If there was any one musical artist I’d have to credit for inspiring this entire blog? It would of course have to be James Brown. From his coining of the funk aestetic itself to his iconic work ethic? It was Mr. Dynamite,the King Of Soul,The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,The Godfather and the minister of the new super heavy funk that really got this music taken seriously as a genre. And just about anyone who goes on a stage today dancing like Michael Jackson is connected completely to JB! Funny thing is at first? There were elements of his music I found somewhat tedious.
When someone is a fairly new music listener seeking melody? Sometimes you can miss out on someone fundamentally changing the nature of music itself. JB concentrated almost his entire musical energy with his band members on creating different types of rhythm. It was actually only after years of listening to many sorts of funk that it came to me just how musically innovative this man was. Despite being primarily a singles oriented artist? I wanted to present to you here today my favorite full length James Brown albums (that I’ve heard) from his extremely vast catalog.
James Brown & His Famous Flames Tour The USA (1962)
During the first six or seven years of his career James Brown was essentially known for his energetically performed soul ballads and stage shows. That is generally what soul was at the time. When the music was uptempo, it was generally considered to be rhythm & blues. And soul was generally the romantic ballad end of that still new spectrum of music. Only in revision to many people realize that even from the get go, James Brown was always changing the rules. He vocally performed his soul balladry with the theatrics and passion of the salvation gospel tent show. As the 1960’s began to come in, James began to embrace rhythm & blues to a greater degree. He was also listening to another type of music called boogaloo coming out of New York-with it’s African pop influence and use of musical breaks. With this new outlook on uptempo music in his arena, James’ music was beginning to change.
“Mashed Potatoes USA” is a very compelling song-a dancable yet fairly slow tempo rhythm & blues piece with a very raw rhythm attitude-filled with drum and horn breaks. Its quite possibly his first foray into the funk process,if not the full on funk itself. “Choo-Choo (Loco Motion)”,”Three Hearts In A Triangle” along with the instrumentals “Doin’ The Limbo”,”Joggin Along” and “Sticky” are all heavily rocking and organ/horn based R&B with a consistent and chunky rhythmic flavor that on the other hand is decidedly unbroken. “I’ve Got Money” returns for a bit to the possibility of the funk process again. “I Don’t Care”,interestingly one of the few examples of his original soul ballad style, actually begins the lyrical process for his funk innovation “Cold Sweat” with him stating “I DON’T CARE about your past”. “Like A Baby”,”Every Beat Of My Heart” and “In The Wee Small Hours” are examples or James’ earlier instrumental organ blues throwdowns to round this out.
Often mistaken for a live album because of its title, this 1962 studio recording by James Brown and his Famous Flames is a neglected but very important album for James’ catalog. Its his first album to put a significant amount of attention on heavy rhythm and uptempo tunes. You begin to hear him and the Flames beginning to find their signature instrumental style that they were still ironing out, by trying out different styles from soul to R&B to blues on their earlier recordings. Being from the era that it is, this album is of course likely a collection of James Brown “sides”,recorded originally in intention for release on 45 A and B and cobbled together on this long player to bring them together into a loose theme to resell them. Of course less cynically this also is influenced by Ray Charles’ intentionally conceptualized ABC-Paramount era albums as well. So this also finds James discovering the possibility that he could develop as an album artist perhaps. Despite its lack of popularity in James vast and vital recorded catalog, this album is an important dry run for his future that is very underrated.
Live At The Apollo 1962
Someone once described the film Purple Rain as “a timely event that captured a revolution as it was happening”. Much can be said of this particular album. So much has been made of this albums legendary status and it being one of the “greatest live albums of all time” it all just can’t help but diminish it’s impact. Now saying this is even JAMES BROWN’S greatest live album of all time would be padding things just a tad but the fact is this is one of his most defining albums of his late 50’s/early 60’s career.
One big reason is that it represented something of a concluding chapter onto this part of his career. At this point JB’s live shows with his Famous Flames were still based around a dozen or so of his early blues and doo-wop oriented singles such as “I’ll Go Crazy”,”I Don’t Mind”,the rollicking “Think” (one of my personal favorites) and his then new single “Night Train”. But it’s not the presentation of those songs musically that really makes this live performance what it was.
