Look. I’m a shitty guitar player and I know it. I have two guitars: one acoustic and one electric. I suck at both.
You may wonder why I have two instruments that serve to remind me of my incompetence every time I pick them up. I bought an electric guitar so I could make noise. All you need to create soul-satisfying noise with even the shittiest electric guitar is a distortion pedal, a crummy little amp and a knowledge of power chords (find the root, find the fifth and rock the fuck out). I have an acoustic guitar because a.) it’s easier to use a guitar to figure out the chords to rock songs since most are written on guitar and b.) with an acoustic, I don’t have to plug into an amp to identify various chord voicings (which are clearer on an acoustic guitar anyway).
I know exactly why I suck at guitar, and no, it isn’t because I’m a girl and girls simply must have long, manicured fingernails to complete whatever fashion statement they’re trying to make. I’ve never had long fingernails because they interfere with piano playing—when my fingernails are too long, it sounds like I’ve hired a castanets player to provide accompaniment. Long fingernails also screw up my flute playing because they make me think my fingers are longer than they really are and I wind up failing to press the keys with the necessary accuracy and pressure.
No, I suck at guitar for two reasons. First, I think standard guitar tuning is stupid and confusing. Violins, cellos and mandolins are all tuned to fifths so it’s easy to figure out where you are on the neck. Guitars are tuned to fourths with one interval tuned to a major third (the G-B transition). When I’m trying to identify the notes in a simple lead solo, that major third short-circuits my brain every time. Those little dots on top of the neck don’t help at all.
The second reason probably involves a recessive gene thing: I have a terrible time with guitar picks. I have trouble holding on to a pick when I’m trying to pluck individual strings, as in an arpeggio. It’s really a drag on the acoustic guitar because I usually drop a dozen or so down the soundhole in between string changes; I’ve tried all kinds of picks and they all wind up inside the body of my guitar. Playing on a solid-body Strat negates that problem, but even when the picks aren’t tumbling to the floor I can’t play anything beyond a two-note arpeggio on a power chord to save my life. It’s frustrating because I can play beautiful arpeggios on the piano and flute, but on a guitar all those damned strings get in my way. I suck on the downstroke, I suck on the upstroke. For years I believed I was doomed to remain a chords-only strummer, banished permanently from the realm of guitar heroes.
Recently I sought help for my disability. A friend in the States sent me a guest pass to Master Class, an online video training site with loads of courses on everything from self-help to cooking to music. I immediately honed in on two guitar classes, one with Carlos Santana and the other with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame. I should have known that Carlos would take a New Age approach to the topic, so his advice on how to locate my “feel” and get in touch with my inner spirit didn’t really scratch my particular itch. Tom was infinitely more helpful in terms of providing useful techniques and I’ve been using his ideas from the module on increasing speed to improve my arpeggio picking. I can now pick the legendary intro to “Supersonic” with an accuracy rate of 50% if I play it at half-speed and don’t breathe.
That’s an improvement over my usual accuracy rate of 20% at no speed peppered with lots of “fuck!s.”
A couple of weeks after my last lesson with Tom, I took another look at my review plan for 2021. Nothing really grabbed me, so I started scrolling through my music library and found King of the Blues Guitar. My first reaction was, “Haven’t I already done this one?” but a quick check of my posts told me I’d missed it. “Yay!” I said to no one in particular. “I love that album!” I loved it even more after I began my research and learned more about Albert King’s bizarre approach to the guitar:
- Because he was left-handed, he played right-handed guitars upside-down—but rather than restringing the guitar, he left it as is, with the high E string on top.
- He used a variety of dropped open tunings to allow for more emphatic bends and to get around the limitations of standard tuning: C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#, open E-minor, F major and (when he moved to Stax) a C-B-E-F#-B-E pattern.
- Since he never used the 6th string, I don’t know why he bothered to tune it, but whatever.
- Most importantly, he rarely used a friggin’ pick! Albert King was a thumb-and-fingers kind of guy.
Lights flashing frantically in my little blonde brain, heart beating madly with hope and anticipation while desperately trying to avoid flagellating myself for not having thought of it sooner, I picked up my acoustic guitar, picks-in-the-hole rattling away, and tried to pluck “Supersonic” with my thumb. I nailed it within five minutes. Searching my memory for another arpeggio, I thought of the recently-departed Hilton Valentine and his guitar on “House of the Rising Sun,” and within fifteen minutes I had it down pat.
Albert King is my man!
Historical contradictions abound in blues biographies, and Albert King’s is no exception. The man we know as Albert King was born Albert Nelson in 1923, and could have been born in any one of three places in Mississippi: Indianola, Arcola or Aberdeen (most likely the latter). His father may have abandoned the family when Albert was five; it’s likely that Albert moved with his mother and two of his sisters to the area surrounding Forrest City, Arkansas when he was eight (I have no idea where the other ten siblings wound up). The only thing we know for sure is that Albert spent his youth on plantations picking cotton and manning a bulldozer in an area of the country where white supremacy was a cherished and strongly-protected institution (and in many ways still is).
