Sunday, December 9, 2007

James Brown: Revolution In Progress

James Brown passed away Christmas last year. Thousands of fans and celebrities attended the memorial services at the Apollo theater in NY, paying their last homage to a man they knew as no less as JAAAAAAAAAAMES BROWN!!!!! As a performer and a public figure James made every capital count even though he died a shadow of his former self. There was a time when James Brown seemed forever in vogue, there was a time when James Brown was a walking symbol of Black pride and entrepreneurship. James Brown was so bad he needed more than one name. James was the God Father of Soul, the hardest working man in Showbizz, Soul Brother no 1, the Funky President and mister Dynamite amongst others. Even though James Brown and the Famous Flames claimed immortality before they achieved it, there was also a time when it seemed very unlikely that James Brown would ever become a force to be reckoned with.

James Brown was born in 1933 during the depression era in the rural South. The Browns lived in extreme poverty and when his parents divorced his father eventually sent him off the live with his aunt in the brothel she ran. Nobody got the Browns anything as Brown recounted in his candid 1986 biography. Brown likened the situation in the rural South to slavery, after seeing his father working for nearly nothing, himself hustling from early age to get by. One a few occasions Brown was even send away from school for insufficient clothing, eventually dropping out in the 5th grade. Maybe that's why James Brown got so determined to get it himself. James experienced the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, he knew he wasn't about to expect any handouts. It was in his aunt's brothel that James' seeds for his musical career were sown when he picked up some guitar from legendary blues man Tampa Red, but the road to success from those first three chords was long and hard.

Things started to turn around, oddly enough, when he was send to reform school for armed robbery. Through his time there he got acquainted with Bobby Byrd who's parents took the young Brown in when he got paroled. With Byrd he would eventually form the Famous Flames, the band that got them signed at Syd Nathan's King/Federal through producer and talent scout Ralph Bass who was impressed by James' live presence. At the time the Flames were a far cry from what James Brown would become. With James' relentless energy the Flames were modeled to Little Richard and the Upsetters. So much in fact that they would fill in for Richard when he abandoned R&R to serve the Lord. Nobody even noticed at first. Despite the resemblance to the money making Richard Nathan didn't like what he saw at first, in fact he hated it. When Brown came up to Cincinnati to cut "Please, Please, Please" Nathan got close to throw them out of the studio. Much to his surprise, and maybe even disgust, the record hit big when he decided to put it out on Bass' insistence. "Please, Please, Please" hit #5 in the R&B charts, while sniffing at pop at a #105. James Brown was on his way.

With the abundance of James Brown compilations these days it is hard to tell which of those will give you a decent review of his career. Many of these compilations focus on his early career to boot, leaving his early career under lit. With "The Roots Of A Revolution" and "Soul Pride: The Instrumentals" out of print, there hardly was any of his early material left on the market. Hot on the tails of the "Complete Motown Singles" Hip-O Select is determined to fill that current gap in the James Brown reissue market with an ambitious project. Started on "Please, Please, Please"'s 50th anniversary in 2006 Hip-O intents to re-release every single 45 Brown has ever released, A and B side, even a few that never saw the light of day. A project that should get any James Brown fan's heart running faster as some of these singles are criminally rare and have never been released digitally. Every double disc comes with an informative booklet with sessions information, dates and personal complemented with rare photo's and essays by Brown historian Alan Leeds. Like no other project before, the complete singles give a complete picture of how Brown's music evolved from the early days on. Especially the first three compilations working up to 1965 and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" may prove to be the most interesting of the lot.

Although there are a lot of gems to be found on these compilations they are aimed at the hardcore James Brown fan indeed. A lot of the early sides between "Please, Please, Please" and his ultimate follow up smash "Try Me" (with Jazz legend Kenny Burrel on guitar) are not very distinctive, especially when set off against the constant flow of R&B hits during those days. On tracks like "I Feel That Old Feeling Coming On" your can clearly feel mister Excitement trying to break loose, but James Brown in his search for a follow up hit was still trying too much to copy other smash records. If "Please" hadn't hit Syd Nathan's patience with Brown might have worn out fast, but because it did Brown was allowed to develop himself as an artist. Legend in the making got recorded every step of the way. We get to hear Brown form his distinct sound, trying to follow up "Try Me". Dabbling in mid tempo Gospel Blues ballads as "I've Got To Change", rousing instrumentals as "Bucket Head" with a honking sax, through raving rockers like "Good Good Lovin' ", before hitting big again with "Think". It is on this 45 with its whiffs of Funk that Brown's later career starts to simmer beneath the surface while pulling him away from his one hit wonder status.

