James Brown

TrackSingle / Album
Please, Please, PleaseFederal 45-12258
Try MeFederal 45-12337
I'll Go CrazyFederal 45-12369
ThinkFederal 45-12370
Night TrainKing 45-5614
Out Of SightSmash S-1919
Papa's Got A Brand New BagKing 45-5999
I Got You (I Feel Good)King 45-6015
Cold SweatKing 45-6110
You Got To Have a Mother For MeMotherlode
Funky DrummerIn The Jungle Groove
Get Up, Get Into It, Get InvolvedKing 45-6347
It's A New DayRevolution Of The Mind...
Talkin' Loud And Sayin' NothingThere It Is
Funky President (People It's Bad)Polydor PD 14258

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JB playlist

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens, Cal Taylor, Ceri Taylor

Is there another artist who can claim to have had a hit with record number one then languished in the wilderness for three years before returning to chart success? If one was writing a CV for this guy, then a bit further down, a statement along the lines of “and went on to be a household name” should appear. Okay, the second bit’s true but I’m gilding the lily a little regarding that hit: it climbed the US R&B Chart not the Pop Chart but I wouldn’t dream of downplaying the qualities, indeed the importance of the record; it was as pioneering as Presley’s That’s All Right if not more so.

Not many artists were like James Brown of course. It took significant amounts of intransigence otherwise known as downright cussedness to keep plugging away – other commentators might have been less polite about the man’s attributes – but if it hadn’t been for his insistence on getting his own way, the music scene today would be very different.

The year was 1956 and the record was Please, Please, Please. The group was billed as James Brown With The Famous Flames. While it wasn’t strictly the first record to attempt to incorporate some of the atmosphere of black church services into the field of secular music, it was the first to do so with such conviction. It didn’t matter that the lyrics consisted of little more than the repeated title line, that the melody was minimalist and that Brown spent the entire record entreating his lady not to go, using as many vocal variations as he could from a near whisper to all out shrieking. This was the public’s first encounter with the Brown vocabulary of moans, screeches, grunts and everything else in between. And by “public” I mean black public, since only a few from the other side of the tracks picked up on the record when it was released.

The records that followed immediately after Please, Please, Please weren’t bad, they just weren’t magnificent. The single that got him back into the R&B Chart, Try Me, in late 1958, wasn’t as great as that record either but Brown’s emotional involvement with the song made it stand out from the average doo wop ballad. However, the body of music that Brown and the Flames then went on to produce from that point to the mid-sixties, although largely ignored by most of today’s Brown fans, is as solid a set of soul and R&B as anything produced by his peers and better than most. It was also during this time frame that James built a reputation for a stage show that was the envy of all his rivals.

As I’ve implied, things changed somewhat round the middle of the decade. Records like Out Of Sight (1964) and I Got You (I Feel Good) (1965) signalled the coming of the second phase of the James Brown career, that of Funk King or Soul Brother No.1. As far as Brown was concerned, black music was in a process of change and he was determined to lead that change. Vocals on many of his records were reduced to but one of the components of a rhythmic pattern which drew as much from latin and jazz sources as it did from R&B. Melodies and song structures largely disappeared, subsumed in the new focus on rhythm. Funk was born and by the end of the decade other artists were pumping out their versions of this new music.

Funk kept James’ ship afloat through the seventies and he continued working right through to his death on Christmas Day 2006. He was an important innovator, a fabulous showman and he made records that deserve adjectives like extraordinary and exceptional. And it’s that music you’re here for so let’s rewind to those early days.

 

PART ONE

James Brown photo 1

SOUL PIONEER: 1933-1964

In the depths of The Great Recession, James was born in extreme poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina to Joseph and 16-year-old Susie Brown. The name on his birth certificate was mistakenly recorded as James Joseph Brown but it was meant to be Joseph James Brown.

The family lived in nothing more than a hovel. Either with the family or nearby, lived an aunt who was present at James’ birth. In fact, if it was not for Aunt Minnie the world would not have had the privilege of knowing James Brown’s music and everything that accompanied it. The story goes that James was stillborn and if it had not been for Aunt Minnie breathing air into his lungs he would not have survived. Later in James’ career when he fought battles to get what he believed was right, with his seemingly limitless determination and endurance, his fight for life at birth was seen as the first example of him displaying those tendencies.

When he was about four his mother moved away to avoid a violent and abusive marriage. Around the end of 1938, his father, seeking work, moved with James and Aunt Minnie to Augusta, Georgia where they stayed with another aunt. She was called Honey and ran a brothel. These were not the ideal surroundings for any child to be raised in.

James Brown photo 7

James Brown at about age 6

There was an army camp nearby and outside it young James danced and sang for small change. It’s likely that he saw some of those same soldiers using his Aunt Honey’s establishment. The situation must have been very confusing for a 6- or 7-year-old. It seems James did manage to get some schooling up to the age of about twelve but there are reports that he was sometimes sent home for ‘insufficient clothes’. The abject poverty to which he was subjected meant that he was sometimes only wearing rags.

As James got older he got more into music. He won a talent contest in 1944 and learned to play musical instruments including piano, guitar and harmonica. Even so, he was still living by his wits and it was maybe no surprise that in 1949 James fell foul of the law, being charged with four counts of breaking and entering and larceny from an automobile – he stole clothes and other items from cars.

While awaiting his hearing, James passed his 16th birthday. He was found guilty and given two to four years on each count, to run consecutively, a very harsh ‘lesson teaching’ sentence where he could have served up to sixteen years.

He was originally sent to a detention centre in Rome, Georgia which was over 200 miles west of where he lived but when that institution was closed down in 1951 he was imprisoned in a town called Toccoa, which was about 130 miles north west of Augusta.

While incarcerated he formed a group who called themselves the Swanees. They used improvised instruments and James earned the nickname Music Box. A fellow inmate was called Johnny Terry who was later to co-write Please, Please, Please with James and who also became a part-time member of the Famous Flames before joining the Drifters for a couple of years in the mid-1960s.

However, the most important contact James was to make during his time behind bars was Bobby Byrd. While serving his sentence James had become a member of the prison baseball team who had a match arranged against a local team. That team included Bobby Byrd and from their meeting a friendship was formed. In Toccoa, Bobby had got a group together called the Gospel Starlighters, who doubled as an R&B group, the Avons.

Due to their friendship, Bobby’s family offered to be sponsors for James’ early prison release and in 1952 after serving three years of his sentence he was paroled on condition he did not return to the Augusta area. Brown stayed with the Byrd family. He did jobs such as dishwashing and tried his hand at becoming a boxer and a baseball player but nothing he could turn into a career. In 1954, James joined a group of gospel singers – which included Johnny Terry – who hoped to get a recording contract but again nothing materialised.

At that point fate intervened. Bobby Byrd’s group, the Avons, sadly lost their lead singer in a car accident and Bobby asked James to join the group. At the time there were other groups called the Avons so they changed their name to the Toccoa Band. Their manager was Barry Trimier and, in the group, James played drums and Bobby played piano. They changed their name again to the Flames.

James Brown Famous Flames 4

The original Flames (l to r): Sylvester Keels, Nash Knox, Fred Pulliam, James Brown (drums), Nafloyd Scott, Bobby Byrd (piano), Roy Scott

 

A year later, in August 1955, Little Richard and the Upsetters played a club called Bill’s Rendezvous in Toccoa, where the Flames played regularly. The Flames were not on the bill themselves but were present to see what they could learn. This was a month before Little Richard recorded his first hit, Tutti Frutti, so although he was well known around the Georgia circuit for his outrageous act, he was not known nationally. During the interval, the Flames took it upon themselves to perform, showing off their dance moves. With the Little Richard entourage was a man called Luke ‘Fats’ Gonder. He had originally tutored Richard’s piano playing and acted as Richard’s manager’s right-hand man, along with fulfilling MC duties. Gonder was also a bit of a talent scout and recommended the Flames to contact Little Richard’s manager, Clint Brantley.

Brantley owned a club in Macon, Georgia called The Two Spot and was there on a Saturday morning at the end of August 1955 when the Flames walked in saying that they were looking for a new manager. At first, Brantley was not too interested but asked them to perform a number, which happened to be a spiritual called Looking For My Mother. He was impressed by their theatrical act and took them on.

Things started to happen fast. The Flames, billed as ‘The Flames Of Washington D.C.’(!) were booked to perform at the Elks Club in Macon on 17th September. Clint Brantley had a fully booked schedule of upcoming dates for both Little Richard and The Flames, separately. He had now also convinced the Flames to add the word Famous to their name.

Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti took off, as did Little Richard himself, to Los Angeles – leaving Clint Brantley with a huge problem, namely Richard’s gig schedule. He did his best to overcome this by getting James Brown to stand in for Richard on the shows with the Upsetters, and the rest of the group, headed by Bobby Byrd, to fulfil the Famous Flames gigs. It seems that there were few complaints at the Little Richard gigs because James was turning into a supreme showman and the audience were more than satisfied.

James Brown Chitlin Circuit

According to Preston Lauterbach’s book, “The Chitlin’ Circuit And The Road To Rock And Roll”, when Luke Gonder was introducing the star of the show when James was doubling as Little Richard he would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, the hardest working man in show business today … Little Richard”. It became an ‘in joke’ as James was part of the Famous Flames and being Little Richard and thus in two places at once – and the expression stuck.

Things were still happening at breakneck speed. James and Johnny Terry wrote Please, Please, Please. Brantley heard it and got the group to do a demo, which became a regional hit after it was played on the local radio stations at the end of 1955. He sent it to several record labels. Ralph Bass of Federal Records signed the Famous Flames at the beginning of 1956 and they re-recorded Please, Please, Please on 4th February. Federal was a subsidiary of King Records founded by Syd Nathan. He did not like Please, Please, Please and reportedly said of it, “that’s the worst piece of crap I’ve heard in my life … someone stuttering, only saying one word”. Nathan eventually relented after initially being against releasing it and it entered the R&B Chart in April and peaked at No.5. This would not be the last time that Syd Nathan and James Brown would see things differently – there would be further crossings of swords down the line in their volatile relationship.