Whether it was his father’s influence (unlikely, given his early departure) or an encounter with some itinerant picker on the plantation, Albert developed a fascination with the guitar, progressing from a self-made diddley bow to a self-made cigar box guitar to a real acoustic guitar that he purchased for $1.25. Eventually he was good enough to join a band, and spent several years traversing the Delta, picking up tips from guitarists like Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk.
Throughout the ’40s and early ’50s he was known as Albert Nelson, but once we get to 1953 things get a little weird. He changed his name to Albert King and told people he was the half-brother of the more famous B.B. King, offering B.B.’s father’s name (Albert) as “evidence.” Though he had identified (and misspelled) Aberdeen as his birthplace on his Social Security application, he now claimed he was born in Indianola, shrewdly relocating his roots from the Alabama border to the Mississippi Delta. He even named his guitar “Lucy” in line with B.B.’s christening of “Lucille.” These little white lies apparently increased his drawing power, and though B.B. was rather miffed about it at first, he let go of his irritation after meeting Albert. “He wasn’t my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in blues.”
To achieve that kind of acknowledgment from B.B. King was remarkable, given that nothing came easy for Albert King. One fundamental difficulty involved his physique: Albert King was a big, strong southpaw, somewhere between 6’4″ and 6’7″ and weighing in at about 250 pounds. With those big hands and fingers, he was unlikely to dazzle an audience with nimble, high-speed picking, so he had no choice but to break the rules and come up with other ways to create an authentic blues sound. All those alternate tunings loosened the strings to enable broader string-bending, but Albert still had to face the challenge of left-handedness in a right-handed universe. He solved that problem by teaching himself to pull the strings from on high instead of the standard bending technique of pushing from below, using his strength to bend multiple strings at the same time. As Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns would later observe, “Albert’s guitar was always out of tune with everything else, but he was such a strong man he would just bend the notes back in!”
For the next decade and a bit longer, Albert toiled in relative obscurity, playing the club circuits in the midwest and south and making a few records that were largely ignored. His career remained in hit-or-miss mode for a few more years, but during that period an Arkansas disk jockey by the name of Al Bell became quite the fan of Albert’s inimitable style. The magical threads of the universe finally came together when Bell became a promotions man at Stax Records in Memphis and sweet-talked Albert into signing with the label. It certainly didn’t hurt Albert’s prospects that his new backing musicians were Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns, imbuing his music with the signature Stax sound, strengthening his connection to R&B and adding touches of funk and soul to his music. Stax released several singles that eventually formed the bulk of the 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign, and though the album itself did not chart (R&B albums rarely charted during that period), three of the singles did—and Albert King finally started drawing serious attention within the music world at the age of forty-four. Later that year, Albert King found himself playing at Fillmore West; a year later, Cream covered “Born Under a Bad Sign” on Wheels of Fire; a year after that, Albert King was a featured soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The original version of King of the Blues Guitar was released in 1969 and consisted of eleven tracks. The version I chose to review is the 1989 reissue that contains all eleven tracks from Born Under a Bad Sign and six more Stax recordings released on 45’s, including two instrumentals that showcase Albert’s distinctive guitar stylings. The Born Under a Bad Sign tracks are marked with an asterisk because I’m an anal bitch and I like to keep things straight.
“Laundromat Blues”*: This clever little pun-filled number from Stax songwriter and session musician Sandy Jones Jr. tells the tale of a babe so horny that she can’t wait to compile a full load of laundry before heading down to the laundromat to receive a full load from the guy she keeps on the side. Exactly where these two lovebirds consummate their relationship is unclear, but I hope that the laundromat is just the rendezvous point and that she doesn’t get banged with her head in a clothes dryer while pretending to look for that missing sock. Unlike most men who pride themselves on their obliviousness, Albert is “gettin’ madder every day” and issues two warnings: “I don’t want you to get so clean, baby/You just might wash your life away” and “The laundry’s gonna trap you, darlin,'” a line that indicates that Sandy did some field research and knew his way around a lint trap.
The interplay between Albert’s voice and guitar is fascinating. First, he never plays while he’s singing, making a clear distinction between vocal lines and guitar fills, giving both more prominence. I’ll let Mike Bloomfield explain the more complex levels of interaction:
. . . And he approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he plays exactly like a singer. As a matter of fact, his guitar playing has almost more of a vocal range than his voice does—which is unusual, because if you look at B.B. or Freddie King or Buddy Guy, their singing is almost equal to their guitar playing. They sing real high falsetto notes, then drop down into the mid-register. Albert just sings in one sort of very mellifluous but monotonous register, with a crooner’s vibrato, almost like a lounge singer, but his guitar playing is just as vocal as possible . . . He makes the guitar talk.
That “crooner vibrato” melds beautifully with the smooth sound of the Memphis Horns and would serve Albert well as he expanded the range of his song selection to include R&B and soul. Those deep bends on the solo express both his outrage and a firm resolve that his baby’s got to stop this shit right now—a communication much more effective than his linguistic threats.
