Can't argue with the idea of a collection of Number Ones (Polydor) when it comes to James Brown. During his commercial peak – from 1965-74 – Brown had a slew of Top Ten Hits, with a host of 'em taking the top slot on the R&B charts. Though he'd been making the charts with some consistency since 1955 (when "Please Please Please" grabbed number five), it wasn't until '65's "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" that the man truly became a Force o' Funk. Polydor's new set opens with these two dynamite tracks, though three songs in, the set breaks with chronology and pairs '59's slow-tempoed "Try Me" with '66's somewhat ponderous statement song, "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" before returning to a year-by-year syllabus in the Basics of Early Funk 'n' Roll.
The approach makes sense, and nearly every hot hit track you'd want from Brown – whether backed with his first band the Famous Flames or the 70's machine the JBs (where guys like bassist Bootsy Collins first learned their stuff) – is strong. Where the one-disc collection falls short, however, is with so many of the "two-part" tracks that Brown cut in the 70's. With the exception of 1970's "Super Bad," which was a hit as Parts One and Two, the new set only provides us with the edited Part One singles. In some cases, the editing is smooth, but on a track like "Mother Popcorn, Part One" you feel Brown and his band building toward even more extended funky glory, only to have it cruelly snatched away from you: just as the man pleads with piercing saxman Maceo Parker to do his thing, the cut fades away. Yeah, I know that's the way it worked in the glory days of AM radio, but, with Brown, more is definitely more.
To be fair, this issue also crops up on earlier JB sets, including the two-disc 50th Anniversary Collection. You want the extended tracks, than the man's still-available Star Time five-disc boxed set is the way to go. Meanwhile, Number Ones makes for a swell budget-priced intro to this ultra-essential rhythm-&-bluesman even if the un-pretty "Eco-Friendly" packaging (part of a series of such discs currently being released by UMe) means that the no-frills set contains no real liner notes to tell us which of Brown's myriad rhythm-men (drummers Clyde Stubblefield or Jabo Stark; bassists Collins or Charles Sherrell) provided the groove for each track. Brown was the man who made African poly-rhythms an indispensable part of R&B, and here's where he did it. The sound's still as hot and sexy sounding today as it was three decades ago.
Over the weekend, I drove with this churnin' disc in the PT Cruiser, and with the Godfather of Soul reveling in the visual glory that was "Hot Pants," it couldn't have felt more like Spring. Say it loud: I'm funkandI'mproud…