‘Have you got James Brown Live at The Apollo though?’
I distinctly remember being challenged with that by a fella who heard me waffling on in the Bon Bonne club in Herne Hill one evening around the early 90s, after I had just put out a small fire to the song ‘Sex Machine’ on the dance floor. As I made my way to the bar and back to my mates all of whom were about to take the piss out of my dancing, this fella came out of nowhere.
‘James Brown fan are ya then?’ He said ‘yeah, course’ I replied and then he hit me the question at the top of this blog. I styled it out ‘of course I’ve got it’ says I ‘who aint?’ Well, in truth, me.
It was on my list to buy though, because this mush was the latest in a long list of people who had told me about the album.
Once I had shut him up, I changed the subject to avoid any more embarrassing questions on it, vowing though to purchase it in the week. I would then have listened to before I got anywhere near the ‘South East London James Brown Trainspotter Club’ that I just knew I’d run into again.
Before I try to describe the actual album for this months ‘Album of the Month’ feature, here’s a little bit of history on it. It was recorded at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem on October 24th 1962 (I was a month old dear reader) in front of 1,500 high-octane punters on the venues amateur night.
Backing vocalist and wonderful singer in his own right, Bobby Byrd, later explained: ‘You always got a crowd of people in on that night, that’s really ready to go.’
Well, the resulting album released in 1963 still generally ranks in the top 50 albums of all time on many a list and its reputation hasn’t dimmed in all that time.
Remarkably, James Brown actually paid for the recording himself, at a cost of over $70,000 in today’s money. His label ‘King’ had wanted nothing to do with a live record, not expecting to see any financial rewards coming from it. In fact the opposite was true. It sold extremely well from day one and continued to do so for over a year, staying in the Billboard pop charts for 66 weeks eventually.
The idea behind the recording was that this was Brown’s attempt to go big time and escape from the 300 odd shows a year ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ he found himself currently locked in to.
Despite the undoubted financial risk he took, if there was any doubt before, then no one after hearing the album, was left to question whether James Brown was the real deal or not.
On it, Brown and his Famous Flames, all dressed in tuxedos grab the audience by their collective necks and refuse to let them go in the frenzy that follows.
Ok, so hitch up your strides or skirt and get ready to get on the good foot and we dive into the tracks. All yours Fats….
‘Are you ready for star time?’
Then we shall begin.
‘Thank you and thank you very kindly. It’s indeed a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time, nationally and internationally known as the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business…’
As part of warming up their fingers and dance moves into the first song, the band break out into and brass and guitar led race to the first number.
‘Let’s everybody shout and shimmy! Mr Dynamite, the amazing Mr Please Please himself, the star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!’
You can hear the crowd scream as Brown enters the stage and begins to let everyone present know he feels…
The guitar of Les Buie picks out the opening of ‘I’ll Go Crazy’ with Brown pleading that you’ve got to ‘live for yourself and nobody else’ with the drumming of Clayton Fillyau punctuating the song as the backing vocals of Bobby’s, Byrd and Bennett, along with Lloyd Stallworth, support the ‘hardest working man in showbusiness’ over the line in just over two minutes.
A huge scream then erupts as Brown breaks into ‘Try Me’ as he slows down the pace a touch. The backing on this chugs along nicely under an emotive vocal performance with the saxophone section playing a swinging role on this one and they bring it to a nice syncopated end at again just over 2 minutes.
It is obvious that with the recording meter running, no one is messing about here.
So no time to rest up, as ‘Think’ hits you fast and hard with the brass setting the pace sounding for all the world like a military band who have eaten too many E numbers. Handclaps in strategic places keep everything in time and place. Listening to it, you can visualise Brown performing his trouser splitting dance moves but also keeping an ear on the band, making sure all finish on time, which on this occasion, is just under 2 minutes at 1.56.
After the relentless pace of the previous tune, we drop down into a slower tempo for ‘I Don’t Mind’. By this stage Brown has the Apollo crowd eating out of his hand. They are cooked and ready for the chopping guitar licks and flicks that tell them that they are indeed ‘gonna miss him’.
Fine backing vocals and a nice organ riff take James up to his highest of high pitch screams.
Further extraordinary vocal gymnastics await us as everyone stretches out on ‘Lost Someone’.
The full powers of Brown’s singing skills are on show here. This is ‘chanting’ of the highest order, which immediately puts me in mind of a preacher in a Gospel choir.
Resistance to it is futile, as screams from the sweat soaked audience match that of Brown on stage. The backing simmers away until we get the full audience participation, with the microphones dangled just above their heads, capturing all the excitement as a call and response outbreak ensues and James lets all know ‘his work is done’.
One elderly audience member called out ‘Sing it, motherfucker!’ in an earlier JB show, so was invited back as she certainly got those around her fired up, though this time around she was discreetly placed as far away from the ‘mics’ as possible. ‘Carry on Screaming’ springs to mind here.
We then plunge head first into a medley of ‘Please Please Please’ ‘You Got the Power’ ‘I Found Someone’ ‘Why Do You Do Me’ ‘I Want You So Bad’ ‘I Love You Yes I Do’ ‘Strange Things Happen’ ‘Bewildered’ (everybody scream!) and then back to ‘Please Please Please’ with James pleading for you to take his hand…all without the band missing a beat.
This is a well-polished outfit, led by musical director Lewis Hamlin, all with many many gigs obviously under their collective belts. Strident and confident, they are boastful and brash when needed and then drop back when a subtler purring is required.
Then its, ‘All Aboard’, as we crack on along onto the ‘Night Train’. That now familiar brass stab sound and nice bass work from Hubert Perry pushes this shuffling track along, as James names all the stops needed to take him home.
The whole album is all done and dusted in around 30 minutes and close your eyes whilst listening to it and you are there making a fool of yourself. Or is that just me?
‘The songs were a lot different live. Any artist, if he’s really got his act together, his live show will be twice as good as the record. And I tried to convince King Records.’ Said Brown later.
DJs began playing whole sides of the album on their shows, such was the demand to hear it, ensuring listeners experienced the excitement generated at the shows.
Mick Jagger has stated this is what he listens to to gear himself up for his live shows and we all know he did a fair ‘Dartford Shuffle’ in the spirit of the great man back in that there day.
So there you have it. The man from Bon Bonne was right all along. It was never in doubt.
This album really is essential for any discerning record collection.
The Mumper of SE5