Posted on 16 March 2013.
Posted on 11 May 2012.
Posted on 11 May 2012.
Before Pappa’s Got A Brand New Bag, It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World and Sex Machine, James Brown wasn’t quite the megastar we remember.
But that all changed 50 years ago this fall. That’s when James Brown recorded a show at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre which later became a seminal live album.
To mark that anniversary, a deluxe box set of Apollo recordings is on the way.
PAUL SMITH: A group of teenagers is getting a tour backstage at the Apollo Theatre. Billy Mitchell, the Apollo’s historian, is their guide. He points to a wall covered with performers’ autographs.
BILLY MITCHELL: We’ve got Snoop Dog, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Will. I. Am from the Black Eyed Peas….
PS: Mitchell says one autograph is missing. He was a teenager when he first came here. In the 60s, he’d mooch outside the stage door on 126th Street after school. One day one of the stars appearing at the theater gave him a $25 tip for fetching some fried chicken – a lot of money in those days. The man who gave him that money was James Brown.
Six years after his death, Brown still draws crowds to Harlem, Mitchell says.
Billy Mitchell: I get people that come here from tours all over the world who say they have that album.
P.S: That album is Live At The Apollo, recorded on this stage on October 24th 1962 and released a year later.
MUSIC: Fats Gonder Intro.
“Mr Dynamite, the amazing Mr Please Please himself, the star of the show, James Brown and The Famous Flames”
P.S: But MC Fats Gonder’s introduction and the rest of the show nearly didn’t get recorded. Douglas Wolk is the author of Live At The Apollo, an in-depth examination of the concert and album. He describes the album as a tug of war between a stubborn young artist and the equally stubborn boss of his record label.
Douglas Wolk: He went to Syd Nathan, the guy who ran King Records – his label – and said, really the heart of what I do is the live show, I want to make a live recording, will you fund this? And Syd Nathan said No absolutely not.
P.S: Nathan wondered why anyone would buy an album of songs they already owned as singles. Singles made artists famous…not albums.
But Brown was determined. He offered up $5,700 from his own pocket to produce the live record and prove Nathan wrong. That’s just over $40,000 in today’s money,
As the crowd lined up outside the Theatre, New York was under nuclear threat. The Cuban Missile Crisis was on.
But inside the Apollo, there was a different kind of tension.
MUSIC: JAMES BROWN I’LL GO CRAZY
Y’know I feel alright. Y’know I feel alright children. I feel alright.
P.S: With the tape reels turning, Brown bolted on stage, accompanied by an orchestra, dancers and a trio of sharp suited male backing singers… the Famous Flames.
Music Up for first chorus: “If you leave me, I’ll go crazy. I love you too much.”
P.S: Bobby Bennett is the last surviving Flame. He now lives in the suburbs of Washington, DC. He’s proud of the recording and says it’s all the more impressive given the band’s grueling schedule.
BOBBY BENNETT: We did five or six shows a day. We would do a midnight show and we would have as many people out there at midnight trying to get into our show as we would at 10 o’clock in the morning.
P.S: That’s how Brown earned the epithet the hardest working man in showbiz. He was a formidable band leader, something Bennett experienced when he forgot to do his laundry.
BB: Well if we wouldn’t be clean like we’d supposed to be, we’d get a fine. If your pants wasn’t pressed right, if your jacket was wrinkled.
MUSIC – please please please
P.S. As the show went on, Brown screamed, sweated and slid across the stage on his knees. Author Douglas Wolk says Brown topped off the spectacle with a signature move.
DW: He would fake a heart attack and collapse and clutch his chest. His valet or someone would come over, put a cape on him and lead him off stage. Then he’d throw the cape off, rush back to the center of stage, sing another chorus and then collapse again and repeat the whole procedure a couple of times.
P.S: Brow’s antics sent the crowd berserk. You can hear it on the original 1963 vinyl. Or so it seems. Harry Weinger [Wine-grrr] is the vice president of A&R for Universal Music Enterprises. He holds the key to the master recordings. When he found the reels in a vault two decades ago, he noticed something strange. He could see where the tape had been cut and new crowd noise inserted.
HARRY WEINGER: If you go back to the original record, the very loud screams are not from the Apollo. They are white teenagers from a roller rink.
