Live at the Apollo : James Brown (#40)

James Brown | Live at the Apollo (May 1963)
King
(USA)
Soul – 31:31

“When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy.”

Gigs can be a spectacle to behold. Dancers shimmy their way across the stage, their bodies creating wondrous shapes as they spin from one side to the other; costumes accentuate their lithe moves, adding everything from colour and sparkle to sophistication and effortless cool; the sets are lit by endless displays of warm lighting; and the lead singer, dripping in charisma, draws it all together, resulting in something far greater than the music alone. There is more to just the sound in the staging of some live shows. All of which makes it hard to translate a live gig on to a record – how do you convey the overall experience on a medium which relies purely on sound and nothing else?

It is a problem which plagues James Brown’s first – and most famous – live album, Live at the Apollo. James was the consummate performer. It is not for nothing that he was described as the hardest working man in music; for Brown it wasn’t just about standing in front of a crowd and singing his hits. He would wear elaborate costumes (all the while insisting his backing singers dressed in tuxedos), and even had an entire routine involving being wrapped in a cape as part of one of his numbers. On top of this, he would incorporate dance steps into his performance, choreographing intense routines for him to break into as he sang. He even once said that his aim was to make the audience as exhausted as he was by the end of a concert. All of which makes it hard to get a true sense of the experience of seeing Brown in the flesh when all you have is the audio recording of his performance; from the start, you are lacking an essential ingredient in the guise of the visuals.

In some ways, Live at the Apollo does not help James Brown in the claim that he works hard; the entire album lasts just 30 minutes (it takes me longer to write a blog post!). Add into the fact that there are numerous breaks between the songs and you are suddenly left with a live performance that has the named singer only taking up two-thirds of the entire recording. Call me picky but a 20 minute act doesn’t seem like a particularly arduous workout. Indeed, if anyone deserves the accolade, it should surely be the backing band, who play throughout the entire show without a break, sounding tight throughout. There is a playfulness and energy to their performance which is infectious, helping to push the show along and keep the crowd excited (screams can be heard puncturing the music throughout the half-hour running time). Add to this Brown’s backing group, The Famous Flames, and it seems the Godfather of Soul has little to do.

Another problem that I have with Brown is the lack of variety to his lyrics in a song. Most of the tracks seem to consist of a single line or two being repeated over and over again; there is no complexity or soul-searching lyrics, but merely repetition, occasionally broken up by a grunt or a scream. I admit he has a powerful voice; songs like Lost Someone display his ability to its full extent. But there needs to be more than simply screams; he comes across as some sort of over-the-top American evangelist, constantly shouting at his congregation ‘Can I get a witness’ rather than a singer. It means that, quite quickly, the tracks begin to roll into one. It comes to something when the instrumental breaks are the moments you find yourself waiting for in order to get some variety. Given that this is the second live album by a young black artist in the space of three album reviews, Sam Cooke certainly blows James Brown out of the water.

Brown was a hard man to work for, insisting perfection from his backing vocalists and band. He was known to fine those who displeased him – whether it was from turning up late, failing to shine their shoes sufficiently or singing a duff note. He would even incorporate certain hand movements into his dancing, to let those on stage his displeasure immediately, even if it was mid-concert. Perhaps if I was able to watch the show rather than simply hear it, it would make more sense and I would see what the fuss is about. However, as a solely audio recording, it lacks the punch it presumably had when performed in the flesh. Based on this alone, it seems more of a throw-away moment than an historic one, and leaves me feeling exhausted with disappointment rather than exhilaration.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Live at the Apollo here:

 

Next time: Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady : Charles Mingus (#39)

Charles Mingus | The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (July 1963)
Impulse!
(USA)
Avant-garde Jazz – 39:25

“Touch my beloved’s thought while her world’s affluence crumbles at my feet.”

