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.