“Overall Junction”: This is a nice little warm-up number credited to the man himself that opens with Steve Cropper supplying the classic three-chord blues riff in the key of E as the horns provide a countering rhythmic response. Albert’s contribution alternates between a single-string solo and a multi-string bend attack that sounds so sharp and clean that you’d swear he was using a pick if you didn’t know any better. I imagine that all those years of picking cotton and guitar must have resulted in some of the thickest callouses known to medical science, which may help to explain his rare mingling of power and ease.
“Oh, Pretty Woman”*: A.C. “Moohah” Williams was a high school biology teacher who made the leap to promotions director at WDIA Memphis when they switched from country to R&B in 1949. A. C. would stay with WDIA for over thirty years, serving as a disk jockey and program director while writing a few songs on the side, including his most famous number, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” This ode to the unattainable natural beauty who “Says all your cheap paint and powder ain’t gonna help you none” is a perfect foil for Albert’s understated, shy-guy vocal style, suitable for pleading but never coarse enough to cross the line into actionable threats. His guitar solo is appropriately understated, expressing sweet anguish in the bends but refusing to extend the emotional range to a point-of-no-return. When comparing and contrasting Albert’s approach to Mick Taylor’s version on the Bluesbreakers’ Crusade album, I have to give the edge to Albert for managing those boundaries—Mick comes across too strong, just what you’d expect from a younger man with excess testosterone and insufficient life experience.
“Funk Shun”: The second King-penned instrumental is an example of false advertising, as there isn’t anything funky about this straight-up slow blues number. Though the track features Albert’s longest solo, I don’t think it’s one of his best efforts as he seems to lose touch with the sense of economy that marks his best guitar work. The one spot where he recovers that discipline is in the stop-time passage about two-thirds of the way through the song. For the most part, I focus most of my attention on Donald Dunn’s always marvelous bass and the horn section.
“Crosscut Saw”*: OUCH! While I usually appreciate the double-entendre featured in dirty blues songs, I ain’t gonna let no man with a crosscut saw anywhere near my delicate privates! And I’m sorry, but “I’m a crosscut saw, just drag me ‘cross your log,” sounds like two guys attempting penis-to-penis sex, which I didn’t know was even a thing. Here I ignore the gruesome lyrics and just enjoy Booker T. and the MG’s as they nail the Afro-Cuban rhythms and Albert’s sprightly guitar work. I’d really like a demographic breakdown of this record’s purchasers, as I’d like to prove my hypothesis that the buyers who drove “Crosscut Saw” to #34 on the R&B charts were all men who like their women dry. DOUBLE OUCH!
“Down Don’t Bother Me”*: Albert is on top of his game in yet another of his own compositions that revives the classic there-ain’t-nothin’-I-can-do-to-please-this-woman-woe-is-me tale. Singing at the top of his narrow range with feeling that approaches the bursting point, he wisely leaves the bursting to his guitar fills, which follow the lines in unusually short order. The solo is a knockout call-and-response between Albert and the horn section that matches the intensity of the verses and anticipates the gloriously strong finish. It may be the shortest song in the collection, but as I’ve always told the insecure men I’ve bedded over the years, “It doesn’t matter how long it is—what matters is what you do with what you’ve got.”
“Born Under a Bad Sign”*: Listed as a songwriting collaboration between Stax R&B singer William Bell and Booker T. Jones, we must also give credit to Lightin’ Slim, whose “Bad Luck Blues” featured the key line, “Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” as well as the astrological portents Bell referenced as a starting point for “his” creation. The song’s crossover potential involved replacing the standard 12-bar blues structure with 10 bars in an I-V-IV pattern and a sinuous minor blues scale rhythmic line that gives the song a rock/R&B tinge. I don’t know exactly why I feel this way, but this song cries “Memphis” more than any other song from the city that claims to be The Birthplace of Rock & Roll and Home of the Blues. It feels like a warm summer night on Beale Street with its moderately slow tempo, slick and sexy horns and plenty of sweet, soulful bends from Mr. King. His single-string solo is the epitome of simplicity and in an unintentional tribute to Peter Green, Albert lets out a little scream of appreciation in response to one bent note. The man is feeling it!
I’ll end any suspense right here and now and endorse the Jack Bruce-Clapton version as a more than credible cover, and while I’m into mini-appendixes, allow me to remind you that if you are lucky enough to be able to select the time, place and circumstances of your demise, there’s only one way to go:
You know, wine and women is all I crave
A big-legged woman is gonna carry me to my grave
Hopefully you will have pulled out before having your coronary.
“Personal Manager”*: The B-side to “Born Under a Bad Sign” was co-written with David Porter, one of music’s greatest, most-honored and least-known contributors. In addition to his prolific songwriting in multiple genres, Porter was the very young man who convinced a little record company in Memphis to start recording soul music and brought his buddy Booker T. into the fold as a recording artist for what would soon become Stax Records. At this point in his career, Porter was a songwriter for Stax and had just begun to work with another young songwriter named Isaac Hayes.
Albert King may have been born under a bad sign, but at this point in his career, he had arrived at the gates to musical heaven.
