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.
I want to report my father for sexual harassment.
The incident occurred at my parents’ house last month, an hour or so before dinner. Alicia and I had come over a couple of hours early so that she and my mother could play chess. They love playing chess together because they have roughly equal skills and different styles of play. They also share exceptional concentration abilities and the chess-essential virtue of patience. My dad and I are too restless and too easily distracted to succeed at chess, so while maman and Alicia faced each other over a small table in one corner of the room, my dad and I stretched out on pillows and carpet in the opposite corner, talking baseball, politics and music.
“So, when are you going to start taking requests?”
“I already am—just not from you, dad!”
“Come on, there’s still some important music I think you should cover.”
“I’ve already said no more Dylan and no more Beatles.”
“I get that, but I’m talking long-forgotten gems.”
“Well, there’s Triangle. You promised me you’d do The Beau Brummels’ masterpiece.”
I sighed and said, “Yeah, yeah, I know. I just haven’t been in the mood.”
He leaned over a little bit closer to me and said, “I thought you were always in the mood.” And then he winked at me.
“Maman! Dad’s trying to hit on me!”
“He will not live to see the light of day,” responded my mother, still gazing at the chessboard, a faint, wicked smile crossing her lips.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa—I was just making a little joke, for christsakes,” dad pleaded.
“No, you invaded my space, implied I was a slut—”
“But you are a slut! You call yourself a slut!”
“That’s beside the point. Then you, you—winked at me! I know a hit when I see one and that was a hit!”
“Bullshit. I didn’t invade your space, I was stretching to ease my aging back. I winked because it was a joke.”
“Tell it to the judge.”
“We’re a long way from California, sunshine. You have no case here. Look—I’ll let you make it up to me.”
“What? I’m the victim and I have to make it up to you?”
“I’ve been wrongly accused. I deserve justice.”
“You deserve a swift kick in the nuts, you lecher!”
“I’m wearing a cup. Listen—how about The Chambers Brothers?”
That gave me pause. A psychedelic gospel album? That’s like putting mustard on chocolate cake, but somehow they managed to pull it off.
“Oh, all right.”
Then he winked at me again! But this time I didn’t detect any Trump-Ivanka vibes. I smelled a rat.
“Did you just get me all riled up to throw me off my game and give you want you want?”
Now if this had been a really bad movie, my mother would have cried “Checkmate” at that moment. Instead she cried, “Merde” and shook hands with the victorious Alicia.
From now on, I’m letting Alicia handle all negotiations with my father.
The Chambers Brothers were born into a poor sharecropping family in Lee County, Mississippi, a place better known for the county seat of Tupelo, where Elvis emerged from the womb. They grew up singing gospel in a Baptist church, and might have never escaped the armpit of the south if eldest brother George hadn’t received his draft notice in 1952 (funny how often bad news leads to a lucky break). When George received his discharge, he made the wise choice not to return to Mississippi but to settle in the somewhat more enlightened but still racist city of Los Angeles. Eventually, the other three brothers (Willie, Lester and Joe) followed suit. They toiled in the gospel circuit for several years without a whole lot to show for it, then decided to make their music more folk-friendly to cash in on the latest manifestation of the folk revival in the early 60’s. Gigs for folk audiences led to several connections, a trip to New York and a breakthrough performance at the Newport Folk Festival, courtesy of Pete Seeger.
We’re now in 1965, the same year Bob Dylan pissed off most of that Newport crowd by electrifying his performance. Shortly thereafter, Dylan invited the brothers to the studio where he was recording Highway 61 Revisited. Joe Chambers picks up the story here:
So he (Dylan) asks us if we’ve ever been to a discotheque. We never heard of such a thing, and he told us it was a place where they played records and people danced. So he takes us to this place called Ordell’s, and the announcer says there’s some special guests in the house and he called out our name. So we went up there, picked up some guitars and figured we’d do our coffeehouse set, only speeded up. Brian Keenan was the house drummer. We ended up staying there for three weeks. (Bill Locey, Los Angeles Times).
