James Brown – The Apollo Theatre Presents – In Person! The James Brown Show

The Apollo Theatre Presents - In Person! The James Brown Show

James BrownThe Apollo Theatre Presents – In Person! The James Brown Show King 826 (1963)

It is reasonable to say this is James Brown’s best album. His studio stuff, like Hell for example, is great but it’s only great music. With The Apollo Theatre Presents – In Person! The James Brown Show [a/k/a Live at the Apollo, 1962], James Brown materializes in front of your stereo. This is the James Brown experience, preserved in VIVID SOUND as the album jacket barks.

The announcer opens the show and the band plays James to the stage. The band holds back a moment as James shouts a cappella how right he feels. He launches into a powerful rendition of “I’ll Go Crazy.” His performance leaves no doubt: if she leaves him, he will go crazy. James immediately cuts to the pleadings of “Try Me.” He doesn’t work up to big numbers but jumps in head-first.

A live performance like this becomes a part of you. Screams from the crowd as “I Don’t Mind” starts are like a bus ticket home. The crux of the album is the ten-minute version of “Lost Someone.” He draws you into his personal audience (and charms the pants off any ladies present).

The show plays out before you. He collapses to his knees. Disciples rush to him with his signature king’s robe. As they lift him to his feet, he pulls away and rushes back to the mic. No one will stop James Brown from singing for you. He collapses again, only to rush back to cry out a few more lines. This album recreates that unique drama on every listen.

This is James Brown and the Famous Flames — the band that established James Brown as James Brown, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Please Please Please himself, Soul Brother #1. James Brown wasn’t the greatest soul singer ever.  He was simply the one and only Mr. Dynamite. Nothing captures or describes the man completely, but damn, this little album comes close.

Recorded on October 24, 1962, this was the heyday of soul revue shows. Soul artists had to work the circuit and a show at the Apollo Theater was where things mattered. It’s a short record. The sets had to be short and polished to fit in all the acts. Also on the bill that night in ’62 were The Valentinos (Bobby Womack & family), Solomon Burke, Freddie King, and more. Something special happened when James Brown took the stage. Even following some great acts, the Famous Flames rise to the occasion. This set was tight. Maybe it was destiny.

James had a few hit singles, but this was his first hit album. Many of his albums are excellent of course, but this is a special one among them. The Apollo Theatre Presents – In Person! The James Brown Show is one that helped define what live albums are about. This is star time.

This performance runs straight to the heart of American music. All pop music must be compared to James Brown. Not that everything has to sound like him, but you at least have to try to be this good, this pure, this captivating

James Brown – Hell


James BrownHell Polydor PD-2-9001 (1974)

Monster #1: “He’s too strong, we can’t stop him.”

Monster #2: “That’s because he’s the Godfather.”

Dialog between the cartoon monsters on the album jacket gets it down. Hell is James Brown at his super-baddest. He definitely sticks something funky to the man on this mother. From the early 60s to the mid-70s, James’ music got increasingly complex and distinct. His bread and butter used to be fairly straightforward R&B numbers, like “Try Me.” After “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” that all changed.

James knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve it.   His vision just happened to be completely unlike anything else in the world. Copycat funk groups—even really good ones—tend to wander through some beats and just fade out after a few minutes. This band is driven every second. Really, Hell couldn’t happen without some great supporting musician: Maceo Parker, Lyn Collins, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, David Sanborn, Jimmy Nolen, and Hearlon “Cheese” Martin are just a few.

The first half of the album (meaning disc one of the double-LP) features most of the hard funk (“Coldblooded,” “Hell,” “My Thang,” and “Sayin’ and Doin’ It”), while the middle, transition part moves into more ballads (“These Foolish Things Remind Me of You,” “A Man Has to Go Back to the Crossroads Before He Finds Himself,” and “Sometime”). It seems a bit odd to include a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” plus a Latin-tinged remake of “Please, Please, Please,” but that little bit of self-absorbed madness keeps the album within reach. James Brown was still a singer of songs after all. On Hell he manages to call attention to just that, reinforcing his very clear messages. He throws aside smart maneuvering to focus on stupid, moving torch songs. Then he closes with some mid-tempo soul, including one of his best, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.”

If for no other reason, this album is great because almost all the songs (10 out of 14!) start with the crash of a gong announcing James Brown’s entry—implying an entryway to the music. Only the Godfather. It can be difficult to put Hell in a proper context, but those gongs are constant reminders that Hell is about finding a new context.

The Tom Tom Club in their song “Genius of Love” spoke some remarkable wisdom: “who needs to think when your feet just go?”  James Brown made intelligent, innovative music, but our feet might be too busy to dwell on it.