“Personal Manager” is a slow blues number that opens with Albert clipping off a few two-note chords before settling into his more comfortable one-note-at-a-time style. While the interplay between Albert and the horns isn’t as crisp as it was on the A-side, his solo validates the phrase in his Stax biography: “master of the single-string solo.” The lyrics are pretty much the old “Let me careth for thee, O sweet and fragile creature,” and though I’m intrigued to learn more about what he means by the offer “to be your milkman every morning/Your ice cream man when the days are through,” he loses me with a deal-sweetener that simply won’t cut it with a girl who has now experienced three lockdowns (with a fourth on the way):
I’ll take care of all of your business
So you can stay at home
No! No! Anything but that! Go ahead—whip out that crosscut saw but please let me out of the house!
“Kansas City”*: What the hell, everyone else has recorded this song, so why not Albert King? His voice is perfectly suited to the toned-down Wilbert Harrison approach and he’s got a first-rate rhythm band behind him, so why not? One could argue that Albert gives the horns too much room during his solo, but shit, they’re Stax horns and they sound good anywhere and everywhere. Donald Dunn is coming through nice and clear on my right . . . so yeah, I’m good with it.
“The Very Thought of You“*: What the hell? Well, this is certainly out of the . . . blue(s)! This song was first recorded in 1934 by the Ray Noble Orchestra featuring Al Bowlly on vocals, and proved to be something of a precursor to the British Invasion in that it was one of the few British recordings to become a #1 hit in the USA before all those scruffy guys showed up thirty years later. Ricky Nelson came out with a “rock ‘n’ roll” version (probably due to a suggestion from his cornball father), giving new meaning to the word “dreadful.” Little Willie John made some noise with a doo-wop version that’s probably the best of the lot, but this isn’t much of a lot.
Albert was apparently so obsessed with this song that he re-recorded it in 1978 on an album called (ironically) New Orleans Heat. Even the most powerful microwave oven in the universe couldn’t heat this sucker, so I’m not exactly why Albert found the song so appealing . . . though there may be something in Mike Bloomfield’s specific use of the world “crooner” in describing Albert’s vocal style. I will give Albert credit for a sincere and heartfelt performance—but any thoughts he had about becoming the next Billy Eckstine were seriously misplaced.
“The Hunter”*: Y’all know I have an absolute hatred of real guns, but I’m 100% cool with love guns. Etymologically speaking, I wonder which came first—“shoot” as in “shoot your wad” or “shoot” as in “shoot a gun?” Why do we “shoot” photos and golf and drugs and dice? And why is “shoot!” a polite substitute for “shit!?”
Stand by for my new website: altetymologychick.com.
Albert King never quite attained the levels of testosterone expressed in the work of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson, but he’s definitely “up” for this one. After a somewhat tentative opening featuring Albert plucking a single string over a duet of Booker T. on percussive piano and Steve Cropper on guitar (nice neck slides there), a snare hit cues those marvelous horns so we can get down to the serious business of displaying male bravado. Albert seems to particularly savor the descending notes that end the key line, “I’ve got you in the sights of my love gun,” pausing just a bit before he sings the words “love gun.” He delivers those two words as if he’s looking his babe straight in the eye with his big one forming a noticeable bulge in his trousers, and damn, is he proud of his reliable member or what? He abandons all pretense of gentlemanly behavior when he almost-but-not-quite growls the line, “And when I pull the trigger, there will be no misses.” That’s my man! Leave it all in my playing field and don’t spill a drop on my sheets! He cools off a bit during his guitar solo but finishes strong with even more bravado. “I’m the big bad hunter baby,” he cries. “You ARE the MAN!” I reply, cleverly manipulating the male ego to inspire a second go-round. “How can I miss when I’ve got dead aim?” “You can’t, baby—now aim that thing right at my sweet spot.” The music fades, leaving the rest of my fantasy to your wicked imaginations.
“I Almost Lost My Mind”*: This Ivory Joe Hunter number is a perfect vehicle for Albert’s voice, with a melody comfortably within his vocal range and a narrative that demands a singer who knows what it’s like to feel the pain of loss. Everybody who’s anybody has covered this song—Nat King Cole, Eddy Arnold, Eddie Cochran, Bing Crosby, Fats Domino, Jerry Butler, Willie Nelson—and it speaks volumes about American culture that the most popular version came from Pat Boone, the paragon of white bread entertainment who absconded with many a song of black origins and made them palatable to the sexless masses. Of the versions I’ve listened to, the one that most resembles Albert’s is Solomon Burke’s, but Solomon doesn’t come close to matching Albert’s ability to express difficult emotions. I love the arrangement, especially the surprising inclusion of Joe Arnold’s flute, reinforcing the fleeting nature of romantic love.
“As the Years Go Passing By”*: Another perfect fit for Albert’s vocal talents, this Peppermint Harris minor blues was first recorded by Chicago blues guitarist Fenton Robinson back in 1959. The original featured a rather energetic piano counterpoint, replaced here by a more subtle but still remarkably nimble performance by Booker T, who gets a chance to show off both his R&B and classical training in support of Albert’s suitably lonesome vocal. Albert does some of his finest guitar work on this song, especially in the beautifully fluid solo, which contrasts nicely with the texture of the punctuating horns. My only complaint here involves track placement—surely the compilers could have separated the two of the saddest and best songs in the collection to reinforce the diversity of the album.
