In 1965 James Brown altered the role of the rhythm section in black popular music radically and irrevocably. White listeners, understandably enthralled by the innovations of groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, paid scant attention at first. But black fans understood immediately, perhaps because the components of Brown’s new bag had long been a part of their aural environment. The chunky, broken-up bass patterns, sprung against the downbeats, had been common currency in Latin music since the Forties and had turned up in jazz classics such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia.” The trebly, insistent chicken-scratch guitars were a legacy of Fifties R&B as played by Mickey “Guitar” Baker and by Brown’s own Jimmy Nolan, who had served his apprenticeship with Johnny Otis. The tight staccato horn bursts were prominent on soul records coming out of Stax studios in Memphis, where Al Jackson was already a past master of hustling, dynamically understated, excruciatingly even drumming.
But James Brown put those elements together in a way that sounded perfectly natural, for all its newness, and further emphasized them by stripping away any elements in his music that might interfere with their impact. Before “Out Of Sight” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” the rhythmic elements Brown synthesized had been used to drive home songs, harmonic structures with choruses and bridges and dramatic modulations and all the other devices which black pop had borrowed from white pop and from its blues and gospel roots. With “Sight” and especially “Bag,” the rhythmic elements became the song. There were few chord changes, or none at all, but there were plenty of tricky rhythmic interludes and suspensions, and Brown used his voice more and more as a rhythm instrument, putting affirmative slogans in stream-of-consciousness fashion over an increasingly elaborate counterpoint of pulses. The approach probably wasn’t inspired by African drumming (in which rhythms are orchestrated as if they were melodies in a fugue) but it was certainly analogous and soon Brown was the most popular recording artist in Africa. In the U.S. he was Soul Brother Number One.
Sly Stone arrived in 1967 and soon dispelled any lingering traces of the walking bass line and the shuffle beat. He is often credited with having singlehandedly booted pop rhythms into the Seventies, but his new kind of momentum would have been impossible without the scores of James Brown singles which preceded and shaped it. As Sly temporarily took over the partying crowd’s fancies, Brown began singing more and more about the need for black ownership, self-determination and pride. He was singing directly from his own experience.
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As long ago as 1958 Brown knew what he wanted to do on record. He wanted to use his crack road band, but Syd Nathan of King records said no. Brown’s reaction was to record the band himself under the nominal leadership of drummer Nat Kendrick and in 1960 Kendrick and the Swans — the J.B.’s in fact — had a national hit, “Mashed Potatoes.” Nathan relented and Brown’s records, with his band, sold better than ever. In 1964, concerned that King’s distribution was inefficient, Brown and his manager gave “Out Of Sight” to Smash, a Mercury subsidiary. A year of legal wrangling followed, Nathan gave Brown the guarantees he wanted and artistic autonomy as well and Brown bounced back, on King, with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” By 1970 he was managing himself, had purchased several radio stations and was in the process of forming his own production company. At present he records for Polydor and runs his own People label under the Polydor banner.
The indomitable ego which helped Brown get to where he is today is abundantly evident on many of the records he produces. “Damn Right I Am Somebody” by the J.B.’s includes a long consciousness-raising session, Brown asking each band member, “Are you somebody?” with predictable results. On Us, by saxophonist Maceo Parker, Brown takes up most of the ten-and-a-half-minute “Soul of a Black Man” with a meandering rap and an exhortation: “Maceo, I want you to blow.” Maceo does, for around three minutes. To many album listeners these lapses will be unforgivable, but they are as much a part of James Brown’s contribution to the concept of soul as his rhythms, his song lyrics and his empire.
Hell, a double album by the man himself, is remarkably free of self-indulgence. The title tune, “Coldblooded,” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” are sure-fire disco smashes, the kind of no-nonsense party music one expects from Soul Brother Number One. But there are some interesting variations in the Brown formula as well. “Please, Please, Please” is reworked as a very catchy calypso, which combines an irresistible momentum with harmonic and melodic charm. “These Foolish Things” sheds its warhorse image and becomes one of Brown’s most lyrical and affecting ballad performances. Resurrections of “Stormy Monday” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” feature chord progressions and rhythm lines which have been considerably altered and are much the better for it. There is a studied avoidance of monotony throughout. The instrumental work is superb.
In fact, the current J.B.’s are Brown’s best-ever band as well as his most successful. Their Damn Right’ ‘LP contains two hit singles, “Same Beat” and “If You Don’t Get It,” both of which are worthy followups to the million-seller “Doin’ It to Death.” For the first time in his career, Brown has allowed one of his coworkers, trombonist/arranger and J.B.’s leader Fred Wesley, to front the band in name as well as in fact, and the results are salutary. Wesley is a brilliant trombonist. His solo lines never stray far from the blues but they are delivered with such authority, rhythmic accuracy and exemplary control of the instrument that they never become tedious and usually generate as much fire and drive as the rhythm section. Maceo Parker performs ably on tenor, as he did on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and so many other James Brown hits from the Sixties, and veteran guitarist Jimmy Nolan continues to grow with the times. His tasty Wes Montgomery/Roland Chambers octave work is particularly impressive. That anonymous “freak” tenor saxophonist who added so much raw energy to several Brown singles from the “Hot Pants” era is back on “Same Beat,” and drummers John “Jabo” Starks (traps) and Johnny Griggs (conga) are as usual crisp and penetrating. There are a few weak spots but most of Damn Right is as much fun to listen to as it is to dance to.
Maceo’s own album is a burner in the tradition of the J.B.’s Brown dictated that the saxophonist switch from tenor to alto for these sessions and thus his work has a singing quality which contrasts refreshingly with the heavy funk backup. Parker’s sound, which often takes on a crying edge reminiscent of Jackie McLean’s, is as powerful in its own way as the sound of Brown’s voice, and occasionally it grabs the viscera the way King Curtis used to. With the exception of “Soul of a Black Man” the production is understated and supportive. Much of the band’s work is slicker and more flowing than on the J.B.’s album, lending credence to the studio gossip that guitarists John Tropea and Cornell Dupree, bassist Gordon Edwards and other stalwarts played on most of the tracks.
For Sweet People from Sweet Charles is Brown’s lushest production yet. Charles Sherell sounds like a Smokey Robinson/Al Green hybrid and very unlike an original, and the disparate material — everything from “Strangers in the Night” to “Soul Man” — doesn’t add up to a direction, but there are enough references to Gamble/Huff and Barry White in the arrangements and overall sound to suggest that Brown is now listening closely to his competitors. He hasn’t absorbed these influences yet. The derivative nature of Sherell’s style is accentuated rather than glossed over by the production; there is even a direct cop from the O’Jays’ “When the World’s at Peace” on “I’m Payin’ Taxes” by the J.B.’s. But as Brown’s first venture into the lucrative sweet soul field, Sweet Charles is doubtless a harbinger of things to come. Having created a rhythmic idiom that lends itself to endless permutations, Soul Brother Number One is now diversifying the surface of his music. He will doubtless continue to grow without sacrificing the energy and urgency on which his reputation rests.