James Brown

Live At The Apollo, 1962
Star Time

Live At The Apollo, 1962 (King ’63, Polydor ’90) Rating: A
For years I foolishly resisted, calling this “the most overrated live album ever” instead of “the greatest live album ever,” a claim that I’ve often read about this album. And while that might be a slight overstatement given the stiff competition, the amazing energy and conviction exhibited by the man introduced as “the hardest working man in show business” and “Mr. Dynamite” has worn me down and won me over over time. The incredibly tight backing band (kudos in particular for bass player Hubert Perry) and an unbelievably pumped up crowd certainly don’t hurt matters, helping make Live At the Apollo, 1962 a unique, one-of-a-kind live experience. The songs themselves are likely not what a first timer would expect, being far more conventional and less funky than the endlessly sampled later work that would make Brown a God to many a hip-hop artist. No, this is the “Godfather of Soul” in all his sweaty glory putting in a dynamic and surprisingly sexy vocal performance on old school ballads. Elements of doo-wop also appear on soulful standouts such as “Try Me” and “I Don’t Mind,” while the band really swings on catchy up-tempo tracks like "I'll Go Crazy" and "Think," as well as on several brief song introductions. However, the real showstoppers here are the overly long but still amazing 10+ minute “Lost Someone” (just try to get his “I love you tomorrow” line and squealing “ow's” out of your head) and the 6+ minute medley that's bookended by “Please Please Please” and is highlighted by the slowly smoldering “I Love You, Yes I Do.” “Night Train” is anticlimactic by comparison, abruptly ending an album that's a disappointingly scant 31 minutes long. However, even when singing unspectacular material James Brown, the Famous Flames (his backing vocal group), and the James Brown Band were a one-of-a-kind, spectacular live spectacle. In fact, this may very well be the best live performance ever captured on record - by both James and the Apollo crowd, and the album as a whole largely lives up to its lofty press clippings. Note: Financed by Brown himself against his record company’s wishes, Live At The Apollo, 1962 went all the way to #1, a groundbreaking achievement that showed the viability of releasing live performances on record.

Star Time (Polydor ’91) Rating: A+
Simply put, this may be the greatest box set of all time, especially if you exclude various artist collections (i.e. Nuggets, Complete Stax-Volt Singles, Hitsville U.S.A., etc.). This is because these 4 chronologically sequenced cds are actually enjoyable to listen to as individual albums. Not only does the chronological sequencing allow you to watch James Brown progress as an artist over the years, but this box set does so without any of the song overlap within single cds or "for fanatics only" curiosities that bog down most box sets.

The first cd, subtitled Mr. Dynamite, sees James just starting out. Packing 24 tracks onto this cd, all of the songs are concise. Even then James' genius was to emphasize groove over melody, stripping each song to its bare basics with tight rhythms and accentuating his voice, which oozes sweat and sincerity. If there's any aspect of Brown that is often overlooked it's what a great singer he was, and this is really apparent on this disc, which features the studio versions of all the highlights of his 1962 live album and then some. This includes doo woppy ballads ("Please Please Please," “Try Me,” “I Don’t Mind,” the latter being the live version) that reveal a rarely acknowledged vulnerability, upbeat rock n' roll ("Good Good Lovin'," "(Do The Mashed Potatoes, Pt. 1)" that Brown somehow makes work (see the song title to the latter as to why I was skeptical), catchy horn-heavy efforts ("Think," "Night Train"), jazzy ("Devil's Den") or moody ("Grits") songs that show Brown to be more versatile than he's generally given credit for, and of course, catchy harmonies ("Maybe The Last Time"), dramatic soul ballads ("It's A Man's World"), and the beginnings of what would come to be called funk ("I Got You," "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, Pts. 1, 2 & 3"), which Brown would begin to invent in earnest with the tracks that comprise disc 2.

Subtitled The Hardest Working Man In Show Business, disc 2 begins with different versions of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, Pt. 1" (which features arguably the most unforgettable sax riff ever) and "I Got You" (arguably Brown's signature song, whose vocals became a prototype for many future Brown performances and for black music in general), the only songs that appear twice on this box set. Yet I can't complain this time, because at least the versions are different, and these songs belong more on this cd than the first one, anyway, where they also belonged as perfect lead-ins to the second cd. Anyway, this cd contains only 17 songs, as Brown starts to extend the grooves and strip down the (still catchy, as the horns supply the hooks) melodies further, all while writing socially conscious lyrics that sought to, and succeeded in, boosting black pride (i.e. "Say It Loud-I'm Black And I'm Proud Pt. 1"). Catchy backing vocals also mark tracks such as "Don't Be A Dropout" and "Bring It Up (Hipster's Avenue)," while "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" is a dramatically orchestrated soul ballad that sort of reprises (but improves upon) the first disc's "It's A Man's World." Other highlights on disc 2 include the slower "Cold Sweat" as well as "There Was A Time (Live)" and "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door I'll Get It Myself"), whose great grooves showed off Brown's great band (ever the taskmaster, Brown saw to it that they were tight as a drum - or else).

