James Brown and the Famous Flames’ “Live at the Apollo”

Album cover for Live At The Apollo

I’ve been listening to James Brown’s live album “Live at the Apollo” from 1963, this week. The record captures an amazing performance of James Brown and the Famous Flames at the Apollo in Harlem the previous year. It’s a great collection of R&B, Soul, and the beginnings of Funk The Famous Flames provide the backing vocals. The band consisted of a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist, an organist, and seven horns. Among those horns, we can hear saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, who played with Brown until 1999 and had a couple of solo albums in the 80s.

The album opens with an aggrandizing track with organist Lucas “Fats” Gonder introducing James Brown, “So now ladies and gentlemen, it is star time… the hardest working man in show business.” Then Brown performs shuffling rhythm and blues track “I’ll Go Crazy” with a guitar line that rolls along like a locomotive. The song starts without any accompaniment as Brown sings with response from the audience: “You know I feel alright! (yeah) You know I feel alright, children (yeah) I feel alright!” He and the crowd just sound like they are having a great time and the interactions are real.

Try Me

Brown starts the soulful third track “Try Me” with just his voice singing the titular first line. We’ll immediate recognize the doo-wop chord progression of I-vi-IV-V, as well as the fairly typical doo-wop rhythm pattern. The Famous Flames sing ‘dooo… ooo’ underneath Brown’s lines and then answer back, repeating his lines “Try me.”

As with many of Brown’s songs the emphasis falls on the first beat, but that is less prominent here out of respect for the genre. The hi hat hits on every eighth note, with just a mild touch of swing; brushes hit the snare every second and fourth beat. The bass walks up and down, bringing the change from one chord to the next. The bass also supports the backing vocals, by matching their rhythm when singing.

Night Train

“All aboard the Night Train!” Brown opens their cover of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s 1951 tune “Night Train.” Though Forrest’s tune was really a reworking of an even older song “That’s The Blues, Old Man” by saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1940. Hodges was a member of Duke Ellington’s band, and the melody may have some roots there as well.

It’s a melody I know well; I grew up hearing the cover by Marvin Berry and the Starlights from the Back to the Future soundtrack. This version by James Brown has tremendous more energy, groove, and funk. The addition of vocals grants it even more excitement. They aren’t even necessary, but they make it personable and tie it together into the loose concept of losing and finding love that seems to run through the album.

The song follows a basic 12 bar blues chord progression, with a distinctive clean guitar riff. The bass drives along, a nonstop groove train. I love the choppy chords played on the organ through a Leslie speaker. It’s energetic and lively. This constant shuffling grooving energy clearly had influences on many, even post-punk rock bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I like that

Lost Someone

Brown keeps “Lost Someone” going for over ten minutes, frequently teasing the audience building suspense. He utilizes this technique throughout the album: leading up to something to create anticipation and then dropping into the next segment or song. In this case, what feels like an extremely extended bridge turns out to be a drawn out coda that ends suddenly with the next song.

In spite of, or because of, I’m not sure.. this was my favorite song on the album. No small feat considering for nearly 8 minutes, the band is playing pretty much the same two bars over and over. Sometimes, the horns will pull back a bit, or work an octave lower. A mid section of under 2 minutes has no horns, but then they return as if to say, “We’re not done with you yet.” Sometimes the bass will hold back, or the drums will pause. Then after Brown builds up intensity, like a preacher, the drums will hit the snare and cymbal. The audience will scream in reaction.

This is a strong example of what the Music Genome project calls Extensive Vamping. The band will play the same short phrase repeatedly while a lead instrument will riff, or solo, over top. In this case, James Brown’s voice plays the role of the lead instrument. He teases and excites the audience. Encourages them to scream along, “Don’t just go “aah”, go “ow!”

I got something I want tell everybody
And I got something I everybody to understand now
You know we all make mistakes sometimes
And all the ways we can correct our mistakes
We got to try one more time
So I got sing this song to you one more time
I want you to know I’m not singing this song for myself now
I’m not singing the song only for myself now
I’m sing it for you too
And if I say stuff that makes you feel good inside
When I say that little thing
I say that little part that might sting you in your heart now
I want to hear your scream
I want to hear say ow!

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