Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Live at the Apollo’ from the Godfather of Soul, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite, James Brown.
By 1963, James Brown was at the lowest point in his career. His record label King was beginning to lose faith in him reducing their financial support of him drastically. It had been five years since his first and only R&B #1 hit Try Me and since then, only Lost Someone had made any real impression on the charts from the nineteen other records he had released.
James knew his records weren’t selling like they should, but he also knew that he had the best live band in the world at that time. He believed a live album would showcase his star power (something he had trouble capturing in the studio) and save his fortunes. King Records were not convinced – he hadn’t written any new material for the proposed show and was seeking larger expenses than before. With no other option, James personally funded the recording – which has become the greatest live album of all time.
At its core ‘Live at the Apollo’ is a tragic love story. In typical James Brown style, it’s frantic, soft and full of despair and joy all at once. It opens with an ecstatically delivered, “You know I feel alright!” chant, which sees James in the throes of young love. His warm voice sells it – he couldn’t be happier. This cheery declaration is stalked by Les Buie’s ominous, prophetic guitar intro which sets the tone for things to come. The downward scale is almost comical in its delivery, but it brings us perfectly from screaming, delightful lunacy into the first track.
If the rhythm section foretell James’ destiny throughout this show, the backing vocalists do their best to prevent James from falling for this musical fatalism. “You’ve got to live for yourself and nobody else” they plead. But this is young love. He screams at them in sheer joy of his situation – “I love you too much!” he howls past them at his beau. Here is a young man living for his love and with total disregard for himself.
The opener sees James in fine form vocally. His squeals are pitch perfect and he sways from their squeaky highs to basey-baritones with ease. On the follow up, Try Me he takes the maniac out of his love. His delivery is retrained, collected – perhaps out of necessity.
Such hollering can take its toll – and there is lots more to come tonight. “Tell me ‘I need you’…” pleads Brown. The backing vocals are sympathetic, the rhythm section plod along and already James is clearly losing this battle. The writing is on the wall for this relationship. Act 1 ends with the first of three musical bridges.
When he returns, James takes his classic track Think and moulds it into a frenzied, blistering beast. In this messy proclamation, James pleads desperately with his lover:
“Hey, think about the sacrifices that I made for you
Think about the good things I done for you
Hey, think of all the bad things I tried not to do, baby,
Think of all the wrong things you did to me too, come on”
As James spirals, he goes through the grieving process in full. Having witnessed denial, anger and bargaining already, I Don’t Mind is James at the depression stage. With paper thin guitar lines, meandering basslines and haunting, clipped vocals this is James laid bare as never experienced before. It’s raw and it highlights why James needed to be recorded live.
At this stage, James was not the ‘80s pastiche that many identify him with now. He was a force of nature, break dancing at length and howling for hours with nary a ‘Geddon-up-ah’ to be heard. To bring such a range of emotions to this record was arguably the greatest achievement of this record. Here we had the potential for a fully rounded, relevant superstar.
By Lost Someone the grieving period is over. He has accepted his fate and is preparing for the next step in his life. It is here where we can fully appreciate how tight his band was. There is literally not one beat out of place – and understandably so. James would routinely hand out fines to his band for missed beats, or dud notes. Normally this fine would fall anywhere between $10-$20, but tonight, at the Apollo, the fines started at $50.
Trombonist Fred Wesley later explained that he was fined $50 that night for playing so hard that his lip burst and a speck of blood fell upon his shirt. Here on Lost Someone, the band are perhaps terrified, but unquestionably incredible. The react effortlessly to James’s ad libs, sudden stops and crowd interactions.
As we enter the final Act, a medley begins and we see a similar pattern forming. You’ve got the Power and I Found Someone see James throwing himself headlong into another relationship, proclaiming his love from the start. It is not long before James is soon left Bewildered and by the end, he is pleading with yet another love not to depart on Please, Please, Please. With no options left, James hops on the Night Train to take us home.
It’s an incredible piece of work. It’s worth remembering that by the time James took to the stage, some of the crowd had been in place for over eight hours, witnessing hand-picked support acts and variety performers and yet still, despite the unavoidable fatigue, they scream like maniacs throughout.
Live at the Apollo ended up spending 66 weeks on the Billboard album chart and selling well over a million copies. James Brown had his first smash hit album, and importantly it was on his terms. The James Brown legend was born and it felt so damn good.