James Brown Famous Flames

The James Brown Revue with the Famous Flames: Johnny Terry (left), Bobby Byrd (middle), Bobby Bennett (right)

Before the release of the record, the group as a whole was called The Famous Flames but Please, Please, Please was released as by James Brown with The Famous Flames, which was the start of acrimony within the group who, up until then, had believed they were all equal members.

Despite the success of the first record, unfortunately for the next nine records over two and a half years – in terms of chart success – they went nowhere, despite James continuing to build his reputation. It was not because those records were poor, in fact a lot of them were good, but during that period – early 1956 to late 1958 – much was changing in the music world. In that era for example Rock‘n’Roll almost came and went. James was still experimenting and trying different styles in an attempt to find that hard-to-attain successful formula. Two of those nine records certainly deserved more recognition than they got even though they made no impact on the charts. One was the self-penned Messing With The Blues which was released in April 1957 and another was Begging, Begging released in February 1958.

In that same period, other significant things happened affecting James’ career. In 1957, he changed manager again, to Ben Bart who had founded the Universal Attractions Agency in 1949. Bart remained his manager until his death in 1968, when his son Jack took over the reins of Universal Attractions, who continued to act for James. Bart snr. and James’ professional relationship was mutually beneficial.

Although the records had James Brown’s name highlighted they were still The Famous Flames group but when Ben Bart suggested that they officially should be called The Famous Flames with James Brown, the unrest that had started after the release of Please, Please, Please worsened. In the end, Bart gave the group a ‘like it or lump it’ option. They chose the ‘lump it’ alternative and left en masse. This obviously caused a problem but a group called the Dominions stepped in and they became a new version of the Famous Flames.

The new Famous Flames were Louis Madison, J.W. Archer and Bill Hollings. That threesome accompanied James on his eleventh record, Try Me, which was recorded on 18th September 1958. After the previous nine flops it was becoming questionable whether his record company would support him for much longer – but James’ luck was about to change. The record was released in October 1958 and by the beginning of February 1959 it was top of the R&B Chart.

Here is James doing a live version of Try Me from 1968. Not only did the record top the R&B Chart it was also James’ first Pop Chart entry, reaching No.48.

However, with James things very rarely ran smoothly. After the success with Try Me the group were performing in California and there was a fall-out over unpaid monies. The Famous Flames demanded money they said was due to them. James refused their demands and sacked them on the spot. When, a little later, they went to James’ hotel room to try to resolve matters they found he had already checked out, leaving them high and dry – effectively stranded, without any money. Not long afterwards that group re-formed as The Fabulous Flames, based in California (see Footnotes).

James Brown Famous Flames 3

James Brown Revue with the Famous Flames (above l to r): Bobby Bennett, Lloyd Stallworth, Bobby Byrd – – (below l to r): Bobby Byrd, Bobby Bennett, Lloyd Stallworth

James Brown Famous Flames 5

Within a short while another version of The Famous Flames came together. Johnny Terry had contributed towards writing Try Me although James was the only one credited as songwriter but Johnny was still a close aide of James. Together they asked Bobby Byrd to return, to which he agreed, and with newcomers Bobby Bennett and Lloyd Stallworth formed what would be the longest serving format of the group.

James Brown with his new formation of the Famous Flames appeared for the first time at The Apollo Theater on 24th April 1959 in a show headlined by Little Willie John, a label-mate at King Records and a major influence.

Another change to James’ support crew was that he employed a band. This all happened around the same time as the changes to the Famous Flames line-up. They were employed as a vocal group and to complement James’ dance routines. The band James employed had been called the Bucketheads, led by sax player J.C. Davis. They were called The James Brown Band until 1965.

James’ follow-up to Try Me was I Want You So Bad which just scraped into the R&B top 20, followed by a couple more non chart records, but in January 1960 the self-penned I’ll Go Crazy (see above clip) was released. The record got to No.15 in the R&B Chart.

This was followed by James’ biggest Pop Chart hit to that date. Think got to No.33 in the pop 100 as well as reaching No.7 in the R&B Chart. The song had originally been done by the “5” Royales but James gave it a new makeover. His version was released in April 1960 and one can detect a prototype sound of funk, for which he was going to be famous much later in the decade.

Think was the first James Brown record to be released in the UK (on the Parlophone label). The next record was This Old Heart, which happened to be his 18th and last on the Federal label. That, too, was released in the UK but on Fontana. The flip was called Wonder When You’re Coming Home and is worth a listen.

At the end of 1959, James was responsible for a record called (Do The) Mashed Potatoes. In reality it was recorded by The James Brown Band but came out as by Nat Kendrick And The Swans on Henry Stone’s Dade label. Nat Kendrick was the drummer in the band and to disguise the source of the record the voice of Carlton ‘King’ Coleman was overdubbed. It was the first Mashed Potato dance record and got to No.8 in the R&B Chart and also got into the pop 100 chart.

Although the single was released under a pseudonym it was difficult to hide the facts behind the recording once it was a big success. It became another contentious issue between James and Syd Nathan but the upshot was that James was transferred to Syd’s main label, King, whose artists generally got more support and promotion. Also, James was given licence to issue instrumentals, which he had not been allowed to do on Federal.

One of James’ influences had been Billy Ward and His Dominoes and for his first record on the King label, released in November 1960, he cut The Bells. It was a song James regularly performed when touring on the Chitlin’ Circuit but it did not chart.

The next two vocal records, Bewildered and I Don’t Mind, both made the top 10 R&B and top 50 in the Pop Chart. Simultaneous with each of those records, an instrumental was released but neither Hold It nor Suds troubled the charts.

Baby You’re Right was James Brown’s next release in July 1961 and sounded Ray Charles influenced. It was written by Joe Tex who, on the Anna label, had released the record himself a few months before. It was also James’ second biggest hit to that date, reaching No.2 in the R&B Chart as well as the top 50 in the Pop Chart. Two records later, James had similar success, No.2 R&B/top50 Pop, with Lost Someone.

In February 1962, one of James’ more famous earlier records – before his really big hits in the mid-60s – was released. On the record, he played drums. That record was Night Train and here he is performing it on Shindig in 1965.

Under the title Night Train, an instrumental, it was first recorded at the end of 1951 by tenor sax playing Jimmy Forrest. It stayed at No.1 in the R&B Chart for seven weeks in March/April 1952. However, the tune had origins going back to at least 1940 when it was associated with Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington and recorded as That’s The Blues, Old Man.

James Brown’s next two singles, Shout And Shimmy and Mashed Potatoes USA had achieved chart success before, when, on 24th October 1962, he recorded the iconic album Live At The Apollo. The story behind this was quite remarkable. James seemed to have regular disagreements with Syd Nathan, King label’s chief executive. James wanted to record a live album but Syd insisted that live albums did not sell well and that he would not sanction such a venture. James, full of self-belief, decided to fund the venture himself, which for a recording artist was practically unheard of.

James was proved right. The LP released in 1963 was a massive success. It spent 66 weeks on the Pop Album Chart, peaking at No.2 and was one of the factors enhancing his reputation and making him an R&B superstar.

The MC of the show was Fats Gonder, the same person who had introduced James in 1955 when he was standing in for Little Richard, and the introduction was the same. The album could be criticised for not giving due credit to the Famous Flames, who contributed much to the whole show. The stand out track of the album was possibly the ten-plus minute version of Lost Someone.

So now ladies and gentlemen it is Star Time.
Are you ready for Star Time?
Thank you and thank you very kindly. It is indeed a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time, nationally and internationally known as the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, the man who sings:
I’ll Go Crazy!
Try Me!
You’ve Got the Power!
Think!
If You Want Me!
I Don’t Mind!
Bewildered!
Million-dollar seller, Lost Someone!
The very latest release, Night Train!
Let’s everybody Shout and Shimmy!
Mr Dynamite, the amazing Mr Please Please himself, the star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!

A couple more big sellers followed at the end of 1962/beginning of 1963 before James had what was his biggest pop hit up to that date, Prisoner Of Love, which broke into the top 20 (see live performance of this song in Footnote 24). That song dated back to 1931 and had been a hit for Billy Eckstine, Perry Como and the Ink Spots (separately) in 1946.

 

In 1963, James founded his own label called Try Me Records, distributed by King, which he used to promote records by Famous Flame members and James Brown Band members under pseudonyms. Another artist on that label was 18-year-old Tammy Montgomery who became better known as Tammi Terrell. Her record, I Cried (written by James and Bobby Byrd), was her first chart entry, just getting into the Hot 100. James and Tammi were lovers but he badly mistreated her, reports said. Tammi, of course, became most famous for her duets with Marvin Gaye. She was only 24 years old when she died as the result of a brain tumour in 1970.

After Prisoner Of Love, James made only three more newly recorded singles before his next bust-up with Syd Nathan. Those three were: a remake of the 1936 standard These Foolish Things; Signed, Sealed And Delivered; and Oh Baby Don’t You Weep, which all enjoyed some chart success. Oh Baby Don’t You Weep was recorded at the beginning of 1964 and was based on the spiritual Mary Don’t You Weep.

The bust-up resulted in James (together with Bobby Byrd) forming a production company, Fair Deal Record Corporation, who accepted an offer from Mercury Records to release future records on their subsidiary label, Smash.

On Smash, James Brown released remakes of Louis Jordan’s Caldonia and Guitar Slim’s The Things I Used To Do without success, before releasing the ground breaking Out Of Sight in July 1964.

Legal battles ensued and eventually King Records obtained a ruling preventing James from recording vocals for other labels. He did release a few more instrumentals on Smash but had returned to King by 1965.

James Brown Famous Flames 2

 

 

 

PART TWO

James Brown photo 2

THE GODFATHER OF FUNK: 1965–1969

The switch to funk didn’t happen all in one go, or in one record. Nor did James and co neglect more conventional songs with a more conventional rhythmic approach while the funk experiments were ongoing. Nor did it happen at the start of 1965 purely for the convenience of future chroniclers of JB’s music who had a liking for snappy headings based on dates.

