Born in South Carolina in 1933 and then raised in Georgia, the young James Brown lived in extreme poverty. Mixed race origins including African, Chinese and Native American blood ran through his veins. After stints as a car mechanic and a janitor, Brown hooked up with early accomplice Bobby Byrd, performing gospel and R&B. The liaison span off in myriad directions – a characteristic of Brown’s whole life as an individual and a bandleader – eventually settling on the Famous Flames and made startling inroads at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the venue that defines James. He had his first Top 20 hit in 1963 with “Prisoner of Love” and in 1964 he left regional fame behind and achieved national prominence after upstaging the Rolling Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show (Teen Age Music International). He won his first Grammy Award thereafter thanks to the epic “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”; a 45rpm cut so ahead of its time as to defy categorisation.
By 1967 he was Soul Bro’ Number One. He invented hard funk on “Cold Sweat” and showed off both his arrangement skills and the dexterity of his musicians on tracks like “Give It Up Or Turn it Loose” and “Mother Popcorn” simultaneously evolving a kind of declamatory speaking-in-tongues vocal style that has often been emulated but never replicated.
New Orleans grooves and deep African rhythms enter his world as the late ‘60s fades into the raw urban grit of the 1970s, the most progressive epoch in musical history. As such he would influence artists as diverse as Sly Stone, Funkadelic/Parliament et al. and Michael Jackson, who often cited James as his ultimate idol.
The Famous Flames would metamorphose into the J.B.’s in the seventies after a dispute with previous players and the arrival of Bootsy Collins on bass and Phelps ‘Catfish’ Collins on rhythm guitar coincides with the release of a staggering run of cuts - "Super Bad", "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine", "Soul Power", and the startling “Give it Up, Or Turnit a Loose”.
Brown’s first long player for Polydor is the startling Hot Pants (1971) which chronicles the current vogue for that popular female garment. The hit single of the same name gave Brown a new pop cachet, which he exploited to the max on 1972’s immaculate There It Is. Working with long-standing partners like Fred Wesley – his go-to horns man – and St. Clair Pinckney, Brown combined social realism, political comment and straight in your face lickin’ stick R&B.
“King Heroin” is an early example of a drug overview song while “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing Part 1” features a revolutionary dance music breakdown used as a vocal bridge. Other notable items are everywhere but “I’m A Greedy Man’ stands tall and makes full use of the country soul facilities provided by the Starday-King Studios in Nashville – also a reminder that Brown would often embrace country music in his own peculiar way.
1972’s Get on the Good Foot is a wonderful, sprawling double album, a real curio of the times, and yet it contains incisive moments of Brown magic in “My Part/Make It Funky”, “Get on the Good Foot” and “I Got a Bag of My Own” – soul anthems for those days that still thrill us now. We totally recommend this disc. Dancefloor gold.
Following the Black Caesar soundtrack – featuring the late great vocalist Lyn Collins, and the J.B.’s - and the Blaxploitation project Slaughter’s Big Rip Off (1973) Brown turns up with The Payback. Originally this was also to have been a soundtrack but it’s much the better for being recovered by him as a proper group outing on such magnificent tracks as “Doing the Best I Can”, “Stone to the Bone” and the title piece which has since been sampled by everyone from En Vogue, L.L. Cool J, Mary J. Blige and Silk to Massive Attack. It also appears in myriad movies, thanks to its gangster theme atmospherics: an iconic moment in soul funk evolution.
On a roll Brown will now release the album Hell, this includes a remake of “Please, Please, Please” a version of “Stormy Monday”, “I Can’t Stand It ‘76” and the fourth side of a double swallowing up the extended “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”, his final number one hit and a workout graced by Wesley, Maceo Parker, Pinckney and ace guitarist Jimmy Nolen.
Also in ’74 we have Reality which spawns the bodacious “Funky President (People it’s Bad)” whose rhythmic groove has been sampled on dozens of hip hop recordings, and the title cut “Reality” whose loose limed approach presages the arrival of Brown’s career defining hit “Sex Machine Part 1” – from the awesome Sex Machine Today.
