Albums I Want to Be Buried With: James Brown, Live at the Apollo Vol. 1

Do I even have to defend this selection?  No.  You can argue that the greatest live concert ever captured to vinyl would be a live album by Bruce Springsteen or Peter Frampton.  But the truth is, for all intents and purposes, one of my favorite albums of all time is the classic concert by James Brown and the Famous Flames, recorded at the Apollo Theater in New York City.  It was the earliest capture of an electric James Brown performance, and you can hear the crowd going absolutely nuts with every move, every note, every emotional call and response, the works.  From the opening introduction by Fats Gondar, to Brown’s performance of his greatest R&B hits of that time – and mind you, this was BEFORE he recorded such seminal songs as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or “I Feel Good” or “Living in America” – to the final strains of his classic “Night Train,” which closed his shows at the time – this is the record that helped James Brown cross over to audiences of all races and colors.

I first bought a copy of Live at the Apollo in 2004, as it was released as a special CD with alternate single mixes and detailed liner notes.  Eventually I acquired a monaural first pressing of the original 1963 LP, which I  brought with me to a James Brown concert in New York City.  I was working on a cover story on Brown for Goldmine at the time, and after much negotiation and begging and pleading, the Godfather of Soul agreed to be interviewed for the article before his concert at B.B. King’s in New York.  I brought the album with me, along with my camera (a Nikon D70 at the time) and a portable microcassette recorder.

The doors opened to B.B. King’s, and as people entered the club, I had the opportunity to interview some of Brown’s musicians, also known as the Soul Generals.  Things were going well with the interviews, but then I noticed something strange.  My cassette recorder seemed to only record for about five minutes of interview, then stopped.

I feared the worst and I knew the worst.  The batteries inside the unit were dying.  Worst case scenario – they would be dead before my interview with the Godfather of Soul.

I quickly checked my camera bag for a pack of AA’s.  None.  I had everything in the bag EXCEPT AA’s.

In a matter of speaking, I was in deep deep trouble.

I assessed my options.  I could run to the nearest convenience store and try to get a pack of AA’s and then TRY to re-enter B.B. King’s.  But just then, I saw James Brown enter the building, along with his wife, Miss Toni Rae, and two big bodyguards who looked as if they could make Chuck Liddell tap out.

As I continued to search my camera bag, one of the people I interviewed, Danny Ray (James Brown’s emcee and capeman), saw my plight.  “What are you looking for, son?”

“Double-A batteries.”

“Come with me.”

He took me to an area where the musicians were setting up and checking their instruments.  He opened up his own suitcase.  Inside were a pack of AA batteries.  “How many do you need?”

“Two would be good, thanks sir.  How much do I owe you?”

He handed me the batteries, shook my hand, and said, “Do a good interview with Mr. Brown.”

And I did.  James Brown said he would only give me ten minutes of interview time; but he started talking about his 1968 Boston concert on the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination – a concert that kept Boston from joining other cities in rioting.  He talked about his show-stealing performance on the T.A.M.I. concert film.  And most of all, he talked about the album, Live at the Apollo.

During the interview, I brought along several 45’s and asked him to recall information about the performance – but the records I brought with me were not just James Brown’s greatest hits, but were instead songs by his proteges and associates, including Lyn Collins, Yvonne Fair, Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s – and then I pulled out my copy of Live at the Apollo.

Miss Toni Rae, who as sitting in the green room as we were doing the interview, looked at the album.  “I’ve seen copies of this album – this is an old mono copy of the LP.  Where did you get it?”

I mumbled something about overpaying for it on eBay, and noted that it was a true monaural “crownless King” pressing, which denoted it as a first edition.  James Brown recalled that during that performance, the microphones picked up the voice of a very excited woman in the audience, someone who screamed out, “Sing your ass off!!!”  Great anecdotes.  Great remembrances.

James Brown with Chuck Miller, photo taken in 2005. Photo by Chuck Miller.
James Brown with Chuck Miller, photo taken in 2005. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Mr. Brown’s manager, Charles Bobbitt, took my camera and snapped some pictures of me with the Godfather of Soul; he then handed Brown a Sharpie pen and Brown autographed my copy of Live at the Apollo.  “To Chuck and family,” he wrote, “I Feel Good, James Brown.”

The concert at B.B. King’s was electrifying, Brown had everyone in the audience dancing and partying as he went through his catalog of hits.  It was a fantastic time.

The cover story was later printed in Goldmine, and it was a complete success.  And after I got paid for the article, I sent a check to the United Negro College Fund, a donation in honor of Mr. Danny Ray, who saved my bacon and kept me from missing out on an interview with a legend.