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Click below for a James Brown sample:
|He went by many different names:
Mr. Dynamite, The Hardest Working Man In Show Business, The Godfather Of
Soul, Minister Of The New New Super Heavy Funk, Soul Brother Number One.
Yet when James Brown died on Christmas 2006, the world lost not only the
man with the most numerous and appropriate titles in entertainment
history, but a wealth of musical knowledge not likely to ever be
With the possible exception of the Beatles, no musical artist has been as important during the last fifty years as James Brown, and even the Fab Four cannot claim the legacy of directly influencing genres created decades past his artistic peak. With his boundless energy and rhythmic innovations, JB not only impacted rock (memorably schooling Mick Jagger on the finer points of showmanship on the T.A.M.I. Show), he virtually birthed the whole of black music, from r&b and soul to funk (invented via his 1967 single "Cold Sweat" on down to disco (which expanded on Brown's use of extended dance cuts and percussion breaks) and hip-hop, whose early foundation took its cues from the JB catalog of beats, to the point where it seemed every record was built on a James Brown sample.
But beyond these musical achievements, Brown's social, political, and business consciousness are what set him apart from his contemporaries and made him a true cultural hero. During the late 60s and early 70s, it would not be hyperbole to suggest Brown was the most important figure in black America. His approval was sought by politicians, and he single-handedly prevented Boston from going up in flames in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination. It is largely because of James Brown that a group of citizens went from being Negroes to Black People, as his 1968 "Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud" infused an entire race with a sense of pride that had previously been lacking. That the song effectively ended his crossover prospects was inconsequential, for Brown was entirely self-sufficient, with a business empire that included control of his master recordings, his own management, radio stations, a short-lived television show and a label distribution deal that was the precursor to the success of Philadelphia International, Def Jam, and Bad Boy, among others.
Born in either 1928 or 1933, depending on which source you believe, Brown's formative years were spent in poverty in the racially tortuous states of South Carolina and Georgia. His home life was rather scattered, leaving Brown to fend for himself for long periods of time, alternately dancing for coins, picking cotton, and shining shoes to generate income. Eventually his shifted over to petty crime, and was incarcerated for armed robbery at the age of 16.
It was while in prison that Brown befriended Bobby Byrd, who had a vocal group called the Flames (the other members were Sylvester Keels, Johnny Terry, and Floyd Scott). With some help from Byrd's family, Brown was released after serving three years and joined the group.
Based out of Macon, Georgia (Brown was convicted in Augusta, and part of his release was that he didn't return), the Flames had been touring the South for two years when they were signed by Ralph Bass of King Records. Their first recording was "Please Please Please," a simplistic tune that so angered label owner Syd Nathan that he released it with the sole intention of embarrassing the group and Bass when it didn't sell. Needless to say, the joke was on Nathan, as the song sold over a million copies.
The next few singles flopped, however, and the group seemed to be on the verge of losing its deal until Brown emerged with "Try Me," a plaintive cry that could be interpreted as a plea to a lover, his label, or the record-buying public. It raced to the top of the charts in 1958, but the happiness was short-lived, as the single was released as James Brown and the Famous Flames, relegating everyone, including the founder Byrd, to the background. After a revolt, Brown continued on his own and went about forming the James Brown Revue.
The years 1958-1962 found Brown enjoying great popularity with his singles, but King Records considered him a regional act. Brown had developed a reputation for his outstanding concerts, and wanted to document it on an album, but the label refused. So Brown used his own money to record the show, and released Live At The Apollo, which went on to become a landmark record, as it was frequently played in its entirety on the radio.
Brown had maintained solid success performing more-or-less traditional r&b, but he signaled a change in his approach with "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" in 1965. On this tune, the beat was the centerpiece of the song instead of the typical verse-and-chorus structure. It kicked off a long streak of #1s for Brown on the soul charts.
Part of the credit for the success of "Bag" must be given to Brown's band, led at the time by horn player Nat Jones. Throughout his career, Brown always maintained bands comprised of some of the most skilled performers on their instruments, despite his legendary discipline and relatively low pay (he kept them on a flat weekly salary of under $300 while he could gross hundreds of thousands of dollars per show). Other notable musician to pass through the ranks include guitarists Jimmy Nolen and Catfish Collins, horn players Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis and St. Clair Pickney, drummers Jabo Stars and Clyde Stubblefield, and bassists Fred Thomas and Bootsy Collins. These players were instrumental in forging Brown's sound because he could not read music and relied on them to translate his impulses to vinyl.