That’s far from the lot of course because we recommend you a steer towards such fine discs as Bodyheat, The Original Disco Man and Nonstop! But we also need to point out LovePowerPeace – a total classic rescued from a 1971 Paris, Olympia show – basically 64 minutes-worth of the coolest funk known to man and a fine career overview to that point.
Digging further back we uncover Say it Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68, featuring the legendary “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” complete with audience call-and-response, a slew of sixties hits – now standards – and agreeable rarities like “Kansas City” and “If I Ruled the World”. The best form of craziness, in fact.
Those are by no means the only gems in our James jamboree bag. New items are appearing regularly. Try Live at the Garden with the Famous Flames, a historic show available in expanded edition with choice bonus cuts, any of the essential Live at the Apollo Volumes or the Best of the Live at the Apollo – 50th Anniversary.
Then there are plenty of top-notch compilations and anthologies. Brown’s work in earlier times is collected on The Federal Years 1956-1970 and those who want to continue the chronological journey into his singular 45rpm mind will then move on naturally to the many of The Singles Volumes.
Brown was so extraordinarily creative and prolific that we can’t avoid recommending sundry collections, which are bound to suit most tastes and pockets. The Universal Masters Collection Vols 1 and 2 cover some splendid basics while Motherlode, Foundations of Funk – A Brand New Bag 1964-1969 and Make it Funky – The Big Payback 1971-1975 are all over the hard-core soul waterfront.
Rule of thumb: if it’s available and it says it’s funky – don’t hesitate to investigate. We’re talking about the Godfather. The President. The keeper of the Flame. James Brown. Get on the good foot.
Words: Max Bell
Seldom have a performer and a venue been more suited to each other than James Brown and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Brown played over 600 shows on the Apollo stage when all was said and done, beginning in 1959 when he was the opening act for Little Willie John, ended up the headliner by the end of the run, and then returned every year through 1974, returning again when the Apollo reopened. In front of audiences that were frenzied and passionate, Brown's equally frenzied and passionate shows are the stuff of legend. A landmark album of vintage early Brown with his Famous Flames, Live at the Apollo, appeared in 1963 (the show documented was from October 24, 1962), followed by two more, Live at the Apollo, Vol. 2 (from shows on June 24 and 25, 1967, it was released in 1968) and Revolution of the Mind: Recorded Live at the Apollo, Vol. 3 (recorded between July 21 and 25, 1971, it was released that same year). This set honors the 50th anniversary of the release of that classic first live Apollo set by taking key tracks from all three of the Apollo releases and then tacking on a couple of tracks from the unreleased album Get Down at the Apollo with the J.B.'s, which was recorded at shows on September 13 and 14 in 1972. It's also sort of a live James Brown greatest-hits album, with powerful versions of "I'll Go Crazy," "Night Train," "Please, Please, Please," and "Sex Machine," among others. It's a dynamite sequence documenting an explosive performer in his prime on the exact right stage at the exact right time in front of the exact right audience. This, folks, is James Brown at the Apollo.
Words: Steve Leggett
Originally released in 1973 as a sprawling two-LP set, The Payback was one of James Brown's most ambitious albums of the 1970's, and also one of his best, with Brown and his band (which in 1974 still included Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, St. Clair Pinckney, Jimmy Nolen and Jabo Starks) relentlessly exploring the outer possibilities of the James Brown groove. Stretching eight cuts out over the space of nearly 73 minutes, The Payback is long on extended rhythmic jamming, and by this time Brown and his band had become such a potent and nearly telepathic combination that the musicians were able pull out lengthy solos while still maintaining some of the most hypnotic funk to be found anywhere, and on the album's best songs -- the jazzy "Time Is Running Out Fast", the relentless "Shoot Your Shot", the tight-wound "Mind Power", and the bitter revenge fantasy of the title cut -- the tough, sinuous rhythms and the precise interplay between the players is nothing short of a wonder to behold. And even the album's lower-key cuts (such as the lovelorn "Doing The Best That I Can" and "Forever Suffering") sink their hooks into the listener and pull you in; quite simply, this is remarkable stuff, and even Brown's attempts at lyrical relevance (which were frankly getting a bit shaky at this point in his career) are firmly rooted enough to sound convincing. The Payback turned out to be one of James Brown's last inarguably great albums before he hit a long fallow streak in the mid-to-late 70's, but no one listening to this set would ever imagine that this was the work of an artist (or a band) about to run out of gas.
