde instincts as a composer, arranger, bandleader, and businessman. It was his combination of artistic and entrepreneurial savvy that compelled him to record his first live album at the Apollo in 1962. As had occurred five years earlier, Nathan thought the idea was among the dumbest he’d ever heard. Brown disagreed; certain that a live Apollo album would provide the jolt his career needed, he put up the money himself for a week’s worth of recording at the venue at the not inconsiderable cost (for the time) of $5,700— a sum roughly equivalent to about $70,000 in today’s money.
The show Brown brought into the Apollo contained many of the stagy conceits that were to become his staples: the ringmaster introductions, the knee drops, the royal adorning of his cape by the Famous Flames, the shivering walk offstage, and the quickstepping, fervent return to form, action, and hysterical applause. The repertoire contained a few other chestnuts: “Please” among them, but also his minor then-current hit “Try Me,” which would remain a staple of his shows well into the ‘60s. It also contained Brown’s rendition of tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s 1952 soul-jazz hit “Night Train.”
By this time, Brown was already performing nearly 300 nights a year; Apollo audiences heard the fruits of those Herculean road show labors. Brown’s schedule had certainly prepared him to perform a weeklong engagement with the then-requisite six shows a day. (By the mid-‘60s, he would be among the first to have that chain-gang, galley-slave labor stipulation struck from his Apollo contracts.) The band Brown brought to the Apollo in 1962 was as stupefyingly tight as any he would helm in his fifty-plus years in show business. On the album, the horns stab, blast, and blurt with the precision their legendary reputation for tightness would be built on, while the rhythm section follows Brown’s cues for manic stop-time breaks and restarts to the absolute letter, though with an edgy spontaneity and velocity that belies the number of times they’d rehearsed and performed the show under his whiplash guidance in the months leading up to the gig.
You can hear in utero the concatenation of elements from cool jazz, gospel, and mambo that would see him in only a few short years create a wholly new genre of music—funk—prefigured in the release of 1965’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and fully formed and thrust upon an unsuspecting world by 1967’s “Cold Sweat.” An unprecedented level of influence, acclaim, and number-one chart hits followed in the wake of Brown’s alchemical funk invention.
What’s also indisputable—even before Brown had created the repertoire that would ensure his ability to secure lucrative gigs well into his seventh decade—is his ability to control his audience’s emotional pitch at American entertainment’s most demanding venue with as much confidence as he controlled his fast-moving neck, torso, and feet when he danced. Some of the screams the crowd’s female members unleashed on the 1962 recording are so intense you can’t help believing they could only be followed by fainting spells, oxygen masks, and stretchers. Those who encounter the 1962 Apollo recording not knowing this moment in Brown’s career will likely be surprised by how slow and mid-tempo-heavy the set is, but Brown’s major male competitors at the time—Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson especially—were all masters of the torch song, and doo-wop’s secular take on gospel group harmony was still the dominant sound in R&B.
We now know that the 1962 moment set on the precipice of Motown’s rise as well as the music soon to be loosed upon the world by Brown’s fellow southern soul brethren and sistren—notably Joe Tex, Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Wilson Pickett—from studios based in Memphis, Macon, Georgia, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Because of the way Motown and southern soul came to dominate and define ‘60s R&B, few singers of Brown’s ‘50s generation would even make the transition (and the upgrades) that surviving the ‘60s would require. Only Brown would see his music being as relevant to the sound and staging of modern pop music in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and into the twenty-first century as it was in the ‘60s.
What Brown’s first Apollo recording makes clear is that he was already working in his own creative and self-produced realm outside the trendy dictates of major labels, studio arrangers, and blander, more cosmetic notions of teenybopper sex appeal. It signals that he had devised his own sui generis ways of connecting to his people and of subverting, assimilating, and overcoming the threat of any competing style that would come down the pike to confront him: from Motown to Beatlemania to disco to punk rock to hip-hop. His loyalty to the Apollo and its audiences, however, would even extend to his booking a week’s worth of shows in the 1,500-seat room well into the late ‘70s, when he was quite capable of landing sellout headliner gigs at Madison Square Garden and drawing more than twice as many folk.
The James Brown who recorded the engagement resulting in his Live at the Apollo Volume II album five years later in 1967 was no longer struggling to maintain a toehold in the kaleidoscopic, fast-changing world of ‘60s rhythm and blues and pop. Despite all the organized rivalry coming from all sides of the pop spectrum, he was more than holding his own as a one-man entertainment and musical innovator. Between 1965 and 1967 came the release of some of his most enduring and definitive hits—“It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and 1967’s “Cold Sweat,” a song that elevated funk into an actual genre and not just as a desirable musical attribute.