The arts have always been seen as an effective form of therapy for those facing mental health issues. Whether it is painting, acting or music, there is something deeply therapeutic about expressing your emotions through the medium of creativity. When words fail you, knowing that you can still find a way of venting those frustrations, fears and follies can be liberating. It perhaps comes as little surprise to realise that many of the great artistes – in a variety of fields – have all suffered from some form of mental illness. In modern music alone, such big names as Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Kurt Cobain and Syd Barrett have all struggled as a result of conditions such as bipolar disorder. A 2015 survey by Help Musicians UK found that 60 percent of musicians suffered from depression, with 70 percent saying their mental health had taken a hit as a result of touring. It is a shockingly high statistic, but perhaps unsurprising given the nature of art (in a wider sense of the word) and the type of people it attracts.

It probably shouldn’t come as a shock then to learn that Charles Mingus used his own compositions as a way of finding therapy. He suffered from depression, with his output fluctuating between short bursts of extreme creativity that briefly punctured long periods of inertia. By the time he recorded The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady in 1963, Mingus had shortly come off of a disaster with the infamous Town Hall Concert; his attempt to record a free-style live concert in 1962 – a dream of creating a working document of a true jazz workshop – had ended in chaos. Undeterred, he pushed on with his next record, putting The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady together in just three months. Clearly, this was his way of shaking off the demons; if any doubts remain, Mingus asked his psychotherapist, Edmund Pollock, to help pen the linear notes on the album sleeve. Interestingly, each of the four tracks is also given a subtitle, perhaps indicating that Mingus wasn’t always confident that people would interpret his music in the way he wanted.

There is no escaping that this is a true jazz album; like many of those which I have already encountered, it is a difficult one to penetrate and I still feel lost in the genre. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was envisioned as a type of ballet across four tracks and six movements; there is certainly a vibe of movement throughout – from the calls and responses of the brass instruments on the opening track (Track A – Solo Dancer) to the flamenco guitar of track three (Track C – Group Dancers). But there is no consistent theme; rather it seems to change direction at random during tracks. Perhaps this is an indication of Mingus’ mind – one that was constantly looking to create new sounds and follow new ideas. However, to a non-musical ear, it often sounds like a mess. Once again the quality of the musicians’ abilities cannot be doubted – the stand-out of the group is the wonderful Spanish guitar playing of Jay Berliner. But strong musicianship is not enough and this is an album which I cannot hear holding together.

Once again I feel let down by my musical knowledge. I want to be able to appreciate jazz; to feel that I am getting something out of the experience of listening to it. But whether my ears are simply not attuned or I do not possess enough theoretical understanding – whatever the reason, I find the genre too difficult to access. Within jazz circles, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is regarded not just as Charles Mingus’ masterpiece but as one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded. Yet I still feel I am missing the point. This is a difficult album to listen through to the end, and sadly is not one I intend going back to. I end up more confused than satisfied, and this is not always a good thing. I hadn’t realised until embarking on this project how prolific jazz was in the early 1960s. I’m just thankful that, as we reach the mid-1960s, it had reached its peak; this may be its finest moment, but I regret that its perceived brilliance has all but passed me by.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady here:

 

Next time: Live at the Apollo by James Brown

Live at the Harlem Square Club : Sam Cooke (#38)

Sam Cooke | Live at the Harlem Square Club (January 1963)
RCA Records
(USA)
Rhythm and Blues / Soul – 37:29

“Music is to the soul what words are to the mind.”

Modern popular music is filled with artistes leaving us before their prime. There is the infamous ’27 Club’ which nobody wants to join; the list of members who died at the age of 27 reads like a who’s who of musical genius: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse. Of course, not all of the sad demises of our pop idols happens at that point in their life and there are just as many who have died in tragic circumstances well before their prime at a different age – Elvis Presley and John Lennon spring to mind. Often it leaves you wondering what they could have produced if they had lived longer. Would they have continued to push boundaries and take music in new directions? Or would they simply grow old and fat, playing their old hits on the oldies circuit, a shadow of their former self? Often you can’t help but wonder what records would have been produced had they lived.

