Music History: James Brown at the Apollo Theater

By David Weible

Summer is concert season, and as part of the National Trust's own summer concert series, we're putting the spotlight on places that have witnessed some of the most memorable musical performances in American history. Some are traditional venues, and others... well, not so much. But they all have two things in common: terrific music and fascinating history.

Liner Notes
Performer(s): James Brown and the Famous Flames (Bobby Byrd, Bobby Bennett and Lloyd Stallworth)
Venue: The Apollo Theater
Location: Harlem, New York City
Date: October 24, 1962
Memorable Moment: After nearly 11 minutes of practically torturing the crowd with "Lost Someone," Brown slips into "Please Please Please." The crowd responds like the building is collapsing. It's incredible.
Show Vibe: Thirty-one minutes of desperate flirtation between entertainer and audience swelling with funk, anguish and lust.

The Apollo Theater sits in Harlem on West 125th Street between Frederick Douglas Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
The Full Program
Despite its eventual status as Rolling Stone's "Greatest Live Album of All Time," James Brown's 1962 performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem got off to an inauspicious start.

After Brown's record company responded to his pitch for a live album with a hard pass, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was forced to self-finance the undertaking. But whether or not the album was a financial success, the allure of the show itself was about as dependable as gravity.

The world's hottest R&B talent performing at one of the most revered and influential entertainment venues in the world in the heart of Harlem in 1962? It doesn't take a genius to do that math.

Through good times and bad, the Apollo has been the centerpiece of entertainment in Harlem and one of the most influential entertainment venues in the world.

The result was a show that drove the crowd to near madness with angst and delight and an album that spent 66 weeks on the charts and almost zero time on the shelves before flying off like it'd been set on fire by one of Brown's shrieks.

The Apollo Theater itself has more history and significance than any mention here could do justice to. The 1914 Neoclassical theater began as Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theatre as a whites-only venue. When it was converted to the 125th Street Apollo Theatre in 1934, owners Sidney Cohen and Morris Sussman focused on serving the neighborhood's growing African-American community.

The legend and influence of the theater began to grow that same year with the advent of Wednesday Amateur Night, broadcast nationally on 21 radio stations as Amateur Night in Harlem. Since then, the Apollo has helped launch the careers of talents from Ella Fitzgerald to Lauryn Hill.

The Apollo Theater is now owned and operated by a nonprofit group.

From jazz and blues to R&B and Motown, from plays to comedians and from Amateur Night to Showtime at the Apollo, the theater has been among the most important cultural and entertainment institutions for not only the African-American community, but the world.

Today, the theater is run by the nonprofit Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. which manages, funds and programs the venue.