Out Of Sight, which far more than any other record, before or after, signified the start of the innovations which would later see the label ‘funk’ applied to them, was actually released in July 1964. Ostensibly it was an aggressive sounding twelve bar R&B number taken at a medium to fast tempo with backing largely stripped back to just the bass but with staccato horn riffs echoing the Brown vocal. A glimpse into the future came in the break wherein the horn riff morphed into three parts. The other thing that was noticeable about the record and which differentiated it from something out of, say Memphis, was its rhythm. The emphasis was on the first beat out of four – the downbeat – rather than beats two and four, the upbeats or backbeats. The expression which entered our vocabulary for this was “The One”. In a review by Mark Reynolds of a book on Brown and his music which had “The One” in the title, I came across the following:

““The one,” in James Brown lore, is the source of that which makes funk funky, and everybody knows by now that James Brown more or less made funk a world unto itself. Specifically it’s the first beat in a measure, but “the one” is not so much a musicological place as it is a spiritual place, as the navigation of that beat is invested with age-old rhythms and nuances that end up propelling the rest of everything else – the tune, the band, the audience and Brown himself – into a strutting, rump-shaking beatitude.”

In his 1986 biography – as quoted in Wiki – James stated “Out Of Sight was another beginning, musically and professionally … You can hear the band and me start to move in a whole other direction rhythmically … I was trying to get every aspect of the production to contribute to the rhythmic patterns.”

The public liked Out Of Sight. It reached #24 in the US Pop Chart, the third highest position he’d reached so far.

After a lapse of eleven months and several relatively forgettable releases, Out Of Sight was followed by Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, a two parter. While convention (and Wiki) has it that the song that James is singing is about an old man brave enough to get out onto the dance floor and show off his new skill, interest or ‘bag’, my mind has a tendency to put James in Papa’s position, showing off his new rhythmic approach. With this record another component of the funk revolution slots into place; the ubiquitous multi-part riff with chunks of fresh air in between. While a first listen – though I do recognise that this has now to be seen as an impossibility since the record has received such a high level of airtime – might suggest that it’s the horns that are important, in fact it’s the drums, bass and guitar that are the key contributors with the last two being essentially used as rhythm instruments. A new man, Jimmy Nolen, was present on guitar for the first time on this record and it’s his ‘chicken scratch’ sounds you hear plus the super-fast trill at the end of each twelve bars. For Part 2, the ensemble ditches the 12 bar structure and effectively turns the number into funk proper.

I Got You (I Feel Good) seemed like more of the same but James was flexing his muscles and assessing what more he could do in this new idiom. There was even a middle eight or bridge present plus, more unusually, a bridge to the bridge: eight bars wherein Maceo Parker on alto sax drops in a delightful descending phrase and then repeats it. Whether it was the variety in the arrangement or the fact that the saxes managed to sound even sleazier than hitherto, it was lapped up by the US public, giving James his highest ever appearance in the Pop Chart – number three – plus six weeks topping the nation’s R&B Chart.

Whoa! I feel nice, like sugar and spice
I feel nice, like sugar and spice
So nice, so nice, I got you

The bridge, to use the term that James himself deployed, was to become a semi-regular presence over coming years, While song structure in a formal sense might have been reduced to melodic and rhythmic variation around a single or sometimes multi-chord riff, the bridge which usually seemed to appear on a random basis (though was sometimes signalled by James), was used to either release or, contrarywise, to increase tension. But I’m jumping ahead. We hadn’t as yet had a number that you could place hand on heart and say, yes that’s funk.

Cold Sweat was to be that number.

Released in Summer ’67 as a two-parter it was the first of what I tend to see as the steps-to-funk singles – that is Out Of Sight, “Papa”, “I Got You” and this track – to eschew the twelve bar blues structure, with the whole thing based only on a two chord riff plus a bridge that appears every now and again (with splendid climactic flourishes from the horns to signal its end). And while certain Brown releases took on aspects of earlier Brown productions this record had input from outside the Brown camp (see Footnotes for more – from Kind Of Blue to kind of funky).

Within a couple of releases, Cold Sweat was followed by Get It Together, I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me) with that super slinky riff, and I Got The Feelin’. Fine records all, with each one demonstrating that James was now firmly in funkville. All three were also candidates for the last couple of slots in the ’65 to ’69 period. But none of them made it. Instead my vote went to two numbers which didn’t see release in that time frame. Read on for explanations.

In May 1969, James and team recorded a single entitled Mother Popcorn which was released in June that year. It was one of a series of records celebrating the new Popcorn dance and it was a perfectly fine record but not the one I’m zeroing in on. Four months earlier, in January that year, they recorded another track called You Got To Have A Mother For Me for which the lyrics were very largely the same as those used for Mother Popcorn – but James was almost the inventor of the reuse concept. In terms of arrangement the tracks were dramatically different. You Got To Have A Mother For Me was rejected for release at the time and effectively ‘put in the can’. Where it stayed until 1988 when it appeared in the compilation, Motherlode. Why do I like it? I think it’s that almost throwback feel of a good old-fashioned dance record when the whole motivation is to get the punter out there onto the floor. “Goes like the clappers” – I think the phrase is. “Give it to me baby, got to have it,” sings James.

Funky Drummer was also recorded in ’69 but also dropped out of the release schedule for the year, but only by a few months. It first saw life as a nine minute plus jam session which was edited down to a Part 1 and Part 2 for single release, a not unusual process used in the production of Brown records. The original recording eventually got included in the 1986 album, In The Jungle Groove. The track achieved particular fame in the Brown canon and beyond for the presence of an eight bar drum solo from Clyde Stubblefield – often referred to as a ‘breakbeat’ since it was unaccompanied – which impressed James so much that he came up with the song title on the spot and announced it within the recording. That solo has been sampled umpteen times and the Jungle Groove album contains, as a bonus, a three minute looped version with other instrumentation added.

Be that as it may, it’s the full version I like. More akin to jazz than many of his records with James also more constrained vocally than usual, some of his attention being devoted to his (fine) organ playing.

The eagle-eyed out there will have spotted a couple of omissions from the 1965 to 1969 period, with that pair being ‘66’s It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud from ’69. It’s a personal taste thing but the first named is just too OTT for me. Otis Redding was big in ’66 and one of his attributes was an ability to handle ballads like I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. Was this James saying anything you can do, I can do better?

I certainly have no objection to I’m Black And I’m Proud, James’ first big move into social commentary (though one could make a case for the slightly earlier patriotic America Is My Home). It was a good record but came at a time when JB was arguably at his most creative and productive ever so this one didn’t quite make it. And it wasn’t the only one not to do so.

 

1970 ON

James Brown’s spell of creativity could have taken a severe kicking in March 1970 when most of his late sixties band chose to leave him due to disputes over money. But assisted by Bobby Byrd who’d chosen to stay, he lost no time at all in recruiting a new outfit which he called the J.B.’s with several members coming from an existing Cincinnati funk band called the Pacemakers. Two particular Pacemakers – bass man William “Bootsy” Collins and his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins – were to be key to another surge in production from the James Brown machine. The first session with the new band was held on 25th April 1970 and from it came Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine which saw release in July. And it’s not here. Because it’s just everywhere else or to put it another way, it’s something I certainly wouldn’t miss if I was on the proverbial desert island. The Guardian referred to it as being “shorthand for ‘funk’” which might be what bugs me: it certainly explains its relentless omnipresence. Great record though, and the new guys on stringed instruments certainly do their thing absolutely superbly.

Instead my first selection with the J.B.’s is Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved, which like the earlier disc, features JB in duet with Bobby Byrd. What was different this time was that the guys in the horn section were fully involved, indeed seemed to be striving to make up for their earlier near absence (on ‘Sex Machine’) to quite ferocious effect. This one rocked like that good old s**t house door. James’ early hero Little Richard would have been proud of it.

Earlier in this Toppermost we came across the Live At The Apollo album. It was to be the first of several. The third of these, or to give it its full title Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III, contained the best performances from concerts from JB and the J.B.’s held in that famous theatre between 24-26th July 1971. It’s A New Day was a number recorded in 1969 (with the old band) and released in 1970. It appears on this set in pole position just after a sterling attempt by the announcer to replicate the splendid intro from the original Live At The Apollo. The studio record was fine – remember that it came from that creative period I mentioned – but this cut is even better; it’s virtually a new song. Almost as an aside I’d add that it was good to see Bewildered and Try Me given the same amount of attention and wearing spanking new arrangements in the set. An attempt to show the continuity of the soul hero from the fifties through to the seventies. Or perhaps James just liked the songs.

The best of JB’s social commentary songs for me was Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing. From its release date in 1972 on the album There It Is, you might have assumed the Collins Brothers weren’t on it since the boys, much like their predecessors, had left Brown’s employ in March 1971. But in line with Brown’s sometimes unusual release schedule, the track had been recorded back in October 1970. None of that mattered though, the promise of that excellent title was carried through to a fine composition authored by James plus Bobby Byrd which was executed with some aplomb by the J.B.’s. James has been reported (Wiki) as saying that the song was “… aimed at the politicians who were running their mouths but had no knowledge of what life was like for a lot of people in [the United States]” as well as “some of the cats on their soapboxes … who were telling the people one thing while manipulating their emotions for personal gain”.

Like a dull knife
Just ain’t cutting
Just talking loud
Then saying nothing

Even regardless of those words and sentiments, the track worked as a slab of music. The riff was long and satisfying with total empathy between the musicians and with minor changes keeping the listener mentally occupied. Bootsy, Catfish and drummer John “Jabo” Starks were running the show but the horns added colouration.

We just changed, got a brand new funky president.

That was one of the punch lines in 1974’s Funky President (People It’s Bad) and James loved those bracketed titles even more than your average Nashville song writer. Quite what it was all about though wasn’t entirely clear. Wiki tells us that the number was recorded in “August or September, 1974” which would have been only a few weeks or even days after Richard Nixon’s forced resignation. James had showered praise on Nixon during his 1972 re-election campaign, which had lost him (James) quite a few fans at the time. The incoming POTUS was Gerald Ford, VP as was, and the man who James claims was the “funky president” in the title. He also talks about getting over before we go under, though whether his brand new – well sort of, in the circumstances – president was going to help in this is far from clear. At one stage James even declares, “I need to be the mayor so I could change a few things round here.”

Regardless of any lack of clarity about the message, musically the record is a triumph, indeed ‘intoxicating’ is a word that springs to mind. Powered by two guitars – Joe Beck and Sam Brown – with one providing intricate single string work, and the other a combination of chicken scratch and very seventies wah-wah, and with horns and keyboards providing stabbing counterpoint, the riff is one of the greatest ever to emerge from the Brown stable. Not content with that, the band and JB give us a bridge of more complexity than usual.

