James Brown began his professional career at a time when rock and roll was opening new opportunities for black artists to connect with white audiences. But the path he took to fame did not pass through Top 40 radio or through The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand. James Brown would make his appearance in all of those places eventually, but only after a decade spent performing almost exclusively before black audiences and earning his reputation as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. On this day in 1962, he took a major step toward his eventual crossover and conquest of the mainstream with an electrifying performance on black America’s most famous stage—a performance recorded and later released as Live at the Apollo (1963), the first breakthrough album of James Brown’s career.
By the time 1962 rolled around, James Brown was one of the most popular figures on the R&B scene, not so much on the strength of his recordings, but on the strength of his live act. As he would throughout his long career, Brown ran his band, the Famous Flames, like a military unit, demanding of his instrumentalists and backing vocalists the same perfection he demanded of himself. Even in the middle of a performance, Brown would turn around and dish out fines for missed or flubbed notes, all without missing or flubbing a dance step himself. At the midnight show at the Apollo on October 24, 1962, however, every member of Brown's band knew that the fines they faced would be far greater than normal. “You made a mistake that night,” band member Bobby Byrd told Rolling Stone magazine, “the fine would move from five or ten dollars to fifty or a hundred dollars.”
The reason was simple. Having failed to convince the head of his label, King Records, to record and release the performance as a live album, James Brown, a man who was famously wise to the value of a dollar, was financing the Apollo recording himself. In the end, the show went off not only without a hitch, but with such success that the famously tough Apollo crowd was in a state of rapture. Released in May 1963, Live at the Apollo ended up spending an astonishing 66 weeks on the Billboard album chart and selling upwards of a million copies, giving James Brown his first smash hit album and setting him on a course for his incredible crossover success in the mid-1960s and beyond.