That house drummer would wind up a full member of The Chambers Brothers, an act that blew a lot of minds way back when. The concept of a white guy drumming for four black guys violated a series of cherished god-given racist assumptions about the order of things. White = boss/Black = worker. White = front/Black = back. White = clumsy/Black = rhythmic. Even open-minded hippies had a hard time getting their heads around the last one until they heard Brian Keenan play. Keenan’s power and command was exactly what The Chambers Brothers needed to cross the divide into the world of rock, and soon The Chambers Brothers’ live performances became must-see events.
Now under contract to Columbia Records, the brothers also found themselves under the thumb of Clive Davis, the studio head who contaminated American ears with Donovan and later (with Arista) brought Ray Davies’ artistic ambitions under heel, turning The Kinks into a run-of-the-mill arena rock band. Clive Davis lived by certain rules that the business world of today refers to as “best practices,” which in plain English means, “the shit that’s worked in the past so therefore it must work in the future because we lack the imagination and intelligence to come up with anything better.”
Clive’s best practice with new bands was to get them to produce singles, and if the singles sold well enough, he would grant them permission to do an album. This best practice did not work with The Chambers Brothers, who released an early, shorter version of “Time Has Come Today” to no fanfare whatsoever. That they recorded the song after Clive Davis specifically told them not to should tell you that The Chambers Brothers were committed to their music, and not afraid of blowing their shot at stardom by standing up for what they believed in. Eventually, word got through Clive’s thick head that album-oriented rock was becoming the cat’s pajamas after the release of Sgt. Pepper in 1967, and later that year, The Chambers Brothers recorded their first album, The Time Has Come.
As for the mix of gospel and psychedelic . . . well, it’s there, sort of. The only true psychedelic number is “Time Has Come Today.” There are psychedelic touches in the other tracks, but the album is really a mix of gospel, soul, funk and one of the most honored long-form songs to come out of the psychedelic era. That’s not a bad thing: The Chambers Brothers were very good in multiple genres, and there are only a couple of tracks that qualify as album filler–an impressive ratio for a debut album.
Things get smokin’ right away with “All Strung Out,” an exuberant, high-speed number that came to The Chambers Brothers via Rudy Clark, the man who gave us “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)” and the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” Now, I suppose you could say that the heavy reverb on the handclaps echoed in the heavily-reverbed cymbal in the introduction kinda sorta hints at something psychedelic, but once Lester Chambers and his brothers step up to the mike, it’s clear that we’re into pure soul, delivered with a touch more roughness than you hear in the Motown hits of the era. And I suppose you could say that the opening lines (“I got a habit/But I can’t kick it”) is a faint nod to the target audience of Timothy Leary acolytes, but once Lester really gets going it’s obvious that his addiction is to one hot broad who’s threatening to drop out and turn on with another guy. The production style certainly reflects the era’s obsession with creative panning, particularly noticeable on the bass, which opens at a spot slightly to left of center, disappears, then reappears on the right channel. While I prefer the bass in dead center where it can expand to cover the entire soundscape, I’ll ignore the period fetish and pronounce “All Strung Out” an exciting performance and a great way to open the album.
There is no psychedelic influence on the next cut, The Brothers’ version of Curtis Mayfield’s modern gospel piece, “People Get Ready.” I have a rather strong aversion to any song that celebrates any religion, but I have a slightly greater tolerance for gospel music, especially when delivered with luscious, multi-layered harmonies and sincere feeling. They grab me as soon as the vocals come in, a layering of hums and oohs in perfect harmony spanning a couple of octaves. They continue to hold my attention throughout the verses with a well-crafted vocal arrangement mixing solo and harmonic singing that allows room for spontaneous expression when one of the brothers is feeling it. Throughout the song, Brian Keenan supports the vocalists by solidifying the swaying rhythm and cuing the vocalists through short builds on the fills to further inspire their passion. The finish is nothing less than fantastic, moving from Keenan’s high tom roll to elongated vocal harmony, followed by the brothers raising their voices on high to create a thrilling conclusion. Man, if someone promised me I could hear these guys in church every Sunday, I might have temporarily suspended my agnosticism for an hour a week just to let the sound of those voices send tingles up and down my spine.
