About 2 weeks after I arrived in this world, James Brown and his Famous Flames took to the stage at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater delivering a performance that 54 years later is still being heard and talked about.
When I grew up, the “Godfather of Soul” was always bigger than life. You’d see him gyrating, sliding, dropping to his knees on TV as he performed on the talk, music and variety shows of the day — like Mike Douglas, The Tonight Show, Soul Train and Ed Sullivan. Years later, it was fun to see him show up in movies like the Blues Brothers and Rocky. And who can forget when Eddie Murphy donned that hair in the classic SNL rub-a-dub in the hot tub sketch. All of these images are all so clear in my head, JB is such an iconic character of this time for me.
So what about the album? Isn’t that what we are here to discuss?
11 tracks, 1 an intro, 2 or 3 short wailing instrumental bridges from the band and the rest is a total take over by Mr. Brown. Just when it seems to get going, 30+ mins. pass and you are out. Love it. I feel good (couldn’t resist).
Fats Gonder get things rolling from the stage when you hear him proclaim it’s “Star Time”! It is at that precise moment you are transported to 1962 and you can feel the temperature in the room rise right through your speakers . You know his loyalists are not there to just listen to music, they are there for an experience. This is a show. It is this unabashed audience that drives the record. True theater of the mind. Every time they cry out you know something is happening and James is masterfully presiding over the revival and their every emotion. Play the medley track “Please, Please, Please / You Got the Power / I Found Someone” and you’ll know what I am talking about.
On Live From the Apollo, his Sunday morning gospel voice is young with much cleaner warmer tones than I remembered. The horns are magically sharp, frantic and smooth all at the same time. The guitar grooves are funky and easy. And calling the background vocalists “background” is simply unjust. Let’s face it, The Flames are famous because they should be.
For me, it’s easy to hear the incredible technique of all the players as their instruments converge together into a precise weapon of funk; it’s sure to make you want to get up and move your feet. The rim shots on Clayton Fillyau’s drum kit, the stabs of the horns and Hubert Perry’s tasteful walking baselines all astound. These techniques unfold in the 10 minute song “Lost Someone”, which leaves both audience and listener gasping for more. Here you find the impact of Brown on performers from Bruce Springsteen to Michael Jackson, and you can even hear his influence in the harmonies and guitars of the Beach Boys.
This album was great to listen to and inspires me put more of myself out there as a performer; to try to be even more energetic and engaging for the audience. As a person who didn’t listen to much James Brown before, this was an incredible first impression.
Live at the Apollo is #25 on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list
Spotlight on James Brown now
He’s the king of them all yeah
He’s the king of them all y’all
Oh yeah oh yeah