What. A. Record.

It’s one that’s also been appreciated and appropriated by a later generation of black artists, with scores of records having subsequently appeared incorporating samples of its content.

“James’ music has been sampled, remixed, reconstituted and regurgitated so many times that it’s difficult to know where the real James Brown ends and where one of his countless disciples takes over.”

I wrote something like that about James a few years ago. I also said, “Like a tiny handful of other pop music artists – Dylan is one – in the decade before he died, James Brown came to be viewed as a living legend.”

In the hope that Wiki would provide me with a suitable closing line, I googled what their contributor included about James and found this line from Jimmy Page: “He (James Brown) was almost a musical genre in his own right and he changed and moved forward the whole time so people were able to learn from him.” The only thing wrong with that sentence is the word “almost”. James was one of very few artists, legends or not, who actually created a genre. Let’s not mince words: James invented funk, a genre which continues to reverberate through all forms of popular music, fifty years later.

Take it to the bridge.

 

 

PART THREE

James Brown photo 3

REELING IN THE FUNK YEARS

It is not by chance that James Brown (among a few select others) has the ability to break the rules of Toppermost and sneakily expand the selection criteria to a top 30 let alone a top 15. But then again, this is an equally fitting accolade for the “Hardest Working Man in Showbiz” as he truly does live up to not only his output but the consistency of that output. He essentially had two core periods – the soul years and the funk years – but that really dilutes the enormity of one of the greatest, influential and prolific recording artists of our lifetimes. In a way, it is only out of respect for that monumental output that the man deserves a little rule breaking and a 3-person Toppermost.

As with most of James Brown’s singles, this Toppermost comes in parts – this is Part III, but likewise with those records not the part to necessarily ignore, as this is where the funk usually happens! So, this section concentrates on the core funk years. James Brown the artist has already firmly established himself as a ground-breaking performer without any of these records even existing but this period is the result of all that hard work – some very experimental, ahead-of-its-time and ‘bad-ass’ music.

With such a back catalogue to choose from it becomes nigh-on impossible to come up with a perfect 10 or for that matter a perfect list. And that line up would change as much as he changed his own band. So, all we can do is attempt to highlight what makes this artist so special and the records which demonstrate what he does best. I can only imagine that no two peoples’ lists are the same, so naturally my own favourites and influences govern the 15 Funk tracks I have chosen to truly reflect this wonderful period of music.

Let the funk flow …

The funk, it seems, was always coming. Like a thief in the night, it lingered and patiently waited. But perhaps that analogy is completely wrong because it really was more like a dormant volcano – hidden under the soulful granite exterior was superhot molten funk waiting to explode on to the scene (like a sex machine – pun intended).

Once Brown got into the 60s the soul records he was putting out started to seem structured a little differently to the output of his contemporaries. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this happens and in many ways unnecessary to figure it out as it was a naturally evolving occurrence, that, to continue the analogy, was always there – it was just waiting to explode. Records like Think, certainly Out Of Sight, and of course I Got You (I Feel Good) and Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, are the blueprint for funk. Though I don’t believe anybody was calling it, whatever it was, ‘funk’ at the time. And as funky as they are, they are still essentially soul records and therefore excluded from this part of the post.

For me, it was his 1967 recording of Cold Sweat which took that blueprint from an idea to an actual formula. On that record you can hear the structure, breakdowns, horn stabs and drumming that are the bedrock for funk. What I didn’t realise until writing this article was that he recorded and released the lyrics (in part) to Cold Sweat as a track called I Don’t Care in 1962, tucked away on the LP James Brown And His Famous Flames Tour The U.S.A.. The record is not funky but the lyrical structure was there to reuse, which is very common for James Brown – nearly all his tunes are re-recorded, revisited and ‘funked’ up at some point in his illustrious career.

Cold Sweat, even though not on my list, is important to the project as a whole, I feel it is a turning point – the segue from one list to the other. As just mentioned, you can hear the full blueprint for funk on this record – the horn stabs on the first beat, the call and response between Brown and his band as he asks the players to join and “double up on it” whilst keeping a very tightly played groove and Brown’s trademark grunts, noises and breaths which must have combined to sound completely different to anything else like it at the time. Brown himself shouts out “funky as you want to be” showing that the word was in circulation and being used for this type of music.

The record also came in two parts, the second being more of an indulgent session of more of the same but containing a key funk ingredient – the break. The drummer and bassist set out on their own funky trip as Brown calls out what is happening while dancing and orchestrating the whole affair. In some ways the funk was more complicated musically but in others it was very simplistic – lyrically content didn’t need to be as high on the list, but the feeling did. Shouting out numbers, calling in musicians at different points of the record, the breaks, the return to the groove from the break and the intensity of the horns and bass to drive each record are all here – and that leads me into my list …

Get It Together (Part 1 & Part 2) (King 45-6122)
I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me) (King 45-6144)
I Got The Feelin’ (King 45-6155)
Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud (King 45-6187)
Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose (King 45-6213)
Mother Popcorn (You Got To Have A Mother For Me) (King 45-6245)
Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine (King 45-6318)
Super Bad (King 45-6329)
Soul Power (King 45-6368)
People Get Up And Drive Your Funky Soul (Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off)
The Payback (Polydor PD-14223)
The Boss (Black Caesar)
My Thang (Polydor PD 14244)
Dead On It (Polydor PD 14279)
Get Up Offa That Thing (Polydor PD 14326)

 

Only a few months after recording Cold Sweat in May ’67, the summer must have mushroomed the funk as by September, Get It Together was released and it just felt like it was all coming together.

From that opening “oooooo-weeeee” you’re hooked. A very tightly orchestrated early funk number with all the key ingredients mentioned earlier. The horn stabs, a tummy rumbling bassline driving it along while James sings and speaks his way through the record, guiding the band. This is where I first ever heard the breakdown, letting the band have individual moments on the record in unison with Brown’s grunt and hollers! It’s a fantastic record with use of phrases used much more widely later – things like, “if you hear any noise it’s just me and the boys” and the use of calling out “1 time, 2 time” etc and of course “hit it and quit it”! Much of this phraseology became track titles for Funkadelic.

It wasn’t a one off or a fad though. It was closely followed by I Can’t Stand Myself. This track was more of the same but different at the same time. The use of a repetitive guitar riff while the Hammond organ tinkles away underneath it makes for a slow funk drawl but the bassline is what gives it the funk – and a definite early example of letting the bassist ‘go off’. Towards the end of the single (Part 1), Tim Drummond gets his spotlight. I think it is one of the extremely rare music genres which highlights more than just the lead singer; we end up learning band members’ names from the records themselves rather than from liner notes or the LP credits. It’s slow funk but it’s a gorgeous nasty groove. Again the second part (only found on the LP and some tracks later into the record) shows Brown getting very screamy and talking nonsense – all perfect for funk and losing one’s mind! Both tracks mentioned so far were on the same LP (I Can’t Stand Myself When You Touch Me) and the album as a whole is a worthy listen; it’s not all funk, there is a version of Need Your Love So Bad on there and some soulful moments, but the direction things are heading is clear.

However, maybe the LP which featured the next record on my list, I Got The Feelin’, didn’t seem that way. The title track, I Got The Feelin’, is really the only funky track on it – but it’s one of the best. A lead single good enough to take your shillings. It’s more like a Cold Sweat – Get It Together hybrid but definite proof that the formula had been cracked. Brown is in complete harmony with the band, his voice riding along the groove with every grunt and horn stab precisely where they need to be. A worthy inclusion.

Another shift change …

Not satisfied with funk being just a groove or a way to get the ladies, James Brown saw its potential to send a message. Funk didn’t need just to be the party music of the time, it was powerful enough to speak to the dancer while not losing the message in the groove.

Released in late ’68 (album released in 1969), Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud was a different record. All the funk was there, the chicken scratch guitar, a funky bassline and of course a wonderful horn arrangement, but this was something else.

This record had a point to make, a message to send, but where it is so great lies in the fact that a message record didn’t have to lack a groove. The title of the track, its subject, is not lost in the amazing musicianship, it is bolstered by it – as if the two needed each other to create a civil rights anthem to break down barriers. Brown could clearly see he was in a position of responsibility and power to get a message across better than any politician or perhaps even a rally – music moves faster than any of these when it comes to touching people and spreading a message.

This may have been one of the first times funk would dabble with or try to tackle important human rights issues but it certainly wouldn’t be the last; Brown especially used his music for this purpose on nearly every album following this one. Tracks like King Heroin would appear later on. Selfishly, there was another first on ‘Black And Proud’ – the appearance of Fred Wesley on trombone, a key ingredient to the development of all funk.

This really shines on Brown’s next album (It’s A Mother) and my next selection, Mother Popcorn. The album is great –from start to finish it’s a much more complete listen rather than just moments, a very nice blend of soul and funk. Tracks like I’m Shook (C+C Music Factory anyone?), The Little Groove Maker Me, and a wonderful (in my opinion) version of the Bacharach penned Any Day Now – James Brown style of course. But the shining star is undoubtedly the (near) title track and boy is it a blinder.

If you want an example of funk being on “the one” (as previously mentioned), this is it. On the first note all the band kick in – the relentless bass instantly attacking the groove and one of the tightest horn arrangements on record. Fred Wesley had truly arrived.

As if this couldn’t be perfected any further, they did it again – check out Give It Up Or TurnIt A Loose (and its near equally famous remix version that appears on In The Jungle Groove), released as a single in 1969 and appearing on album as an instrumental in 1970, the single version shows how far funk has progressed in a short space of time. Like a lot of Brown’s tracks he would revisit, it would appear that this was one he was not ready to let go of – it reappeared a year later on the Sex Machine LP as the version we know and love and what a treat it is.

With the new version’s inclusion of hot funky lyrics, a conga percussion beat and metronome-worthy drumming from Clyde Stubblefield, the breakdown on it is sublime. The congas hold the rhythm while JB demands we “clap our hands and stomp our feet”, until he calls for Clyde to carry on and then calls Bootsy Collins back to give us a bassline to make your granny twist and shout. One of my favourite records on the list.