We shift back to soul with the first original composition on the album, Lester Chambers’ “I Can’t Stand It.” It’s a damned solid piece of soul reminiscent of the more upbeat numbers from The Temptations, but you might not recognize how good this song is if you listen to it in stereo. That crazy obsession to fiddle with the panning knob wreaks havoc on the piece, placing the drums in a narrow band of sonic territory on the left where Brian Kennan’s energetic drums are transformed into fuzzy mush. Meanwhile, the cowbell is far, far away on the opposite channel, again sopping with reverb, and seems disconnected from the rest of the action. The singing is fabulous, especially on the high-note background vocals, so if your equipment allows it, switch to mono, adjust the EQ accordingly and I guarantee you’ll have a much better experience.
Lester also wrote the “Romeo and Juliet,” a slick doo-wop number where his vocal versatility comes to the fore. In the a cappella intro and in the opening lines of the verses, he sings in a smooth, warm voice I’ll call “romantically engaging.” In the closing lines, he adds some grit to the vocal that transforms the message from romantic to something more carnal, making his play for Juliet much more realistic. Yes, sweet is nice, especially when it’s short-and-sweet and gets to the fucking point! Lester oscillates between the two voices, indicating a man who senses some reluctance on the part of the lady, requiring him to gently nudge her past whatever her hangup is while introducing the promise of masculine delights in a measured manner. In the end, both Lester and his supporting brothers throw all caution to the wind and engage in an extended burst of unbridled passion. Shit, if Juliet doesn’t respond to that, he should dump her prissy ass and come over to my place! I leave “Romeo and Juliet” wondering what the hell is wrong with Juliet and why people don’t talk about Lester Chambers as one of the best lead vocalists of the era.
Perhaps it’s because too many Chambers Brothers efforts contained too much filler in the form of covers, and our first piece of evidence of this trend comes in the form of “In the Midnight Hour.” I don’t know what they were thinking, but trying to outdo the Wilson Pickett original is a pretty tall order. Once they get past their attempt at placing their own stamp on the song via an extended rock introduction that foreshadows the style of “Time Has Come Today,” they wind up giving us a pretty straightforward and rather uninspired copy of the original version that goes on way, way too long. Side one ends with a love song featuring heavy gospel overtones, “So Tired.” The voices are lovely but the song drags and never reaches a true emotional peak. With a little more work and maybe a touch of piano, this one coulda been a contendah.
Flipping over the disc, we encounter “Uptown,” an early piece of funk spiced with a sharp horn section arranged by composer Gary Sherman. The song was written by Betty Mabry, model, singer and (briefly) the spouse of one Miles Davis, renowned for introducing Miles to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, strewing the seeds that would lead to Bitches Brew. The song celebrates a jaunt up to Harlem for the purpose of letting the hair down and indulging in large quantities of soul food, giving off the feeling of going home after a long stretch on the road. It’s a solid, upbeat performance that helps get the album back on track.
We really get back in the groove with “Please Don’t Leave Me,” a George Chambers composition anchored in his active bass pattern and featuring an extended guitar counterpoint courtesy of Willie Chambers. Willie doesn’t limit himself to fills, playing right through the vocals as if they’re recording the instrumental version simultaneously. This is a place where the panning really works, with Willie nice and clear in the right channel while the brothers deliver their clean harmonies just slightly left of center (but not so far as to interfere with George’s engaging bass runs). One of the smoothest performances on the album, “Please Don’t Leave Me” would have been a nice segue to “Time Has Come Today” . . . but alas, it was not to be.
What we get instead is one of the worst songs ever conceived, the Burt Bacharach-Hal David stinker, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” I don’t know who believed that this completely soulless song was a good fit for The Chambers Brothers, but Gary Sherman’s melodramatic arrangement makes it an even lousier fit, forcing the band to perform way outside of their comfort zone. What I loathe about this song is that it doesn’t make any fucking sense! Listen to the words, people!
- “What the world needs now is love, sweet love/That’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”—Sure, if you’re a well-fed white person living in the first world. Because Americans are so ethnocentric, Burt and Hal may have been oblivious to cyclical famines in the Horn of Africa, but I don’t know how they could have missed that LBJ had been waging a War on Poverty “with the goal of eliminating hunger, illiteracy, and unemployment from American life.” Too little love? What about fucking food? Jobs? Education?
