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James Brown Makes It Once Again

James Brown
The Godfather of Soul: James Brown was never one to be modest about his talent or his influence on pop music.

A new, 2-CD retrospective album brings back peak James Brown jams from the early seventies

By Nicky Baxter

ONE AFTERNOON some years ago, on my way to work, a James Brown track came on, an in-performance number. Immediately, the funk made it difficult to stay between the white lines, but I maintained until, during the song's prolonged coda, emcee Danny Ray began chanting the Godfather of Soul's name, said godfather apparently having quit the stage.

"James Brown! James Brown! James Brown! James Brown!" chanted Byrd in that ridiculously nasal voice of his. The crowd was right there with him, whooping for a command performance from the King. Suddenly, a hysterical shriek went up from the crowd. Brown was back! What next occurred almost prompted me to pull over. James Brown began chanting his own name--a truly weird, inexplicably transcendent moment in pop-culture history.

Brown's shameless self-aggrandizement and planet-sized ego were justified. What Muhammad Ali was to boxing, what Michael Jordan is to basketball, James Brown is to post-WWII black pop. His funky fingerprints are all over "soul music," funk and now hip-hop.

Brown's influence has extended beyond chocolate-city pop. The most cursory listen to Herbie Hancock's Headhunters or Donald Byrd's Blackbyrd, both mid-'70s releases, tells the story: Jazz had returned to the streets with a vengeance, and the ex-bantamweight boxer from Augusta, Ga., was at least partly responsible.

Even before Hancock, Ayers and other jazzmen decided to make it funky, Miles Davis was telling anyone who'd listen about black pop's holy trinity: James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. These three would have a profound effect on the music Davis made beginning with 1970's Live/Evil, an album that rivaled Brown's own mono-rhythmic obsession.

Brown's rhythm thing, was, however, underappreciated at Syd Nathan's King Records, and less than a year after Davis' recorded conversion to the funk, Polydor became the singer and bandleader's new home. This move marked the beginning of the end of Brown's heroic reign as hard-core R&B's most consistent chartmaker. Make It Funky--The Big Payback: 1971­1975 chronicles these final gasps of greatness.

Essence of Soul

BY THE TIME of his partnership with Polydor, Brown had stripped his soul down to its barest essentials. Jams (and that's what many of the singer's best work were) like "Hot Pants" and "Make It Funky" are pure JB. The former features the basics: fatback drumming, a simple bass pattern, staccato chicken-scratchy guitar and a horn arrangement that eschews melody serving instead as an additional rhythm section.

And no band "took it to the bridge" quite like Brown's backing unit, the JBs. Equal parts elephantine aggression and twinkle-toed grace, the playing functioned well beyond its role as connective tissue between verse and chorus.

There was a time when Brown was criticized for his lack of lyrical development, but this punditry missed the point. With few exceptions, Brown never intended his lyrics to be scrutinized for their profundity. Rather, they were ad-libbed interpolations: call-and-response at its very root.

On "Make it Funky (Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4)", a 12:45 tour de force, Brown dispenses with any pretense of a legitimate lyric altogether. Endlessly repeated, the title is itself the song.

At various intervals, Brown engages his band in lively repartee--"Hey Fred! I see you got a funny-lookin' horn there. Why is it black?" Fred Wesley's response is inaudible; it's hard to speak with a trombone stuck in your mouth. Then again, sometimes Brown is himself almost incomprehensible; which is part of the fun.

Ultimately, what makes "Make It Funky" such a brilliant booty-mover are the horn charts. Again, simplicity is the key. Listen to the playing on the chorus, the way an alliance of saxophones, trumpet and trombone charges right at you with no pretense of subtlety. The tune somersaulted to the top of the R&B charts.

Make It Funky contains many more epiphanies: from the uncharacteristically somber proto-rap of "King Heroin" to the bumpalicious "Escape-ism," on which Brown's psychobabble is as much fun as the soul stew accompanying it.

Disc one contains by far the most familiar material, while the second offers more "experimental" fare, some of which is eye-opening: check for the little-big-band-style horn lines counterpointing Brown's heathen yelps on "Turn on the Heat and Build Some Fire."

There are some rarities as well. The compendium brings together the miniseries that is "Make It Funky." Both sides of the single "Hot Pants" are included as well.

The King Deposed

IRONICALLY, despite public acclaim and unprecedented influence, as the 1970s gathered steam, all around King James were disarray and threats of mass defection. Those threats were carried out when, in 1971, bassist Bootsy Collins and his guitar-slinging brother "Catfish" suddenly hatted up; both wound up clambering aboard the P-Funk Mothership captained by George Clinton.

Clinton was, as it turns out, Brown's most brilliant disciple, so there was a kind of symbolic passing of the mantle when other JBs (most notably Brown stalwarts Wesley and Maceo Parker) joined Clinton's funked-up administration.

In all likelihood, Brown was more preoccupied keeping his band intact. For the self-proclaimed Soul Brother No. 1, it came down to staying on top--and it was getting mighty crowded up there.

The advent of disco was the straw that broke the camel-walker's back. Though he refused to take no for an answer, scoring hits into the next decade, King James Brown had been deposed.

Yet it is a testament to the man's will that Brown managed to survive the defection of critical players for so long. Make It Funky: The Big Payback: 1971­1975 is a playback of those often turbulent times, capturing a great artist in his twilight years.

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From the November 27-December 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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