When a crisis begat a classic


October 7, 2001



The date: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 1962. ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'' had just opened on Broadway, Alfred Hitchcock's ''Rear Window'' and Stanley Kubrick's ''Lolita'' were showing in the movie houses, and the biggest musical performance in Manhattan that evening was Harry Belafonte at the Americana Hotel.

Oh, and there was also the very real threat of nuclear annihilation at any moment.

Two nights earlier, President Kennedy had gone on television to announce the presence of Soviet-made nuclear missiles in Cuba within five minutes' striking range of most of the continental United States. Oct. 24 was the climactic midpoint of a drama that the president's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, would chronicle in his book, Thirteen Days , and which the world would come to call the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Shadowed by a nuclear submarine, Soviet freighters steamed toward the ''quarantine zone'' that the Navy had established around the island nation. They got to within several hundred yards of U.S. ships--forcing the President to weigh an attack--when they suddenly turned around. (The myth would be perpetuated that American might had saved the day--''We are eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,'' Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously declared--though in fact it was the Kennedys' cool thinking, a firm resolve to work for peace and a quiet back-door deal with the Russians, as dramatized last year in the Kevin Costner film 'Thirteen Days.'')

In the midst of all this tension, a 29-year-old performer who was still widely unknown outside the African-American community took to the stage during the notoriously rowdy amateur night at the 1,500-seat Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem to make a live recording that his label, King Records, had tried to discourage. The artist wanted to duplicate the success of Ray Charles' 1959 effort, ''In Person,'' but James Brown was no Ray Charles, according to King's skeptical label head, Syd Nathan.

Undeterred, Brown booked the gig and produced the recording himself. When it was finally released the following spring, ''James Brown: Live at the Apollo'' would spend 66 weeks on Billboard's pop albums chart, peaking at No. 2 (just behind Andy Williams' ''Days of Wine and Roses''), and going down in history as one of the best live albums ever made--an album that was so much of a piece that for years, many DJs simply played it all the way through rather than selecting one track.

''So now, ladies and gentleman, it is star time!'' the emcee, Brown's organ player, Lucas ''Fats'' Gonder, memorably announces in the opening seconds. ''It is indeed a great pleasure to introduce to you the man who's nationally and internationally known as the hardest working man in show business!''

What follows is ample testimony that the phrase wasn't just hyperbole.

The album, the original liner notes breathlessly assure us, is ''the actual recording of the midnight show--the actual 40 minutes of James Brown on stage.'' Never mind that the whole thing is actually over in a mere 31:36. That frenzied half-hour is more than enough to justify Brown's other famous nicknames, Mr. Dynamite and the Godfather of Soul, and to explain why he has become one of the most frequently sampled artists ever. As Roots drummer Ahmir ''?uestlove'' Thompson, one of his many disciples from a later generation, wrote, ''It would be redundant of me to remind you of Mr. Brown's anchor in classic hip-hop ('Funky Drummer'), new jack swing (Lyn Collins' immortal 'Think (About It)'), drum and bass ('Soul Pride' accounts for at least 40 percent of the genre's drum breaks), or any of the offspring that these offspring offsprung.''

Though he had scored a couple of R&B hits at the time, including the million-selling ''Lost Someone,'' and he had high hopes for his new single, ''Night Train,'' Brown's career was based primarily on his live shows, which few white music fans had ever seen. The singer dropped to his knees and sweated up a storm while playing some 300 nights a year with his famously tight Famous Flames, whose members, legend holds, would be fined if they missed a note or dropped a beat--though it's unlikely that this punishment was often meted out.

The Georgia-born cotton picker, baseball player, and petty criminal-turned-performer had a huge respect for his band, and he loved to push it hard on stage, as evidenced by the manic tempos of some of these tunes. The good feelings were mutual. ''He was a genius at putting things together,'' said trumpeter Louis Hamblin, the musical director of the 16-piece group on this night. ''He had a phenomenal sense of timing. In the medley, he would cut into another key right along with the band. I remember saying to myself, 'Man, this cat can HEAR.''

What we hear nearly 40 years later is a big band that moves like a single organism, with the horns ''answering'' Brown's guttural moans and bone-rattling wails, the bass and the rhythm guitar prompting an impossible-to resist swaying of the hips, and the tight snare drum hits on two and four sweeping us up, hypnotizing us, and virtually reprogramming our heartbeats in time with Brown's. (Clyde Stubblefield is the most famous of Brown's funky drummers, but the group often had two percussionists who played as one, and on this night, the rhythms were memorably set by Clayton Fillyau and Sam Latham.)

Deftly swinging from up-tempo grooves to romantic ballads (albeit delivered with Brown's typically abundant enthusiasm), the set contains only six full songs, and most of those clock in at under two minutes. The entire performance is linked by instrumental bridges as the band builds up to the big medley--a six-minute merger of bits and pieces of ''Please Please Please,'' ''You've Got the Power,'' ''I Found Someone,'' ''Why Do You Do Me Like You Do,'' ''I Want You So Bad,'' ''I Love You, Yes I Do,'' ''Strange Things Happen,'' and ''Bewildered''--then hurtles through the frantic farewell of ''Night Train.''

Some listeners have suggested that the length of the recording and the effect of alternating the pounding, up-tempo grooves with the seductive slow jams evokes an expert session of lovemaking. (Interestingly, sociologists observed a huge spike in the birth rate nine months after the Cuban Missile Crisis--fear of instant death being a prime motivator in sending lovers into each other's arms for solace.) One thing is for sure: The tone of the banter between Brown and the audience (especially the women) is positively orgasmic at times, as during the languorous, drawn-out version of ''Lost Someone.''

A sample exchange:

Brown: ''When I say something 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 wanna hear you SCREAM! I wanna hear you say, 'Ow!' ''

Audience (especially the women): ''OWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!''

The uncredited liner notes to the 1990 CD issue suggest that the politically-minded Brown had won over the tough Harlem crowd by passing out cups of coffee as they waited outside in the freezing cold before the show. But Brown couldn't have engendered a more passionate response if he'd been passing out hundred-dollar bills, and the tidal wave of emotion so audible throughout the album is clearly being generated by the music being turned out onstage.

In response to the crowd's joy, Brown ratchets things up even higher, setting up the sort of feedback loop that represents the live music experience at its best. Of course, this doesn't always translate so well on tape. How much of the success of ''Live at the Apollo'' is due to strokes of technical good fortune (the placement of the stereo mikes in a great-sounding room) and how much is due to a more nebulous combination of circumstances (Brown's hunger to prove himself, the band's chops, the unique circumstances of the day) can be debated, but the end result cannot.

''Oh, man, it was magic that night,'' said backing vocalist and second organist Bobby Byrd. ''There was tension, you know; we were nervous about recording and all. But the minute we hit the stage--magic. Everything came together beautifully.''