Among the first casualties of the popular music charts was soul singer Sam Cooke, who was killed in rather sordid circumstances at the age of just 33 in December 1964; controversy continues to surround the exact story around his shooting at a motel in Los Angeles. It was a depressing ending to a life that had been built around his talent. My knowledge of Cooke were the cross-over pop songs; tracks like Wonderful World or Bring It All Home to Me. Great songs but not ones to place him among the soul legends. His voice always sounded too soft; his style too smooth. Little did I realise there was much, much more to Cooke’s talents.

Starting out as a gospel singer, he initially found a smaller audience singing highly spiritual songs. However, he wanted more and quickly began turning out more secular numbers, despite the risk of alienating his original audience. The record executives were hoping to appeal to a mass audience, apparently without realising what they had on their hands. This all changed when they decided to record a live album, choosing the Harlem Square Club in Miami as the location. What they didn’t realise was that the largely African American crowd who turned out to see Cooke would lead to a sound that was far too raucous for the sensitive ears of Middle America. Upon hearing it, the record bosses quickly shelved the recording, where it remained undiscovered for 20 years before being found and released to wide acclaim in 1985.

Listening to Cooke sing on Live at the Harlem Square Club, it is easy to understand the nervousness. There is powerful rawness to his sound; this isn’t the pleasant man crooning on the record players in the bedrooms of the respectable teenagers but the scream of passion from a man giving his all. Suddenly it becomes clear why Sam Cooke was so revered by those who saw him. His presence smashes through the speakers and into the room with you. There are many live shows which I would have loved to have seen; this is now definitely on the list.

Things kick off with (Don’t Fight It) Feel It, with the MC introducing ‘Mr Soul’ to the stage. As the band strikes up, you can feel the crowd rise to the occasion and Cooke does not disappoint. The music is tight and within seconds Cooke has found his groove. Here is a man who is in his element and he is clearly enjoying every minute. The music barely lets up as he moves into Chain Gang; it is a cry for freedom that resonates, with Sam’s grunts adding to the feeling of a man who knows what it is like to have to fight for everything he has. Cooke brings real emotion to everything which he performs: his next number, Cupid – another of his hits, is a heartbreaking call for the god of love to help him get the girl.

There is not a single song on the album which fails to hit the mark; many live sessions will have the odd dud but each one of the tracks that Cooke performed at Harlem Square Club was a bona fide classic. He brings a cool sexiness to his medley It’s All Right/For Sentimental Reasons; you can feel the sweat pouring off you as he rocks into Twistin’ the Night Away. Bring It On Home to Me remains one of the greatest songs ever and Cooke’s rendition is achingly beautiful; pity any woman who tries to resist his soulful passion. His set comes to a close with Having A Party; an apt choice given how much fun has been had to this point.

Sam Cooke was a truly great singer; it is a shame that RCA Victor was too scared to ever allow him to give his all while he was alive. Death is always tragic but when someone of such talent is taken away, it is a heartbreaking moment. He has been dead for more than 50 years yet it still feels depressing that he his career was cut so short. Still, he was able to produce a fantastic body of work, with Live at the Harlem Square Club arguably his greatest achievement. Rather than mourn the man, put on this incredible record and let his voice take you to a place where everyone is having a party.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Live at the Harlem Square Club here:

 

Next time: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus

A Christmas Gift for You : Various Artists (#37)

Various Artists | A Christmas Gift for You (November 1963)
Philles
(USA)
Christmas / Rhythm and Blues – 34:12

“Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . .means a little bit more!”

And so this is Christmas, admittedly two weeks late. Perhaps it would be best to consider this an early present for the next one (only 350 sleeps!). Regardless of the limited time when this album can actually be played, it has to be said that Christmas songs have a tendency towards the slightly cheesy. True, there is the odd classic which goes beyond this, but there is something about a festive tune which needs to be a little bit jaunty and even ridiculous. We are in a silly party mood and don’t want too many songs to spoil the mood.

