Please Please Please (King, 1959)
Try Me (King, 1959)
Think (King, 1960)
The Amazing James Brown (King, 1961)
James Brown Presents His Band (King, 1961)
Excitement Mr. Dynamite (King, 1962)
James Brown and His Famous Flames Tour the U.S.A. (King, 1962)
Live at the Apollo (1963; Polydor, 2004)
Prisoner of Love (King, 1963)
Pure Dynamite! (King, 1964)
Showtime (Smash, 1964)
Grits and Soul (Smash, 1964)
Papa's Got a Brand New Bag (King, 1965)
James Brown Plays James Brown Today and Yesterday (Smash, 1966)
I Got You (I Feel Good)
Mighty Instrumentals (King, 1966)
James Brown Plays New Breed (The Boo-Ga-Loo)
It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World (King, 1966)
Christmas Songs (King, 1966)
Handful of Soul (Smash, 1966)
The James Brown Show (Smash, 1967)
James Brown Sings Raw Soul (King, 1967)
James Brown Plays the Real Thing (Smash, 1967)
Live at the Garden (King, 1967)
Cold Sweat (King, 1967)
James Brown Presents His Show of Tomorrow (King, 1968)
I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)
I Got the Feelin' (King, 1968)
James Brown Plays Nothing but Soul (King, 1968)
Live at the Apollo, Vol. II (1968)
Thinking About Little Willie John/A Few Nice Things (King, 1968)
A Soulful Christmas (King, 1968)
Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud (King, 1969)
Gettin' Down to It (King, 1969)
The Popcorn (King, 1969)
It's a Mother (King, 1969)
Ain't It Funky (King, 1970)
Soul on Top (King, 1970)
It's a New Day—Let a Man Come In (King, 1970)
Sex Machine (King, 1970)
Hey, America (King, 1970)
Super Bad (King, 1971)
Sho Is Funky Down Here (King, 1971)
Hot Pants (Polydor, 1971)
Revolution of the Mind (Live at the Apollo, Vol. III)
There It Is (Polydor, 1972)
Get On the Good Foot (Polydor, 1972)
Black Caesar (Polydor, 1973)
Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (Polydor, 1973)
The Payback (Polydor, 1974)
Hell (Polydor, 1974)
Reality (Polydor, 1975)
Sex Machine Today (Polydor, 1975)
Everybody's Doin' the Hustle & Dead on the Double Bump (Polydor, 1975)
Hot (Polydor, 1976)
Get Up Offa That Thing (Polydor, 1976)
Bodyheat (Polydor, 1976)
Mutha's Nature (Polydor, 1977)
Solid Gold (Polydor UK, 1977)
Jam 1980's (Polydor, 1978)
Take a Look at Those Cakes (Polydor, 1979)
The Original Disco Man (Polydor, 1979)
People (Polydor, 1980)
Hot on the One (Polydor, 1980)
Soul Syndrome (TK Records, 1980)
Nonstop! (Polydor, 1981)
Bring It On! (Churchill/Augusta, 1983)
The Federal Years, Part One (Solid Smoke, 1984)
The Federal Years, Part Two (Solid Smoke, 1984)
Ain't That a Groove (Polydor, 1984)
Doing It to Death (Polydor, 1984)
Gravity (Scotti Bros., 1986)
The CD of JB (Sex Machine and Other Soul Classics)
James Brown's Funky People (Polydor, 1986)
In the Jungle Groove (Polydor, 1986)
The CD of JB II (Cold Sweat and Other Soul Classics)
I'm Real (Scotti Bros., 1988)
James Brown's Funky People (Part 2)
Motherlode (Polydor, 1988)
Roots of a Revolution (Polydor, 1989)
Messing With the Blues (Polydor, 1990)
Star Time (Polydor, 1991)
Love Over-Due (Scotti Bros., 1991)
20 All-Time Greatest Hits! (Polydor, 1991)
The Greatest Hits of the Fourth Decade (Scotti Bros., 1992)
Universal James (Scotti Brothers, 1992)
Soul Pride: The Instrumentals, 1960–1969 (Polydor, 1993)
James Brown's Funky Christmas (Polydor, 1995)
Live at the Apollo, 1995 (Scotti Brothers, 1995)
70s Funk Classics (Universal, 1995)
Get on the Good Foot (Polydor, 1995)
JB40: 40th Anniversary Collection (Polydor, 1996)
Foundations of Funk: A Brand New Bag, 1964–1969 (Polydor Chronicles, 1996)
Funk Power, 1970: A Brand New Thang (Polydor Chronicles, 1996)
Make It Funky: The Big Payback, 1971–1975 (Polydor Chronicles, 1996)
Dead on the Heavy Funk: 1975–1983 (Polydor, 1998)
Say It Live and Loud: Dallas, 1968 (Polydor, 1998)
I'm Back (Private I, 1998)
James Brown's Original Funky Divas (Polydor, 1998)
Living in America (Scotti Brothers, 1999)
The Millennium Collection (Polydor, 1999)
Godfather of Soul (Polydor, 2000)
Ballads (Polydor, 2000)
Live at the Apollo, Vol. II, Deluxe Edition (Polydor, 2001)
The Millennium Collection: Vol. 2 (Polydor, 2002)
The Next Step (Fome, 2002)
50th Anniversary Collection (Polydor, 2003)
The Singles, Vol. 1: The Federal Years: 1956-1960 (Hip-O Select, 2006)