“Cold Feet”: Hmm. This sounds more like an advertisement for Stax artists than a real song, but it made the R&B Top 20 in ’68 as an A-side single, so what the hell do I know? If Peter, Paul & Mary could name-drop the Mamas and the Papas, Donovan and The Beatles and make the charts, I’m certainly not going to begrudge Albert King a little low-effort success.
“You Sure Drive a Hard Bargain”: The B-side of “Cold Feet” is a much stronger effort and clearly the better song. Written by Stax songwriter Bettey Crutcher and producer Allen Jones, the thrills in this song are found in the obvious confidence and heightened spirit of the post-Born Under a Bad Sign Albert King. His guitar playing is crisp, his voice strong and the interaction with the band is both tight and seemingly effortless.
“I Love Lucy”: This is a one-time-only joke with a weak punchline that only works if you don’t know that Lucy is Albert’s guitar.
On second thought, it doesn’t work either way.
“You’re Gonna Need Me”: Once again, the B-side trounces the A-side, making us forget all about Lucy. This King composition is a straightforward blues with some interesting chord variations and a far more intricate horn arrangement than you hear in any of the songs on Born Under a Bad Sign. Albert’s solo is loaded with bite and bend, and though you don’t notice it at first, the connection between the fills and his solo phrases feels more fluid—the man is now in full command of his faculties.
While I was working on this piece I remembered that this is Black History Month in the United States. I had to remember it because the French have yet to recognize that particular observance due to their belief in the doctrine of universalism, or “color-blindness.” The French would rather avoid the topic of race entirely and pretend that everything’s hunky-dory. It’s difficult to square that head-up-the-ass attitude with reality or with the historically documented Parisian embrace of African-American musicians, writers and artists, but the French are often a mystery to everyone except themselves.
So let’s place Albert King in the proper historical context, and we do that by admitting that our awareness of Albert King qualifies as pretty damned close to miraculous. Any black person born in the United States goes to bat with an 0-2 count while a hostile crowd screams for the strikeout. Though certain legal protections have been introduced in an attempt to mitigate those profound disadvantages, dealing with racism remains a daily reality for African-Americans to this day. Albert was also born dirt-poor, bereft of high-powered connections and had little in the way of formal education—traditional or musical. Though his demeanor was anything but threatening, nothing can trigger white fragility as effectively as a big, strapping black dude, so he was unlikely to find much in the way of assistance from the white power structure. Despite those enormous obstacles, once he fixated on the impossible dream of escaping the plantation via a musical career, he refused to let anything get in his way.
The essence of Albert King lies in a rare combination of self-assurance, ingenuity and an almost unfathomable optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. If you’re going to celebrate anyone during Black History Month, Albert King deserves your serious consideration.
I hate to call bullshit on a respected historical institution, but the JFK Library’s chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis is missing important and vital information that would help the public put the crisis in perspective. I’m specifically referring to the entry for October 24, 1962:
Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
The astute historian will likely find this single entry woefully inadequate, and correct the oversight as follows:
1. Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
2. James Brown and The Famous Flames performed at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem on the night of October 24; the recording of the performance would prove to be a major factor in establishing the commercial viability of live recordings and a significant development in the history of soul music.
Yes, while Khruschev and Kennedy were wagging their dicks at each other, James Brown was busy triggering orgasms in an audience of 1500 people.
Those who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis (like my parents) invariably spice their stories by describing a world paralyzed by the fear of imminent nuclear armageddon. They give us the impression that every ear in the whole wide world was glued to their transistor radios or vacuum tube TV’s, terrified that at any moment they would receive word that the missiles were on their way. The JFK Library reinforces this narrative by titling their section on the crisis “The World on the Brink.”
Did James Brown, The Famous Flames, the staff at the Apollo and the 1500 concert-goers live in some kind of bubble that shielded them from the daily news? Why weren’t they hiding in fallout shelters or crawling under their beds like everyone else?
Through diligent research and my extraordinary ability to put two and two together, I have managed to solve the mystery. One of the anecdotes often cited in histories of the crisis describes how an American U-2 drifted into Soviet air space on October 27, when tensions were at the breaking point. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara heard the news and rushed out of a meeting shouting, “This means war with the Soviet Union!” In full Paul Revere mode, McNamara immediately called the President, who, according to the accepted mythology, received the news with unruffled detachment: “There’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.”
The push-button-activated taping system in the White House confirms that JFK did indeed utter that bit of folklore wisdom, but in one of the many attempts to burnish his legacy, the record was deliberately tampered with to make JFK appear cool and calm in the midst of the crisis. The real conversation featuring that phrase took place in the Oval Office two days before, on the morning of October 25th while Jack was having breakfast with brother Bobby:
BOBBY: Hey! Did you hear James Brown played to a packed house at the Apollo last night? Here we are facing imminent worldwide destruction and the guy decides the show must go on? Either he’s a nut or one of the most dedicated performers alive.
JACK: Well, there’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.
James Brown was the son-of-a-bitch who didn’t get the word! As for the 1500 fans who filled the Apollo, they were obviously the smartest people alive at the time. Shit, if you think you’re going to be vaporized any second and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it, you might as well go out partying!
