James Brown – 1933 – 2006 – RIP

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James Brown is dead….
The following is an essay I wrote for the Funky16Corners web zine a few years ago. It pretty much says all I have to say about the greatness of James Brown, who shuffled off this mortal coil earlier today.

So sad…

Click on the links above (some high quality JB and related action that I fortunately still had on the server) and read.

The Genius of James Brown

“Pop culture has so drained any real meaning from the word ‘genius’, or the understanding of ‘art’ that to refer to James Brown – the mighty Godfather of Soul – as a genius or artist sends that proclamation into the shredded ears and abused minds of the same people that think of Michael Jackson as those things.
It doesn’t help that on the other end of the spectrum, i.e. academia, it is almost inconceivable to think of genius as actually existing in pop culture at all.

There is also the problem, that like Bob Dylan, James Brown has experienced a sharp decline in artistic production late in life, so younger listeners are handed the concept of both of these performers as geniuses, without much in the way of current work to back it up. They might as well be stone monuments on a lawn somewhere.
But (to borrow a phrase from the man himself) ‘There Was A Time’, when James Brown and his band cast a shadow on the landscape that was all encompassing. A time when they were the driving force behind a musical change as profound and far reaching as the Be Bop revolution 20 years before – as radically different as the sound of John Lee Hooker’s boogie only a few years after that. It was a sound that harnessed the rhythmic sprawl of modern jazz, the visceral thrust of rock and roll and the entire history of rhythm & blues and saw these seemingly disparate elements distilled through the imagination of one man.
And what an imagination…
Before 1964, James Brown was already a significant force in R&B and soul. He was a trendsetter and taste-maker, one of the most dynamic performers and bandleaders in all of music. But it was in 1964 with a series of 45’s that he and the Famous Flames bore down hard and gave birth to the funk. ‘Out of Sight’, which wasn’t even a hit, was the first. Just a year after the hard driving R&B of ‘Night Train’ and the top ten cover of Perry Como’s (among others) ‘Prisoner of Love’, ‘Out Of Sight’ was a revelation. It was as if JB was struck down on the road to Cincinnati (on the way to see Syd Nathan) and arose from his knees, filled with the funky spirit. The more likely scenario, is that JB – along with the mighty Famous Flames – developed ‘the groove’ during a rehearsal (was it Jabo, Clyde…or more likely JB conducting the band with a drop of the hip, a flick of the wrist and a twist of his right foot?).
Certainly, the funk of ‘Out Of Sight’ was not the same degree of funk that infused ‘Licking Stick’, but it was an indication of something new. It was a sign that the sound of the James Brown organization had taken a change of direction and was headed into unknown territory.
In fact, it’s probably more accurate to describe the feeling of ‘Out Of Sight’ as the ‘groove’ that provided the first rung on the ladder that would stretch to 1967, when ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘There Was A Time’ would herald the arrival of the new, heavy, heavy funk.
There was little direct precedent for these sounds. Rock, soul and R&B drummers had been locked into variations on the same old 4/4 beat since day one. The kind of free-wheeling rhythmic explosions that John ‘Jabo’ Starks and Clyde Stubblefield would eventually lay down were as radical as those that Kenny Clarke and Max Roach had laid down at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem 20 years before. From the subtle rhythmic shift of ‘Out of Sight’, to the tightening up of ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’, the refined groove of ‘Let Yourself Go’ and the thunderclap of ‘Cold Sweat’ – James Brown and the Famous Flames came on like scientists in the lab; refining, synthesizing, breaking down, in search of the root and then building back up again until they found the groove they were looking for. It was evolution, and revolution. If ‘Out Of Sight’ was the first shot at Lexington and Concord, ‘Cold Sweat’ was the Declaration of Independence.
It was in ‘Cold Sweat’ that James Brown, after three years of work, decided to ‘give the drummer some’, and things were never the same. With that record, he gathered together all of his innovations since ‘Out Of Sight’ – along with all the other musicians that he had inspired in the ensuing three years – and broke through yet another wall. ‘Cold Sweat’ is the ‘groove’, expanded upon, then further refined so as to concentrate its’ power. The beat is more experimental, the song structure now reduced to it’s essence (as if the ‘groove’, at one time adjacent to the song, had now become the song). This is never more apparent than in Pt2, where the aforementioned ‘drummer’, gets the also aforementioned ‘some’ – and blows soul music out of the water.
The drum break on side two of ‘Cold Sweat’ is a remarkable testament to exactly how far ahead his peers James Brown had gone.
In the sound of funk, there is no more important component than the drummer(s). Without the drummer, the groove has no foundation. Certainly a groovy bass line can get you moving side to side, but without the forward propulsion of the drummer, you aren’t really going anywhere. The most important element of the drummers importance to funk, is that it is through him (or her as the case may be) that funk received it’s most radical elements. These elements are the rhythms of Afro-Cuban music, and most importantly modern jazz. Anyone familiar with Elvin Jones, Max Roach or Art Blakey will hear their echoes in the beats of funk. These are the sounds of percussionists that got inside the rhythm and stretched it into all kinds of new shapes, designed to grab the body at it’s core and move it, i.e. make it dance. The BeBoppers and the modern jazzers provided an obsession with open spaces and explosive punctuation. They brought rhythm up out of the viscera, through the heart and into the head. This ‘intellectualism of the beat’, in combination with the polyrhythmic fire of congueros like Chano Pozo and Mongo Santamaria (later quite the funkster himself) timbaleros like Tito Puente, and the freedom of the New Orleans ‘Second Line’ drummers (Earl Palmer, June Gardner, Smokey Johnson and James Black) – which in turn has it’s parallels in the samba drummers of the Brazilian carnival – all contributed to the funky stew. This is not to say that Clyde Stubblefield had his ears turned to New Orleans, Rio or even the Village Gate – directly (he may well have), but that all of those sounds were swirling around in the mid-60’s, and all found their way into the sound of the funky drummer.
The break in Cold Sweat Pt2 is presaged, at about 45 seconds with six pleas (commands?) to

