My All-Timers: 50. James Brown — Live at the Apollo, 1962
- Because I am committed to writing too much about music, this is the first installment in my new weekly piece, “My All-Timers.” Every week in 2017, I will do a piece on one of my 50 favorite albums. One album only from a band/artist, otherwise it would just be every Bad Religion, Tom Waits and Beatles record and some other stuff.
Live albums don’t really work if they’re in a big faceless arena. If you’re at Madison Square Garden, maybe the roar of the crowd will come through, and not much else. But if you’re at a theater, and there aren’t thousands of people all melding into one blob of sound, the vibe is different. Specific voices cut through the noise and make themselves heard, which is a much better way to let the listener actually feel like they’re standing in front of the stage, experiencing the proper electricity of a live show.
And speaking of electricity, James Brown was a walking livewire. If you’re a culturally literate adult of any age, you should already be aware of this, even if you’ve only seen the YouTube video of Brown in the 80’s giving an interview where he is VERY MUCH ALIVE on cocaine. The scattered, frenetic energy he shows in that video is a guaranteed laugh, but it doesn’t paint the full picture of the man.
On Live at the Apollo, Brown is not just electric. He’s hungry. He’s had a few hit singles, but he hasn’t become a full-on superstar yet. There is still more to achieve. More people to bowl over and leave lying in a pool of sweat. More peers who need to be humbled and properly filed below Brown as performers who cannot hold a candle to the him.
Brown reasoned that the way to do this was by putting out a live record, against the wishes of his label who wanted him to release new songs. But Brown knew that to best sell himself to the public, they needed to hear him in top form. And Brown’s top form was when he was screaming at a crowd and bringing them to the point of ecstasy.
Screams of ecstasy abound on Live at the Apollo, both from Brown and the ladies in the crowd. From the moment he’s introduced and you hear the howls as he walks onstage, Brown has the people in his hands, right where he wants them. He leads them through lightning-quick renditions of his biggest hits like “I’ll Go Crazy,” “Think” and “Try Me.” The band swings and wallops. The drums are right up front in the mix, fighting for space with the horns, which blast and sing. And whether they’re ballads or up-tempo rockers, Brown sings it all with the same intensity, as if he’s about to be hauled away, never to perform again.
The crowd even stays with him through the nearly-ten-minute version of “Lost Someone,” in which Brown tries every vocal trick he knows. The only stragglers are a couple girls who playfully yell things at him during the song, almost like hecklers at a comedy show. When he starts singing, “I believe somebody here lost someone,” the girls yell, “YEAH, IT’S YOU. IT’S YOU.” And then they laugh at each other in delight. That’s the intimate effect that live records need. You’re at the show, hearing fellow strangers, feeling every move, every drop of sweat, even if you can’t actually see anything.
And just when the energy is starting to sag at the end of that long jam, Brown and the Famous Flames suddenly and seamlessly launch into his biggest hit at the time, “Please, Please, Please.” The crowd, on the verge of getting tired, erupts back to life in approval. It’s one of many magical moments on this record.
For the rest of his life, Brown would continue to participate in magical moments, from recording “Sex Machine” to pointing a gun at people in his office for using his bathroom. James Brown did not take anything lightly.