- “Lord we don’t need another mountain/There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb/There are oceans and rivers enough to cross/Enough to last till the end of time.”—I had no idea that the lord was busy creating so many mountains in the 60’s that people had to ask her to stop, so I asked my dad exactly how many anti-mountain, anti-hillside, anti-ocean and anti-river movements popped up during this decade of protest. “Uh, let me think . . . yeah . . . that would be a grand total of zero.” So while Burt and Hal were intent on dissing Mother Nature, Angelenos were choking on smog, Middle Americans sat on the banks of their ample rivers watching the oil scum flow towards the Gulf of Mexico and the only people crazy enough to swim in the ocean were surfers with wetsuits. “Lord we don’t need any more air/water/ocean/mountain/hillside/pesticide pollution” would have been far more apropos.
- “Lord, we don’t need another meadow/There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow.” Hey Burt! Hey Hal! What was your problem with nature? Or with feeding people? Jeez, talk about privilege! Tell us the truth—were you guys really saboteurs implanted in the music business to feed the American people a steady diet of right-wing propaganda cleverly disguised as apparently harmless pop songs? Insidious!
- “There are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine.” Okay, now you’re just babbling. Yeah, yeah, the world needs love. Can’t agree more. Get the fuck off the stage.
I’ve heard the song defended as “one with nice sentiments.” Exactly. Sentiments are what you feel when you want to acknowledge something that would be nice but you really don’t care enough to actually make it happen. Fuck sentiments.
Maybe . . . maybe the strategy here was to place a really crappy song just before the album opus to make that opus seem even more impressive. If that was the strategy, it was a wasted strategy. “Time Has Come Today” is one of the great musical achievements of the era, and it didn’t need a lick of help from Burt, Hal or Jackie DeShannon.
The psychedelic period confirmed the commercial viability of long-form songs, and for the next several years, nearly everyone who was anyone shifted to longer songs in order to remain relevant to the burgeoning album-oriented rock crowd. Some attempts worked better than others. There is no reason on earth why “Cowgirl in the Sand” (a song I love) had to last ten minutes and seven seconds, but plenty of reason why “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (a song I loathe) had to go seven plus. Long-form songs are great when you have a strong musical statement underpinning the composition; they suck when the length consists of little more than time-filling jams. “Light My Fire” is a good example of a song that works in either format, but once you’ve heard the uncut version, you feel tremendous disappointment when you don’t hear Ray Manzarek’s organ take the lead after the second verse. That’s because The Doors had a strong theme to work with and they created a marvelous build in the instrumental section that completely holds your interest. I can actually “sing” the entire middle passage of “Light My Fire” because the secondary melodies they create extend the continuity of the main theme, intensifying its penetration into your memory banks.
“Time Has Come Today” takes a different path, using the longer form to create a meditation on the mystery of time itself. The original song was essentially the shorter version, an ode to the phenomenon of generational change. While the single flopped, co-writer Willie Chambers couldn’t let it go. What was nagging at him was the feeling that there was still an artistic vision that had yet to be realized:
“I was in my room one evening just lying there, and all of this psychedelic music was trying to happen,” he said. “But it didn’t make any sense. It had no rhythm, it had no meaning. It was just a bunch of noise, and they called it psychedelic music.