It feels a little hard coming to this album, considering it is the brainchild of producer Phil Spector, a troubled man who is currently serving time in prison for murder. There had been stories throughout the years of Spector’s difficult nature, to put it mildly; among the accusations was one by The Ramones that they only recorded their version of Baby, I Love You for him because he pulled a gun on them. But I will try to remove my thoughts on the man from this and instead focus on the music itself, put together by some of the great performers at the time. After all, it is Christmas…

A Christmas Gift for You brought together a number of artists who had been produced by Spector to record a number of festive songs, focusing more on the secular rather than tradition carols. The Ronettes, Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans, The Crystals and Darlene Love all took part in the recording of familiar favourites, backed by Spector’s famous Wall of Sound. The production technique resulted in instruments being combined – a new idea when it came to recording modern music. The result is a fuller sound; rather than the piano playing one part before the trumpet playing the next, for example, they are played simultaneously. Without getting into too many details of the pros and cons, it is fair to say that it had its equal split of high profile supporters (Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys was one) and those who hated it (Paul McCartney fought endlessly to par down the recording on The Beatles’ final album, Let It Be).

The album opens with a jolly beat that takes us into Darlene Love’s version of White Christmas. After endless listens of Bing Crosby’s version, this is a joy. It makes the Crosby take on it sound sombre; this sets the standard for the rest of the album – one of celebration. It is as cheesy as you’d expect (Love talking in the middle of the track about wanting to leave LA is as ridiculous as it sounds). But it works, setting up the listener for what to expect from the album. The Ronettes’ Frosty the Snowman (sung with a strong New York twang by Veronica Bennett) is equally fun, rivaling the more famous recording by the likes of Nat King Cole (and this time without the backing of what sounded like Alvin and the Chipmonks which mars Cole’s take somewhat).

It is fair to say that the album skips from classic take to classic take of some already brilliantly-written songs. The Bells of St Mary, as performed by Bob B Soxx, is a great cry of delight and elation. Some of the numbers have had a major influence on later takes; the arrangement for The Crystals’ Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was later used as the basis for Bruce Springsteen’s version, while U2 were suitably impressed by Love’s take of Baby (Please Come Home) – the only original song on an album of covers – that they decided to do their own version of it. The final spoken word ending by Spector, over the top of the entire recording cast singing Silent Night at the end of the album, wishing listeners a merry Christmas, must surely have influenced Simon and Garfunkel’s later in the 1960s as well.

Incredibly this album was recorded during a hot summer in LA, but none of this comes through in the music. There is a real feelgood factor to A Christmas Gift for You which helps to give it a real sense of Christmas spirit. It captures the joys of waking on Christmas morning and coming down to find your presents under the tree. Perhaps less surprisingly was its lack of success when it was first released; not because the album doesn’t warrant it but because of the timing of its release – JFK was assassinated the day after it came out and Spector took the decision to withdraw it from sale as a mark of respect. Fortunately, as time has marched on and the album has been reissued, it has found a new audience – and, it has to be said, a much-deserved one. It is a shame that this record can only be played for a few weeks each year; it is truly a life-affirming joy from start to finish. Be a rebel and put this on in the middle of July. It’s definitely worth it.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Christmas Gift for You here:

 

Next time: Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan : Bob Dylan (#36)

Bob Dylan | The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
Columbia
(USA)
Folk / Blues – 50:04

“Just because you like my stuff doesn’t mean I owe you anything.”

There’s a lot of pressure when you’re just a 22-year-old kid and a generation is looking towards you as the spokesman of their generation. You’re still trying to work out your own place in the world while there are thousands – if not millions – of your contemporaries expecting you to have all the answers. Of course, that could have something to do with writing an album of songs which strikes a chord with your peers, in effect kick-starting a cultural revolution that would change the face of the modern world. Not bad going for a singer whose first album, just one year earlier, had struggled to sell 5,000 copies.

