With 'Live At The Apollo,' James Brown Invented The Live Album

By | May 26, 2019

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Left: The 'Godfather of Soul' James Brown relaxes backstage with his shirt off wearing slippers and a cross at the Apollo Theatre in 1964 in New York, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images). Right: The cover of the 1963 release 'Live At T

Before James Brown's Live At The Apollo (1963), record labels weren't sold on the idea of live albums. And after? Well, consider everything from Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison to The Who's Live At Leeds to Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive! a descendant Brown's brief crowd-pleaser. It had everything going against it -- the format, the song selection, the crowd noise -- and just one thing in its favor: James Brown's relentless belief in himself. Playing show after show to hysterical, screaming audiences, Brown knew there was value there for listeners that label honchos couldn't understand and producers in a sterile studio couldn't duplicate. 

For decades afterward, any act that prided itself on its live shows dreamed of proving it on wax with their own equivalent of Live At The Apollo. And remarkably, nobody quite did it. Fifty-five years after its release, James Brown's Live At The Apollo remains the critics' consensus pick for best live album of all time.

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James Brown in 1963. Source: (Allposters.com)

Out of all the musical giants who graced the stage of the Apollo, none of them moved the audience the way that James Brown did. After a five day run at the theater in 1962, Brown and his group, the Famous Flames recorded a live album that that only lasts a hair over 30 minutes, but that’s all it took to create a career-defining masterpiece.

As listenable and poppy as Brown’s first “Live at the Apollo” album is, it’s inherently weird. Most of the songs are around three minutes long, save for the ten minute “Lost Someone” and the six-minute medley of hits. With “Live at the Apollo” Brown was showing the world that it was star time.