The Singles, Vol. 2: 1960-1963 (Hip-O Select, 2007)
The Singles, Vol. 3: 1964-1965 (Hip-O Select, 2007)
The Singles, Vol. 4: 1966-1967 (Hip-O Select, 2007)
The Singles, Vol. 5: 1967-1969 (Hip-O Select, 2008)
The Singles, Vol. 6: 1969-1970 (Hip-O Select, 2009)
The Singles, Vol. 7: 1970-1972 (Hip-O Select, 2009)
The Singles, Vol. 8: 1972-1973 (Hip-O Select, 2009)
James Brown may never have captured the zeitgeist as Elvis Presley or the Beatles did, nor did he dominate the charts like Stevie Wonder or the Rolling Stones, but by any real measure of musical greatness—endurance, originality, versatility, breadth of influence—he rivals or even betters them all. Brown was astonishingly productive over the first four decades of his recording career, churning out more than 100 albums (give or take a few anthologies) as a singer, bandleader, or instrumentalist; many are great, and nearly all are worth hearing.
Brown long boasted that his best ideas were years ahead of their time, and history has borne him out. Hiphop borrowed freely from his catalogue, as rappers such as Rob Base, Kool Moe Dee, and Eric B. & Rakim all powered singles with beats Brown produced as much as 20 years earlier. Nor were they the only ones, for by the early Nineties the churning fatback pattern immortalized in Brown's "Funky Drummer" (1969) was a staple among club-savvy alternative rock acts. Even Michael Jackson's celebrated moonwalk was little more than an update of a Brown move called the camel walk.
Brown was anthologized extensively during his the last two decades of his life, and the repackaging continued with a vengeance after his death in 2006. The best introduction to Brown's work by far is Star Time, a wonderfully annotated, admirably representative four-disc box set that follows Brown's career from "Please Please Please," his 1956 debut, to "Unity," a 1984 collaboration with hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa. In addition to including all the intervening hits, it restores some singles to their full-length versions, offers a fair amount of non-LP material, and includes several illuminating rarities, among them the previously unreleased original version of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Five stars are barely enough.
The most economical of his hits albums is 20 All-Time Greatest Hits (JB40: James Brown's 40th Anniversary Collection is more expensive, but makes for a nicely compact history, as does the similar 50th Anniversary Collection, bewilderingly issued three years too early, in 2003). Those interested in specific eras of his career may prefer the close focus of such sets as Funk Power, 1970: A Brand New Thang, Dead on the Heavy Funk: 1975–1983 or the eight-volume The Singles collections (although the third installment of this series covers a weak year of his early career in which he was in dispute with his early label King Records, and is thus uneven).
As for the rest of his work, well, let's just start at the beginning. Roots of a Revolution, focusing on the 1956–62 period, with two songs each from 1963 and 1964, gives a strong sense of Brown's early evolution, but because the set purposely excludes Brown's best-known titles from that period, it should be seen as a "second step" album for fledgling fans.
Then there are the original albums. Of these, Think is by far the best, in part because it has the highest hit quotient ("Think," "I'll Go Crazy," "Good Good Lovin'") but mostly because it offers Brown's most distinctive work to that point, particularly in its chugging title tune. Please Please Please, despite including Brown's first single (the raw, gospel-inflected title track) and his first R&B chart-topper (the more traditional R&B tune "Try Me"), is mostly given over to derivative material such as "Chonnie-on-Chon" and "Let's Make It." Try Me—which was reissued in 1964 as The Unbeatable James Brown—repeats "Try Me" but otherwise leans more toward the blues, thanks to such songs as "I Want You So Bad" and "Messing with the Blues," while The Amazing James Brown shows off the increasing proficiency of his band through gritty titles such as "Dancin' Little Thing" and "Come Over Here."