Words: Mark Deming
Brown left his label King after 12 successful, if not always peaceful, years. Hot Pants marks his first effort for Polydor, a bigger outfit that was able to give him a larger budget, better presentation, and, most importantly, artistic freedom. The original set of the J.B.'s with Bootsy Collins had dissolved, and Brown and his newer band had only been together for a few months. Although the original J.B.'s were more rock-based and fiery, Hot Pants proves that the reformed band was more ductile. It was at this point where trombonist Fred Wesley became the bandleader and the band became even more efficient than the earlier group. The leisurely "Blues and Pants" has a great bass pattern from Fred Thomas and Wesley's sly horn charts. "Can't Stand It" is a busier take on the 1968 hit "I Can't Stand Myself." The most recognizable track is the title song, though the version heard here is less potent than the complete take (featured on "Escape-ism," the early-'90s CD reissue of Hot Pants, clocking in at 19-plus minutes). While that might be cause for alarm for some, it is truly instructive. The track goes to the bridge, stays there, and has great studio chatter between Brown and his band and solos from Wesley and saxophonist St. Clair Pinckey. This album features only four tracks and is basically Brown getting acquainted with his new band, but the camaraderie makes it worth listening to.
Words: Jason Elias
This 2-CD set collects James Browns' singles for the Federal Label. I am not a fan of 1950s rock, but I do like 60s & 70s r&b, particularly any artist that can really get down or belt out a tune like no one else (Ike & Tina or James Brown). This collection presents both the a & b side of his singles (almost all of them mono) up to 1960. It also includes a booklet detailing the info on each single. The remastering (from the original source tapes) sounds as good as mono from this period can (with only the demo exhibiting sub-par sound quality). This would make a nice addendum to your James Brown collection, though I wouldn't begin with this unless you're a big 50s fan. However, the CD is supposedly limited to 5,000 copies, so if you think you might want it, you should probably snatch it up quickly.
While it boasts neither the landmark status of the two Live at the Apollo LP nor the scope and reach of JB's-era documents like Sex Machine or Love Power Peace, Live at the Garden captures James Brown live, and that's really all the recommendation you need. Recorded at New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1967, the album features Brown & His Famous Flames in peak form, delivering feverish, high-energy grooves almost mathematical in their symmetry and precision. The on-stage intensity is directly proportional to the audience frenzy, building to the kind of catharsis only Brown could achieve.
Words: Jason Ankeny
There are several worthy James Brown compilations. But this is the one, more than any other, that presents his most fertile and innovative soul and funk material. From 1964's "Out of Sight" through 1969's "Mother Popcorn," this was Brown at the apex of his creativity, turning soul into funk in the mid-'60s, then pushing the rhythm even more to the forefront. Most of his hit singles from this five-year explosion of white heat are on this 27-track, two-CD set, including "Out of Sight," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud," and "Cold Sweat." There are some minor omissions that could be questioned (the absence of the studio version of "Bring It Up," for instance), and big James Brown fans will already have the lion's share of tracks, on the Star Time box and other releases. It does, however, contain minor but significant bonuses: an alternate take of "Cold Sweat," a previously unreleased live medley of "Out of Sight" and "Bring It Up," and a previously unreleased live version of "Licking Stick--Licking Stick." There are also longer versions of "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing" (ten minutes!), "I Got the Feelin'," "The Popcorn," and "Brother Rapp" that were edited when they were prepared for official release.
Words: Richie Unterberger
While the first half of the 1970s saw James Brown's sales and art start to slowly decline, at their best he and the J.B.'s remained capable of generating a lot of heat. Record-wise it was a very erratic period, especially on his albums, which makes this two-and-a-half-hour double-disc compilation of his best material from the era especially welcome. Besides his biggest hits from the time ("Make It Funky," "Get on the Good Foot," "The Payback," "Funky President"), it has a number of high-charting R&B 45s that didn't make it onto the Star Time box. Familiar hits are sometimes presented in their full unedited mega-versions (12 minutes of "Make It Funky," 14 of "Papa Don't Take No Mess"), and there are also a few previously unreleased outtakes and alternate versions. It's only a disappointment relative to the towering accomplishments of his 1960s and early-'70s classics. On its own terms, it's excellent funk, if rather homogenous taken all at once, with occasional departures from the formula, like "Down and Out in New York City," with its poppy woodwinds.