James Brown can be forgiven for not keeping up with the news at that particular juncture in his career. Though he had consistently hit the Top 10 on the R&B charts, he had yet to reach the Billboard Top 30. And while he was widely known as a must-see live act, his performances were still limited to the Chitlin’ Circuit (since refashioned to “Urban Theater Circuit”), making it difficult to reach mainstream (translation: white) audiences. Brown strongly believed he had to try something different and proposed a live album to his masters at King Records. Displaying insight similar to the MLB executives who fought television every step of the way and allowed football to supplant baseball as the American pastime, head man Syd Nathan squashed the idea, arguing that a live recording would discourage fans from attending Brown’s performances.
Imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit most Americans admire, Brown decided to fund the enterprise himself, forking over a lot of his hard-earned dough to pay for the recording equipment, theater rental and tuxedos for the Famous Flames. Even after Brown submitted the finished product, King Records dragged its feet on the release (the album wouldn’t hit the shelves until May 1963). According to James Maycock’s superb retrospective on the album from The Guardian:
As owner of the recordings, Brown forced Nathan to buy the tapes from him. But Nathan wasn’t impressed. Brown: “He didn’t like the way we went from one tune to another without stopping . . . I guess he was expecting exact copies of our earlier records, but with people politely applauding in between.” Once Nathan finally agreed to press 5,000 copies of the album, both men argued about the promotional single. James Brown: “Mr Nathan was waiting to see which tune the radio stations were going to play from the album, and then he would shoot it out as a single. I said, ‘We’re not going to take any singles off it. Sell it the way it is.'”
James Brown’s instincts were balls-on. Live at the Apollo shot to #2 on the Billboard LP charts and stayed on the charts for over a year. The album that blocked its path to the top spot was Andy Williams’ The Days of Wine and Roses.
That, my friends, is the epitome of the term, “polar opposites.”
Though the album opened the door to concerts in mainstream venues, it would take a couple of years for Brown to come up with a Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 single (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Part 1”) and none of his future studio albums came close to reaching the top. A second live album released a year later (Pure Dynamite – Live at the Royal) reached #10, but the more salient fact is that James Brown holds the record for having the most singles to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 without any of them reaching #1. While he sold lots of records and will be long remembered for his influence on the development of soul and funk, James Brown was first and foremost a live performer, a showman with an extraordinary ability to capture, mesmerize and engage his audience.
And that’s what you hear on Live at the Apollo.
When I’m really, really horny, I hate wasting my time on foreplay. Just pull the damn thing out, and don’t stop until you’ve given me everything you got and then some!
That’s also what you get with Live at the Apollo: nonstop action for twenty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds (add another 1:49 if you include Fats’ Gonder’s introduction, and another nine or so minutes if you add the alternative mixes on the deluxe version). Live at the Apollo is the polar opposite (not quite as strong as the James Brown-Andy Williams polarization, but close enough) of a Grateful Dead concert. The Dead take their sweet time moving from one song or jam to another and play as long as they feel like it, usually for multiple hours. Live at the Apollo is bereft of spaces, thank yous and idle chatter. Brown and the Flames never let up, not for a second. Though their appearance was fairly brief in terms of linear time, the sonic record leaves no doubt that they left it all on the field.
As did The Dead, consistently. Sometimes hard and fast is great, sometimes slow and elongated hits the sweet spot. When I say, “Give me everything you’ve got,” I want something more than an automatic thrusting dildo sex machine (available on Amazon) set to the highest speed. I want variation and style!
James Brown understood that variation is as important to music as it is to sex. If you’re someone who has never heard Live at the Apollo, do not assume that the pedal-to-the-floor pace of the show results in a performance that resembles the frantic speed of the guy who explains the dozens of dangerous side effects towards the end of American pharmaceutical commercials. A good chunk of Live at the Apollo is devoted to slow dance numbers, so the minutes don’t exactly fly by. James Brown was pretty good with upbeat material but saved his most dramatic performances for the slow stuff, where often he seems to make time stand still, squeezing every last drop from the musical moment.
Fats Gonder’s job as emcee was to raise the level of the crowd’s anticipation to pre-orgasmic status, an assignment he accomplished with professionalism and aplomb. After sharing the first of several James Brown epithets (“The Hardest Workingman in Show Business”), he runs through a list of Brown’s hits, each followed by an ascending huzzah from the brass-heavy band and each occasioning a noticeable rise in crowd reaction—particularly from the women in the crowd. By the time Fats works his way up the hit list to “Lost Someone,” the screams are reminiscent of the shrieks the American public would hear on February 9, 1964, when The Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. As Maycock noted in his retrospective, we can thank an uncredited African-American woman for serving as catalyst:
The recording of that Wednesday’s shows was not without its obstacles though. In one of the early performances an elderly woman, just below a microphone, repeatedly screamed: “Sing it, motherfucker!” Debating this dilemma between performances, the band realised she was actually an asset, encouraging the rest of the audience to shriek louder. So King’s vice-president, Hal Neely, bribed her with popcorn into attending the other shows, although he discreetly moved the microphone out of cussing range. Bobby Byrd: “She brought the house down, she was a big part of the album.”
