James Brown can seem like an insufferable braggart. He makes no bones about his greatness, proclaiming himself not only the King of Soul but the inventor of funk and the progenitor of rap and disco — not to mention a leading exponent of black pride. To hear him tell it, James Brown is one of the most dynamic and visionary musicians America has ever produced. After examining the evidence set forth in the seventy-two songs on Star Time, however, only one conclusion is possible: James Brown is far too modest.
Simply put, Star Time is a staggering collection. It goes well beyond the usual hits ‘n’ rarities approach of boxed retrospectives to get at the essence of Brown’s development from gospel-style shouter (“Please Please Please”) to Soul Brother No. 1 (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”) and from Godfather of Soul (“My Thang”) to grandfather of rap (“Unity,” with Afrika Bambaataa), while sprinkling in pseudonymous hits like “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes, Pt. 1,” originally credited to “Nat Kendrick and the Swans,” instrumental singles (“Grits,” with Brown on organ) and the expected batch of hard-to-find gems and unreleased recordings.
But Star Time is no mere “and then we wrote …” retrospective. Rather than relying on edits that were designed to sell singles, producer Harry Weinger pored over session tapes to find the full-length versions of these hits. That provides more in terms of listening time — all six minutes and eighteen seconds of “Mother Popcorn,” for instance, instead of the 3:11 offered by The CD of JB — but the advantage isn’t simply a matter of length. The unexpurgated versions convey a sense of Brown’s intent, an understanding of the energy behind these singles. And in that regard, Star Time is a real eye-opener.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is probably the most startling piece of session-tape spadework, since it unearths the complete, unreleased original take (including studio chatter that finds Brown fretting that “there’s a lotta words here, man,” then crowing, “This is a hit!”) and follows it with the shortened, speeded-up single that first put him in the Top Ten. But the collection makes an even better point with “I Got You,” letting an unreleased 1964 take set up the two “Papa” ‘s before bringing in the 1965 hit version — “I Got You (I Feel Good)” — to demonstrate just how much Brown’s new bag had toughened his band’s attack.
Brown’s strength, after all, was not merely as a singer but as a bandleader, and Star Time makes a special point of showing just how much genius he was able to pull from his various ensembles. Whether coaxing funk from his sidemen on “Cold Sweat” or letting them stretch out over the insistent groove of “Get It Together,” Brown played his band the way Ray Charles played piano, with minimal effort and maximum soul. Particularly amazing are two previously unreleased live tracks — a stop-on-a-dime medley of “Brother Rapp” and “Ain’t It Funky Now” from 1971 and a rendition of “There Was a Time” cut in 1968 that smokes the more familiar Live at the Apollo, Vol. 2 version — both of which suggest that Brown’s studio performances were just the tip of the iceberg.
Then again, the same could be said for Star Time itself. Unlike other box sets, which often turn completeness into a perverse endurance test, this package seems almost skimpy at a mere five hours; everything here, from the early singles to the supposedly lesser hits of the early Eighties, leaves the listener hankering for more. Is it greedy to want an encore?