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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.
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.