Already mentioned – and therefore not on my list – is also Funky Drummer. So good it is worth bringing up again. It’s such an important record in terms of what doors it opens up. Again, Clyde Stubblefield was the track’s aforementioned drummer – he plays out one of, it not the, most sampled drum loop breakbeats of all time. You have to wait about five minutes in to the record for it to happen but when it does it’ll grab your attention. The bedrock of so many hip hop records, it is the definitive breakbeat. However, showing where sampling even influences pop, this record alone is the influence for so many tracks beyond hip hop – that breakbeat has been used by the likes of George Michael, New Order and Sinead O’Connor to name but a few. It just shows you how influential Brown’s beats were becoming on the music producers of tomorrow.

Back to the list …

When a record becomes over-played and popular, in some ways it loses its impact – as if by having us all share in a record’s greatness we feel it has been ruined by the masses sharing in our discovery. But at the end of the day, if something is great it should be discovered and shared by all. But what happens when something is amazing?

It is always a little unfortunate that popularity does sometimes kill a good tune’s initial punch. Where am I going with this before I sound preachy!? Well, James Brown had a few such records but somehow I feel his records still have the same raw impact from first time to ten thousandth listen. Besides, isn’t it selfish not to share when something is so devilishly good!

One such record has already been mentioned – (I Got You) I Feel Good. There is something about that record, you don’t know what it is but you know it is happening, it makes you tap your feet and as the title suggests, feel good. But arguably, the next time Brown did this was on Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.

As I said, the record became so popular that if it comes on the radio, at work or playing through a tinny supermarket speaker system, you still enjoy it but you know it so well you forget to sometimes listen to exactly how good it is.

A real funk record, the culmination of the work leading up to it and essentially the chime that rang in the new decade. Sex Machine is such a great recording. From its bulldozer of a bassline that relentlessly drives the record, to the classic call and response of the lyrics, although simple – all very effective. Perhaps, at the time, the subject matter was quite a breakthrough but it was really a revolutionary anthem – funk was here and here to stay and it could say what it wants, how it wants and when it wants (if I were James Brown with a three-part list like that I’d have an additional title in these brackets!).

Around this period and at the dawn of the 70s the real shift change happens. Funk is a widely spread term for this type of music. James Brown pioneering the sound and opening up the doors for others to join in.

As the old adage goes, if you want something done – ask a busy person. When you are that hard working it would appear you have your fingers in all the pies! Not satisfied with just his own output, James Brown was involved in so many other artists’ recordings and breaking new talent. Whether it was via the J.B.’s group or as singers/collaborators, James Brown has been involved in the careers of Bobby Byrd, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Lyn Collins, Marva Whitney, Vicki Anderson (Carleen’s mum), Hank Ballard, Bootsy Collins and that is just scratching the surface. Most of these artists deserve their own Toppermosts so while the J.B.’s are so important in this timeframe I have largely omitted their tracks and kept the list to James Brown’s releases as an artist from this period.

All that does need to said about this period, and James Brown in general, is how important Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker are to everything. They are largely responsible for deciphering what James Brown wanted to hear and arranging a lot of his records. James Brown was so influential and stubbornly strong-willed he would have still probably made it to wherever he wanted to get anyway, but I do feel the period wouldn’t have been so funky without Fred and Maceo. However, I would not want to ignore how important the whole band were – Clyde Stubblefield or John “Jabo” Starks on drums, “Pee Wee” Ellis on alto sax and St. Clair Pinckney on baritone sax to name a few – just wanted to clear that up before pinning the funk on 3-4 people. Funk is a collaborative artform, it takes many elements to make your body move!

I digress …

What followed were a couple of personal favourites and top-flight funk records. (Call Me) Super Bad and Soul Power. They are superbly nasty bits of funk. This is the first of the pair:

Super Bad is a little more smack you in the face funk with Brown screaming not totally unlike a kettle boiling but the horn playing and ‘going off’ on this one are great for all three parts. It was the return of using the word ‘soul’ in the records – “I’ve got soul and I’m Superbad”. I won’t go off on one myself on this track – just listen and you will hear what I’m talking about.

Possibly my favourite record on the whole list is Soul Power. It is such a tight groove and has all my favourite ingredients – the call and response between Brown and Byrd, Brown and the band and Brown and us. It has a lovely ‘farty’ bassline and very tight shuffling drum beat and horns to die for. One of the best examples of a band being on point and in sync. The J.B.’s recorded an instrumental version that is equally fantastic but I think I lean towards a version with Brown on the mic. It’s feel good funk at its finest.

For more of the same check out my next choice, People Get Up And Drive Your Funky Soul – a mouthful of a title that seems to include all his other funk titles in one. It is more of the same for sure but until recent times – it appears on In The Jungle Groove and the Spiderman 3 soundtrack as just two examples – it was hiding on one of a few soundtracks JB was behind, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off. With its fantastic horn opening, it mellows out into a very cool groove to really show-off that 70s-hip-strut thing – we all wish we could be this cool. It is also worthy of note, that it’s one of the first times I heard star signs being called out on wax (I could be wrong), which was adopted later – as so many other things James Brown – in hip hop.

As if the hip-hoppers hadn’t mined enough, the next record on the list gave them a landmark beat. The Payback is exactly what is says on the tin – revenge funk. Built around a mean wah-wah guitar riff complemented by shakers, it is stare-down funk that is punchy and hard as it intends to be. The Payback is also one of Brown’s best, most complete, albums, the nearest to a concept album he got. And the title track is great lazy slow funk, the inclusion of the wah-wah and a slightly different arrangement showed how much things were developing, again something Fred Wesley was equally responsible for. More on this one later.

The next few records on the list are more personal favourites and decent funk moments but decent records nonetheless.

The Boss was more of the same, not a carbon copy of Payback but it uses the same blueprint. Another track from a soundtrack, Blaxploitation cinema was known as much for the records it produced as some of the films themselves – that said, some of my favourite films are in this genre. The Boss was from Black Caesar (1973) and although it is not out and out funk it’s certainly a groove with wonderful arrangements and as much a message record – “paid the cost to the boss”. The lines may have been blurring between truth and fiction; by now Brown had started to fall out with some members of the band and others were seeking pastures new – the greener grass of the Parliament-Funkadelic thang. But there was still a little funk left in the old dog yet.

Speaking of thangs, next on the list is My Thang, from Hell. It’s a great record, mixing the up-tempo funk of his earlier work with the nasty hard-faced attitude funk of Payback. It is certainly more of the same but it wasn’t broke and didn’t need fixing. The album itself is a great listen too. Take this as a starting point and listen through.

Around this time great records like Papa Don’t Take No Mess, Make It Funky and I Got Ants In My Pants were produced and all would be worthy inclusions to the list, but I’m aware I’m already breaking Toppermost rules so they are worth a nod here and, moreover, worth a listen.

Of all the selections the next one is just a personal favourite that probably wouldn’t appear on anyone else’s list but I just like it. Dead On It has a wonderful and different modern disco-era funk sound. The opening of it even confesses, “I admit we are not as funky as we used to be”, which I find quite amazing to say on your own record but then again perhaps it is tongue-in-cheek because I think Brown knew the groove that was about to kick in after his talky intro. Over what I call a ‘wodgy’ synth bassline, Brown mentions classical music composers, the state of funk and how he feels about the newcomer – there are still things to learn from Mr. Brown! It’s very of its time, a disco hustle affair, but is well produced and still has wonderful horn arrangements and that constant scratchy guitar to lead us through on a thirteen minute plus rampage. As I said, just a personal inclusion but with merit.

And finally, Get Up Offa That Thing, possibly Brown’s last real hit and what a way to go out – typical of Brown – always shining until the bitter end. Nasty from beginning to end, it is in fact the perfect record to close out the list. The track does in fact contain nearly every element discussed to this point – as if the journey is done. It’s a funk attack complete with screamed opening, blasting horns, full grunts and whistles and a hint of venom! Brown is in attack mode – calling out other groups on biting his funk, Ohio Players and Barry White to name a few (I would like to add that I love these artists) but while it is just in fun, Brown is letting them all know he did it first, did it best and does it to have the last word! Here he is live in ’77 with intro from Wolfman Jack.

One of his most popular tracks, it often appears at the top on download and listened-to lists on platforms like Spotify. Considering it was so late in his career and essentially his last massive hit, that is quite an achievement but one worthy of a legend who ruled the airwaves solidly for twenty years at this point.

After this record, there were still spasmodic hits and collaborations and moments. The well had not dried up but neither was it overflowing. As his personal life caught up with him and he tried to keep up with musical trends, things lost their way in the late 70s going into the 80s.

Brown tried to keep up with disco and electronic sounds when I wish he had stuck with the Hammond B3. But one must move with the times, and unfortunately he just couldn’t keep up. He even released albums with titles like The Original Disco Man – they aren’t even bad, in fact tracks like It’s Too Funky In Here are still well-made records, just not in fashion.

I guess his most well-known record beyond the golden age soul and funk period would be Living In America for the Rocky IV soundtrack. Again, Brown still knew how to raise a crowd from the dead – it just sounds of its time. He did finally do a duet with Aretha, albeit a little late in both their careers; then again, what sort of record would they have made at the height of their careers?

He still had decent output going into the 90s, after which releases seemed to be remixes, EQ’d versions and dance version type things that may have worked at exactly that moment but, on listening now, most of them you just quickly go looking for the original.

Not to take anything away from the man; to appear on and make recordings for 50 years is basically unheard of and is unlikely to happen again at that level, so I think the guy deserves a break – he really was the hardest working man in show business …

 

If you could only buy one album (not a greatest hits) the most defining, or rather easy-access, album that covers the funk period is probably In the Jungle Groove (1986), closely followed by Motherlode (2003). Ironically, both collated/released way past the actual recorded tracks that appear on both albums. But Jungle Groove pulled together the funk years and formed an album full of unadulterated, “un-skippable”, pure funk, no filler and, essentially, not even a ballad. Not that I have anything against his wonderful, often moving, ballads – but if you’re seeking funk you won’t be disappointed, if anything your mind will be blown.