Another revolutionary record was "Cold Sweat," in which Brown decided to get rid of changes altogether in favor of straight groove. This was a radical departure, and has since been credited with being the first legitimate funk song (previous artists, like Wilson Pickett, had used 'funky' in song titles, but the songs were typical soul).
Among the hits Brown racked up during the mid to late 60s include "There Was A Time," "It's A Man's Man's Man's World," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," and "I Got The Feelin'." Brown also demonstrated his social views with "Don't Be A Dropout" and "America Is My Home," the latter of which brought him some flak from nationalists who didn't feel Brown's ode to patriotism was appropriate considering the times.
That criticism was silenced when he recorded "Say It Loud" in late 1968. The timing of this record is significant in that earlier that year, Brown demonstrated his influence in unforgettable fashion by performing on the date Martin Luther King was killed. As other major cities were being beset by riots, the mayor of Boston wanted to cancel the show, but Brown convinced him to broadcast the concert on television as a means of distraction. The concert was broadcast twice, and amazingly damage to the city was kept to a minimum, as Brown gave a legendary performance, complete with him holding security back to chide some rowdy members of the audience for making him, and by extension, all black people, look bad. By recording "Say It Loud" so shortly thereafter, was Brown pledging allegiance to Black Power, affirming that King's death also signalled the end of the traditional civil rights movement? Brown was always coy about his motivations, but the end results were clear. Seemingly overnight, terms like "colored" were antiquated and African Americans embraced their blackness for the first time in history.
If he had never recorded another record, he would likely still be a folk legend. Yet Brown made an even deeper commitment to funk, dropping "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose," "Mother Popcorn," the anthemic "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing," and the immortal "Funky Drummer" in 1969-70. Later that year, Brown's band staged an en masse walkout, and he was forced to regroup by absorbing what had been the Pacesetters, a Cincinnati band led by Bootsy and Catfish Collins, and handing them the task of backing the most popular soul singer in the world.
This new band was much younger than Brown's normal group of players, and they brought with them an irreverence and imagination that practically demanded that Brown share the spotlight with them. The first example of Brown's new, freshened-up funk was the classic "Sex Machine," issued in July 1970. Anchored by the Collins brothers' interplay, Brown's music achieved the rare feat of being simultaneously tight and loose, becoming more aggressive and somehow funkier than ever before. Perhaps in an attempt to remind them who the real star was, Brown dubbed the musicians the JBs and rushed to the studio to capture funk testaments like "Get Up Get Into It Get Involved," "Talkin' Loud And Sayin' Nothing," "Soul Power," and "Super Bad."
Despite this change in personnel, Brown didn't change his ways of relating to his musicians, and Bootsy and the gang left after about a year, having tired of Brown's harsh, and in their eyes outdated, form of leadership. This disruption caused the delay of an album Brown had planned for the JBs and the cancellation of a proposed live album (released in the 90s as Love Power Peace).
Old stalwart Fred Wesley was tapped to organize a new group of JBs, and the JB train kept on rolling with "Get On The Good Foot," "Make It Funky," and "Funky President." He also broke into the lucrative soundtrack business with Black Caesar and Slaughter's Rip Off, although it was Wesley who actually did the bulk of the work.
Perhaps his shining moment was in 1973, when Brown was supposed to do the score for what would be Hell Up In Harlem, only to have it rejected by label executives. Furious, Brown took the album, retitled it The Payback, and enjoyed the best selling album of his career. A stinging indictment of all who had committed real or perceived slights against him, Brown had never before sounded so forceful, and its popularity remains undiminished, enjoying a resurgence when included in the movie Dead Presidents.
By now, Brown had assembled a stable of artists for his People Records, which consisted of Fred Wesley and the JBs, Maceo and the Macks, Lyn Collins, Marva Whitney and Sweet Charles Sherrell. Concerts became full-blown JB extravangazas with as many as five acts playing essentially the same music.
