“Please, Please, Please” (1956)
James Brown was blowing the mic out from the first note of his first single. As raw as a begging suitor’s scraped knees, this descendant of the Orioles’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” set the pattern for JB’s early records: wailing, sweating and growling over slow-rolling rhythm & blues. He’s howled it at almost every show for 50 years.
A cover of a 1957 hit by the “5” Royales that cranked up the tempo, mangled the lyrics, shoved Nat Kendrick’s relentless drumming right up front, threw in a lacerating sax solo by bandleader J.C. Davis and effectively announced that the old order could pack it in, because R&B had a new boss.
“Lost Someone” (Live at the Apollo version) (recorded 1962, released 1963)
Live at the Apollo was recorded in Harlem during the Cuban missile crisis, at the James Brown revue’s 24th show of the week. It made him a star, and its core is this astonishing 11-minute meltdown: a sliver of a ballad that Brown turns into an epic of sexual despair.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965)
And, all of a sudden, there was funk: 126 seconds of clipped, spare, unfiltered blammo; a nine-piece horn section whose only job is to smack you in the face every few seconds; and a brand-new beat. It was rammed onto tape in under an hour en route to yet another show.
“Cold Sweat” (1967)
Barely even a song just insanely syncopated rhythms ricocheting all over the place, some curlicues and slashes from tenor saxophonist Maceo Parker, a monolithic drum break by Clyde Stubblefield and James Brown singing so hard his voice turns into a percussion instrument. Half the R&B bands in America spent the next four years trying to catch up to this two-part single.
“Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968)
In 1968, the hyperproductive Brown released seven albums and 14 singles, but the biggest cultural impact came from this stomping civil-rights anthem. (Those kids chanting the chorus? Mostly white and Asian.)
“Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” (recorded 1970, released 1972)
He’d cut an earlier, odder version of “Talkin’ Loud” in 1970 with an acid-rock band, but this swaggering jam was the hit you can hear Brown yelling to engineer Ron Lenhoff to keep recording while he rewrites the song mid-take. This lineup, featuring teenage bass wizard Bootsy Collins, lasted only a year, producing a string of hits including “Sex Machine” and “Super Bad.”
“Doing It to Death” (1973)
Officially released as “Doing It to Death,” by Fred Wesley and the JB’s, this Number One R&B hit is universally remembered as “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time,” by James Brown, who was still opening his shows with it during the last year of his life. Trombonist and bandleader Wesley gets the first solo, followed by returning prodigal saxophonist Maceo Parker.
“The Payback” (recorded 1973, released 1974)
Brown’s son Teddy was killed in a 1973 car accident; a grieving JB, with the IRS breathing down his neck, rebounded with his darkest, angriest single, a hoarse threat of revenge that sold a million copies and played off his new nickname, “the Godfather of Soul.” Jimmy Nolen’s sinister guitar riff has powered everything from En Vogue’s “My Lovin'” to Massive Attack’s “Protection.”