Review Summary: Though it may put off people expecting the more upbeat funk that made him famous, Brown’s soulful ballads and earnest energy make this a live album for the ages.
I remember picking this up a few years back in 2004. Rolling Stone ranked it the 24th greatest album of all time. This was of course back in the day before I had read Rolling Stone enough to despise it, so I knew I had to get this right away. Oh, how I wish I could have seen the look on my face when I read the track listing. Where were all the hits? “Sex Machine,” “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “Say It Loud?” And what were these songs? “Lost Someone?” “Night Train?” It must have been two years until I actually listened to the damn thing. Lo and behold, it deserves every ounce of praise it has gotten over the years.
Following a string of flopped singles, James Brown found himself in that strange yet not uncommon position of being a popular live draw who could put butts in seats but not shift units. Putting two and two together, Brown suggested a live album, an idea promptly rejected by his label. However, Brown persevered, and finally got his wish: a live album taken from a night at the famed Apollo Theater. It was a make or break venture, which might explain the energy of the recording had anyone else made the album. For James Brown though, it was just any other night.
The show opens with an elaborate introduction that would become a staple of Brown’s live shows. Here, it’s fairly simple compared to the later, lavish intros that welcomed him. Fats Gonder asks an already pumped crowd if they’re ready for Star Time, and is met with frenzied screams. James starts things off a cappella with the first lines of “I’ll Go Crazy” before his backing band comes in with a shuffling beat. It’s mid-tempo R&B at its finest, and effortlessly melts into the ballad “Try Me.” Sounding like a slow dance at the prom, this slow, soulful ditty, though great, has you wondering when James is gonna bring the heat. Well, as soon as that thought hits, the band revs up and launches into “Think.” Hot damn! Finally, some James Brown you can dance to.
Following those two minutes of funky horn blasts and shuffling rhythms, James brings it back down for “I Don’t Mind,” another sorrowful ballad featuring almost begging vocals from James. Its beauty is only overshadowed by the monster on the horizon, “Lost Someone.” Clocking in at barely under 11 minutes, this slow-moving epic showcases Brown at his crowd-working best; he teases the audience, building and shrinking his voice and the band until some people just can’t take it anymore (one even calls Brown an “***hole”). You can almost hear the sweat pouring off of Brown as he pleads with the audience. This showstopper would be impossible to top for anyone else, but James Brown is a master. He runs through a medley of 8 songs (one of which, “Please, Please, Please,” is repeated) in just over 6 minutes. The most remarkable thing about the medley is that it sounds like one song; medleys are usually disjointed snippets of hits and covers, but James and his backing band find the links between them and make the whole thing flow magnificently. To close the show, James brings the tempo back up for his early hit “Night Train.” If anyone in the audience wasn’t already on their feet, this sure as hell got ‘em up and dancing. It’s the perfect release after so many lovelorn tunes, and it points the way for Brown’s future, more funky shows.
People expecting a jumping, funky show with flash and upbeat dancing will almost certainly be disappointed. This is James at his most soulful and pleading, yet even these mid-tempo ballads contain more energy than most rock bands bring to their anthems. While James Brown in no way invented soul, this serves as the perfect place to see where gospel first evolved into soul music; James sings with all the frenzied sorrow of a true gospel singer, but brings with him such unbridled sexuality that, even at his most self-pitying, makes him irresistible (listen to the constant shrieks of the ladies in the audience for proof). While Live at the Apollo
was not the first successful live album, it was the first to move beyond being merely a greatest hits collection backed by applause and it single-handedly set the criteria for a great live document: capturing the feel and energy of a show, showing off genius pacing (every song, no matter how different in style, flows together perfectly), and even serving as a breakthrough for all those artists who can’t channel their live sound into the studio. It kept James Brown in business long enough for him to finally start cranking out hit singles and it remains a milestone of soul music that manages not only to provide some of the finest the genre has to offer but to point the way towards the future marriage of the more ballad-based soul with the upbeat funk of the late 60s. It may not click at first, but Live at the Apollo
is one of a precious few albums to retain all its historical significance as well as, most importantly, its enjoyment factor no matter how many years go by.