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"Don't Just Say 'Ow!', Say 'OWWWW!'."
on January 27, 2004
October 24, 1962 is a date that will live in music infamy. For it was then at the midnight show at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater when James Brown recorded the album that fully introduced soul music to America and gave documented proof that he was indeed the greatest showman alive.
The story behind it is well known. Brown had a few R&B hits dating back to 1956, including the 1959 chart topper "Try Me", but was largely unheard of outside young black America and even with that success his singles career was maddeningly inconsistant in terms of sales and even musical direction. But in person it was a different story, for in front of an audience Brown tore it up night after night on the chitlin' circuit, an act no rival wanted to try and follow. It is safe to assume that anyone who saw his show live was instantly a fan for life.
Therefore what he wanted was to record a concert, much like Ray Charles had done at Newport a few years before, that would show people who hadn't yet bought a ticket just what they'd been missing. King Records chief Syd Nathan rejected it flatly, saying - and not without some merit - that albums did not sell well to the generally lower economic strata of R&B fans, and without even a single to garner from it the venture would be foolhardy at best. Naturally Brown ignored this dictive and paid for the recording himself, and thus with his own ego, reputation and perhaps career on the line gave the single greatest performance ever caught on tape. Nathan had no choice but to put it out.
Sales built slowly, spurred on by enormous word of mouth publicity and frequent airings of the entire album on the tiny R&B outposts at the far ends of the AM dial, until it became the "must have" LP of 1963. Consider this: at the time albums were strictly the realm of pop singers. For the year in question only two other rock LP's (both by the Beach Boys) even entered the Top Ten on the album charts, and before that only Elvis Presley among rockers had been able to sell LP's in sufficient quantities to make releasing them worthwhile. For Brown, who was still relatively unknown, singing in a style few Americans had ever heard of or thought possible, to crack that chart, spending a remarkable 66 weeks there and reaching #2 at one point, becoming the 32nd highest selling album of any kind that year, was absolutely inconceivable. To put it bluntly, THIS is what put James Brown on the map and let the world know that soul music, introduced in the early-50's by the "5" Royales, Dominoes and others, honed by Ray Charles in the mid-50's and polished for the masses by Sam Cooke in the late-50's, had a bold new leader. James Brown forever after was Soul Brother Number One.
If you've never heard it you're surely not ready for what awaits you, but that doesn't mean you should avoid it, just don't expect anything specific, for you'll have no reference points to compare it to because it truly is like nothing you've heard before. Frenetic to the point of lunacy, with an almost religious type fervor in the way he puts over the songs in shortened medley-esque fashion, never pausing for a breath, the tight band turning on the dime, high point after high point reached and then broken once again, all culminating in the extended gospel-like reading of the epic ballad "Lost Someone". It is during that performance where he fully hypnotizes the audience and the listener with a repeated desperate plea, as all the suffering, passion and ecstasy of soul music is delivered with a raw, almost naked, grab for their approval. His quavering voice fading with despair into the shadows, as the tension in the crowd rises to unbearable levels, he drains every ounce of emotion he can muster from himself, the song and the masses before suddenly offering release by exploding into "Please, Please, Please" which detonates the crowd like a nuclear bomb before carrying us all home with the chugging farewell, "Night Train". It is truly a one of a kind experience, yet magically one that can be repeated over and over again.
It will almost surely take you many listens to comprehend what is happening. But give it time. Listen to it in the dark, going to bed night after night, imagining yourself in the crowd that cold Wednesday in '62, seeing the future of R&B music unfolding before your eyes. Before long you too will be rhythmically intoning along to Fats Gonder's famed opening, "And now ladies and gentlemen, it's star time... Are you ready for Star Time?!!"