For one rather than playing before an Apollo audience so excited that his performance was interrupted by screams and applause the audience sounds serve more to cheer him on from tune to tune,stopping largely during the performance due to the wordless level of respect James’ presence seemed to demand.There’s a medley of songs here but the whole album plays that way;James and the tight Flames flow from one horn fueled soul workout into another with little more than a scream and/or a horn blast to indicate passing into another song.
Also elements from songs such as “Please Please Please” appear throughout the song and James often refers back to “Lost Someone” and “I’ll Go Crazy” as phrases throughout the album-treating his single songs as parts of a unified entity as opposed to separate statement. Since albums as a studio entity were almost unknown during this time outside Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra,for someone as single based as James Brown the live show seemed the best way to express this unity in his music at the time.
At the times when the audience does interact with James it’s very strong and mutual and seems to happen almost as a matter of course. Because the visual element of James’ dancing,the whole cape routine and sweating is missing you’ll have to refer to the liner notes for photographs of the event to get something of the idea of what it looked like if you even need to. In fact for the most part the musical presentation here should do the job nicely. They say music cannot create imagry but the nature of albums such as this will make many people wonder,as it did with me as to the all around truth of that statement.
It’s A New Day-Let A Man Come In (1970)
Okay that’s got to be my worst review title but after hearing this album you may have a similar reaction. True it took a several years and many a patchwork album for James Brown to finally get to this,one of his earliest full on album masterpieces. And in all honesty? It’s an album I only really knew a lot about recently due in part via a strong recommendation via the members of Breakestra in Waxpoetics magazine. In all likelihood this the earliest full length studio assemblage of the original JB’s lineup with Bootsy and Catfish Collins and such. One of the qualities that makes this such a unique album even by James’ standards is how much he goes for the cinematic approach to funk here-taking the basic framework of his sound and often augmenting it with either dynamic orchestrations,arrangements or both within his still intensely rhythmic framework. Not only that but he’s concentrating very heavily on melody. The idea of James combining melody and arrangements into his trademark tight funk sound opened up his music to many new possibilities and allowed his new musical recruits the change to challenge themselves instrumentally. The title,in fact is no lie.
It goes way beyond music here. Culturally James is at the PEAK of his Say It Loud: I’m Black And I’m Proud period. So the message in his music is in full swing. The first two numbers in the title song and “Let The Man Come In And Do The Popcorn” are perfect examples of his “new funk” as it were. Very much in the league of his early full on funk period but also superbly arranged as well. On “World” he actually showcases how the cinematic groove has bought him to a distinctive funk ballad style and he re-harmonizes his older “It’s A Man’s World” and “If I Ruled The World” in much the same way. The result is their original message is also deepened as well. “Georgia On The Mind” takes the song normally associated with Ray Charles and takes his own lyrical liberties,even adding “I’m from August Georgia”,an interesting reference for this South Carolina native. “Give It Up” is an instrumental rendering of one of his biggest funk era numbers. The closers “Man In The Glass” and “I’m Not Demanding” are additional great examples of his unique brand of cinematic funk-the latter making his social agenda more than clear as he insists (I’m not demanding,I’m begging and pleading),showing a type of…confident desperation if you can imagine it as he speaks to “the people” very directly and honestly.
In addition to the musical aspect of funk James Brown was more than key in developing the consciousness in it’s lyrical message. It’s a type of construct I myself refer to as “people music” and it was key to the development of what funk writer Ricky Vincent calls the united funk period in the music. On this 1970 album James is laying the groundwork for all of that. I am not sure if anyone does or ever will think of James Brown as an album artist in any way. But if they do,or ever do it’s likely works like this will be part of what’s mentioned in that context. It’s not merely the focus on longer songs. But also they fact there is a very flowing musical concept at work here. Something James had been putting together in one way or another since the mid 60’s. And it was finally coming into itself in the early 70’s on albums such as this. As for his 60’s innovations there are many compilations that tell the story about as perfectly as one could ask. But as for where James stood at the start of the album oriented 70’s funk era? This would be an excellent release to explore along with his many full length triumphs to come early in that decade.
