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James Brown

+ {James Brown And The Famous Flames}

Arguably the single most influential artist in the evolution of popular music, JAMES BROWN needs little introduction. Variously known as the Godfather Of Soul, Minister Of The New Superheavy Funk and the Funky President, the man served as a magnetic, hotwired conduit for the birth of the funk, reconnecting black music – and, in its turn, white music – with its most primal polyrhythmic roots. It’s been said a million times before but let’s say it again, loudly: without BROWN, there’d be no hip hop, modern R&B, disco, house, techno, electro, garage and virtually any other dance-floor genre you might care to mention.
Whole books have been written on the subject of funk, its roots, genesis and implications, but suffice to say that in the 60s/early 70s singles like `Cold Sweat’ and `Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’, JB created one of the most compellingly physical music forms ever to emerge from American shores. Yet it was also a global phenomenon, its syncopated insistence and minimal, often chanted, guttural lyrics requiring little translation: its continuing influence on the popular music of Africa and Brazil especially, is incalculable.
After initially making his name as a peerlessly kinetic soul man with one almighty, antediluvian howl of a voice, BROWN forged the funk through varying line-ups with the likes of guitarists Jimmy Nolen and Alphonso Kellum, sax men Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and St. Clair Pinckney, bassist BOOTSY COLLINS, and crucially, sticksman Clyde Stubblefield, the original funky drummer and the man whose famously extended drum break rendered that track so vital for future samplers. In tandem with the music came BROWN’s granite self-belief and belief in the self determination of the whole African American community, expressed in anthems like `Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’.
Born May 3, 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina, at the age of five, James B moved to his aunt’s brothel in Augusta, Georgia, during which time he learned to play piano, drums and guitar. By the time he was nineteen, after a brief spell as a semi-pro boxer and a brief spell in jail, he had settled in Georgia and was a member of BOBBY BYRD’s quartet, The Gospel Starlighters.
A raw Southern gospel group, they subsequently evolved into a R&B outfit, in the process changing their name to The Avons, then, The Flames. The band performed R&B covers, among them an ORIOLES song, `Baby Please Don’t Go’. After some fine tuning, BROWN brought the “please” to the forefront, crafting the show-stopping `Please, Please, Please’. On hearing the tune, LITTLE RICHARD, at the time Georgia’s most celebrated black musician, told JB to move to Macon, Georgia, where the song was cut at a local radio station under the band name: The Famous Flames; the prefix added courtesy of RICHARD’s manager, Clint Brantly. Although the song was refused by a number of labels, when Ralph Bass of King Records heard the tune, he immediately signed the group and the track was re-recorded at King’s Ohio studio.
The session proved to be more troublesome than expected, as the musical director and owner of the label couldn’t come to grips with BROWN’s unusual and now heavily influential writing style of hitting on the downbeat instead of the upbeat. Nevertheless, the track was eventually released on King’s Federal label in March ‘56, making No.5 on the Billboard R&B chart.
It would be another three years before their next hit, the infectious `Try Me’ reaching No.1 on the R&B chart and crucially creating enough money for BROWN to hire a backing band, the first quintet led by the tenor sax of J.C. Davis.
It was during the end of the 50s, with the components all in place, that the band set about touring to sharpen their sound and BROWN’s routines of knee-drops, flying splits and cochlea-piercing screams. Whilst BROWN continued to supply hits for King, he still hadn’t hit the big time, subsequently trying to persuade the label to front the money for a live recorded performance. With Syd Nathan at King not convinced that such a record would sell, BROWN decided to put up his own cash, coming up with one of the most successful live LPs of all time, the 1963 killer LIVE AT THE APOLLO {*10}. Running at under the half-hour mark, the exuberance and tension somehow transports the soul brother’s live in the Big Apple aura onto every groove.
The record not only made it to No.2 on the Billboard album charts, it also had the knock-on effect of mammoth audience attendances, and, in turn, increased sales figures and the high profile that BROWN craved. This mushroomed to an even greater height when, in ‘65, he released the definitive funk single, `Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, featuring a larger band led by the trumpet of Lewis Hamlin, in the process modifying his style from the gospel and blues structure to a more straight ahead approach. His singing was also reaching new heights of primordial intensity, fusing with a tight and oh-so-funky backing band.
The mid to late 60s period proved a purple patch for BROWN, with one classic single following another; `I Got You (I Feel Good)’, `It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’, `Cold Sweat’, `I Got The Feelin’, `Say It Loud – I’m Black And Proud’ and `Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose’.
The 70s kicked off with further exploits, `Get Up, I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine’ and `Super Bad’, highlighting his backing band, including the likes of the Parker brothers (Maceo and Melvin), plus older stalwarts like Jimmy Nolen and Alphonso Kellum on guitars. This line-up however, was constantly changing, Pee Wee Ellis, BOOTSY COLLINS and Phelps Collins, the leading lights in the backing band dubbed first The Pacemakers; the latter, the now familiar J.B.s; Fred Wesley joining soon afterwards to form the backbone of the band alongside Maceo. Polydor Records had now signed JB and his JB’s.
