Another spectacular, amazing, eye-opening career retrospective from James Brown, the man with a shitload of nicknames: “Soul Brother Number One,” “the Godfather of Soul,” “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Mr. Dynamite,” and every one of them earned in 50, yes I said 50 years in showbiz.
All the hits are here, from the beautiful, charmingly antique R&B balladry of “Please, Please, Please” (’58) to the hip-hoppish “Static” from ’88 (though “Living In America” is strangely absent, due no doubt to licensing issues). Along the way we hear R&B changing into soul in ’61’s “Night Train,” the birth of funk in ’64 with “I Got You,” the clipped rhythms of R&B chopped down to the coldest, tightest punch, and continued on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in ’65, and “Cold Sweat” in ’67.
We hear the funk hardening and the groove taking over when the Collins brothers (Bootsy on bass, Phelps on guitar) joined in ’70 for “Sex Machine” and “Soul Power,” and Brown powered through the ’70s with groove classics “Hot Pants,” “Get On the Good Foot,” “My Thang,” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” and “Get Up Offa that Thing” – Brown’s athleticism, sense of drama, extraordinary voice (a rhythm instrument itself), arranging and producing abilities and instincts diminishing nary a whit along the way.
If you aren’t familiar with Brown beyond the unavoidable hits, this 50-song collection is a great place to start.
I have two James Brown stories, one from the beginning and one from the tail end of his remarkable career. The first one is told by producer/talent scout Ralph Bass:
As talent scout and producer Bass combed the highways, byways and back alleys of 1950s black America, especially the South, for fresh talent. “I had to go out there and look and beat the bushes . . . you’d get a tip on somebody and go down to listen . . . We were in the ghetto. There were no rich kids who were singing . . . And I was fortunate to be able to recognize what was good and what was wrong.”
Bass discovered Little Willie Littlefield (who sang the original version of “Kansas
City,” “K.C. Lovin”), Guitar Lewis, Big Jay McNeely, Johnny Guitar Watson, and the Platters (Bass recorded the original version of “Only You”). But his greatest discovery for Federal was James Brown.
Bass told Lydon, “I was in Atlanta . . . and I heard a dub . . . it was so different that it knocked me out. A disc jockey and I drove to Macon in a pouring rainstorm. James was out on parole to his manager, a Macon promoter and club owner named Clint Brandly. I was told to meet Brandly by parking my car in front of a barbershop which was across the street from a railroad station, and when the venetian blinds went up and down, to come in.”
All of this intrigue was to avoid the potential unpleasantries of a white/black meeting in the Jim Crow Macon of 1956. There was an even greater sense of urgency than normal because Leonard Chess was on his way, but Leonard had to fly from Chicago.
“They had no radar and all that jive they have today, and so he was grounded . . . I gave the cat $200, and that was that.”
Bass produced Brown’s first hit “Please, Please, Please.” “This was a very young James Brown,” recalls Bass. “He was so browbeaten with that shit down there . . . he used to call me Mister Ralph . . . I says, Well man, don’t call me no Mister Ralph. Either call me Mister Bass or call me Ralph.”
That kind of world might give one a bit of an attitude, don’t you think?
The other story comes from ’88 when the production and writing team Full Force (Lisa Lisa, UTFO, Samantha Fox, themselves) was brought to work with Brown for the I’m Real album.
Full Force’s Brian “B-Fine” George has very vivid memories of working with James Brown. “When we did James Brown, people told us it’s going to be rough: ‘Mr. Brown likes things done a certain way.’ We were like, ‘Well he IS the godfather of soul. If he wants it done a certain way then we’ll make it work.’ Our thing was not to change things around, but just to bring James Brown back – make James Brown now.
“It was mind-blowing to see him come in,” he continues. “All true legends are visually as well as sonically caught in the time that made them a legend. Elvis Presley would have still been Elvis Presley today; Michael Jackson is still Michael Jackson; Prince is still Prince no matter how he changes; Little Richard is still Little Richard, and James Brown is still James Brown.
“He came in with his hair slicked all the way to the side – with his big huge fur coat – the rings – the shades, and he walked in and said [growling], ‘Gentleman, gentleman, good to meetcha,’ and I was like ‘WOW.’ I remember when I would throw water on my face and act like him as a kid, pretending that I was sweating so much. When he felt our vibe and the respect we were giving him, he was fine,” says B-Fine, who is fine also.
He continues, “We were in the booth recording him and he got real excited (out in the studio) and into what he was doing. Then he just disappeared – we couldn’t see him anymore – but he was still singing his vocals. We looked and James Brown was on the floor – he did the splits and he was just jamming down there. We were just pointing and saying ‘Wow, look at him go. That’s James Brown.'”
Man, I love that: “Wow, look at him go. that’s James Brown.” What more needs to be said?