After wrapping up the list by mentioning Brown’s latest release (“Night Train”), Fats throws in two more epithets (“Mr. Dynamite” and “The Amazing Mr. Please Please Himself”) before announcing “The star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!”
The band takes the cue and jumps out of the gate with a high-speed blues interlude. What stands out most prominently is the Al Caiola-Duane Eddy style guitar, dishing out a riff eerily similar to the theme song of the Batman television series. Since that series wouldn’t air for another three years, you can hold your shouts of “Holy ripoff, Batman!” and just revel in the fun. At the start of the third go-round, the screams from the audience tell you that the star performer and his entourage have made what was no doubt a dramatic entrance.
“You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!) “You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!!) “I feel aaaaawwwwlllllllrigh—–ight!” Brown’s welcome is followed by a crunchy, descending vamp on electric guitar that introduces a seriously uptempo riff in 6/4 time that ends with a tight closing flourish from the brass. The tempo shifts to a nice, hip-grinding mid-tempo beat as the singer launches into “I’ll Go Crazy” with doo-wop style support from the Famous Flames. The pre-chorus and chorus are filled with sharply-executed stop-time moments designed to get the adrenaline pumping. Brown’s vocal in this opening piece is delivered with disciplined ease, more concerned with phrasing in sync with groove than lyrical articulation, though he and the Flames tighten up the pronunciation a bit when they sing the key line, “You’ve got to live for yourself/Yourself and nobody else.” As the verses depict a man about to go crazy if his baby leaves him, that key line forms a primitive version of self-affirmation technique.
I don’t want to spend any time imagining James Brown as a self-help guru, so I’m very thankful that the next number starts immediately.
The applause hasn’t run itself out before Brown opens “Try Me,” and those two little words elicit intense screams spiced with swoons. The call-and-response and background vocals from The Famous Flames are outstanding, more than worthy of the few moments of rapt, silent attention they elicit. Sporadic screams do fill the air during the piece, but only in the breaks, never in the verses. This song is directed at two parts of the body—the heart and the clitoris (sorry, guys)—and the performers are right on target. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I’ll say it forever—there’s nothing quite as hot as a man showing a hint of vulnerability. Although James Brown could definitely play the part of drama queen, he also had a remarkable knack for vocal understatement, and here his tone and delivery reflect a man at the lowest of all low points.
After a brief vamp played at hyperspeed, we get “Think,” a hyperspeed version of the version James and the Flames recorded in 1960. It’s such a shocking shift from the slow grind of “Try Me” that the crowd has a hard time getting into the groove; as such, it stands out as the track featuring the least intense audience reaction. The single was definitely uptempo but still danceable; the Apollo version is so fast you might wind up snapping tendons and ligaments trying to keep up. Brown would re-record the song many times over the course of his career, a curious obsession with a rather “meh” song.
This time the vamp leads to a brief guitar lead-in and the welcoming downtempo rhythm of “I Don’t Mind.” Here The Flames’ harmonies take on more of a sweet gospel feel that is a delight to the ear. As with “Try Me,” there are plenty of moments of elongated stop time to raise anticipation, and James Brown’s vocal runs the gamut from low-register notes delivered with emotional restraint and high-pitched howls that display how difficult is for the narrator to maintain that restraint (he’s leaving his baby rather than the other way around, and the wavering emotion tempers the general tone of gloating). The truth is he does mind—and that’s what drives the extremes in Brown’s magnificent vocal.
The original November 1961 release of “Lost Someone,” is a fairly standard slow dance piece distinguished by James Brown’s intense, melodramatic vocal. It touched a sufficient number of hearts to hit #2 on the R&B charts, and you can easily imagine its potential as the closing number in a live set, leaving the crowd begging for an encore. From a purely logical perspective, however (she says, channeling her inner Spock), it’s hard to imagine it as a crowd participation number. I mean, who wants to admit they just got their sorry ass dumped in front of an audience? “Yeah, James, that’s me, I’m a fucking loser! Sing it, man! Bring it on home!”
Still clinging to the illogic of it all, my inner Spock reminds me that human beings are irrational creatures governed by their emotions, encourages me to get over it and give James Brown a helluva lot of credit for pulling off the impossible.
Refusing to let any marketing opportunity go to waste, Brown opens the performance with a brief advertisement for some of his hits:
I said if you leave me I go crazy
‘Cause I know it’s true now
You’ve got the power, and I want you to try me
‘Cause I don’t mind
Don’t leave me bewildered
‘Cause this old heart can’t stand no more
Kudos to J. B. for his marketing prowess, and thank your lucky stars he didn’t remind the audience of the merch table. The brief commercial break is followed by four repetitions of “there’s only one thing I can do/say,” a signal to the sharper pencils in the audience to anticipate a full performance of another James Brown hit. The audience has only one second to shout out or telepathically send their wishes his way, but everyone probably knew it simply had to be either “Please, Please, Please” or “Lost Someone.” The screaming, swooning crowd reaction tells us he made the right call, especially for the women in the audience.