BROWN’s 1972 single, `King Heroin’, is often cited as the first rap record (although the waters are cloudy on this one), and he even made it to Zaire for the “Rumble in the Jungle”, solidifying his status as Soul Brother number one. Of course, it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for BROWN, MELVIN VAN PEEBLES’ `Sweet Sweetback…’ and ISAAC HAYES’ `Shaft’ might well have never came into being. The whole Blaxploitation genre, in fact, would’ve been pretty much unimaginable without BROWN’s innovations. And while he mightn’t have got in on the act until it was nearing the end of its lifespan, in his soundtrack to Larry Cohen’s BLACK CAESAR (1973) {*8}, Mr Dynamite lived up to his rep by supplying one of the genre’s most enduring and unfairly underrated documents. Coming on the back of great albums like THERE IT IS (1972) {*8} and GET ON THE GOOD FOOT (1972) {*8}, “Black Caesar” might well have paled in comparison, but it’s that sense of anticipation and inspiration outlined by Fred Wesley which keeps it fresh. The pair even managed to transform a countrified demo by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon (who’d go on to score the classic soundtrack to NY gang movie, The Warriors) into the impassioned Top 50 hit, `Down And Out In New York City’.
`The Boss’ – “an autobiographical bulletin from the soul” according to Harry Weinger’s liner notes – was BROWN at his most haunting, not an adjective often applied to Mr Showbusiness. The late great Lyn Collins (who tragically passed away on March 13, 2005, aged only 56) weighs in with her mighty signature, `Mama Feelgood’, still one of the most compelling diva-funk tracks in existence. And then there’s the instrumentals, wonderful ad-hoc sketches and quirky breakbeat manoeuvres like `Blind Man Can See It’, `Sportin’ Life’ and `White Lightning (I Mean Moonshine)’, more upbeat and positive than Blaxploitation material had a right to be. A resounding triumph, and one which earned BROWN the lasting sobriquet Godfather Of Soul.
Quite why Cohen subsequently rejected BROWN’s score for “Hell Up In Harlem” as “not being James Brown enough” remains a mystery, especially given the undeniably BROWN-like monster grooves of the rejected scores’ eventual double-LP incarnation, THE PAYBACK (1973) {*8}.
BROWN’s music for the Gordon Douglas-directed SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF (1974) {*6} was almost as good and, if selling drugs wasn’t exactly what the Godfather had had in mind when he’d promoted black self-sufficiency, the portrayal of black men in positions of power, however illegal, would’ve been similarly unimaginable, were it not at least partly for JB’s unambiguous stance on race politics. Wesley was once again credited as co-composer and – with BROWN at his most exhortatory, and his cohort deep in his loping, slippery element – the scorching `People Get Up And Drive Your Funky Soul’ was the sound of two funk colossi splitting the atom. Swinging, roiling and relentless, it stood black and proud among the Godfather’s crowning achievements.
Part of the reason the rest of the album pales in comparison is its regurgitation of older material, a policy which just doesn’t cut it on a Blaxploitation soundtrack. `Happy For The Poor’ was basically a speeded-up re-run of the – admittedly great – 1971 JB’s single, `Gimme Some More’, with added funky organ. `Sexy, Sexy, Sexy’ welded the backing track of BROWN’s 1967 single, `Money Won’t Change You’, to new lyrics and vocals, while `Brother Rapp’ was pretty much a straight reprise of 1970’s `Brother Rapp (Part 1)’, minus Alphonso Kellum’s loose-limbed guitar and the original’s dubbed applause. Elsewhere, WESLEY has himself a fine showcase on the jazzy `Transmogrification’, while `Slaughter Theme’ was firmly in the tradition of BROWN’s ministerial heavy, heavy funk without ever really distinguishing itself. When the pair do make a conscious attempt to write orchestrated incidental material, as on `Tryin’ To Get Over’ and `To My Brother’, the results were compelling if pretty incongruous next to the 60s-rooted re-records.
He mightn’t have got the formula quite right here but over the course, his Blaxploitation efforts pretty much equalled those of his peers; if not in innovation, then in sheer soul power.
He continued to tour the world throughout the 70s, simultaneously influencing popular music styles wherever he went, although the quality of his recordings became ever more infrequent set next to the standards he had already set, a prime example being the ‘79 offering TAKE A LOOK AT THOSE CAKES {*5}.
However, his spectacular cameo as the rocking reverend in the 1980 cult classic film, The Blues Brothers, opened the gates to a whole new generation of fans, and as the Stars & Stripes clad special guest in Rocky IV, he stole the show, whilst achieving yet another UK Top 10 hit with the cheesy, `Living In America’.
BROWN had his problems with the law along the way, the most publicised event occurring in September ‘88, when he walked into an insurance seminar with a shotgun in an attempt to find out who had used his private toilet; the tale ended in a two-State police chase and two years in jail. Having amassed 98 entries on Billboard’s Top 40 R&B singles chart over his career, earning the nickname “the hardest working man in showbusiness”, as well as being sampled by other musicians an estimated 4000 times, his journey from juvenile delinquent to the Godfather Of Soul bore all the hallmarks of greatness. The indomitable BROWN eventually cleaned up his act, getting back into the studio and belatedly resuming his acting career with Duane B. Clark’s Soulmates (1997) and, inevitably, the John Landis sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 (1998).
Into the new millennium and into his seventh decade as a performer, BROWN showed little sign of slacking, appearing as himself in Malcolm D. Lee’s Blaxploitation parody, Undercover Brother (2002) and Jackie Chan effort, The Tuxedo (2002).
The 90s had also seen a spate of “comeback” albums, from LOVE OVER-DUE (1991) {*5} and UNIVERSAL JAMES (1992) {*4} to I’M BACK (1998) {*4}, but it was it his back catalogue that interested most fans. Further evidence that his career had long since evaporated was his return to funky R&B pastures on THE NEXT STEP (2002) {*5}. Augmented by Derrick Monk, the record had its grooves firmly rooted in the 60s, while trying to keep up with the present-day soul-stirrers. Sadly, diagnosed with heart disease, prostate cancer and suffering from yet another marriage break-up a few years previously, James died of pneumonia on Xmas day, 2006.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Apr2013

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