Today we explore an intense and historically significant album, “Live at the Apollo” by James Brown, recorded one night in late 1962 at the epicenter of black music in America, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. This album is the 65th rated album of all time by Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is also the 2nd rated soul album of all time by digitaldreamdoors.com.
This album is a frequent selection by my son, and I give him full credit for introducing me to this showcase. We often put it on for long drives like we have this weekend, and the miles always pass by quickly. The first appearance of the “Godfather of Soul” on my list, or as he is introduced in spectacular fashion at the beginning of this performance as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business”, “Mr Dynamite”, “Mr Please, Please Himself”, the energetic and intensity of this showman is captured forever here. This is one of the first dedicated “live” albums in its entirety, and to understand the experimental nature of this format at the time, this recording was funded by James himself, because his record label was not eager to release it as they saw it as redundant to material already available. While credited to James Brown, his backup singers the Famous Flames and his masterpiece band merit equal billing for this magic.
There is nothing quite like the experience of live music. Many of the best nights of my life have been spent at a show. Big venue or small club, with a large group of friends, one ideal companion, or even solo, you are never truly alone at a show. The energy of the performance, the common bond of musical movement, and the unforgettable lifelong connection you establish with the artist and those around you is a feeling I crave like few others, and miss terribly. My life is better when I’m at a show, and I bet your is as well.
There are many highlights on this album. It alternates between bombastic high-energy dance blasts and soulful, wounded ballads of the soul. As my son explained to me the first time we listened to this album, this is James Brown at his dynamic best, back when he could sing like few others and way before he became an Eddie Murphy parody. With the opener “I’ll Go Crazy”, “I Don’t Mind”, and even the crush of James’ amazing band performing instrumental lead-ins between songs, you are quickly transported back to the packed intensity of this scorching night. It is easy to envision the shared perspiration of the performers and the audience coming together as one. Most notably, this is an audience reacting to the sounds and feelings of the music, versus the wincing and piercing screams that detracted from almost every live performance from yesterday’s artist, the Beatles. This is pure musical passion, and the best advertisement possible for the next ticket you buy to any show.