Brown plays it close to the recording for the first few verses, teasing occasional responses from his hypnotized audience. He confirms their location in the palm of his hand through the classic, “Let me hear you say yeah” trope, building it up with “Let me hear you say it a little bit louder.” Soon you hear him move away from the mike, a brilliant little trick that forces the audience to listen even more intently. He conclusively proves the audience will follow him anywhere when, in his distant, near off-mike voice, he screams out “I’ll lo-OOOVE you tomorrow” and the audience rewards him with the most passionate screams on the album. As he continues to float in the distance during the repetition of “I’m so weak,” you wonder if he’s going to do the bit where he feigns utter exhaustion, a signal to one of the Flames to cover his shoulders in a wrap or cape and start to lead him offstage when WHAM! Brown taps into his reserve tank, rips off the covering and explodes in a fit of passion to cap his performance. Alas, it’s just a teaser; Brown returns to full mike and another run-through of “Lost Somebody.” During this phase, he wanders away from the written lyrics and starts playing with the crowd again. My favorite part is when he sings, “I want to hear you scream” and tries to get them to loosen up (“Don’t just say “aah,” say OWWWW!”). Like a good preacher, he tells them that if they let loose, “I believe that my work will be done.” I hope he meant that his work was to make everyone permanently horny so we would spend all our time fucking and never go to war with one another again.
Although early rock/R&B/soul critic and author Peter Guralnick has a tendency to go hyperbolic at times, his description of this performance is fairly grounded in reality:
Here, in a single, multilayered track … you have embodied the whole history of soul music, the teaching, the preaching, the endless assortment of gospel effects, above all the groove that was at the music’s core. “Don’t go to strangers,” James pleads in his abrasively vulnerable fashion. “Come on home to me . . . Gee whiz I love you . . . I’m so weak . . .” Over and over he repeats the simple phrases, insists “I’ll love you tomorrow” until the music is rocking with a steady pulse, until the music grabs you in the pit of the stomach and James knows he’s got you. Then he works the audience as he works the song, teasing, tantalizing, drawing closer, dancing away, until finally at the end of Side I that voice breaks through the crowd noise and dissipates the tension as it calls out, “James, you’re an asshole.” “I believe someone out there loves someone,” declares James with cruel disingenuousness. “Yeah, you,” replies a girl’s voice with unabashed fervor. “I feel so good I want to scream,” says James, testing the limits yet again. “Scream!” cries a voice. And the record listener responds, too, we are drawn in by the same tricks, so transparent in the daylight but put across with the same unabashed fervor with which the girl in the audience offers up her love.
Guralnick, P. (1986). Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 236-237. New York: Back Bay Books.
I don’t buy “the whole history of soul music bit,” or the “steady rocking bit” but the description of the milieu feels right. You may notice the phrase “Gee whiz” is mentioned, and yes, it is part of the song. More shocking (and not in the original lyrics) is the moment James Brown says, “Shucks,” a word I only associate with one Opie Taylor, inhabitant of the fictional realm known as Mayberry.
There is NO break—not even a nanosecond of space—between “Lost Someone” and the medley, which opens with the first verse of “Please, Please, Please.” This is the worst tease on the album—one lousy verse of “Please, Please, Please” where J. B. sings only the opening line and then we’re off to the races to “You’ve Got the Power” (twelve seconds of it), then to “I Found Someone,” and then . . . five more excerpts before the “Please, Please, Please” reprise, stream after stream of premature ejaculation. In case you haven’t figured it out, I consider the medley the weakest part of the performance, a highlight reel of questionable musical value. I can’t believe there weren’t fans in the audience who didn’t feel a little more than annoyed with these selected shorts. To my ears, the crowd response is fleeting, the cheers and screams fade quickly and my guess is more than a few people took the opportunity presented by this half-assed collage to hit the head. Sadly, I’m not all that impressed with the closing number, “Night Train,” but the crowd seems to be having a good time. I guess I’m not into geography songs.
As it is impossible for a live performance to come out flawless, don’t take my assessment of its few defects as a thumbs-down vote for the album as a whole. With Live at the Apollo, the whole is better than its parts. It’s a damned exciting record, and I think the concert would have been an absolute knockout live-and-in-person.
While later in life his aggressive core would turn nasty and result in several complaints of domestic violence, Live at the Apollo is the culmination of a mid-20th Century Horatio Alger story. James Brown faced more obstacles than most people reading this review will ever face. Through a combination of guts, willpower, talent and a commitment to his craft, he climbed to the top of his profession and made a whole lot of people happy as they grooved to his music. Live at the Apollo is a celebration of his talent and his pluck, and is more than worth the modest price of admission.
I do have to point out that for all his foresight and despite the impressive breadth of his marketing campaign, James Brown didn’t think of filming Live at the Apollo. Fortunately for history, we can catch his performance at the 1964 T. A. M. I. show (Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International). The lineup was pretty damned impressive—The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Jan & Dean, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Lesley Gore and a host of others—but there is no question that James Brown stole the show. Here you’ll see the physical nature of his performance, the precise choreography and not one, not two, not three but FOUR fits of feigned exhaustion. Even if you don’t give a hoot for James Brown’s music, you have to smile at his audacity, his discipline and his off-the-charts kinetic energy.