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James Brown & The Famous Flames – Live at the Apollo – Classic Music Review

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.

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