JB at the B3
1. Jimmy Mack
2. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag Pt1
3. Out of Sight
6. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
8. The King
9. Fat Bag
10. All About My Girl
11. Sumpin’ Else
Here at the Funky16Corners blog the flag of funk is still flying at half mast in honor of the greatest R&B, Soul and Funk performer in history, Mr. James Brown.
This post is a special edition of Funky16Corners Radio, this time devoted to the Hammond organ* recordings the mighty Godfather of Soul made for the Smash label in the mid-60’s.
Though far from his most popular recordings, these instrumental sides – recorded via a contractual dispute with his longtime recording home King records – are a great window into James Brown “the musician”.
This little known aspect of his career popped up fairly regularly through his 1960’s recordings (he also recorded a number of organ sides for King, including the stunning ‘Shhhhhhhh (For a Little While) ) , and while light years away from the dynamism of his funk sides, they hold – at least for me – a lasting charm.
Though Brown was not what anyone would call a technically spectacular organist, he clearly loved playing, and his organ recordings are in many ways the perfect intersection of his love for jazz, R&B and soul.
Brown, along with arranger Nat Jones made a series of Lps (and a few non-LP 45s) for the Mercury subsidiary Smash that placed JB’s Hammond work in a big band setting (not that his regular band was much smaller), with a focus on a bigger horn sound. The overall vibe was a little more swinging than his increasingly funky work for King, and while seldom crossing over entirely into the world of jazz, these records spent a lot of time moving in that direction.
The mix I’ve compiled features some covers of well known Brown 45s, as well as a number of tunes he would only record for Smash. There are a few covers of current soul material (Martha and the Vandellas, Wilson Pickett) as well as a few stabs at tunes that had become signature numbers for the most brilliant organists of the day, Jimmy Smith’s version of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and Jimmy McGriff’s ‘All About My Girl’.
The mix opens with a loose but energetic take on ‘Jimmy Mack’ with a tight horn chart (would he have had it any other way?) and lots of crowd noise supplied by the band.
Next up is ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ taken at a slightly more relaxed pace than the vocal version and some nice back-and-forth between JB’s organ and the tenor sax (‘zat you Maceo?). This is pulled from the LP “James Brown Plays Yesterday and Today’, but I believe that this also saw release on 45.
The version of ‘Out of Sight’ is from the same LP, and oddly enough takes the tempo of the original and kicks it up just a little. I love the way JB rides a single note, mimicking his own vocal track (the part with ‘Youuuuuuuuuuuu’ve got a sweet disposition!’).
‘Grits’, from the ‘Grits and Soul’ LP is a slow blues with Brown working it out. The blues were clearly his string suit on the organ, with Brown sounding better (at least technically) than on many of the mor soul-oriented tracks. There’s also a very nice guitar solo on this one.
Another track from the ‘G&S’ LP, ‘Tempted’ is also bluesy, but sees JB swinging things up a little with a great “call and response” section between the organ and the horns.
If nothing else, the inspired lunacy of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ shows that while James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, he also had the biggest set of balls. Attempting to cover the same ground that Jimmy Smith had already blazed (and I do mean BLAZED) took a tremendous amount of nerve, and while his version suffers in comparison to Smiths tour de force**, there’s no denying that Brown and band do the song a certain low-fi justice, filling any gaps in technique with energy and serious helping of groove grease.
Brown’s version of Wilson Pickett’s ‘634-5789’ (from the LP ‘Handful of Soul’) sports the addition of a female backing chorus, slightly brighter production and a propulsive beat. ‘The King’ – from the same LP – is a slow burning vamp that sounds like it’s drifting from the alley door of a strip club. The organ starts off in the background with lots of room for the tenor sax, before coming in for an extended solo.
‘Fat Bag’ – from ‘James Brown Plays New Breed’ is a swinging slice of mid-60’s discothèque au-go-go, that sounds like it dropped off of the soundtrack of a Blake Edwards movie. The band is killing it here, with JB weaving in and out of the repeated horn figure.
Why Brown chose to cover Jimmy McGriff’s ‘All About My Girl’ (and then take credit for writing it) is anybody’s guess. McGriff’s original (on Sue) is about as unfuckwithable piece of R&B organ as has ever been recorded. Though his take on the tune lacks much of the punch of the original, the arrangement is tight and Brown doesn’t overextend himself.
The final track in this installment of Funky16Corners Radio is another slow, greasy killer from ‘..Plays New Breed’ called ‘Sumpin’ Else’. James lays the blues again, with another great guitar solo and punchy horn chart to help move him on his way.
All that said, I hope you dig the sounds, and I’ll be back before New Years with more of the good stuff.
*Yeah, I know…it’s starting to look like Hammond Headquarters here, but it’s just the way things worked out. I was planning on making the JB/B3 mix before the great one passed on unexpectedly, and I figured that since continued tribute to Mr. Brown was most definitely in order, there was no time like the present. I promise there’s more great non-organ funk and soul to come, I swear.
**If you ever get the chance, check out the positively incendiary version of this tune by Little Richie Varola on the Verve label. Varola was the teenaged organist in Louis Prima’s show band Sam Butera and the Witnesses (who play on Varola’s LP), and his take on the tune is an ass-kicking display of technical fireworks.