The second compilation covers 1960 to 1963. Both James' sound and his band start to evolve as his success broadens. As far as taking apart the myth of James Brown these two discs are extremely interesting. James Brown's Funk revolution is often described as being overnight with critics pinpointing the exact song at "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" or "Cold Sweat". Brown's sense for syncopation is often credited to legendary Funk drummers Melvin Parker or Clyde Stubblefield who wouldn't be in Brown's band until years after the period covered in volume two. Yet as disc two shows James Brown's Funk is much more a result of his evolution than a revolution. Partly because of James' disputes with Nathan over royalties and partly because he wanted to add more depth to his profile Brown recorded quite the few instrumentals during this period with his band (a rarity in those day). With his trade mark limited but greasy organ playing and an incredibly tight band backing him, Brown's music started to bounce more. A big brake through came with the B-side for Country outing "Three Hearts In A tangle", trying to benefit from Ray Charles' success in the Genre. "I've Got Money" is an extremely raucous and funky track featuring the New Orleans born Clayton Fillyua on drums. With Fillyua on drums Brown seemed to momentarily jump into his future. It wouldn't be until 1968's "Cold Sweat" that James Brown would sound quite as funky again. Brown's biggest successes from this period are still derived from Gospel Blues ballads and R&B raves but James was on his way to become a very distinct voice in the field of music.

Late in 1962 Brown again triumphed with one of the first Black live albums to rocket up the charts. Again the stubborn and headstrong James Brown proved Syd Nathan wrong who felt that such a project would never work since the R&B market was very much a 45 market. That's where the big money for King was, not in expensive live album where no singles could be drawn from. James went ahead and financed the album himself, "Live At The Apollo" was released and when DJs started playing the whole album start to finish, the rest became history. "Live At The Apollo" captured an essential aspect of James Brown, the live performer. It was his reputation as a scorching live artist that kept him alive during his dry spells on the charts often selling out without any hit to back him up. The third installment, covering James' road to super stardom through 1964/65, opens with Nathan trying to cash in on the albums success by over dubbing the original "Please, Please, Please" with canned applause. The fans were not to be fooled and the single failed to chart as the album continued to sell, even crossing over into the Pop market.

1964/65 was also the period where Brown's desire for a better contact with King prompted him to start releasing records through the Smash label when Nathan wouldn't budge. James felt he could do so since he was singed to King as James Brown and the famous flames. The first few singles on Smash didn't get much chart action as Brown oddly enough chose to venture deeper into a more classic Blues sound with releases as "Caldonia", originally a hit for Louis Jordan, one of Brown's few inspirations he would later claim.

When those Jump Blues sides failed to chart Brown dived back into R&B with "Out of Sight". Here Brown continued the path started on "I've Got Money" as he started to incorporate the hypnotic vamps that were already trade mark for his live shows together with his lightening fast dancing. The 45 became a cross over hit and Nathan filed suit. Brown was no longer allowed to record for Smash, at least not as a singer. An odd period followed where King tried to milk Brown's backlog and James would release instrumentals on Smash. Great as especially the instrumentals were, they didn't get much action of the charts. "I Got You" was performed in the film "Ski Party" but Smash had to sit on the much requested single because of the legal difficulties between Brown and Nathan. Brown's career continued to sky rocket because of his TV appearances, prompting both gentle men to come to a settlement.

Brown returned at King with a lightening Smash, a superstar was born when he released "Pappa's Got A Brand New Bag". A tune so hot it needed to be stretched over both the A and B side. even James was allegedly baffled by the revolutionary sound and the energy that the single held as he admitted in an interview "It's a little beyond's a thing and it's out there". With Melvin Parker's tight drumming and Maceo Parker's sax bouncing off that syncopation, Brown unleashed a force he couldn't stop even if he had tried. Papa became the template for the rest of his career. The follow up a poppy but decisively funkier re-recording of "I've Got You (I Feel Good)" stormed up the charts, locking Brown deep into a groove and made him one of the hottest stars for the decade to come. James Brown would eventually become a genre in itself, Hip-O Select's releases give an unique perspective of how he got there.

"I've Got That Old Feeling Coming On"
"I've Got Money"

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