‘Give the drummer some”

before turning to Stubblefield with

‘You got it drummer!’.

The Flames drop away as Stubblefied works the kit, keeping time on the ride cymbal, booming on the toms and popping the beat on the bass drum. Ten seconds later JB brings in Bernard Odum on bass, and for almost ¾ of a minute he and Clyde break it on down. At 1:59 the horns come back in and ride all the way to the end. At nearly a full minute, Stubblefield’s ‘break’ is hovering dangerously close to the land of the drum solo, yet the energetic self indulgence of a Ginger Baker, Keith Moon (or even Buddy Rich) is absent, and has been replaced by a deeply funky vibe. This is a drum solo you can dance to. It is devoid of pyrotechnics yet full of ideas – subtle yet consistently explosive. It’s no mistake that Stubblefield is the man who’s work found it’s way into dozens of samples. The man who inspired JB to chant ‘The Funky Drummer!’, over and over again.

It was only a month later that the band laid down one of the most powerful sides in the JB canon, ‘There Was A Time’. It was as if James got together with the band and they decided that hitting Number One wasn’t enough. That the public wasn’t getting the point and something drastic had to be done. That something was ‘There Was a Time’. As the song starts, the Flames come in with their guns blazing. JB comes in early with what sounds like a false start, and then starts the verse. The lyrics sound like just another dance party, but the overall sound is much more serious. JB takes the words and sculpts (shouts/screams) them into a statement of purpose. A recognition that the release of the dance – at least driven by a band as godawmighty tight as the Famous Flames – is serious business. The band lays down a heavy groove, with extremely hot, over-modulated sound that betrays the fact that the tune was recorded not in a studio, but on the stage of the empty Apollo Theater in NYC. The intensity builds from verse to verse – rising at the end of each verse into horn blasts – and right there at the very end, when you hear:

“There was a time.
Sometimes I dance.
Sometimes I clown.
But you can bet,
You haven’t seen nothin’ yet.
Until you see me do
The JAMES BROWN!”

