Live At the Apollo – James Brown (1963)

Live at the Apollo album cover
Live at the Apollo album cover

One of the oldest records in my collection was one given to me (well sorta), a tatered up and well-worn copy of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo. As a child I could never appreciate this albums impact on a segregated black culture. It would not be until later in life that I would really get into this thrill ride of an album.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances that led to my inheriting Live at the Apollo, but I suspect it had something to do with a conversion to Christianity that prompted my parents to perform a wholesale purging of “sinful” records. I recovered it from the trash, but somehow was allowed to keep it. My parents and many of their friends during the early to mid ’70s were throwing out their rock n roll albums in keeping with the fundamentalist virtues of the church they belonged to (Burning Bush Holiness Church in Stoneville NC).

It was ironic that Live At The Apollo would bet the boot in favor of Shirly Ceaser and James Cleveland because to me it sounded like the very church music they were clinging to. The only difference being that Live At the Apollo and what it represents was not Jesus-centric.

Like much of the musical fabric of the so-called ‘chitin circuit’, there was plenty of call and response style grunts from James Brown with all the power and emotion of black southern gospel music. Even if you could not understand what it was he was saying, there was no mistaking the energy he generated. As the most dynamic performer of his generation, Brown was able to translate the power of his live performance to a record making it a overnight sensation.

Live At the Apollo was important for many reasons. One of them was because it went against the grain in black music at the time, being that it was a live album. Another was that it was a window into an era that I had only read about or heard my parents speak cautiously of. That kind of cautious talk about race matters would be something Brown would championed against, proudly.

Brown financed the production of Live at the Apollo against the wishes of his record label. It was recorded in one take from a real performance. Live at the Apollo captured the energy of Brown’s amazing stage shows along with his tight band the The Famous Flames. Many of his band members were accomplished jazz musicians, but with Brown, they were on the cutting edge of hyper jazz, R&B and blues fusion that would eventually would create funk.

Live at the Apollo was enormously popular when it was released in 1963. It was like the Thriller of the first half of the ’60s as nearly every black household, and eventually white one would have a copy. The universal acceptance of such distinctly black music would start the groundwork for today’s almost color free music charts. As a historical reference, the albums epic medley (containing 6 songs) was a reenactment of the popular chitin circuit review Brown and his band would perform in black (or colored only) establishments in the South.

The rawness of an unlearned, but emencely talented and focused performer came through on sappy ballads like “Please Please” and “Try Me”, both with their own on stage drama. It would be the raw energy of songs like “Think” that made Brown a touring sensation. To me Brown’s songs during this period were simple, but not as repetitive as they would become by the late ’60s. He essentially would take many of the old style conventions of this era well into the ’80s and beyond.

For me, I would learn to appreciate Live At the Apollo first because it sounded like church music on steroids, and secondly because it’s sound was a precursor to funk that I would come to expect from James Brown.

After finally making it to CD around 1990, it would get the remastering treatment a decade later. In addition to sounding better thanks to finally finding the master tapes,a few new tracks were added. These were promotional and demo versions mostly of the most recognizable songs.

Live at the Apollo is not by any measure my favorite James Brown album. Sometimes when I listen to it makes me sad (not just knowing that sometimes the band did not get paid), but that it’s a constant reminder of the good things that can come from unfortunate circumstances.

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