Revolution Of The Mind-Live At The Apollo Volume III (1971)
During 1971,James Brown and his band were right in the eye wall of their hurricane of the groove. This perfect storm was the opposite of destructive,however. It was a storm that created,got people to move their feet and contemplate moving their minds as well. It was the beginning of a funk era-“united funk” as writer Ricky Vincent calls it. And James was leading the way. Every time I saw this album,the cover always attracted me. Of course the concept of the black man as a metaphoric prisoner in America was completely appropriated into the latter hip-hop culture’s imagery. But what I tuned into was the expression on James’ face as he looked between the bars. It was one of positive minded dreaming and wonder-about the possibilities of himself and others as liberated individuals-internally as well as externally. This photograph on the cover art really got my mind wandering in terms of what kind of music laid within. Since James Brown would’ve been 81 if he had lived this year? I thought this would be the perfect time to explore this albums contents.
Opening with the usual intro it goes right into the fast tempo funk of “Its A New Day So Let A Man Come In And Do The Popcorn”. That same fast paced groove continues onward through a fast medley of “I Can’t Stand It”,”Mother Popcorn” and “I Got The Feelin” along with “Call Me Super Bad” and “Soul Power”.. It gave the aural impression of James’ iconic quick footed choreography one can almost hear through the audio. The album itself actually starts off with a nearly eight minute “Bewildered”-a ballad wherein James actually gives a positive take on Woman’s Lib from a black female perspective. “Sex Machine”,”Escape-Ism” and a 12+ minute “Make It Funky” are a none stop funk workout-the latter containing a vitally street level conversational “rap” where James’ encourages his band members to proudly mention (and take pride in) their Southern home towns. After this James cools down with a short version of his soul ballad classic “Try Me”. “Give It Up Or Turnit Lose” and “Hot Pants” continue the heavy funk right into the end and applause.
If someone were to ask me what album do they think represents the core essence of James Browns’ musical character during the height of his funk prime,I would recommend this album without hesitation. As innovative and vital as his studio recordings were,there is something about the atmosphere of James Brown’s live shows that best showcase the nature of his musical talent. It gives him more time to personally interact with his band mates-bringing a level of intimate male bonding into his creative outpouring of talent. Of course the rhythmic nature of this music brings out the very finest in the exploratory organ solos of Bobby Byrd and the deeply percussive bass/guitar interaction between Hearlon Cheese Martin,Robert Coleman and Fred Thomas. But it also communicates James Brown’s multi faceted messages of action. When someone dances to this music,they will likely feel compelled by the sound of the groove and the words of James to do something very important for the world. This is live “people music”-straight up funk of the highest degree. And truly a testament to James Brown during his creative peak.
There It Is (1972)
Before I had much conception of James Brown in the 70’s,this animated and colorful CD cover always got my attention whenever I saw it. Of course nothing could prepare me for the musical virtues it embodied in terms of sheer funkativity. Though this was made smack dad at ground zero of his peak years in the early/mid 1970’s a new funk generation was already on the horizon. The “united funk” era was about to arrive. This meant a sound with a slicker,better production and sometimes more of a pop orientation than anything he’d had ever served up. However with his reputation for excellence being so well known by this point,he wasn’t in any danger of being out of date yet either. “The Godfather Of Soul” was know known as “The Godfather” PERIOD when it came to funk. So anything he did was by terms under influential AND under the influence of those who were following in the path he’d set. On the other hand,in terms of where James stood on funk this represents him setting the bar at a very high place because it’s his finest example of funk in an album context.
In the very beginning the title song gets into the groove right away. The slowest parts of this album are represented in a three part series of raps on “King Heroin” and “Public Enemy#1 Parts 1 & 2”,anthropomorphising the narcotic as speaking for itself and it’s parasitic effect on the world. James illustrates this in such emotionally effecting terms…well let’s just say the facts speak for themselves. On “I’m A Greedy Man” we’re presented with some of the fastest funk we’ve heard from James,appropriate with it’s implicit dialog on male sexual power. “Who Am I” is a slower ballad that showcases a change in his style. More of a cinematic soul ballad that’s an extension of the type he’d begun doing on albums such as Its a New Day-Let a Man Come in and,with it’s highly self analytically lyrics indicated a fuller on embrace of the “united funk” ballad style. Of course “Talkin’ Loud And Saying Nothing”,a Watergate era warning on trusting those people the song decries as “loud and wrong” rides that line between the Africaness of it’s rhythm and the bluesy harmonic nature of the song quite well with it’s type of funk.