if there was anyone that wasn’t paying attention, they were certainly listening now. In a country who’s cities were racked by riots, James Brown had harnessed the power of his band, and his own immense power as an entertainer and brought it’s full weight to bear on the idea of the dance as freedom (no bullshit…it’s there…just listen).
Another part of the JB genius was also evident in ‘There Was A Time’. Almost 20 years before anyone was talking about samples and loops as “building blocks of the groove”, JB was doing it. Aside from the obvious groove components like the drum beats, JB had members of the band playing small repetitive lines over and over again. It really was a severe break with accepted song structure. In place of the time honored verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula of popular song, JB built the groove from the ground up, often with two or more drummers complementing each other’s beats (listen as one of the drummers drops back to tap the rim of his drums while the other continues to keep the beat) , a bassist with his ear turned to the drummers and more often than not two separate guitarists playing intertwining lines. Taken separately, these elements would seem monotonous. However, when juxtaposed they blend into a new, complex whole. It was like nothing else heard before (unless you count similarly structured indigenous music from Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean). The trance-like nature of the tune, putting the emphasis on the funky grooves moved the main focus from the head to the feet – from the detached listener to the active/participating dancer. It also freed JB from his role as ‘singer’ and saw him move into position as a kind of shamanistic figure. This may sound a little bit off – considering what a trite (and misinformed) label that became when leveled at Jim Morrison – but it the case of James Brown it really fits.

The ‘straight’ lyrical recitation is broken down into a series of grunts (each “UNHHH!” worth a thousand words), screams and shout outs to the Flames to a point where JB is more punctuating than purely singing. As Harry Weinger and Alan Leeds note in the booklet for the “James Brown – Foundations of Funk” set, JB is actually conducting the band, bringing up the horn section (as in the beginning of ‘Licking Stick’), calling out solos by Maceo Parker, or any number of drummers, setting the tempo, and most famously, taking the band ‘to the bridge’. In these instances, he takes one of the most rigorously rehearsed bands in all of music (often fined for missing cues) and almost improvises their performance from his central position.

In the next year, the groove of James Brown and the Famous Flames would become more concentrated. The power of the band was never put to better use, than in singles like ‘I Got The Feelin Pts 1&2″, the awesome ‘Licking Stick Pts 1&2’ and the minimalist brilliance of ‘Give It Or Turnit A Loose’. The rumbling groove of ‘Give It Up…”, with it’s rhythmic switch-backs is all muscle. Listening to the 68’-69’ records is hearing a performing unit at the peak of their powers. It is as if they were paddling out from 64’-67’, caught the crest of a wave with ‘Cold Sweat’ and were now riding an awe-inspiring wave of funk that would extend into the mid-70’s).

In 1969 they would release the trend-setting series of ‘Popcorn’ records (i.e. ‘The Popcorn’, ‘Mother Popcorn’, ‘Lowdown Popcorn’, ‘Let A Man Come In And Do The Popcorn’ and ‘Popcorn With A Feeling’), and would start the new decade in 1970 with the legendary ‘Funky Drummer Pts 1&2’ (one of the most frequently sampled recordings of any genre).

There would be several more years of incredible music. The King Records era would extend into 1971, and would give way to the formation of People Records (the most important of JB’s custom labels, featuring the man himself, The JB’s, Lyn Collins, Vicki Anderson, Marva Whitney, Maceo & The Macks and others), and their Polydor releases. The late 70’s would see JB dabbling with disco, and the 80’s would see a precipitous drop in popularity and record sales (with the exception of the Dan Hartman-penned ‘Living In America’), as well as an extended period of personal misfortune.

Unfortunately, to many people, James Brown is more remembered as the gun-wielding, drug-addled psycho. than as the prolific musical genius, successful businessman and socially influential figure of almost two decades. Despite a colossal amount of lip-service that the music press has given James Brown, to the vast majority of people he is little more than a bundle of tics repeated ad infinitum by a bunch of third-rate impressionists and second-rate imitators like the dreadfully over-hyped and drastically derivative (at least of JB) Prince.

The time is ripe for a serious re-examination of the work, and deep influence of the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Please Please Please, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite, the Man With The Power, Mr. James Brown.”

More later this week.

Peace

Larry

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36 Responses to “James Brown – 1933 – 2006 – RIP”

  1. Soulkombinat Says:

    [...] Schock in der späten Nachmittagsstunde:  James Brown ist heute Nacht gestorben. Er wurde 73 Jahre alt. Rest in peace Brother. Artikel bei Spiegel Online. Larry Grogan Artikel bei Funky 16Corners: James Brown – 1933 – 2006 – RIP Keine Kommentare so far Leave a comment RSS-Feed für Kommentare zu diesem Beitrag. TrackBack-URI Einen Kommentar hinterlassen [...]