1967’s James Brown had also begun to process the daily seismic events of the 1960s—the March on Washington, the assassination of JFK, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the murders of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, the death of John Coltrane, and the Watts Riots. Thanks to Martin Luther King and civil rights movement, President Lyndon Baines Johnson had been arm-wrestled into signing he 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—the most revolutionary pieces of legislation to become American law since the Depression and the most significant to deal with America’s antidemocratic race pathologies since Reconstruction 100 years before. By 1967 Brown had also made appearances at benefits for Dr. King and the NAACP, taking himself off the road to do so. He had released his first official song of social relevance—1966’s “Don’t Be a Drop-Out”—and flown to the White House in his private Lear Jet to discuss government education initiatives with LBJ.
The string of freak incidents, accidents, and acts of self-immolation that would gradually decimate so many of Brown’s fellow male soul singers had already begun mowing down quite a few by 1967: Sam Cooke and Otis Redding most notably, with Frankie Lyman and Brown’s vocal idol, Little Willie John, soon to follow. The Temptations’ David Ruffin was headed into the tailspin that would soon get him booted from the group, and in less than a decade Jackie Wilson would suffer a heart attack onstage that would lead to a coma and his eventual death. Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, the only two who transformed the sound of popular music as masterfully as Brown, had only begun to make noise in rock, pop, and R&B. Yet their own careers would come crashing down—Jimi’s in 1970 with his death by asphyxiation, Sly’s by his coke-addled determination to slide into oblivion somewhere around 1973.
That Brown would have another four decades of relevancy awaiting him in 1967 can be attributed to the fact that, as the rest of world was coming apart at the seams, he was building an empire brick by brick. His comrades, older and younger, were succumbing to the varied temptations of the age and becoming victims of all sorts of dependencies, despondency, and waste, turning high castles into sand. Brown, by contrast, who remained self-managed and self-controlled, was becoming an American entertainment institution—one who became instrumental to the development of every paradigmatic musical style that followed after him: funk, fusion, disco, reggae, Afrobeat, house punk, new wave, hip-hop, grunge, crunk, reggaeton, you just about name it, buddy.
The road-tested band Brown brought to the Apollo this time around is for many knowledgeable Brown devotees his best ever. This disciplined ensemble features the musical direction and horn arranging of Pee Wee Ellis, the double drum team of Clyde Stubblefield (inventor of the “Funky Drummer” shuffle that would launch a zillion hip-hop hits) and John “Jabo” Starks, saxophonist Maceo Parker, and guitarist Bobby Bennett. A female violinist was also present to add sweetening and unseen on the album version but quite present at the show were the tightly clad James Brown dancers. The audible and voluble changes in Brown’s music since the 1962 show are nothing short of remarkable. At a time when everyone else’s R&B music was becoming more orchestrated, studio-enhanced, and psychedelic, Brown’s music, already pared to the bone, was stripping back even more, cutting away everything that didn’t serve the purpose of percussive propulsion and polyrhythmic combustion.
While the hyperkinetic and indefatigable James Brown show made a point of requiring the stamina of two very funky drummers, the James Brown sound of 1967 had remade every musical element into a drum or percussive instrument. Every instrument had to pop and percolate and unlike 1962, when ballads were still the bailiwick of the show, the tempos of ’67, befitting the explosive and incendiary times, had climbed higher than ever before, matching for fervor and intensity those favored by traveling evangelical tent preachers. The funk and black rock bands that would enter the chitlin circuit frame in the early ‘70s, such a Funkadelic, Rufus, Mandrill, and Earth, Wind & Fire can almost be seen on the sidelines furiously taking notes.
Because he camel-walked his way into Vegas by 1966 and because Ray Charles had made Broadway show tunes cool for soul treatment, Brown took to sprinkling jazz and Vegas fare into his sets, too. So Apollo Volume II opens with a gem plucked out of Sinatra’s set list, “That Life,” then segues to a rocking blues guitar version of Liber and Stoller’s “Kansas City.” When Brown returned from his first costume change (which occurred after “Kansas City”—Bobby Byrd reprised Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” to fill the gap), he launched into a 19:12 version of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”—a rendition in which you can hear Brown tease and prod his audience with a series of come-ons, grunts, and screams that elicit near-pornographic responses from the ladies in the house—after which he let the band swing out with Ellington man Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.”
What’s striking is that the show isn’t even at the halfway point, and Brown has already churned up so much energy that even a listener forty years removed from the moment is left breathless and exhausted. (Maybe he was a little too, since his two up-tempo hits of the season, “Money Won’t Change You” and “Out of Sight,” are both dispensed with in under forty-three seconds.) The shape of all things to come, however, is firmly revealed in the twenty-two-minute jam-medley of “There Comes a Time”/”I Feel All Right”/ “Cold Sweat,” as the band and Brown lay in the one-chord groove and ad-lib with the flavor and ferocity that will establish the principle of how to properly juice a groove for all the JB disciples who will follow: from Stevie Wonder to George Clinton to Bob Marley to Prince to Fela Kuti. By this time even “Please, Please, Please” has been given a triple-time makeover that has that warhorse sound as if Brown is doing his own protopunk rock remix. By the time of the gig that produced Live at the Apollo Volume II, Brown had appeared on the Apollo stage over 200 times.