“I was lying there and that long extended version came into my head. I got excited. I jumped up, I ran to everybody and said, “I’ve got an idea. This is going to be our contribution to psychedelic music. When we get to that one chord right there we’ll just stay there. We’re going to scream. We’re going to have a clock.” (Songfacts)
The choice to remain on a single chord opened up endless possibilities for variation, and for several months they played the extended version on stage, experimenting and wowing crowds in the process. In August 1967 they entered the studio to put their masterwork on tape, technically and emotionally supported by producer David Rubinson and engineer Fred Catero, who were just as committed to the realization of Willie’s vision as the band members were. Incredible as it may seem in our world of multiple takes, tracks, patches and post-production effects, the performance you hear on the album was recorded with virtually no rehearsal in a single take. All the band members wore headphones during the recording, allowing the musicians and the guys in the booth to react and respond to spontaneous ideas and in-the-moment energy. David Rubinson recalled the experience:
As the effects started coming the through the band’s headphones, they reacted spontaneously with their own screams, shouts and laughs “and I reacted to what they did with the speed of the tape machine. Also, if I flicked the tape, it would go in and out of phase and make these weird sounds, and it just got crazier and crazier. But from having seen them live so much, I knew exactly when the crazy part was going to end—Brian was going to play this big drum fill and it was going to come back to ‘Now the time has come…’ so I was able to shut everything off exactly on cue. We grabbed lightning in the bottle—boom! When they finished, they were screaming and yelling and came running into the booth and we played it back and it felt so good.” Mix, March 3 2013
The echoing cowbells of the introduction lead us to the almost symphonic theme with its powerful skin-and-cymbals crashes and timeless guitar riff. The longer form placed Lester Chambers’ commanding, expressive vocal in the proper context: the verses now serve as a frame to the piece, expanding the message from a trite ode to the Generation Gap to one concerned with the inevitability of change. The music of the opening verses is driven by a rhythm best described as determined, expressing acceptance of change while also recognizing its power to displace those impacted by it:
Time has come today
Young hearts can go their way
Can’t put it off another day
I don’t care what others say
They say we don’t listen anyway
Time has come todayThe rules have changed today
I have no place to stay
I’m thinking about the subway
My love has flown away
My tears have come and gone
Oh my Lord, I have to roam
I have no home
I have no homeNow the time has come (Time!)There’s no place to run (Time!)I might get burned up by the sun (Time!)But I had my fun (Time!)I’ve been loved and put aside (Time!)I’ve been crushed by the tumbling tide (Time!)And my soul has been psychedelicized (Time!)
Change has set people free, but has also placed them in an uncertain world, disconnected from old relationships and the comforts of a place called home. I believe they’re using “home” in both the physical sense (the dual phenomena of runaway teens and inveterate hitchhikers) and psychological sense (the loss of the familiar). The conflict between the freedom of living in the moment and being “crushed by the tumbling tide” of too much change coming too damned fast is brilliantly established. It is within that context that we move into the extended instrumental passage and take what is literally a journey through the unknown.
The rhythm gradually slows to something far below the normal heart rate over shouts of “Time!” until George Chambers starts moving the clock hands forward with an insistent bass rhythm, soon joined by the eerie sound of echoing cowbells gradually forcing the song into overdrive. The shouts of “Time!” turn into compressed echoes fading into something approaching white noise until we hear a lengthy modal guitar solo on the right channel, pounding and rolling drums on the left and the continual pressure of the echoing cowbell slightly off-center. Lightening the space with “A Little Drummer Boy” makes me smile, but the air soon dissolves into the darker modal pattern of the first part of the solo. The boys take it down a notch to allow the sounds of screams and insane laughter come to the fore over stronger bass punctuation and synthesizer-like effects. Eventually screams become more siren-like, the percussion more wooden and arrhythmic, and in deep background a persistent, pounding build of guitar, bass and drum is building up steam as the overall volume diminishes. Soon the build approaches full strength, and with an elongated shout from Lester and a final rolling attack from Brian Keenan, we come full circle to the repetition of the final verse. And man, do I feel psychedelicized! Fucking reborn! One more descent into slow time follows, then Lester cues the stirring finale with a grunt, and the Brothers stick the finish like a 10.0 gymnast.
What amazes me about the song is that it still sounds fresh and powerful today, even to a psychedelic skeptic like me. But what amazes me even more is how The Chambers Brothers have virtually disappeared from the conversation about great music from the era. People know “Time Has Come Today” and maybe “Love, Peace and Happiness,” but shit, there isn’t even a Wikipedia page devoted to this album. When I was considering albums for my Psychedelic Series, I eliminated The Time Has Come from consideration early on, in large part because it wasn’t psychedelic enough. The Time Has Come is what many albums of the era should have been—a cornucopia of different styles and sounds that reflected the period’s emphasis on expanding the limits of mind and morality.
I had a great time listening to The Time Has Come, and I hereby forgive my father for his sins, reminding him that if he tries it again, his daughter is a skilled practitioner of the martial arts who has no qualms whatsoever about attacking a man where it hurts the most.