  2. djconnor Says:

    The Godfather will be missed, but never forgotten.

    Funk | Mr. Dynamite Tribute: James Brown

  3. roy simonds Says:

    If one looks at James work prior to the funky stuff so definitively reviewed by Larry, it can also be seen that that too was almost always ahead of its time in terms of what was happened around it. A true giant.

  4. Dinesh Allirajah Says:

    RIP JB – Say It Loud!

  5. Heraclitean Fire » Links Says:

    [...] James Brown – 1933 – 2006 – RIP « Funky16Corners “The following is an essay I wrote for the Funky16Corners web zine a few years ago. It pretty much says all I have to say about the greatness of James Brown, who shuffled off this mortal coil earlier today.” (tags: JamesBrown funk blogs) [...]

  6. Jazzsoulman Says:

    Im truely shocked. I saw him live in 2001 during his last Germany tour. As long as I’m aware of my musical thinking, i love the godfather of soul and his music. Now he’s gone but he never will be forgotten. Rest in peace brother.

  7. stewart Says:

    Great words. You’ve really got to the heart of the Brown revolution and written about the best testimony to the great man that i’ve read. Also, your comments regarding genius/art are realy spot on. Thanks Larry.

  8. funksoulbrother Says:

    RIF JB – Rest in Funk

  9. kruhe67 Says:

    Thank You!

    Well said. I’ve appreciated the man since the late 50′s. He will be missed, but I will say I play his stuff daily. One of my favorites “Ain’t it a Groove”, starts my day out.
    Thank You
    Jack

  10. hislordlylordship Says:

    Plenty of artists in the 60s were getting funky but no one MADE it funky like JB. In doing so he (and his bands) really put in place a blueprint for any form of popular music purporting to have a groovy thang going on. The irony of course being that having spawned such a powerful form of music he found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the myriad ways his sound took through other artists thereafter. From ’75 onwards he was always chasing his own shadow or seeing his reflection in every piece of ‘funky’ music that came out. Any wonder then that under such circumstances his self-imposed pressure to succeed, create and be the Fabulous Mr Please Please all at the same time resulted in his ‘baad mutha’ incidents? Every genius has their flaws and JB will wear both triumph and tragedy in a way few others ever can.

  11. chriskluge Says:

    I’ve loved the music of Mr. James Brown since I first heard it in mid-sixties…

    If you don’t just start MOVING when his music is played, you’re either deaf, parlayzed or dead.

    God Bless you, James Brown…. for making some beautiful Noise and MAKIN’ THINGS HAPPEN!

    chris kluge

  12. lawreh Says:

    Thanks for the post. My condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Brown. We’ve lost a musical pioneer and hero. I am still in shock.

    R.I.P. Mr. James Brown

  13. roy Says:

    Heartbroken today. my chest actually got a pain in it when i saw and read the news late last night. James Brown was one of my heroes. When I played a top forty dance gig at the Augusta civic center back in ’95, I was told that James had done a show there just two weeks earlier. I was star struck. It was like I was walking on hallowed ground!!! A very painful loss, this one. I love you James Brown. Rest In Peace Brother.

  14. Vincent Says:

    Nothing more can be said… He is, was and always will be the MAN. Thank you JB for all you have given us. We will be forever in your debt.

  15. bzpt Says:

    Like Lawreh said!!!!

    Rest In Peace Mr Dynamite.

    I lost my heroes.
    Bapt.

  16. shelbycockrell Says:

    I heard about this on Christmas Eve. Very, very sad but at least he went peacefully and rather quick. Nice blog.

  17. Nigel Says:

    If Brother James had only recorded one (pick one, any one) of his many hits, he would still be a god. He came through town a few years ago, I almost bought tickets, almost. I was afraid it just wouldn’t be the same. I should’ve realized any night with James Brown (even a little slower and stiffer) would’ve been better than none at all…

  18. James Brown is Dead. « Habitual Ramblings of an Indiginous Ijonous Says:

    [...] Addendum: Check out this great article on the Funk Father and the blog that it belongs. Great stuff and some great music. [...]

  19. thepearlady Says:

    Well said. Though it’s sad JB is dead, his soul and the legend will live on through his music (and all the ones he’s inspired).