If writing something new about The Beatles was hard, then Bob Dylan is even harder. His work and life have been dissected so many times that it is impossible to come up with a different perspective – or, at least, with one that hasn’t been tainted by the voice of others. It doesn’t help that, as a university undergraduate 20-odd years ago, one of my English modules was the lyrics of Dylan. Two decades later, having spent more time in the company of Bob, I’m still not sure I’m qualified for the task of publicly examining his work. It doesn’t help that I will face doing this for six more of his albums across the life of this blog (in case you’re wondering, the other works by Dylan to feature in the 1,001 Albums… are Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, Time Out of Mind and Live 1966).

Dylan’s role weighs heavy on modern music – more so than any other artist. He was constantly ahead of his time, forcing other musicians to run just to keep up with him. The result was a heady mix of exciting new sounds as others gained the confidence to try out different things. And it can all be traced back to Freewheelin’. Dylan’s debut had consisted primarily of cover versions (with just two original pieces); by the time he released his second album, he had penned 11 of the 13 numbers. While many were heavily influenced by previous folk songs, his lyrics and musical arrangements showed a man who had talent flowing from every pore on his body.

So was the tag ‘Spokesman for a Generation’ one that Dylan was worthy of holding? If we look at the man himself, then probably not; he was clearly more interested, as the 1960s rolled on, in pushing himself as an artist than spouting soundbites on behalf of young people around the world. But the songs themselves still resonate more than 50 years later, proving that his gift as a songwriter was timeless. Dylan once said: “I never wanted to be a prophet or a saviour”; as true as this may be, his lyrics have become more than just words but have felt their power in people everywhere.

For someone who didn’t want to represent others, the opening track of the album does little to refute the claim. Blowin’ in the Wind was quickly picked up as an anthem for disaffected youth beyond the folk community. The passing of time, together with the gentle sound of the song, has given it the air of respectability and even contentment. But listen to those lyrics; the answers are unknowable – simply blowing (like dust) in the wind. It is a hint at the darkness of the whole album. From the anger of Masters of War to the pain of Girl from the North Country, from the pessimism of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to the bitterness of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, this is an album that takes a rather downbeat look at modern life. Hearing Girl from the North Country – a song he would later sing as a duet with Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline – Dylan’s voice sounds broken and battered; here is a man barely into his 20s who already has the weight of the world crushing down on him. Even when he hopes that she remembers him, you already know – as does Dylan – that it is never going to be the case. This is an album where a lost soul is bared, wounded and beaten.

But with it comes a mastery of words. With Masters of War and, more so, A Hard Rain, it becomes apparent that Bob is able to articulate his anger and fears far better than many of his contemporaries. Perhaps this is where his genius lays; like others who will appear on this list, he is a poet who happens to put his work to music, rather than a musician trying to put words to the emotion of his music. Perhaps the greatest – and most devastating – break-up song ever written, Don’t Think Twice, wonderfully sums up the feelings many of us have felt at the end of a relationship: “I could have done better, but I don’t mind; you just kinda wasted all my precious time.” Dylan had a knack, which he was able to repeat, in saying what we wanted to say but could never find the words.

It’s also interesting to him continuing to emulate those who had influenced him musically. Aside from the already mentioned Girl from the North Country (based on an arrangement of Scarborough Fair which he had learned from a folk singer while visiting England), tracks like Down the Highway could easily have been played by his idols, particularly Woody Guthrie. His spoken introduction to Bob Dylan’s Blues could come straight from Jack Elliott; it is often said that Dylan copied Elliott’s style of playing and singing closely, and the track does sound like a carbon copy of Elliot’s own work.

This is an incredibly dense piece of work that, unlike some of the albums on this list, becomes more complex the longer you listen to it. It bears repeated listening not because it sounds nice but because it speaks to us at a deeper level. I don’t want to read too much into it (and become one of those people who Dylan hates for dissecting his work too much), but there is something in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that manages to seep into the soul. Not just an important album, containing the seeds of popular music for the next 50 years and more, but a fantastic piece of work. It would be fair to say that this is the first work of genius by one of the masters of songwriting.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan here:



Next time: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector