Text by Tom Bingham
Images from the Internet
© 1981, 2011 FFanzeen
The following profile was written by Tom Bingham for FFanzeen No. 7 in 1981.
James Brown, who passed away on Christmas day of 2006, had many nicknames, such as the Godfather of Disco and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He brought an excitement to the stage that had few rivals. For example, the story of how the Rolling Stones regretting following him (at their insistence) on the T.A.M.I. Show is legendary.
Like nearly all musicians that have performed as many decades as Brown had, there were periods of feast and famine. Below, rock historian extraordinaire Tom Bingham looks at one of the points where the diminutive powerhouse was teetering between fortunes and floundering. – RBF, 2011.
As I write this (mid-February 1981), James Brown is slipping down the R&B charts after scoring a modest (at best) hit with “Rapp Payback.” This latest in a nearly decade-long series of miscalculations of the cultural mood of black America, signals the beginning of James’ new affiliation with erstwhile disco giant T.K. Records, after ten years of frustration and declining fame with Polydor. T.K. has similarly been struggling through a period of diminished sales. No doubt both James and T.K.’s Henry Stone are banking on whatever reputation each has left to bolster the other’s sagging profile on the recording scene.
Given that scenario of near-desperation, it would seem almost contradictory to claim that James Brown is making a comeback. But such the case, if conceivably in a somewhat limited sense. Perhaps “rediscovery” would be a more accurate description than “comeback,” since James has never stopped touring and recording during these lean years. If his comeback is occurring largely through concert performances, his rediscovery has been taking place on three entirely different levels, none of which carries a guarantee that will restore him to his former supremacy as Soul Brother No. 1. Rather, having regressed from superstar to has-been, he has now progressed to cult figure status. In the past year, he as been a) lionized by certain segments of the New York New Wave scene, b) honored by the music press on the occasion of the reissue of the so-called Greatest Live Show Ever Recorded, and c) praised by many film critics for his parodistic portrayal of a black preacher in The Blues Brothers movie. Though he’s never actually been away, James Brown is back, even if most of his original audience isn’t.
This year, 1981, marks James Brown’s 25th anniversary as a recording artist, a quarter century since “Please, Please, Please” broke through the R&B Top Ten. Then, 1956 was also the year of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Long Tall Sally.” But James Brown has never been accorded the pioneer status of Presley, Perkins, Vincent, Domino, Berry, or Richard. It may be because James’ early hits were too steeped in Blues, gospel, and hardcore vocal group R&B to appeal to young whites in the way that Fats Domino or Chuck Berry did. True, Little Richard had obvious gospel roots, but his white-hot fire appealed to the body, whereas James’ intensity was of the mournful, pleading variety which appealed to one’s capacity to deal with heartbreak and pain. James Brown wasn’t a rock’n’roller, but a ballad singer; yet he was by no means a pop balladeer. His music was undiluted R&B raunch, far too raw for the ‘50s rock’n’roll mainstream.
By 1962, the atmosphere for acceptance had changed. R&B was giving way to “soul,” though the term had not yet come into common usage outside jazz circles where it meant something else altogether (i.e., the gospel-chords of pianists such as Less McCann and Bobby Timmons). Ray Charles made gospel phrasing and intonation acceptable to white audiences by applying it to the pop orchestral / choral treatments of country ballads. The Falcons were screaming “I Found Love,” as if they were shouting for salvation in a ramshackle ghetto storefront church; the group’s lead singer, Wilson Pickett, would soon go on to bigger, if not always better things. Motown was experimenting with new black dance rhythms on hits by the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. And James Brown was on the pop charts, hoarsely reciting a list of cities while his band pumped its way through a shuffle-rhythm end remake of Jimmy Forrest’s instrumental smash, “Night Train.” Forrest's was released in 1952 (recorded in '51); James Brown's version was in 1962.
It was in this setting that James, fighting with King Records (whose idea of an LP was a collection of singles) all the way, investing his own money into the production, recorded a live album at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on October 24, 1962. Released the next year, this proved to be the record which established James Brown as a household name among young white Americans, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard pop LP charts in an era in which the best-selling albums came form Broadway, Hollywood, hootenannies, and twist clubs. Reissued last year by Solid Smoke (San Francisco) as Live and Lowdown at the Apollo, Vol. 1, the album captures the first phase of James Brown’s career at its emotional peak. James brays, begs, and moans; the Famous Flames harmonize in a modified doo-wop fashion; the band goes through its paces with precision and style; the audience shrieks, cheers, shrieks, applauds, shrieks, yells, and shrieks. You cannot, of course, see the famous cape routine or the dance steps or the down-on-his-knees sobbing, but you can hear the audience react to these visual aspects, as loud shrieks punctuate the normal shrieks. The songs are almost all slow in tempo, aside from an almost casual “Night Train” and a rousingly brief “Think” (originally a Five Royales tune), but every one is an essay in horse-voiced intensity with the exception of Bullmoose Jackson’s “I Love You, Yes I Do.” Some songs are fragmented, some reappear in fragmentary form, most obviously with “Please, Please, Please,” which always signaled the cape routine. James would fall down on his knees, grieving to the point of mental and physical collapse, when one of his flunkies (in James’ routine, even the Famous Flames and band members served as on- and off-stage flunkies) would put a garish cape around his shoulders and start to lead him offstage, whereupon James “miraculously” revived to sing some more; this would continue, using several capes of different colors. But all are memorable examples of early James Brown at his most emotional and spontaneous. Of course, the whole show was both visually and musically calculated with split-second precision, but James knew the secret of how to make fake spontaneity look and sound 100% genuine. It was show business, but it had the ring of real life.
It should be made clear that the James Brown heard on the Sold Smoke reissue is not the James Brown who has become an unlikely New Wave hero. Don’t expect to fear the famous James Brown Sound, which has influenced the likes of Fela and Afrika ’70, James Chance, and the Talking Heads. That James Brown began to germinate in the mid-‘60s with such hits as “Papa Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You,” and “Cold Sweat.” By this time, the shuffle beat of “Night Train” was transformed into something looser, freer, with more space for the rhythm instruments to move around in.
Through 1966-67, one could sense that James was on the verge of a breakthrough. 1968 proved to be the turning point, the year of “There Was a Time,” “I Got the Feelin’,” “Licking Stick, Licking Stick,” and “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” James Brown was now officially important, musically and socially. The sound was complete – the madly syncopated one-chord guitar riffs, popping and dancing lines, intricately rhythmic drumming, punching horn riffs, and above it all, James’ more-talked / shouted / grunted / screeched-than-sung hortatory, delivering lines which generally made little sense on paper, but whose message was nonetheless instantly understood when heard. Once and for all, the meaning of the word “funk,” another jazz-derived term which, like “soul,” originally had a different meaning, was redefined (at the time, “funk” referred to barroom organ-combo jazz).
James Brown was a prophet with honor. He was a musical innovator in terms of both rhythm and the free structure of his arrangements. Unlike most innovators, however, he was also a media superstar. His music blared from every radio, and could be seen grinning form every newspaper and magazine cover, and doing his bizarre, speed-stepping choreography, grabbing the mic and letting out a dog-whistle-pitched yelp, and groaning “Good God” on television screens from coast to coast.
And the hits just kept on coming for another four or five years – “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine,” “Hot Pants,” “I’m a Greedy Man,” “Good Foot,” “I Got Ants in My Pants” – all sounding pretty much the same, yet with enough variations on the basic pattern to make each one a classic. And with the hits came the self-imposed titles: “Soul Brother No. 1,” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” (he was already using that way back in ’62), “The Godfather of Soul,” “The Minister of New Super-Heavy Funk,” ad nauseam.
But around 1973, things began to sour. According to the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), whose job it is to keep track of things, James’ 1973 double album, The Payback, was his only gold album. Major hit or not, that album was symptomatic of what was happening to the James Brown Sound. The one-chord rhythm jams were slowing down, cooling off, and definitely losing their excitement. The horn voicing was fancier, more jazz-flavored harmonically (no doubt influenced by the successes Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, et al., were having with more sophisticated soul styles), without the tight, attention-grabbing ingenuity one was used to from the James Brown band. Worse yet, most of the tracks were in the 8-10 minute range, virtually encouraging monotony and energy dissipation; what worked for 3-1/2 minutes on a 45 but became tiresome in this expanded album length (something Fela has learned to overcome).
To make things worse for James, along came disco. Regardless of one’s personal opinion of disco music, it doesn’t take much effort to notice a distinct relationship between James’ proto-funk and disco. The latter’s bass drum thump was more regular, its orchestration more expansive, and its attitude slanted more toward the studio than live performance, but the syncopation of the rhythm tracks was clearly derived from James Brown’s original concepts. So one might have thought that it would have been easy, even natural for James Brown to adapt to disco. Instead, he attempted, in vain, to keep his shouting funk sound alive, alternating with often dire string-laden ballads. As a result, his record sales plummeted.
If his records of the mid-to-late ‘70s had been stronger, they might have had a chance in the marketplace, fashionable or not. But as it was, not only could “Papa” no longer come up with any “new bags,” he had very little left in the old ones. It was almost painful to see him release an album in 1978 called Jam/1980s, which supposedly introduced his “new disco sound,” but that was, in fact, a rehash of the same music he’d been doing ten years earlier. The fact that it was the best album he’d released in some time helped him regain some credibility among hardcore fans, but it did little for his sales figures, or his status as a creative contributor. In 1979, “It’s Too Funky in Here” turned into his first Top 10 R&B hit in over half a decade, but it was, alas, an isolated incident on which he was unable to further capitalize.
But James kept touring, occasionally presenting what seemed to be a parody of himself, at other times manifesting as a hoarse voice screeching in the wilderness. A 1980 Canadian television special in the Live at the Forum series found him executing his cape routine, which used to be his climax, a mere ten minutes after appearing onstage. Singing “It’s Too Funky in Here,” no less than three times, James sought to get as much mileage as possible out of his lone glimmer of sunlight.
Here it is, 1981, and James Brown is alive and increasingly well. The one element missing form his comeback is a hit single supported by a strong album, from which he could once again head straight to the top. His T.K. debut, Soul Syndrome, may be just the answer. It is, in part, a back-to-the-roots album. “Rapp Payback” may not have a solid enough narrative line or a rhythmic enough delivery to work as a contemporary rap record of the Sugarhill / Kurtis Blow / Grandmaster Flash variety, but it’s a sold reminder of what made James’ late-‘60s / early-‘70s style so vital. True, 14 minutes may be too much of a good thing, but it’s funky, energetic and, above all, alive. “Mashed Potatoes” (which he first did in 1962) and “Honky Tonk” (which is closer to Bill Doggett’s original than to James’ unduly frantic 1972 version) are throwbacks to his band’s pure R&B instrumental sound of the early ‘60s (before James’ largely forgotten organ-and-big-band jazz albums of the mid-‘60s). The first two cuts on side two update the classic James Brown funk approach to 1981 funk standards by making only slight adjustments. Side two, track three, “Stay with Me,” has all the earmarks of that elusive hit single; it’s light, comparatively tuneful, and unavoidably catchy. With any luck, by the time you read this, T.K. will have taken the intelligent action of releasing it as a well-promoted single, which hopefully will be hitting the upper reaches of the charts.
Or maybe Soul Syndrome will simply disappear, another commercial disaster. Chart analysts tell us black music is turning away from funk back to soft harmonies. What’s more, New Wave dance-funk has yet to make an impact outside New York, thus delaying any opportunity James might have to reach the national New Wave audience. It could be that at age 47 to 53 (depending on the source), with a few more pounds and deeper creases in his face, the career of James Brown is doomed. Should that be the case, we’ll still have a great many classic records such as the Solid Smoke LP and the string of mid-‘50s to early-‘70s hits to remind us of those long-past glory days when James Brown was a giant among mere mortal musicians.
[Brown’s biggest hit after this article was his cover of a “Living in America,” which he performed in the film Rocky IV. – RBF, 2011]
RBF’s Favorite James Brown Songs:
(No embedding for “Open Up the Door I’ll Get it Myself):