With Presents His Band, Brown moves into the instrumental realm and delivers his epochal remake of Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train" (a huge hit in the U.K.), but Excitement Mr. Dynamite—which has also been available as Shout and Shimmy—returns Brown and company to the hard-hitting vocal approach of Think, even to the point of repeating "Good Good Lovin'."
At that point in his career, Brown was still better-known for his live show than for his recordings, a fact that explains the somewhat misleading title to the studio album James Brown and His Famous Flames Tour the U.S.A. Incredibly, King Records president Syd Nathan felt there was no market for a real James Brown live album, so the singer went ahead and recorded Live at the Apollo at his own expense; it turned out to be the album that finally put him on the map—and no wonder. It doesn't just present the hits, but also shows off the incredible precision of Brown's band as well as the uncanny bond he had with his audience.
Pure Dynamite! , an even more energetic set recorded before a raucously appreciative crowd at Baltimore's Royal Theatre, followed a year later, and Brown would release eight more live albums after that, including three more recorded at the Apollo: Live at the Apollo, Vol. II, with its itchy, intense rendition of "There Was a Time"; and Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Vol. III. (Live at the Apollo 1995 is by that point a needless exercise in nostalgia for both star and venue.) Because Brown toured with an entire revue, The James Brown Show puts its emphasis on the other players in the show, including his band; likewise, James Brown Presents His Show of Tomorrow features only two tracks by Brown, with the rest given over to members of the revue.
Brown also put out a couple of fake live albums—studio recordings with audience noise dubbed in later. Perhaps the most notorious of these was Showtime (fortunately, its best tunes appear without embellishment on Messing with the Blues), but Super Bad repeats the ruse, as does the first half of the double-album Sex Machine, although the loping, hypnotic groove generated by his band on "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" makes such fakery almost forgivable.
Brown later admitted that his model for Live at the Apollo was Ray Charles' concert album In Person. That wasn't his only nod to Brother Ray; Prisoner of Love, with its string sweetening and choral cushioning, is self-consciously in the vein of Charles' ABC recordings—although Brown remains far too raw a singer to seem much at home in these MOR arrangements. No matter; the direction Brown takes with Papa's Got a Brand New Bag would soon leave Charles in the dust, at least from an R&B perspective. This, in effect, is the birth of funk, as Brown's songs grow lean and repetitious, with fewer and fewer chord changes and a greater emphasis on rhythmic tension. Granted, nothing else on the album takes that idea quite as far as its two-part title tune, but that was more than enough. The revolution truly had begun.
Brown suggested in his autobiography that the revolution had actually begun with Out of Sight, an album he recorded for Smash shortly before Brand New Bag, but a legal battle among Brown, King Records, and Smash resulted in a court order withdrawing the album shortly after its release (the single "Out of Sight" can be found on Star Time). Part of the loss when Out of Sight was put out of the picture was a track entitled "I Got You (I Feel Good)," but Brown, typically, turned the situation to his advantage and recut the song with a harder groove; both versions of the song can be found on Star Time, but the funkier and more familiar of the two is the centerpiece of I Got You (I Feel Good) .
Brown didn't cut down on his balladry during this period, however. It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World certainly has its share of funk, including the two-part "Ain't That a Groove," but there's room enough for the slow ones, including the title track and a tearfully intense number called "The Bells." Likewise, James Brown Sings Raw Soul alternates rhythmically intense tunes such as "Money Won't Change You" and "Let Yourself Go" with soppy ballads along the lines of "Tell Me That You Love Me." Even the unstoppable groove of "Cold Sweat"—which, with its driving, monolithic bass pulse and exquisite Maceo Parker sax break, was a milestone almost as important as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"—is flanked on Cold Sweat by MOR numbers such as "Mona Lisa" and "Nature Boy" as well as a smattering of rock & roll oldies.
Some of that was simply a reflection of Brown's determined eclecticism. Like Ray Charles, Brown refused to see himself as a one-dimensional musician and regularly fleshed out his albums with material that ranged far afield from the sound of his singles. Sometimes, he did whole albums of these songs, such as Thinking About Little Willie John and A Few Nice Things, a tribute to the influential R&B stylist that boasts a touching cover of John's "Talk to Me!" He also flirted with jazz, trying his hand at lounge singing with the Dee Felice Trio on Gettin' Down to It and recording Soul on Top with the Louis Bellson big band.