P.S: This was label boss Syd Nathan’s doing. He thought the record wasn’t thrilling enough. So he sent an engineer with a microphone to a Friday night social in Cincinnati. Then he edited the resulting screams into Brown’s record. They were removed from later pressings. But even after this studio trickery, Nathan still seemed unconvinced. Weinger dug up the record’s initial pressing order.
HW: Because album sales were low. Because James Brown was not someone who sold albums. Syd Nathan put in a purchase order for 5000 copies.
P.S: But Nathan was soon buying more because everyone was buying Live At The Apollo.
MUSIC: Night Train
P.S: The record spent 14 months in the pop charts – pretty rare for an r&b album back then. It rose to #2, but couldn’t quite knock crooner Andy Williams off the top of the charts. Weinger says it became something of a party favorite for white audiences.
HW: It happens in every generation. There’s some record that distills the African American experience for a white audience and the white audience grabs it and runs with it.
P.S: Apollo Theatre Historian Billy Mitchell saw James Brown return to the venue again and again. He says the singer noticed little change.
BM: He would go up to the dressing rooms and reminisce and say these dressing rooms still looking raggedy, huh.
MUSIC: Night Train outro
P.S: Brown recorded at the Apollo again too. Weinger says when the Live At The Apollo boxset comes out, it’ll include a previously unreleased recording from 1972, as well as three other shows from over the years.
Posted on 20 April 2012.
Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood is a stately enclave of 19th and 18th century houses. In the 1920’s they were the epicenter of the Harlem renaissance, but by the 70’s, the area had deteriorated. Much of Harlem has been gentrifying since then. Sarah Laing tells us about the growing interest in reviving what locals call Sugar Hill’s “sweet times.”
The Sugar Hill Inn is a Harlem Renaissance themed bed and breakfast at 141 and Amsterdam.
It’s owned by Irish transplant Jeremy Archer, who’s been restoring this century old mansion for seven years.
jangling keys, door open…
Like all the houses on this block, it was built to impress.The front door has scrolling wrought iron, and sits between dignified pillars. There’s a mosaic of a star of David in the foyer floor…an ornate fireplace, and wood panelled walls.
Archer says the house was a wreck when he bought it. But he adds the tourists who stay with him now are less nervous than they used to be.
For this he credits another neighbor – a former president.
When Clinton took his office there on 125th, that made a big difference. A lot of white people thought oh, maybe it’s okay to come to Harlem.
This was the hope of white speculators who bought land here in the early twentieth century,thinking the new subway would bring comfortable Jewish families uptown.
A stock market crash in 1907 changed that. The white buyers never materialized – and the development was suddenly within reach of well to do African Americans.
In 1944, author Langston Hughes wrote of Sugar Hill:
“Don’t take it for granted that all Harlem is a slum -
there are big apartment buildings on the hill…
nice high rent houses with elevators and doormen”.
Three years earlier, Sugar Hill got a name drop in Billy Strayhorn’s tune “Take the A Train”…
(fade up song, fade under)
Duke Ellington’s instrumental version made this song a classic, but the little known lyrics tell listeners to “go to Sugar Hill, way up in Harlem”.
At the top of that hill is the Morris Jumel mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan. Ellington called it the “jewel of Sugar Hill”.
(x-fade music to outside noise)
Rich Foster works at the Jumel mansion.
In the front garden he points at a grey stone house across the street. It belonged to singer Paul Robeson.
Foster says Robeson bought that house to overlook the mansion, where his freed slave ancestor was a baker for George Washington’s troops.
Before that, Robeson lived at 555 Edgecomb Avenue…
…also known as the triple nickel, which is famed for so many of the members of the Harlem Renaissance period
The list of famous residents includes band leader Count Basie, actress Lena Horn, director Canada Lee, the first female heart surgeon, and … Duke Ellington.
Author Theresa Mulligan’s family weren’t celebrities, but she did grow up two blocks down, at 369 Edgecombe.
Mulligan’s new memoir called Sugar Hill: Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem.
It’s a love letter to the neighborhood where she grew up in the 40’s and 50’s.
She says she’s wanted to write this book for almost forty years – ever since she left Harlem as a new bride to settle in Missouri …and met her incredulous new neighbors.