If, however, you wanted to listen to an album that was released during the main funk period then I would highly recommend The Payback (1973). One of the few times JB has done something closely resembling a concept album, not like a Marvin What’s Going On type affair, more of a complete track to track piece that uses that Payback string/chorus riff to segue between each moment. There is a message within the album: it covers race, equality and the struggles of living in white America. It can be quite a talky album at times but it is very consistent throughout. It also contains one of my favourite ballads that, sadly, couldn’t be included in the list – Doing The Best I Can – a lovelorn lament about losing that girl and trying to get past it. It is also a nice touch on a mainly funky album to hark back to his roots. The Payback is James Brown’s only gold certified album.

In summary, on the subject of albums to hear/own, one of the best collections to seek out (ignoring greatest hits – although those are usually fantastic) is the Hip-O-Select series of singles releases. In chronological order and spanning 11 two-disc volumes, these albums collate each single released by JB from 1956-1981. Perhaps a little indulgent or overkill but, equally, this CD set spanning 25 years of James’ career, will more than whet the appetite for fans.

And in summation of this whole piece, well, James Brown is undoubtedly one of the most influential musicians to ever record. I’m not saying the best, the only or some genre-conquering statement – I’m saying influential. He broke boundaries, changed the musical landscape and gave everyone else such a ton of ideas that the ripple effect carries on in the charts today. You are only a few tracks away from another artist sampling, imitating or rehashing something from JB’s body of work. I listen to the radio or contemporary releases when I work and every now and then – a little JB grunt, a touch of funky drummer or a wholesale lift of one of his tracks will come through the speaker. And this article would have been far easier to write had I not listened to his music while I wrote it – a beautiful distraction – no matter who you are it is incredibly difficult to not, at the very least, tap your feet. This music gets in your bones!

In hip hop circles he is a God. The very bedrock of most of hip hop’s golden age (approx 1986-95) are JB funk samples, grunts, drums, horn stabs and basslines. The most sampled man in history. And I accept to some this isn’t the way music should be but to be that influential and to spread your music to others, it always kept JB current. He himself may not have kept up with the times heading into the late 80s, but the 80s and 90s certainly kept up with him. As a fan of the genre I am truly grateful that those artists dug up those old records because once I realised all these tracks had a (more often than not better) original, my mind was blown and my focus shifted to finding and listening to these tracks to discover what else I was missing. I’ve been collecting his stuff and listening ever since I heard him and I had a massive advantage – the music was already at home, thanks to my dad’s extensive collection of James Brown records. And when I put the needle to the record and heard slightly lesser known tracks like Get It Together, I was truly in awe and entertained for hours.

I don’t think another artist has truly captured my attention like James Brown. I’m a huge fan of Prince, Parliament-Funkadelic, Marvin and Curtis (all Gods to us mere mortals) but I can easily say that James Brown’s radical forward thinking was ahead of its time and his impact on modern music is a gift. A genius with very fast, very clean, shiny shoes that I was very lucky to get the chance to see in the early 2000s. But if the time machine did exist – and I know there are those that would want to see the birth of Christ, assassinate Hitler as a baby, or something along those lines – I would make my first stop at around 1967 and witness the birth of funk.

To get an opportunity to write about the man has been a pleasure and certainly not a chore. I guess like all things that are a natural interest they become far easier to get passionate about. I know if I was asked to write this all again in two years, ten years or twenty years from now, the list would alter again and again but certainly there are core tracks that are irreplaceable and approved by all. This Toppermost I feel represents a very good cross-section of ‘must-listen-to’ tracks, a great list for a newcomer to get started on or a highly agreeable list for the seasoned fan. Like the funk, it is what it needs to be at the time when it is needed – changing but staying the same.

 

 

James Brown photo 4

FOOTNOTES

1. In answer to the “who did what” question: Dave produced the Introduction, The Godfather Of Funk: 1965–1969, and 1970 On; Cal provided Soul Pioneer 1933–1964; and Ceri crafted ‘Reeling In The Funk Years’. The rationale behind the inclusion of the last section (and the selections that went with it) was that we – Dave and Cal – felt that we were somewhat lightweight in the funk arena, and although the 15 tracks we selected were intended to be the main Toppermost set, the overall document would be better balanced with input from someone with relevant experience in/knowledge of James Brown, Mister Funk, including a selection of 15 tracks covering ‘the Funk Years’. Ceri met that requirement extremely well.

2. (Cal) There are several reports that Please, Please, Please had been based on a doo wop version of the song Baby, Please Don’t Go that had been recorded by the Orioles in 1952. In Bruce Tucker’s book “James Brown – The Godfather Of Soul” he quotes James as saying, “At the time we were doing an Orioles song called Baby, Please Don’t Go. The background vocals for it includes the word ‘please’ repeated several times. With that starting point I wrote Please, Please, Please.”

The song almost certainly has roots going back to slavery days. The first recording of it in a recognisable form was by Big Joe Williams in 1935. Muddy Waters did a version in 1953 and there was a more modern rock version by the Van Morrison led group Them in 1964.

3. (Cal) Louis Madison of the Dominions, the Famous Flames and the Fabulous Flames claimed to have helped write Please, Please, Please, Try Me and I Found You / I Got You (I Feel Good). Whether or not that has any substance we will probably never know but he was certainly part of the James Brown story. He was in the singing group the Dominions who temporarily became the Famous Flames between 1957 and early-1959 after James’ fall-out with the then incumbents.

That fall-out with the 1957/1959 version of the Famous Flames is referred to in the main text. When they were left ‘high and dry’ in California, Brad Taylor, a manager and record label owner, supported the group, who became the renamed Fabulous Flames. The group of three were made into a quartet with the addition of Willie ‘Snake’ Johnson. They made several records for Taylor’s Bay-Tone label, an example being Do You Remember. They had a bit of regional success but with musical tastes changing they began to struggle and with the subsequent murder of J.W. Archer those Flames finally became extinguished. Louis Madison and James did renew their friendship later.

4. (Cal) James’ first record on the King label in 1960 was The Bells, originally recorded by Billy Ward and His Dominoes. They were a very successful R&B group, regularly reaching the top 10 in the R&B Chart between 1951 and 1953. They recorded The Bells with Clyde McPhatter on lead vocal, which got to No.3 in the R&B Chart at the beginning of 1953. The song had borrowed quite a bit from a No.1 R&B hit a year earlier called Weepin’ And Cryin’ by the Griffin Brothers. Clyde left the group shortly afterwards and was succeeded by Jackie Wilson. The group’s successes had dried up by 1954 but, after personnel and label changes, did have Pop Chart success with two resurrected oldies, Star Dust and Deep Purple in 1957. For more on Billy Ward and His Dominoes see Dave’s Drifters’ Toppermost #705 Footnote 1.

5. (Dave) In his book “Ray Charles: Birth Of Soul”, Mike Evans draws a comparison between Brown and Charles: “James Brown on the other hand, like Ray Charles, would appropriate aspects of church music for his own musical ends, though in his case it was the personal delivery that was borrowed from gospel rather than the structure and arrangements of the songs themselves.” He goes on to mention the Reverend Julius Cheeks from the Sensational Nightingales and Ira Tucker from the Dixie Hummingbirds as major influences on Brown, not just in the way they sang but the way they moved and controlled an audience.

6. (Dave) Funk is usually described as music wherein the rhythm or groove is seen as more important than the song structure. Indeed the latter was often non-existent in many Brown numbers post Cold Sweat with the only nod to a more traditional approach being the occasional presence of a bridge.

The rhythm/groove usually has a number of attributes: the emphasis is on the first beat out of four i.e. a down beat, or “The One” in funk speak; the pattern (at least in James Brown’s hands) is a combination of vocal (or instrumental) statement plus an answer (or “response” as in gospel call and response); the response or riff often comprises multiple interlocking riffs played by multiple instruments; the bass line is usually the most prominent part of the riff and indeed the whole record; many if not all of the instruments are used at least in part for rhythmic not melodic effect – this is particularly true of bass and guitar which take percussive roles supporting or providing counterpoint to the drums, but horns and other instruments are frequently used for punctuational effect; the chords used often go way beyond typical sevenths seen in R&B records from the fifties/sixties with arrangers, improvisers and musicians dipping deep into jazz territory.

While many essays on the topic, including the one from Wikipedia, draw a strong correlation between funk and music emanating from New Orleans, particularly that from the likes of Professor Longhair. I remain to be fully convinced. I accept the twin facts that (a) Allen Toussaint from the city was involved with a strain of music that’s often labelled New Orleans Funk which drew from sources like Longhair, and (b) James Brown would occasionally use a New Orleans rhythm to drive his records, but I don’t see influences from Longhair or artists associated with Toussaint like Lee Dorsey appearing directly in Brown’s music, though I certainly wouldn’t totally discount the theory. I would also note that some of the musical sounds coming out of the New Orleans melting pot in the fifties were more attributable to European e.g. Spanish sources than anything more directly African or North or South American.

7. (Dave) While it’s tempting to see/hear Out Of Sight as standing on its own as a blueprint for funk, that wasn’t in fact the case. The biggest single contributor leading to funk was James’ liking for the gospel call and response technique with singers responding to his vocal, and, over time, such singers being replaced or supplemented by instrumentation. This was a standard soul practice but Brown took it further by increasing the complexity and length of the instrumental responses, introducing “The One” rhythmic approach and shrinking the structure on which the song was based. There are little parts of this pre-funk jigsaw scattered across discs throughout the early Brown career just waiting to be put together. Below are just a few of several I spotted from a rapid run through his singles and albums:

* Tell Me What I Did Wrong (flipside of Try Me, 1958), has a kind of double response with the guitar then the brass following James. Funk aficionados might not see anything revolutionary here but bear in mind that this was cut the best part of a decade before funk got into its groove.

* Good Good Lovin’ (single 1959), is an example of James & band using the New Orleans latin approach, maybe not with the elegance and sophistication of Professor Longhair but the basics were there. Later examples included Think, This Old Heart and Fine Old Foxy Self. While, in my eyes, this wasn’t a clear link to funk from that city it did show awareness.

* Think (1960) also warrants mention because of the complexity of the riff. It’s notable that this song wasn’t authored by James but such pre-funk components weren’t present in the “5” Royales original so were concocted specifically for the Brown recording.

* I’ve Got Money (flip of Three Hearts In A Tangle, 1962) offers a clear-cut example of “The One” and it dominates the record.

