All the greats of classic soul played the Apollo, but no one ruled the place quite like James Brown did. When he died in 2006, his body lay in state on the same famous stage where he’d cut his career-defining Live at the Apollo album four decades earlier. Thousands lined the sidewalks around the block as an imperial horse-drawn carriage delivered the casket to the theater, with Mr. Brown’s recorded voice howling “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” from an open-air loudspeaker.
Officially, Brown recorded three live albums at the Apollo: the blockbuster 1963 original, 1968’s Live at the Apollo, Volume II, and Revolution of the Mind, a take-no-prisoners double album also known as Vol. III – the one with the bandleader posing behind bars on the cover.
Last year, Universal Records quietly slipped a Live at the Apollo Volume IV onto streaming services – a decades-buried vault find featuring the leader showcasing his backing band, the J.B.’s, at his favorite venue. Now, for this year’s Record Store Day, the album will be available for the first time in physical form via the reissue label Get On Down, in an edition titled Get Down at the Apollo With the J.B.’s and credited to the James Brown Revue.
The recording features showcase sets by two of the best-known, most-sampled members of the James Brown Revue, Lyn Collins, who preaches on an extended, high-rolling version of “Think (About It),” and Bobby Byrd, who knocks out his signature song, “I Know You Got Soul.”
But make no mistake, says Fred Wesley, the trombonist who by the time of Volume IV had become band director and arranger: James Brown, who can be heard playing organ on the album, was always in charge.
“He never actually stepped aside,” said Wesley from Abu Dhabi, where he’s been taking part in a summit on funk music sponsored by New York University. “He always had his feet, his hands, his mind in it. He was always into it. He never stepped all the way out of it. He was unpredictable, you know?”
At the time of the shows heard on Volume IV – back-to-back dates in September 1972 – Wesley had been back in the James Brown fold for just a matter of months. By the end of the Sixties, he’d left Brown’s band as part of a mass exodus over short pay.
For replacements, Brown recruited a young bar band from Cincinnati known as the Pacemakers, led by 19-year-old Bootsy Collins and his brother Catfish. As Brown’s new backing band, they soon became known as the J.B.’s. But their tenure with Brown would last less than a year.
“Bootsy never liked taking orders,” Wesley explained. “He was a star, and James Brown was a star. But Bootsy respected James, and James Brown respected Bootsy for being an excellent bass player. They just realized it wasn’t gonna work together.”
While in exile, Wesley picked up with a soul act in California called Sam and the Goodtimers, which featured former members of Ike and Tina Turner’s touring group. But the band was struggling to find gigs, and when Brown offered to make Fred the band director, he jumped at the chance. Brown tried to kiss him when he came back, he says.
For Wesley, at first it seemed like a daunting task to replace Bootsy and the original J.B.’s. Brown gave him two weeks: “He said, ‘Whip ’em into shape. I’m going home.'”
When Brown came back, Wesley wasn’t sure what he had. Drummer John “Jabo” Starks was a James Brown veteran, and bassist Fred Thomas and guitarist Hearlon “Cheese” Martin were naturals. But the new members of the horn section were green.
“Then James Brown got in front of them, and they locked in like they’d been together forever,” Wesley recalls. “Something about that James Brown magnetism pulled ’em together. And they turned into a dynamic band.”
The album features covers of several hits of the day, including Collins singing the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Byrd performing the bluesy Stax ballad “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right,” and Brown talking social justice over a nod to the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
Even when Michael Jackson was still a kid, Brown recognized him as a potential rival, says Wesley. Later, of course, they became mutual admirers. But in 1972, James Brown would not be challenged.
“He didn’t want anybody to take his spot as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” Wesley says.