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!

Love’s “Forever Changes”

Album cover for Love's "Forever Changes"

This week, I’ve been listening to Love’s masterpiece LP “Forever Changes” from 1967. I first became aware of this band, and this album, through the Wes Anderson’sBottle Rocket” in 1997. Once I’d heard “Alone Again Or” in that movie, I had to find out more about the song and who did it. Within a few months, I purchased a copy of this album on CD. The whole thing blew me away. This is one of the most amazing musical works I’d ever heard. Each song brilliantly combines musical flavors into a unified whole. There’s elements of psychedelic rock, folk rock, latin rock, and baroque pop.

This was the same year as the “Sgt. Pepper“, “Piper at the Gate of Dawn“, “Surrealistic Pillow“, “Are You Experienced“, “Satanic Majesties“,”Incense and Peppermints.” Rock bands were exploring new sounds, ways of writing lyrics and music, as well as performance and visuals. Much of this music definitely sounds of its time and “Forever Changes” is no exception. However, there’s something about “Forever Changes” the feels more independent of time and location. I think it could be the unique combination of genres as well as the presence of air between the instruments and notes.

Love play the traditional rock instruments: drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. They richly enhanced this core band with a group of session musicians on strings, piano, trumpet, trombones, and additional horns, bass, and drums.

The album has some frightful lyrics, in contrast to the summer of love. One of my favorite tracks “A House Is Not a Motel” begins by offering a heavenly home to take refuge; By the third and final verse, the song paints a world overrun by war.

By the time that I’m through singing
The bells from the schools and walls will be ringing
More confusions, blood transfusions.
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow.
And the water’s turned to blood, and if
You don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray
And you can call my name.

The verses of this minor key song follows a progression of i-III-ii-VI twice, followed by ii-VI-ii-VII-ii-VII-i-i. That’s four lines of melody, followed by two, and then a rest. The first pair line two lines start with the tonic chord, establishing the key. It’s an unusual progression to go from III-ii-VI, resulting in a fragile chord progression. This progression contains no IV or V. The second part of the verse almost feels like a key change shifting up on step to ii, but we are still in the same key. Again, there’s no IV of V, and we actually stay raised away from the tonic until the end, which gives this section a continuing sense of suspense. The vocals enhance this feeling with longer pauses between each line.

Something that I really love about this track is the unusually loud guitar solo. Normally, I would feel like this was a bad decision, but it works so perfectly in this track. After the third verse, two electric guitars play a menacing lead riff in unison. They spread across the stereo field with one hard left and the other hard right. To my ear, You could achieve this guitar sound with a treble boost (or open wah) played through either fuzz or overdrive. I’m leaning towards fuzz. After playing this line six times with little variation, the two guitars break off into wildly different solos.

“The Red Telephone” provides a great example of that openness I mentioned earlier. There’s lots of empty space in this track; in time, there’s space between the vocals lines. There’s space between the instruments on the frequency band. There’s also great space between sounds on the stereo field. They panned Things hard left and hard right. To increase this space, we sometimes hear the room reverb on the right for something on the left. I like the way this ties the ears together, making the hard panning feel more natural.

As with many songs of the late 60s, the song opens with an acoustic guitar panned hard right. After an opening riff, the drums and bass join in the left channel. In this case, the vocals begin the first verse at the same time in the center change. This song also delivers lyrics non-stereotypical of the hippy-dippy summer of love, “Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die.” The words are a general indictment of war, violence, race relations, and police state. Each verse ends with an eerie harpsichord line that suggests dark forebodings.

The end of lines sometimes go into a IV-IV♯7 which gives them an eerie sense of foreboding. Musicians frequently add the seventh to a chord for suspense, depending on the genre. The seventh can also draw a chord towards a more jazzy feel, as jazz makes great use of sevenths, sixths, and ninths. Borrowed chords, like the sharpened seventh, don’t get used too often in rock music. When they do, they provide either an a rise or drop in emotion. Using a sharpened chord right after playing the chord gives a sense of movement, adding the seventh makes it uncomfortable. That happens here. Arthur Lee and Love play up the haunting atmosphere with these unusual chord progressions.

The track ends with a prolonged arpeggio on the vi and VI. They rise from the minor vi to the major VI at the end of each phrase, suggesting we’re going to move on to another chord. However, the progression returns right back to the minor vi. There’s not resolution here, supporting the feeling of the chanted vocals:

They’re locking them up today
They’re throwing away the key
I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?