While Brown kept up his policy of recording 3 or 4 albums a year, his popularity had started to wane by the mid 70s. Ironically, he could chalk this up to two developments he had been instrumental in creating: disco and P-Funk. Brown had long been an advocate of extended jams; singles were almost always one track, divided into parts 1 & 2. Disco simply stripped the music down to the rhythmic basics and pressed up entire LPs in this manner, starting with Gloria Gaynor's Never Can Say Goodbye. P-Funk's success must have been especially bitter for Brown, considering that former employees Maceo, Fred Wesley and Bootsy had been recruited to join George Clinton's empire.
The Godfather was struggling in the late 70s and early 80s, save for a show-stopping appearance in the Blues Brothers, but came back in a major way with "Living In America" from Rocky IV. It was his first top ten pop record since 1968. Brown also began reclaiming his audience thanks to an unexpected source: hip-hop. Unwittingly, Brown's music had been a main ingredient in the sets of pioneering DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and especially Afrika Bambaataa, who took on the title Godfather Of Hip-Hop. The connection between Brown and hip-hop was strengthened when Bambaataa recorded "Unity" with Brown in 1984. With songs like Eric B. and Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul," Brown's music was the foundation for the most inventive music of the 80s.
But in these days before sampling laws, his contributions often went uncredited and unpaid for. Brown, always serious about his money, took rappers to task on I'm Real, a surprise hit in 1988. He would later stipulate that songs with objectionable lyrics would be prohibited from using his music.
Brown served time in prison between 1988 and 1991 for leading police on a chase through South Carolina and Georgia, but upon his release continued to record, although by now his appeal was mostly as a concert act. Ever the Hardest Working Man In Show Business, Brown was scheduled for a show when he came down with pneumonia, dying on December 25, 2006.
James Brown's Deepest Grooves
Please Please Please (King, 1956)
Try Me (King, 1958)
Think (King, 1960)
Live at the Apollo (King, 1962)Out of Sight (King, 1964)
Papa's Got A Brand New Bag (King, 1965)
It's A Man's Man's Man's World (King, 1966)
Cold Sweat (King, 1967)
Sings Raw Soul (King, 1967)
Funky Christmas (King, 1967)
Live At The Apollo Vol 2 (King, 1968)
I Got The Feeling (King, 1968)
I Can't Stand Myself (King, 1969)
Popcorn (Polydor, 1969)
Say It Loud I'm Black And I'm Proud (King, 1969)
It's A New Day (King, 1970)
Soul on Top (King, 1970)
Sex Machine (Polydor, 1970)
Funk Power:1970 (Polydor. 1970)
Love Power Peace (Polydor, 1971)
Hot Pants (Polydor, 1971)
Super Bad (Polydor, 1971)
Sho Is Funky Down Here (Polydor, 1971)
Revolution Of The Mind( Live At The Apollo, Vol. III) (Polydor, 1971)
Get On The Good Foot (Polydor, 1972)
There It Is (Polydor, 1972)
Black Caesar (Polydor, 1973)
The Payback (Polydor, 1973)
Slaughter's Big Rip Off (Polydor, 1973)
Hell (Polydor, 1974)
Reality (Polydor, 1974)
Sex Machine Today (Polydor, 1975)
Everybody's Doing The Hustle and Dead On The Double Bump (Polydor, 1975)
Get Up Offa That Thing (Polydor, 1976)
Body Heat (Polydor, 1976)
Mutha's Nature (Polydor, 1977)
Jam/1980s (Polydor, 1978)
Bring It On (Scotti Brothers, 1983)Gravity (Scotti Brothers, 1986)
In the Jungle Groove (Polydor, 1986)
I'm Real (Scotti Brothers, 1988)
Motherlode (Polydor, 1988)
James Brown's Funky People Volume 1 (Polydor, 1988)
James Brown's Funky People Volume 2 (Polydor, 1988)
Messing with the Blues
Star Time (Polydor, 1991)
Soul Pride (Polydor, 1993)
Roots Of A Revolution (Polydor, 1995)
Foundations Of Funk (Polydor, 1996)
Make It Funky (Polydor, 1996)
James Brown's Funky People, Pt. 3
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