On another faster funk groove of “I Need Help (I Can’t Do It Alone)” talks of his outlook on these newer people involved in funk in a way,bringing the message of the music out more than even he had. James’ future reputation as godfather of hip-hop is unintentionally established on his take of “Never Can Say Goodbye” at the end. Musically he takes more of a modern samplers approach to it,not covering the entire song wholesale but re-harmonizing by “looping” the songs initial melodic phrase. And he’s doing it using his band and not computers. So that shows how forward thinking he was,even if it wasn’t too deliberate. James Brown was riding in a high place during the years 1971-1974. His innovation of funk was inspiring a number of old and new faces who themselves were already making key contributions to the genre. Not only that but he had the advantage of still being at his own musical peak in terms of funk while this was happening. There are many great examples of this era of funk out there. But for a good example of where the man who started it all was when the genre was starting to change hands,this is a great place to go.
The Payback (1973)
1973 offered a lot of potentially difficult challenges for The Godfather. Road manager Alan Leeds illustrates them in timeline form in the liner notes to this particular CD. Basically it all comes together like this. James was branching out into the world of soundtrack scoring with ‘Black Ceaser’ and then ‘Slaughter’s Big Ripoff’. Much of the music on this album was intended for another such soundtrack. Well eventually the deal fell through. Not only that but his audience,who’d once looked to him for guidance regarding the sociopolitical environment of the time,felt betrayed by his endorsement of President Nixon. Especially during the Watergate scandal. Not only that by during this time his son Teddy was killed in a car accident. For the first time James was facing major burn out,even checking himself into a hospital for physical recuperation for a time. All the same,he was James Brown. He had work to do. So there were all these unused songs and out of it came…this.
This album is considered to be James’ finest of his 70’s funk period. One of the reasons is not only the fact all of the songs are of some extended length. But the emphasis is so firmly on the funk and the moods it’s transmitting. The title track of course is ground zero for big time sampling but also James’ assertions “I NEED THOSE HITS!”. Always incredible in his intended double meanings. The lone ballad “Doing The Best I Can” is very much in touch with the times musically,closer to the sweet funk of Curtis Mayfield than doo-wop. On the eight minutes “Take Some…Leave Some” and “Shoot Your Shot” that wah wah guitar packed groove re-emerges. A mildly slicker sort of funk considered the full immersion in the “united funk” era of the day. But the stress of his experiences,and those he is witnessing in his own community are very much felt. Sometimes even to the point of near heartbreak in “Forever Suffering”. This along with the near 13 minute epic “Time Is Running Out Fast” also showcase a heavy reliance on a somewhat jazzier style of horns from Fred and Maceo even more so than usual.
“Stone To The Bone” keeps that groove moving straight ahead. Of course the closer is another funk epic in “Mind Power”,with James urging us to understand that while we all have physical needs both athletic and sexual,our knowledge and consciousness deserves more TLC than we give it. This album is a very psychological exploration for James. For the first time in his career,he’s beginning to show some wear and tear from that cluster of difficult events. But James did with it what he always did in tense situations: he basically continued to work through it. This time though,life really inspired. Never on this album is he foaming at the mouth with anger. He’s expressing his emotions with a lot of candor and more than enough analyticalness. If the phrenology chart on the back (later referenced by The Roots) doesn’t clue you into the exploration of the inner sanctum that this albums represents,it’s place as James’ key contribution to the United Funk era should say something. In almost all cases,the grooves and messages speak for themselves.
Following his enormous success with The Payback,James Brown began to watch as the members of the JB’s began to splinter off-eventually jumping onto George Clinton’s mothership as The Horny Horns. At this point James found himself in a very different position in terms of recording. He was thinking in terms of recording in more advanced studios than he had in his 60’s heyday. To supplement his band he bought in session players such as David Sanborn,Joe Beck,Joe Farrell and Cornell Dupree-soon to become part of the band Stuff. Acutely aware of the importance of maintaining his cultural position in immediate post Wategate America? This album was right on time.