Unsurprisingly, his band therefore experienced significant turnover ('60s standouts included saxophonists Maceo Parker, St. Clair Pinckney, and Pee Wee Ellis; guitarist Jimmy Nolen; backup singer Bobby Byrd; and drummer Clyde Stubblefield), but Brown rebounded by recruiting young bass player Bootsy Collins (who would go on to P-Funk and solo success) and his brother guitarist "Catfish" (who perfected the "chicken scratch" guitar that was later slavishly imitated), both of whom appear on the bulk of the tracks that comprise disc 3 (some earlier members eventually returned as well, as Brown's backing band, now called the JB's - who simultaneously had a successful career on their own - became a hotbed for impressive talent). Anyway, giving props to some of the people who made Brown's career so epochal aside, the grooves get even longer on disc 3 (subtitled Soul Brother No. 1), which contains a mere 14 songs. "Mother Popcorn" sees Brown turning up the bass as James adds lots of grunts and "yeah yeahs," and damn it, I swear my walkman started walking while playing this tune! The aptly titled "Funky Drummer" is better still; even with its atmospheric organ and sax solo, this song is all about its groove, led (of course) by its funky drumming, which was endlessly sampled by future hip-hop artists. Beating the likes of future sex God's Marvin Gaye and Al Green to the bedroom, the impossibly funky "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" may be Brown's greatest moment, and Brown and his band are super bad (as in good) on "Super Bad, Pts. 1 & 2" as well. Even when Brown recycles himself ("Get Up, Get Into It And Get Involved") the results are still great, and a song such as "I Got Ants In My Pants, Pt. 1" is as funny today as the day it was cut. Sure, this disc doesn't deliver much in the way of variety, as the band basically grooves and jams while James does his thing, but who cares when the grooves are so consistently great? Besides, there is one song here that is atypical, as "King Heroin" ends the disc with a strikingly sober anti-drug statement.

The quality continues on disc 4, subtitled The Godfather Of Soul, though this is probably the weakest of the 4 cds. Still, it has its fair share of highlights, my favorite being "Public Enemy #1. Pt. 1" (damn, James had a lot of Parts in his song titles!), a startlingly gritty ghetto blues rap. Elsewhere, we mostly get more of the same, but it's in the details that James again distinguishes himself: the first rate rhythm guitar of "Get On The Good Foot," the incredible energy of "I Got A Bag Of My Own," the totally butt-kickin' trumpet solo of "Doing It To Death," the slower, gritty funk groove of "The Payback," the smoky ambiance of the still funky "Papa Don't Take No Mess, Pt. 1," the spare, spindly guitar lines of "Stoned To The Bone, Pt. 1," (guess James changed his mind about drugs), the can't-get-it-out-of-my-head catchphrases in "My Thang," and so on. Even the President is funky in James Brown's world ("Funky President (People It's Bad)"), and "Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved)" has been sampled so often it's damn near ridiculous (trust me, you'll be able to pick out one or two prominent examples almost immediately). I'd lament how ridiculously repetitive "Get Up Offa That Thing (Release The Pressure)" is if it wasn't so hilarious, and when James complains that "It's Too Funky In Here" I'm tempted to shout "you're damn right, Brother James!". Sorry, getting carried away here, but even the weakest of Star Time's 4 cds is awfully good, and the final song, a collaboration with Afrika Bambaatta ("Unity. Pt 1"), is a fine time to end things, as Bambaatta and others would use the songs contained on these 4-cds as the template for an entire new genre called hip-hop.

So what we have here are 4 exemplary cds from a man who basically invented two entire musical genres. Yes, he's had more than his share of personal problems, making him an easy target to make fun of in recent years (the most obvious example being Eddie Murphy's hilariously spot-on imitations). However, back in the day James Brown had dance moves that would make even Michael Jackson blush, and above all else these 4 cds are an awful lot of fun, as any one of these cds are guaranteed to get your booty shaking while keeping your mood upbeat. Of course, those of you who are budget conscious may want to consider 20 All-Time Greatest Hits, which condenses Star Time onto a single cd, instead. However, due to time limitations some of this box set's longer grooves are sacrificed, so you may as well splurge for this one, right? Seriously, Star Time is worth every cent (it also includes an informative 64-page booklet), as it is provides the definitive portrait of arguably the definitive soul/funk/rap performer of the 20th century.

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