The very best live albums of the 1960s, from James Brown to Coltrane and beyond.
Before classic rock birthed the heyday of live albums in the 1970s, certain artists were paving the way for this beloved medium’s popularity. This list takes a look at some of the most influential and important live LPs of the 60s; the decade in which the guitar replaced the horn as the sound of a generation.
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Muddy Waters – Live at Newport (1960)
The unmistakable growl of revered bluesman Muddy Waters was never as poignant as on the searing live recording ‘Live at Newport’. Considered the first mainstream live blues album, Waters’ performance at Newport Jazz Festival had his audience dancing in the aisles, and was an enormous influence on the growing British blues scene. The recording is greatly elevated by Waters’ exceptional backing band, particularly James Cotton’s incendiary harmonica playing.
John Coltrane – Live at The Village Vanguard (1962)
John Coltrane, one of the most important and gifted musicians in history, utterly divided critics with his first live album ‘Live At The Village Vanguard’, a riveting yet polarising exploration of experimental Jazz.
Coltrane, ever an innovator, created controversy amongst audiences in the early 60s with his increasingly challenging music, but as is evident on this album, that didn’t slow him down. Despite its mixed reception, this live album encapsulates the brilliant intellect and brazen ferocity of this tenacious artist, and is now considered to be one of his finest works.
James Brown – Live at The Apollo (1963)
James Brown’s first live album, Live At The Apollo, features the godfather of soul and his vocal group, The Famous Flames, delivering a performance that cemented Brown as an R&B superstar. Defying all sales expectations, Live At The Apollo was an incredibly successful release and helped establish the live album as a profitable format. MC5’s Wayne Cramer cited Live At The Apollo as the inspiration for his own band’s album ‘Kick Out The Jams’, and
one can certainly see why. Brown’s unmatched charisma as an entertainer, whilst not yet at its peak, is on full display in this smoking hot performance.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at The Star-Club Hamburg (1964)
As mad as a cut snake, the recently departed Jerry Lee Lewis was rock and roll’s original bad boy. Considered the finest example of ‘The Killer’ at his rowdy, cacophonous best, ‘Live at The Star Club’ features thunderous renditions of some of Lewis’s biggest hits. Showcasing his violent piano playing and attitude-laden vocals at the height of his powers, this record proves that there was a whole lot of shakin’ going on in Hamburg that night.
BB King- Live at The Regal (1965)
The soulful yet heartachingly fragile guitar playing of BB King is one of the sweetest sounds in existence. Regarded as one of the best blues albums ever made, ‘Live at The Regal’ captures that sound at its purest. Guitarists such as John Mayer, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler have all stated that they use ‘Live at The Regal’ as a primer before going on stage, and for good reason. King’s simple yet ingenious note choice and stunning sense of melody is an inspiration to guitarists to this day and will likely remain as such in perpetuity.
Frank Sinatra – Sinatra at The Sands (1966)
In 1966, The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ introduced psychedelia to the masses, whilst the velvety croon and big-band grandeur of Frank Sinatra was rapidly becoming an antiquity.
However, ‘Sinatra At The Sands’ showcases ‘Ol Blue Eyes’ at his vocal peak, exhibiting the undeniable value in a style that easily could have become irrelevant without his enduring charm. Conducted by Quincey Jones, the Count Basie Orchestra absolutely shines in this masterclass in swing, providing a lush bedrock for Sinatra’s timeless style and unparalleled phrasing.
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (1968)
Perhaps the most famous and definitive live album of the 1960s is Johnny Cash’s magnum opus ‘At Folsom Prison’. Simultaneously cementing his rebellious image and highlighting his Christian sensibility, ‘At Folsom Prison’ showcases not only Cash’s dangerous stage presence, but his willingness to connect and empathise with the troubled and downtrodden.
Fulfilling his long held dream of performing for the incarcerated, ‘At Folsom Prison’ features Cash’s gritty yet charismatic vocals, witty gallows humour and outlaw mystique; enchanting an audience that perhaps only he could have tamed.
Cream – Wheels of Fire (1968)
Whilst not strictly speaking a live album in its entirety, ‘Wheels of Fire’s second disc, a recording of the band performing at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, is one of the most important live recordings of the 60s. Paving the way for classic rock, this powerful recording shows exactly why Cream changed the course of music forever.
Featuring one of the band’s biggest singles, an electrifying rendition of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’, the blistering guitar work of Eric Clapton, transcendent bass playing of Jack Bruce and the inimitable jazzy swing of Ginger Baker combine to make this live record one for the ages.
Grateful Dead – Live/Dead (1969)
Perhaps more so than any other artist, the Grateful Dead have always been known for their live performances. Famous for their jam-band ethos and long, sprawling concerts; The Dead’s dedicated fan base followed them across the world for decades to lose themselves in the band’s entrancing performances.
‘Live/Dead’ is the group’s first live album, featuring performances from a series of concerts in 1969, and was the first live album to use 16-track recording. The record was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews and began The Dead’s longstanding tradition of releasing live albums throughout their career.
MC5 – Kick Out The Jams (1969)
Proto-punk legends MC5 were so ahead of their time, one can scarcely believe that their game-changing live album ‘Kick Out The Jams’ belongs on this list. Inspired by ‘Live at the Apollo’, this album delivers a punk-rock energy that would have sounded equally as fresh in 1976.
‘Kick Out The Jams’ inspired a generation of garage rockers to thrash out their truth with its noisy whirlwind of radical politics, grinding guitars and pounding drums. In the words of lead-singer Rob Tyner, ‘We were punk before punk. We were new wave before new wave. We were metal before metal. We were even MC before Hammer.’