  20. Beate Sandor Says:

    Here some of the last live photos about James Brown •
    concert in Vienna, Austria © beate sandor

  21. Rev. BigDumbChimp Says:

    Hit it on the one James.

  22. Rev. BigDumbChimp Says:

    Oh FYI, WFMU has a 6 hour James radio show in archive you can find here. You’ll need real player.

  23. enthusiasm » Blog Archive » Lost Someone Says:

    [...] There’s a really excellent overview of the man’s career and incalculable influence over at Funky16Corners [...]

  24. James Brown (1933-2006) RIP « Soul, Funk and Ethno Rare Grooves Says:

    [...] Ένα μιξάκι (39ΜΒ) με κομμάτια του JB από το Funky16Corners. [...]

  25. Red Neckerson Says:

    Great Tribute to the Godfather, Thanks

  26. Marco Says:

    James Brown is one of the god-giants of music and always will be. He created the groove and took it on up. Great piece.

  27. Daniel Says:

    well written.

    it does seem hard today for the general population to digest artists/musicians who truly break ground or have a talent for influencing others but end up becoming subject of controversy for one reason or another.

    is it because we hold people more accountable these days, or do citizens think they know everything and “jump” on every oppurtunity to belittle those in the spotlight??

    when people are quick to showing indifference in these situations, they demonstrate one part longing for the ideal which is ok, but two parts ignorance and hypocrisy, not ok.

    had james brown’s time ended perhaps at the time when elvis left us much too soon, brown would have had a shinier legacy in the minds of more. had his personal ups and downs still happened, but happened decades ago, he, unlike so many artists in the public eye today, would not have had the same quick-draw, quick-from-the-hip judgement that goes out from every armchair “know-it-all,” more often uniformed and uneducated about the facts, but so happily and eagerly ready to spread the misinformation as Gospel truth.

    i was never a huge james brown fan, simply cause i never took the time to
    listen to him, except for two of his early outstanding songs, “Try Me” and “Please Please Please (Don’t Go).”

    so when he wailed “Try Me,” I did just that, and anyone who understands talent and hard work, even when personal problems still exist as with every person on Earth, should realize that, that young man would go one to be a very influential artist and to give him credit, or props, regardless of anything else.

  28. Private Beach Says:

    I guess the reference to Bob Dylan’s “decline in artistic production late in life” was written before his resurgence of the past few years. Bob’s recent work has been his best received since the mid-70s.

    Your article on James Brown says little about his stage moves, yet these were as innovative and influential as his music. Michael Jackson is only one of the many artists who’ve ripped off elements of Brown’s stage show.

  29. j Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with almost every sentiment conveyed in your wonderful essay. Note the key word ‘almost’. Why did you feel like you needed to close with a negative statement about another musical genius?
    Phrases like “second-rate”, “over-hyped” and most of all “drastically derivative” could be said of many, many other artists but are out of place in the same sentence with Prince.
    You could have easily honored JB without hating.
    Damn shame.
    Great blog, though.

  30. Kisakookoo Says:

    Hi! Why I can’t fill my info in profile? Can somebody help me?
    My login is Kisakookoo!

  31. Rest In Peace, James… « Roots & Culture - Music For Knowledge Says:

    [...] de la soul, du funk, du rap, etc…A ce sujet, je vous recommande la lecture de ce très bon message sur funky16corners, et notamment le parallèle qui est fait entre JB et [...]

  32. Jalisa Says:

    james brown seem like a nice guy he inspired me and alot af people

  33. Michael Dembinski Says:

    The greatest man that ever MOVED! Overlooked by Mr Brown’s role as a musical innovator is the way that cat slipped across the floor, and worked worked worked his audience into a frenzy. Check out his TAMI Show performance of Out Of Sight.

    I’m also writing to express sadness at last week’s passing of Bobby Byrd. For me, James and Bobby will live on eternally in “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”. “Bobby – the groove is so great”.

    Indeed it is.

  34. Jarrett House North » Blog Archive » The day the funk stood still Says:

    [...] Another appreciation from Funky16Corners. [...]

  35. Jarretthousenorth.com » Blog Archive » The day the funk stood still Says:

    [...] Another appreciation from Funky16Corners. [...]

  36. jazzfan360 Says:

    My god, this was f*cking brilliant. Thank you so much.

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