Recorded in 1971, the third of the Apollo albums doesn’t’ even mention that it is a live recording on the cover. It is instead called Revolution of the Mind and possesses the most memorable and artistic album cover photograph Brown would ever sit for. On it, Soul Brother Number One is pictured behind bars, in a stylish denim jacket and pants ensemble, sporting the craggy outcrop of a mountainous Afro. At this moment in American history, Brown had become as much a political figure in the African American community as a musical one. He had taken his band to perform for troops in Vietnam; he had met at the White House with Johnson and Nixon; he had quelled unrest in Boston the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination; he had powwowed with H. Rap Brown and other members of the Black Panther Party over their philosophical differences (perhaps best described as “Burn, Baby, Burn” vs. “Learn, Baby, Learn”). He had also against all logic once again concocted a Top 10 hit out of a song that completely broke the mold—musically and politically—with 1969’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” a venture and act of courage to which he later came to attribute his troubles with the Panther, the IRS, and the FBI.
At the same time Brown also expanded his media entrepreneurship from music publishing and indie record labels to ownership of two radio stations and within a year, his own nationally syndicated TV dance show, Future Shock, modeled after Don Cornelius’s Soul Train. (There were also food chain enterprises in the works, and why not?) When he had signed with the huge
international music conglomerate Polygram the year before, it was for one of the largest signing bonuses in industry history. Other highlights of the period included the first of many tours to Africa, where Brown would discover he was already a cultural idol on that continent, too.
However, between his 1967 and 1971 Apollo appearances, Brown had lost arguably his two best bands. In 1970 the band heard on Volume II mutinied over money issues while on tour in Florida and threatened not to perform the night in Georgia. Nonplussed, Brown let his grizzled and disgruntled veterans walk off the job, promptly asking Bobby Byrd to send him his protégé band from Cincinnati led by a young phenom of a bassist by the name of Bootsy Collins, who would become a key element in the mid-‘70s mega-stadium success of Parliament-Funkadelic. This supercharged unit would, in less than a year, inspire a rejuvenated Brown to create a whole new slew of generationally ripe, ready, and innovative hits—“Sex Machine,” “Super Bad, “ “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” “Get Up, Get into It, Get Involved,” “Soul Power.” The Bootsy-driven version of the James Brown band can be heard on the first album Brown released on Polydor, Love Power Peace, recorded live a Paris’ Olympia music hall.
Brown and Bootsy’s crew came to a mutually agreed upon separation within a year, and Brown re-formed his band with veterans St. Clair Pinkcney, Jabo Starks, and Clyde Stubblefield under the leadership of trombonist Fred Wesley. That group, soon to be known as the JBs, would serve to help Brown quickly bring to the fore yet another set of new Brown ‘70s classics, notably “Hot Pants,” “Escape-ism,” Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul,” and, just a wee bit later, “The Payback.” Between 1971 and 1972 Brown produced ten Top 10 singles in a row. The historic, inspirational moment as well as the collective joie de vivre of the day is represented in the magnanimous and, yes, intentionally hilarious, goofy style of Revolution of the Mind.
It isn’t the tightest of the James Brown bands (though tight enough), nor the most innovative—even though it would account for easily half of the most sampled Brown records in hip-hop—but Revolution offers us Brown’s most congenial and easygoing group—one perfectly aligned with its gregarious and good-natured music director, Fred Wesley. The band introduction segment on the album has on its own become a cherished feature to Brown aficionados—especially the bit where Brown chides Wesley for being from “L.A.,” until Wesley reveals that stands for “Lower Alabama.” Brown then suggests Wesley may have once visited the City of Angels on a Greyhound bus and come back on a “stray dog.” And even though he doesn’t do “Say It Loud,” Brown’s lyrics and ad-libs on the album are also the most politically charged for his career—as when he makes a distinction between “The Man” down south, whose intentions toward black folk Brown claims are transparent, as opposed to the “The Man” up north, whose designs Brown finds to be more devious and obfuscated.
James Brown’s last appearance on the Apollo stage was not live. It was for his own wake. That even, three days after his death on Christmas Day 2006, found his body resting in state after being driven there in his coffin in a gold and glass horse-driven carriage, operated by drivers in tails and top hats. And it was there on the stage that he claimed as his own after nearly six decades of working there that Harlemites and others got to say their last good-byes to the Godfather of Soul. An estimated 8,000 fans gathered to attempt to view his body from early morning until late evening, braving the biting December cold for six hours or more, this writer among them.