* Tell Me What You’re Gonna Do (on 1962 album Good, Good Twistin’ and later – 1964 – appeared on a single) has an absolutely glorious, complex and very long answering riff to James’ vocal. On this record the riff is arguably more important than the vocal or to put it another way, James’ vocal can almost be seen as part of the riff.

* Out Of The Blue (flip of Things I Used To Do which was the single immediately preceding Out Of Sight in 1964) is a two chord affair with riffs which abandons the normal verse (and sometimes chorus) song structure.

* The instrumental Headache (on the 1964 album Grits & Soul) shows a willingness to wholeheartedly embrace things jazzy – as does much of the album – but happily breaks to a rotgut bluesy guitar section.

* Prominent bass parts appear in lots of places. An example is the 1962 instrumental Sticky which also illustrates instruments trading off each other. Intriguingly, according to 45cat, this disc appeared a month before the Philip Upchurch Combo’s You Can’t Sit Down with which it would seem (to my ears) to share some attributes.

* What is also noticeable listening to successive releases is the prominence of the guitarist. That statement applies to most if not all of the above (and I note that jazzman Kenny Burrell was on guitar for Tell Me What I Did Wrong). Les Buie was the guitar man for Out Of Sight and several other singles around that time but Jimmy Nolen replaced him on Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag and many, not all, singles up to 1970. During much of that period there was a twin pronged guitar attack with the second man being Alfonzo Kellum.

8. (Dave) Before and after examples of the introduction of funk into James’ music can be heard via versions of Think. This is the 1960 original. This is a transitional version with Vicki Anderson on board from 1967, and finally here’s the take from James in ’73.

9. (Dave) In the essay on James in “The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B” the author states:

“In 1964, with one ear on the street picking up the latest slang and the other on Jessie Hill’s 1960 proto-funk classic “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”, Brown crafted “Out Of Sight”, a sinuous and sinewy groove that was as taut and lithe as his own dancing.”

While it’s not unusual for writers to draw comparisons between funk and music coming out of New Orleans in the forties and fifties – see comments above – this is the only direct attempt at a correlation I’ve seen between a Brown track and a specific New Orleans rhumba record and a great one, I hasten to add. It was also a two-parter.

10. (Dave) I quoted a statement from James which started “Out of Sight was another beginning, musically and professionally …”. The “professionally” reference might well have been present since the record was one of a handful which came out on Smash while James was in dispute with his main label, King (to which he returned after a handful of Smash releases).

11. (Dave) The reference to “several relatively forgettable releases” after Out Of Sight wasn’t a comment on Brown releases in general. Instead it was down to the fact that while a stand-off was in place legally between record labels Smash and King, the latter attempted to cash-in on any success accruing to the man they claimed as their artist, by releasing tracks from him recorded at any time when he was under contract to them. Such tracks (a) could have been heard before – some were releases from the Live At The Apollo set – and (b), they in no way illustrated the development in James’ music.

12. (Dave) Jimmy Nolen was born in Oklahoma in 1934 but moved to Los Angeles in order to work in the band led by blues singer Jimmy Wilson, the man who had a hit with Tin Pan Alley. He also made a few records under his own right during this period – Strollin’ With Nolen from 1956 was one such, a record which demonstrated that Jimmy had listened to the great T-Bone Walker. In 1957, Jimmy replaced Pete Lewis in the Johnny Otis Show and was with Otis for the chart hit, Willie And The Hand Jive (and I’d challenge anyone to say that that record’s Bo Diddleyisms didn’t contain some of the seeds of funk). In 1959, Jimmy formed his own band which was used primarily to back-up individual performers. In ’65, Les Buie, who was then guitarist for James Brown, recommended Jimmy as a replacement for himself – he’d grown tired of the road. Jimmy was a key member of the Brown band and was present on many of those great singles up to early 1970. He upped sticks with the rest of the band but returned to work with JB in the mid-seventies being present on The Payback, Papa Don’t Take No Mess, Stoned To The Bone and plenty more. He remained with the band until 1983 when he died of a heart attack.

For any guitarists reading this I’ve reproduced below, the Wiki description of the Jimmy Nolen “Chicken Scratch” sound:

“Nolen developed a style of picking known as “chicken scratch”, in which the guitar strings are pressed lightly against the fingerboard and then quickly released just enough to get a muted “scratching” sound that is produced by rapid rhythmic strumming of the opposite hand near the bridge. This new guitar style was affected not only by Nolen’s choice of two and three note chord voicings of augmented 7th and 9th but also by his strumming straight 16th patterns, as in James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”.

James Brown photo 5

James Brown and Yvonne Fair

13. (Dave) Yvonne Fair, born Flora Yvonne Coleman, came from Richmond, Virginia. She spent a spell as back-up singer in the James Brown Revue in the early sixties and, while she was with them recorded a Brown penned song, I Found You which James later worked up into I Got You (I Feel Good). She signed to Motown in 1974 and had a sizeable hit in the UK and Australia with the Norman Whitfield penned and produced It Should Have Been Me in 1976.

14. (Dave) This clip from the 2014 film Mr Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown, features Pee Wee Ellis, sax player and arranger for James, telling the story of an external influence on Cold Sweat (and it’s documented below):

“After a gig somewhere, James Brown called me into his dressing room which he often does after the show and said, “I got an idea, write this down”. So I started putting notations to his grunts which came out [as] the bass line to “Cold Sweat”. I had [also] been listening to Miles Davis and ‘So What’ popped up in my head. I took [part of the horns] and just repeated it over and over. And then we added a very important guitar part, contrasting all of that, which is funky by itself.”

I’m indebted to Rolling Stone and their 9 Things We Learned From “Mr Dynamite” for alerting me to the connection between So What and Cold Sweat.

15. (Dave) In the process of the research for this post I learned something from Wiki (and Rolling Stone) which maybe should have struck me before: The title, It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World came from the 1963 film, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The idea for the song came from Brown’s then girlfriend, Betty Jean Newsome, while the pair were riding in a car. Whether she came up with the phrase “but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl” isn’t documented but after JB had written it he gave Betty Jean half credit for triggering his thinking process.

Our Esteemed Editor has found an interesting article by Michael Clancy in The Village Voice in which he interviews Betty Jean who talks more about It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.

16. (Dave) A recent (April 2019) feature on the recording of I’m Black And I’m Proud in Uncut was an excellent memory jogger on the events that occurred in America prior to James and the band entering the Vox Studios in Los Angeles on 7th August 1968. Four months earlier, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis on 4th April. James helped to quell tensions in Boston that night. Only a few days before the LA session, three Black Panthers were killed at a shoot-out at a local petrol station. According to Uncut, some of the band were uncomfortable with the song’s uncompromising message. The Uncut writer also gives us a quote from Pee Wee Ellis fifty years later:

“I didn’t realise it was going to be an anthem and last this long. What was mind-blowing was when we did it live a few weeks later, at the Apollo, James Brown sang. “Say it loud!” and the whole audience shouted back, “I’m black and I’m proud!”. It raised the hairs on the back of your neck. It was incredibly touching.”

17. (Dave) Little Willie John died in prison in 1968. James was devastated by the death and released a tribute album entitled Thinking About Little Willie John And A Few Nice Things. The approach he adopted for the album was wildly at odds with what was appearing from him on singles at that time as can be judged by his version of Willie John’s Cottage For Sale.

18. (Dave) There might be an appearance of my selections coming almost overwhelmingly from the 1986 album, In The Jungle Groove. This was, in fact, accidental though I still strongly recommend the album. While it is that humble thing, a compilation, it’s still one of the best you’ll find anywhere and is the perfect introduction to JB in funk mode. Others that warrant attention include the 4 x CD Box Set Star Time which critic Robert Christgau called “The finest box set ever released”. It was compiled by Cliff White and Harry Weinger and released in 1991. The set covers the entire Brown career up to that date. Rounding out this batch of compilation recommendations is I Feel Good: The Very Best Of which doesn’t have the focus of In The Jungle Groove, nor does it have the scholarship or the comprehensive nature of Star Time – it largely concentrates on the funk years – but it’s remarkably cheap for a 2 x CD set and includes many of his better known numbers.

(I wrote the above before reading Ceri’s portion and there’s a clear overlap on album recommendations. However, approx 2/3 of the above para is still relevant particularly for Brown neophytes so I’ve retained it.)

19. (Dave) As all funk fans will know, when Bootsy and Catfish Collins left the J.B.’s they formed a group called House Guests and then, in 1972, moved on again to George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic.

20. (Dave) Very little in the James Brown story is straightforward. In February 1970, James recorded the first version of Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing with a one-off band and a sound which was more rock oriented than his usual approach. Like the later cut with the J.B.’s this take didn’t see release in 1970. But when new label Polydor chose to belatedly release the J.B.’s’ take, King very nearly responded by issuing the ‘rock take’. It was scheduled for release but then withdrawn only to appear on a compilation set in 2000.

21. (Dave) Perhaps unusually for the subject matter I focussed more attention on guitarists in my part of this suite of essays than other accompanists, though I would add that Ceri has admirably redressed the balance by shining the spotlight on the guys with the brass instruments. I’m going to mention one more axeman though, even if he did only appear uncredited. Lonnie Mack was the gent on lead guitar on the splendid instrumental Stone Fox which was included on the 1967 LP, James Brown Sings Raw Soul.

22. (Ceri) James Brown’s Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose, from the Sex Machine album, probably more than any other single recording was a key ingredient in the birth of the genre of music that became known as hip hop.

Around 1972, in New York, 17 year old Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, would cut, mix and scratch records on two turntables, looping segments and extending beats indefinitely. He called it “merry-go-round” but later it has been accepted that this was the birth of hip hop. A lot of James Brown’s records with their drum breaks, grunts and horn stabs would have been suitable but Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose with its “clap your hands, stomp your feet” chant leading into a great drum and rhythm break was ideal to loop those segments repeatedly.

By 1975 the more famous DJs, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, took over the reins in growing the culture but DJ Kool Herc using James Brown’s Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose in the Bronx in the early 70s lit the fuse for the explosion of hip hop.

23. (Ceri & Dave) James even found time to make the occasional dance instruction video. This is one and here’s a collection of his “Best Dance Moves Ever”.

