‘Godfather Of Soul’ Died On Christmas Day
When someone is so intertwined with self-promoting hyperbole as the late James Brown was, what can be said about him that will accurately explain the breadth of his musical achievements?
Brown is one of those few pop-music figures who actually exceeded his ego-inflated billing. So great are his achievements that besides being proclaimed “The Godfather of Soul” or “Mr. Dynamite,” one can easily add such titles as the “Pharaoh of Funk,” “The Savior of R&B,” “Dynamo of Dance Music” and even the “Hardass of Hard Rhythms” and it would all be right and true.
After his death last month, most obituary writers took note of Brown’s central place in 20th Century pop music — his star status in R&B, his invention of funk, his all-encompassing influence on the creation of hip-hop. But, the depth of Brown’s musical legacy was typically waxed over relatively quickly. The public heard that he was important, but not really why.
Brown’s four-decade career is a lot richer than his most popular hits. There are many more songs than “I Got You (I Feel Good),” or “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” or “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” that are indicative of the critical role that he played in contemporary music. (Rumors and accusations persist about how much assistance Brown got from his sidemen in the development of his music, but no one can deny that he was a unique performer capable of selling the material like no other.)
Here are five of Mr. Brown’s greatest and most unheralded classics:
“Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing”
On this track, the man who gave the Black Power movement an anthem that still inspired the throngs who gathered to see his coffin at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, seemingly takes on agism. Or perhaps, Brown is taking a stand against the use of the word “boy” as a racial epithet.
The opening line, “like a dull knife/It just ain’t cuttin’,” qualifies as one of Brown’s best. It not only conjures an accessible image to listeners, but artfully ostracizes his tormentors. The line is also essential to understanding the song.
Whether this track is about discrimination against blacks or the young, it defiantly marks the divide in the ’60s generation gap while also succeeding at being a slinky, laid-back romp. Brown is emphatic about his point in the lyrics, but never shows signs of losing his cool. The music mirrors his calm exterior. The bass confidently creeps along and the horn section coolly slides and punctuates his proclamations.
Bobby Byrd, Brown’s longtime backup singer, again proves an ideal foil who shadows Brown and injects a new energy on a jam that stretches to 9-plus minutes. But, unlike “Sex Machine,” Byrd’s vocals are unjustly low in the mix.
All of these factors help make “Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing” one of the few longer sides that Brown cut that doesn’t run out of steam.
“I’ll Go Crazy”
“I’ll Go Crazy” traces from the early part of Brown’s career when he was consciously marketing himself and his music as following in the tradition of the popular R&B classics of the ’50s and early ’60s.
Part doop-wop, part jazz-blues and a little rock ‘n’ roll, the song in many ways premeditates musical elements that would go on to be hallmarks of “the James Brown sound.” There are the sharp stops and the hard-hitting instrumental blasts, like a boxer probing for weaknesses and softening his prey up.
The song is also remarkable for the prominent guitar, which plays an unusual, somersaulting pattern. The guitar playing sometimes suggests country music, but is also wholly in the realm of jazz and blues.
The song is so phenomenal because it could be a Stax-Volt outtake, but one fronted by James Brown. The likeness is so surprising that it begs the question of whether Wilson Pickett was unavailable that day in Muscle Shoals.
The guitar on “Lost Someone” has an unmistakable Steve Cropper quality to the playing. Spare, simple and sympathetic, the guitar both calls and responds Brown as he bemoans the loss of his beloved. The horns are so much quieter and basic than the bombastic sound that Brown would incorporate into his later hits.
This restraint by the other instruments leaves more room for Brown’s melodramatic vocals. His singing still has a rough edge, but is also shockingly tender in places. One doesn’t typically think of Brown as emotionally needy much less emotionally available. It is one of the few moments on record when Brown lets his softer side come out.
“I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself)”
You might know the song’s signature horn blasts from Public Enemy’s “Welcome From The Terrordome,” but this song is unjustly passed over. This is probably because its wordy title is indicative of the fact that the song doesn’t get its message across as powerfully or provocatively as “Say It Loud (I’m Black And Proud)” or even “Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing.”
This shouldn’t dissuade the curious. The horn arrangement is multi-tiered as well as propulsive and easily lights up the tune when the energy sags. The horns are primarily occupied with starting and stopping the song’s core, danceable groove.
Brown is at the center of these shifting musical dynamics and one can almost see him signaling the musicians. “Play with your bad self,” he eggs on his sax player, who creates a solo that echoes the melody but also puts a new spin on it.
Brown’s lyrical message is again consumed with defiance against injustice. His point isn’t whining, but the righteous anger of the disrespected who want only the opportunities they deserve. “Some of us try as hard as we can/We don’t want no separate things/We just want to be a man.” He then ends each chorus with a “do you hear me?” injecting enough menace so as to scare away any “Leave It To Beaver” wannabes.
“Mother Popcorn” occasionally makes it onto innumerable Brown greatest-hit discs and is a likewise target for samples by hip-hop producers, the song is often overlooked when weighing what is the penultimate James Brown track. While the song doesn’t have the easy, funky hook of Brown’s bigger hits, the song represents Brown and his bandmates at their best.
The band is tight and its execution of the song’s complex dynamics and shifting moods are dead-on. At the same time, the track is constantly doing the unexpected. The source of the song’s funky rhythm isn’t its bassline, but the tightly-arranged horn blasts. Brown’s vocal performance is one of his most curious and exhilarating. His singing is little more than grunts and howls, as if he were trying to exorcise some great pain from his soul. Lastly, the track is unusual because it is one of the few recorded James Brown songs that features a rare star-making solo. Sax player Maceo Parker takes the spotlight twice with a pair of instrumental flourishes.
“Let me in,” Brown commands his horn players as he fights to get to the front of the groove. It was no accident when Iggy Pop yelled the same thing — deflecting shards of shrill guitars and a water-soaked saxophone instead of a taut, urban horn section — during the Stooges’ “Fun House.”
“Mother Popcorn” is as fitting a musical epitaph as Brown ever recorded.
Note: While “Live At The Apollo” ranks as one of the best live albums of the 20th Century, James Brown was primarily a singles artist and the best way to get his music is to pick up any number of greatest-hits packages that are out there. For an easy foray into Brown’s musical legacy, the “20-All Time Greatest Hits” CD is the easy choice. Anyone who likes pop music should own this disc. For those who really want to get deeper into Brown’s catalog, the “Star Time” box set is the obvious candidate. The box is four funk-filled discs of popular classics, chart toppers and coulda-been contenders.
Other Lost James Brown Classics (in no particular order):
- “My Thang”
- “Doing It To Death”
- “There It Is”
- “Funky President (People It’s Bad)”
- “Stoned To The Bone”
For More Info:
- James Brown’s Official Web Site
- The James Brown Homepage (Unofficial Web Site)
- The Godfatha Page (Unofficial)
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.