They said I was too nice, I didn’t act like I came from Harlem…this is me, I’m Harlem, and Harlem is as much a character in my life as the people who raised me, and it’s so misunderstood.
Mulligan knew the Harlem her neighbors were thinking about - a violent place cut down by poverty and racial strife. She says many of her contemporaries did get caught up in drugs later.
But she says Sugar Hill used to have a different atmosphere - even in the way people dressed up to sit in the park after dinner.
There was a certain decorum. Nobody would sit on a fire escape, or even look out the window – my grandmother was an exception, but she kept inside the window because she was watching me. The women didn’t sit on the bench – a woman on Sugar Hill did not hang out.
Sugar Hill did feel pressure from the world outside.When Mulligan was in tenth grade, a girl named Minnijean Brown arrived quietly at her progressive private school.
Brown was one of the Little Rock Nine - black students who’d unsuccessfully tried to attend a white high school in the segregated South.
Mulligan was stunned.
I thought we were rich. Our elders shielded us a lot from what had happened in their life. I knew from television what was happening in the South, I could drive through Harlem on the bus and see how lucky we were, and see how quote unquote rich we were.
The tour buses that visit Sugar Hill today would have been unthinkable when Mulligan was a child.
But then, it didn’t seem possible that Harlem would be as diverse as it is now. She thinks that has the potential to make Sugar Hill rich in a whole new way.
Sarah Laing, Columbia Radio News.
Posted on 23 March 2012.
BY SARAH LAING
Host: As of today, the 100th Street bus depot in Harlem has a new name. Sarah Laing was at ceremony dedicating the transit hub in honour of the ‘Tuskeegee Airmen’, the first African American military air division.
Laing: The Tuskeegee airmen were legendary fighter pilots. They’ve been hailed as civil rights warriors. So it’s not obvious why the New York Transit Authority re-christen a bus depot with their name. The explanation for this incongruous matching lies in the story of men like Conrad DeSandies. His son, Andre, is here for the unveiling of a plaque that bears his father’s name…almost by accident.
DeSandies: He was originally from Trinidad, and when he came to New York, he lived in Harlem, and he got drafted almost immediately.
Laing: Conrad DeSandies found himself at an air force base in Alabama, part of the Tuskeegee Airmen. In the second world war, the official line was that African Americans could not serve as pilots in a segregated army. The black flying unit was created after some pressure by civil rights group as an ‘experiment’. That experiment produced one of the most successful fighter squadrons of the war. But when members of the unit returned home, it was as if they had never served at all – no matter how skilled they were as mechanics or technicians.
De Sandies: They couldn’t get jobs in the air industry… you know, Jim Crowe was alive and well.
Laing: One of the few places that would hire them was the then-private New York Transit authority. DeSandies settled down to life as a mechanic for the MTA buses, after he spent the war fixing P-40 Mustang fighters. Andre DeSandies wasn’t even aware of his father’s distinguished service record until very recently.
De Sandies: What’s interesting is that I found out he was a Tuskeegee airman, a very famous one, and I talked to the other Tuskeegee airmen’s families, and they said we didn’t know. And I said how come you didn’t know, and they said we just didn’t talk about it, we keep a low profile. We just did our job. So they just accomplished it, did their time, walked proud, as they still do, and they didn’t talk too much about it.
Laing: At today’s dedication one of the 12 Tuskeegee airmen who worked for the MTA, one of the Tuskeegee Airmen did speak. Reginald Brewster worked as a clerk for the transit agency while going to law school.
Brewster: I am immensely proud and happy to be here today. At 94 years old, I’m the oldest guy in the room. And I am a living testimony that the colour of your skin does not determine your mental capacity or your character.
Laing: Brewster is one of only two of the Tuskeegee Airmen who worked at the MTA left alive. Over 130 buses will leave the Tuskeegee Airmen bus depot each day – each bearing a decal of a Red Tailed plane, the enduring legacy of these pioneering fliers.
Posted on 17 February 2012.
Since Whitney Houston’s death last Saturday, fans around the world have mourned the star many call the “Queen of Pop.” In New York City, fans have been gathering in front the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where they’re building an impromptu memorial.