Words: Richie Unterberger
Brown's Polydor debut, Hot Pants, was nothing more than an inferior remake of the title track baited with a batch of half-baked vamps. There It Is, his second Polydor studio album, was a marked improvement. Not that he put much into this one either. This 1972 effort collected five of his best early-'70s tracks and mixed in minimal filler. "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing" and "There It Is (Parts 1 and 2)," with its bebop-style horns, were both innovative and hard driving to a fault. The hilarious "I'm a Greedy Man," with its hypnotic bass and help from Bobby Byrd, has Brown firing off such witticisms as "I'm a greedy man / yes I are" and "Taking care of my business / now run tell that." Brown wasn't all fun and games on this one. "King Heroin," an eerie, laid-back jazz offering, has him reciting chilling poetry about the ills of the drug. "Public Enemy #1 (Pt. 1)" attempts to re-create the same message. By "Public Enemy #2 (Pt. 2)" he is doing nothing but connecting the same dots and screaming himself hoarse to little effect. Although by this point Brown was best known for his dance tracks, he still had a way with a ballad. "Who am I," a song that had been kicking around his oeuvre for aeons, gets a strong arrangement and has Brown giving an impassioned performance. Like many of his '70s albums, There It Is was out of circulation for close to 20 years until it was reissued on CD in mid-'90s. It's well worth picking up.
Words: Jason Elias
After Isaac Hayes kicked his career into high gear with the popular and influential score for Shaft, and Curtis Mayfield managed the same feat with Superfly, seemingly every major soul star of the early 1970's ended up doing music for a blaxploitation film, and James Brown was certainly no exception. Brown sang the title tune for Larry Cohen's idiosyncratic black crime film Black Caesar, as well as performing ten other pieces for the movie's soundtrack (most written by Brown in collaboration with Fred Wesley); Barry Devorzon's lead-off cut, "Down and Out In New York City", sets up the picture's story, while most of the other five vocal cuts reflect the film's narrative in one way or another (although "Make It Good To Yourself" seems to be here mainly because of it's high funk quotient, and on "Mama Feelgood", Brown appropriately hands the vocal chores over to Lynn Collins). Like most soundtrack albums of the period, Black Caesar sounds rather scattershot, especially when the music is divorced from the film's narrative, and this isn't one of Brown's stellar albums of the 1970's; however, there are several top-notch tracks, especially the much-sampled "The Boss", the potent "Make It Good To Yourself", and the melodramatic "Mama's Dead", and Fred Wesley's superb horn charts, Jimmy Nolen's percussive guitar, and Jabo Starks' dead-on-the-one drumming make even the weaker instrumental cuts worth a quick listen (though just try to imagine a chase scene cut to something with the power of "Mother Popcorn" -- now THAT would be a movie!).
Words: Mark Deming
When James Brown was exalted as the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," it wasn't just some empty hype that a publicist dreamed up -- few singers in any genre were more workaholic or perfectionist. The Godfather of Soul demanded a lot from himself and a lot from his musicians, on whom he could be notoriously hard. Those who were lucky enough to see him live usually got what they paid for and then some, and he certainly goes that extra mile on Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68. Though a few of these performances had come out on various 1990s anthologies, most of them remained in the can until the release of this CD in 1998. The Godfather is in excellent form on sweaty versions of 1960s hits like "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" (which had just come out as single), "Cold Sweat," "I Got the Feelin'," and "There Was a Time," as well as a medley of his '50s classics "Try Me," "Lost Someone," and "Bewildered." Brown was at his creative and commercial peak, and his five-star band boasted such dynamos as guitarist Jimmy Nolen, trombonist Fred Wesley, and saxmen Maceo Parker, St. Clair Pinckney, and Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis. It's too bad that most of these red-hot performances went unreleased for 30 years.
Words: Alex Henderson