But Brown's most consistent sideline was playing organ, piano, and vibraphone. Although by no means a master technician, his solos are remarkably fluid, and at their best compare well with the work of such jazz-funk players as Les McCann and Ramsey Lewis. In all, Brown released 11 all-instrumental albums between 1961 and 1971; some, such as James Brown Plays the New Breed, James Brown Plays the Real Thing, or James Brown Plays James Brown Today and Yesterday feature his funky, Jimmy McGriff–style organ solos; others, such as Mighty Instrumentals, The Popcorn, and Ain't It Funky put the emphasis on his band. Most have been written off as inconsequential, but the music is often quite good, particularly on rhythmically centered tunes such as "Peewee's Groove in 'D,'" from Real Thing, or "Soul Pride," from Popcorn. Finding the original albums may be a bit of a trick, but fortunately Soul Pride: The Instrumentals, 1960–1969 includes all the highlights and then some. Nor should we forget the albums he produced for his backing band, the JBs, and their various spinoffs, a sampling of which is spread between James Brown's Funky People and James Brown's Funky People (Part 2) .
With Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud Brown states what had long been implicit in his music; the black power sentiment of the title tune generated a certain amount of controversy at the time, but the album isn't all politics, as the loping "Licking Stick—Licking Stick" makes clear. Brown's band was getting funkier with each passing month; even his outtakes are astonishing, as evidenced by the selection on Motherlode. It's a New Day So Let a Man Come In is especially strong, thanks to "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," a mesmerizing workout with interlocking guitar and bass patterns, as well as such lesser greats as "It's a New Day" and "Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn." But many of Brown's hottest singles from this period—"Funky Drummer," for instance—didn't make it to album until Brown began to be anthologized in the Eighties and Nineties. Some of these tracks turn up in remixes on In the Jungle Groove, a DJ-oriented release that augments "Funky Drummer" with a three-minute "Bonus Beat Reprise," while Star Time offers a choice selection of complete versions of key tracks such as "Mother Popcorn." But if what you want to hear is what Brown heard during this period, your best bet is Funk Power 1970: A Brand New Thang, which not only offers a clear picture of the Brown band with bassist Bootsy Collins but also presents a number of hits in their original, unedited form.
Brown took the notion of funk quite literally with Hot Pants, and gets down even further with There It Is (including "I'm a Greedy Man" and the marvelously kinetic "Talkin' Loud & Sayin' Nothing," as well as the message song "King Heroin"). After the double album Get on the Good Foot, Brown released several soundtracks, of which only The Payback is worthwhile; from there, he went straight to Hell, a somewhat mixed double album that includes the Nixon-inspired "Funky President (People It's Bad)."
By this point, Brown was losing his edge, and as he tried to cope with the disco era, his albums grew increasingly spotty. Some, such as the remake-oriented Sex Machine Today or the uncharacteristically mellow Everybody's Doin' the Hustle & Dead on the Double Bump, are conceptual failures, while others—Bodyheat, Mutha's Nature, Jam 1980's, or People—are uninspired. Still, he had his moments: Hot, on which Brown copied David Bowie's "Fame" for "Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved)"; Get Up Offa That Thing, with its insistent title tune; and "For Goodness Sakes, Look at Those Cakes," on Take a Look at Those Cakes. With The Original Disco Man, he even came to terms with disco itself, and proved on Soul Syndrome that he could imitate the Miami sound as well as anyone.
By the early Eighties, Brown was in limbo, with no label and a waning audience. He tried going independent, releasing the pleasantly retro Bring It On! through the tiny Churchill/Augusta label; it's a good album heard by almost no one. He even went Hollywood for a time, appearing in and contributing to the soundtracks of The Blues Brothers and Dr. Detroit; the latter has the more interesting musical performance. But it wasn't until he cut "Living in America" for the soundtrack to Rocky IV that Brown was able to reestablish himself. Ironically, part of the reason "Living in America" works is that it plays off the cliché James Brown–isms that had come back into vogue, resulting in Brown imitating himself (as he does through the rest of Gravity). I'm Real takes the opposite approach, with Brown complaining about rappers ripping him off, over rhythm tracks largely built around sampled James Brown records. Soul Session Live is the soundtrack from a Cinemax special that offers more stars (Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Wilson Pickett) than memorable music, but Love Over-Due, recorded after Brown's release from prison on drug charges, is a return to form that boasts a sharp new band and a classic sense of material. From there, Brown went mostly into repackaging—even in the movies, with Jackie Chan (!) impersonating him in The Tuxedo. He did record with his touring band, but despite some fine playing The Next Step clearly leads nowhere.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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