It’s the title song that sets the tone for the album-with James still very much in his blacksploitation mode of heavy orchestrated rhythms and the use of flute and string orchestrations. He’s in the same place on “Don’t Fence Me In” and “All For One”-one which he blends together several of his socially relevant numbers with the backup vocalists singing with him “say it loud-WE’RE PEOPLE AND PROUD!” “The Twist” revitalizes Hank Ballard’s Chubby Checker hit with JB’s “funk twist” as it were while “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” non too subtly reminds the black community of the importance of maintaining self reliance-and not thinking racism won’t take less overt forms-even advising to “save your money like the mob”. “Further Up The Road” and “Check Your Body”-with it’s whispery vocals evoke the “Doing It To Death” style funky shuffle.
Of the ballads “I’m Broken Hearted” again revives the blacksploitation style orchestral/cinematic production while his take of Anthony Newly’s show-tune “Who Can I Turn To” brings out his renowned soul pleader vocal approach. As for the mixture of Fred and Maceo transitioning out of the JB’s and session players gradually taking their place? James Brown’s production sound is becoming sleeker and somewhat less distinctive. That’s not to say that his grooves are not still instrumentally at their peak. And they are. This was a man who’d just triumphantly played for the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire. Having been experiencing the schism of African and African American cultures alternately on his tours over the years? He understood the dichotomy of black people in the African continent being both the powerful and the poor versus the more one sided expectations of African America. And this album,in more ways than one,encouraged those around him to keep their eye on the prize of reality in his own funky kind of way.
Now it’s actually pretty common knowledge that the years between 1980 and 1985 were not as innovative for James’ as was previously thought. Honestly I had no idea this album existed until fairly recently. One thing that should be said about this album is that musically it actually acheived something very special. Considering his already legendary status it would’ve been all too easy for James to just tour and do the same golden oldies the same way every time. In as much that James was also still holding true to his stage first/record-when-you-could mentality the pace of his live shows still influenced his studio music. But the recording quality,even in random studios of the kind he tended to make records in were better across the line by the early 80’s.
The album starts out with “Popcorn 80’s”,a good example of his classic sound functioning perfectly in a modern studio context. “Give The Bass Player Some” is just plain MEAN funk broadening his sound into the realm where….well 70’s style funk ended up during the disco freeze out,ironically a place where a great groove could just be what it is. “You’re The One For Me” is the lone ballad and it isn’t until the end you realize that the quiet storm-funk style (hard as that is to imagine,especially for James) is actually a tribute to Minnie Riperton. I wish I knew who was doing the vocal impersonation of her on the song-it might’ve been a borrowed clip of her voice I don’t know.
By this point electro funk was emerging from the underground and beginning to penetrate the charts and…of all people James was right where with “Work Cycle Inc” which,with it’s slightly clipped rhythm and synthesizer use is the closest thing he had at this point and is a high point of this recording. “Super Bull-Super Bad” again does a terrific job on extending a 70’s style JB groove within the contemporary production ethic,even to the point of using his classic “Super Bad” as a basis,something James had been doing all his career. On “Love 80’s” James promises a mini concert and delivers just that in slow jam style,introducing one of his newer musicians, as well as playing smidgens of “America The Beautiful” and paying tribute to people such as Louis Armstrong along the way.
As indicated in the song James was in the mood to go back to some of his early style of music from the Famous Flames era.Considering the political atmosphere of this period and the accompanying trend to “embracing traditional values” that was to come it’s no surprise that the album ends with a modernized version of “I Go Crazy”. So in keeping with the double edged cultural transitions of this time frame the sound of the album glides effortlessly from lightly contemporary funk to doo-wop inflected R&B. Also maybe the times had caught up with James in a way too seeing as that combination of those two styles had been occurring in the music since the mid 60’s. No matter how you add it up this is one of James Brown’s most powerful and driving records of his sleeper period. And I hope one day some country,somewhere will realize that and put this out on CD format.
Now this particular subject could very be someone that I expand on further in this blog. At least later one. With nearly 80 full length studio albums to his credit-not to mention live albums? James Brown is not only very likely the most prolific black American musician this side of Duke Ellington. But his enthusiasm for the creation and development of his art,on it’s own terms,could and should be a great source of inspiration on a new generation today. One with a far less certain approach to musical presentation. Thank you!