James Brown photo 6

24. (Cal) James Brown arrived in the UK for the first time on 9th March 1966 and appeared on the TV programme Ready Steady Go two days later. It was the first time that the whole of the one hour show was devoted to a single artist. It’s unfortunate, though, that a recording of it does not survive. Regrettably, in those days, for economic reasons, live shows were often ‘wiped’ so that the tape could be reused.

The very next night – Saturday 12th March 1966 – was James’ very first UK concert and I was there, at Walthamstow Granada in seat KK6 which had cost 17/6d (87p). Myself and three friends (including Our Esteemed Editor) had travelled over 100 miles to see the show. Looking back now it’s the best investment of less than a pound I’ve ever spent – to see such a spectacular show and have 53 years (so far) of fantastic memories of that experience.

The first half of the show passed without anything being too memorable. Doris Troy closed it and was good but I think everybody had only come to see James Brown, who did the whole of the second half. Within a very short time of James starting to perform, everybody, literally everybody, was out of their seats and trying to get as close to the stage as possible. I would be lying if I said I remembered everything James did but I do know I’d never seen such showmanship before or since (only Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins came anywhere near close). We all knew the cape routine, the feigning exhaustion and the Famous Flames with the MC trying to get James off stage for his own good was an act but it didn’t matter, it all added to the spectacle and the occasion.

I did see James Brown again in 2001 when he was 68 and he was very good then but I genuinely feel honoured that I saw him somewhere near his peak. He was 32 when I saw him in 1966. Just 17 months before I saw him, he appeared on The T.A.M.I. Show and here is that 18 minute performance which shows off those wonderful dance moves and impassioned singing that I saw. Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.

 

James Brown Walthamstow Granada

The scene of JB’s first UK concert in 1966

 

James Brown Walthamstow Poster

James Brown UK Tour Programme 1966

 

James Brown (1933–2006)

 

Bobby Byrd (1934–2007)

Jimmy Nolen (1934–1983)

Lloyd Stallworth (1941–2002)

Clyde Stubblefield (1943–2017)

John “Jabo” Starks (1937–2018)

 

James Brown official website

The James Brown SuperFan Club (with discographies)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: James Brown (1986)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: The Famous Flames (2012)

Songwriters Hall of Fame: James Brown

Fred Wesley; Fred Thomas; Maceo Parker; Melvin Parker

Anna King (1937–2002); Vicki Anderson; Marva Whitney (1944–2012); Lyn Collins ((1948–2005)

Bootsy Collins official website

“James Brown: The Godfather of Soul” by James Brown & Bruce Tucker (Macmillan 1986)

Get On Up: The James Brown Story directed by Tate Taylor (2014)

James Brown at Discogs

James Brown biography (iTunes)

 

James Brown TAMI show

The T.A.M.I. Show (the classic 1964 concert available on DVD)

 

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Redding.

Ceri Taylor, like his father and fellow Toppermost writer Cal, has always been a record collector. Since his teens, working in record shops and later DJing, his music interests gravitated towards soul, funk and hip hop. It mainly started with listening to Motown as a kid, hip hop as a teen and then discovering most of the ‘breaks’ in hip hop were from old funk and soul records – he’s been trying to find those breaks ever since! His contributions for this site include Parliament, Rick James, Curtis Mayfield, The Impressions.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Slim Harpo, Alexis Korner, Little Walter, Junior Parker., Big Joe Turner, Chuck Willis

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Ray Charles, Drifters, “5” Royales, Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Richard, Little Willie John, Lonnie Mack, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Otis, Parliament, Prince, Otis Redding, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters

TopperPost #776

13 Comments

  1. John Chamberlain
    Mar 27, 2019

    Well, what can you say? A magnificent piece, enhanced with the three separate contributors. I was the third “mystery” friend at the Granada. I recall, vividly, getting up and getting down as soon as the Master was on stage. I also recall that at some point JB threw, I think his cufflinks?, into the crowd and there was a big scuffle to retrieve them. Very happy days.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 27, 2019

    What a brilliant Toppermost – this has to be close to definitive. And as someone who has not done much more than scrape the surface with JB, this is also a superb introduction and guide.

  3. Peter Viney
    Mar 28, 2019

    Brilliant. Should be the sleeve note to a new box set. In the 70s, teaching North Africans and French speaking sub-Saharan Africans, I realized that JB’s status for them was like Elvis and The Beatles rolled into one, but bigger. Huge! I do know what you mean about It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World being OTT, but I’d still have to have it, to invoke the era. Also I remember so well the sound of students singing along to I’m Black & I’m Proud. I’m glad it’s in Ceri’s selection. The Kent CD “Change Is Gonna Come: Voice of Black America” has I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothin’ (Open The Door I’ll Git It Myself) which is a long title even by JBs standards. It was a hit single, but the original version had to wait for compilations. I hadn’t thought about it until the Kent compilation.

  4. Cal Taylor
    Mar 29, 2019

    John, Andrew and Peter, thank you all very much for your kind comments. Your one ‘magnificent’ and two ‘brilliants’ make it all worthwhile – those words are much appreciated. James’ output over 50 years was so vast that not all the good recordings could be mentioned and, of course, quite rightly, we all have different favourites.

  5. Paul Newman
    Apr 5, 2019

    Thank you Dave, Cal and Ceri, for giving us this most informative and comprehensive piece on James Brown. The musical inserts were a marvellous selection too. There’s no two ways about it; as Arthur Conley said in Sweet Soul Music:
    ‘Spotlight on James Brown, y’all,
    He’s the king of them all…’

    • Dave Stephens
      Apr 6, 2019

      Spotlight on Paul Newman, y’all
      He can write a fine Topper
      Singin’ bring a little water Sylvie
      Oh yeah, oh yeah

  6. Bill Gordon
    Jul 29, 2019

    Hi, I’m Bill Gordon. as one of the two Site Administrators for THE FAMOUS FLAMES’ Facebook Pages, (the other is Sandi Bennett, widow of Famous Flame Bobby Bennett), I’d like to share just a couple of side points:
    JAMES BROWN was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986…the very first class.
    His VOCAL GROUP, The FAMOUS FLAMES, were inducted in 2012. The inducted members were: BOBBY BYRD, BOBBY BENNETT, LLOYD STALLWORTH, and JOHNNY TERRY.
    At the time of this induction, BOBBY BENNETT was the LAST SURVIVING MEMBER. The FLAMES WERE INDUCTED with 5 other pioneering groups that SHOULD have been inducted with their original lead singers.That induction is on YouTube HERE.
    JAMES BROWN himself verified to DAVID LETTERMAN in 1982, that THE FAMOUS FLAMES were a VOCAL GROUP, not musicians or JB Band members. This has been a misconception that has persisted for DECADES. Here is that video.
    In 2012, at the time of The FAMOUS FLAMES’ Rock Hall Induction, I interviewed Bobby Bennett of The FAMOUS FLAMES for GOLDMINE MAGAZINE. Here is that interview.
    THE FAMOUS FLAMES are perhaps the ONLY Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-inducted group that receives almost NO CREDIT or ACCOLADES for their accomplishments. The MUSICIANS that BACKED THEM, get more credit today than THE FLAMES themselves…Yet, The Bandmembers (The JB’s), are not inducted. With our TWO Famous Flames Facebook pages, we are working hard to change that. While everyone else only covers Brown’s “funk” era, ours are the ONLY sites that cover Brown’s EARLY years…THE FAMOUS FLAMES Years. Please visit and “like” us on Facebook. Thanks!!
    1) The Famous Flames by Sandi Bennett
    2) Famous Flames TM Entertainment
    Here is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Page for THE FAMOUS FLAMES.

  7. Bill Gordon
    Jul 29, 2019

    Here is the Wikipedia article on The Famous Flames…
    and the articles on each individual member:
    1) The Famous Flames
    2) James Brown
    3) Bobby Byrd
    4) Bobby Bennett (The Famous Flames)
    5) Baby Lloyd Stallworth
    A Wikipedia article on Johnny Terry is pending.
    Also here are some other YouTube Videos featuring
    JAMES BROWN & FAMOUS FLAMES:
    “SKI PARTY” (1965 MOVIE TRAILER)
    “SKI PARTY” SEGMENT: (1965)
    T.A.M.I. SHOW TRAILER (1964)

    • Dave Stephens
      Jul 31, 2019

      Thanks for your Comment Bill plus all the links you’ve provided. Keep up the good work on behalf of the Famous Flames.

      • Bill Gordon
        Aug 5, 2019

        Thank You, Dave!! Sandi Bennett and I will sure try!! Please tell the fans to visit our pages …and to be sure to “like” us on Facebook. Also, we are currently looking for Fans in the UK, who may have footage of James Brown & The Famous Flames’ 1966 appearance on “Ready, Steady, Go”, or other UK appearances. Please inform them to contact us through our pages. Thanks!
        Bill Gordon & Sandi Bennett, Site Administrators for The Famous Flames’ Facebook Pages

  8. Cal Taylor
    Aug 6, 2019

    Bill, thanks again for your Comment. You’ve done a grand job of spreading the James Brown/Famous Flames word and you have made us aware of your Facebook pages, where fans can support your sterling work.
    I hope you liked what Dave, myself and my son wrote about James Brown & The Famous Flames. We are just long-standing fans, covering a couple of generations. We hope that you and Sandi think we did them justice.
    Unfortunately, it seems very unlikely that any footage of James’ 1966 appearance on Ready Steady Go survives, as I explained in Footnote 24 but stranger things have happened – witness the ‘lost/unknown’ Beatles tapes from 1966 that very recently turned up.

    • Bill Gordon
      Aug 25, 2019

      Thanks, Cal !! We’re also putting out feelers to anyone who has any live performance footage in the US of JB & The Famous Flames at LIVE CONCERT DATES in the Sixties …at The Apollo Theater and elsewhere. There some YouTube videos of the group’s two appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966…one BEFORE and one AFTER Lloyd Stallworth left the group.
      MANY THANKS to You, Dave, and your Son , for helping to keep the music, the memories, and the FAMOUS FLAMES’ LEGACY ALIVE !!

  9. Bill Gordon
    Sep 18, 2019

    Here is an Original Sixties poster of a STAR-STUDDED EVENT! EVERY ACT in this show is in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today … and all headlined by JAMES BROWN & THE FAMOUS FLAMES!

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