James Brown Joint pt. 1
A few years ago, I got into a discussion about James Brown with some of my relatives. One uncle was of the opinion that James doesn't deserve all the credit he gets. "His band made him," my uncle said. I didn't debate the issue with him, since we were on totally different levels of knowledge and appreciation where James is concerned. That is to say, while my uncle may have actually been around to see James Brown perform in his heyday, I doubt that he has done the amount of reading and research that I have. So he may know James, but he don't know James like I know James. In Funk, the Music, the Rhythm, and the People of the One, Rickey Vincent states, "…the central locus of all funk was James Brown." While I absolutely agree with that idea, I think it's important to clear up some misconceptions. First, James Brown did not have a band. Allowing for small changes in personnel in recording sessions, he had three different bands. That's what my uncle didn't understand. The group that recorded "Cold Sweat" is very different from the group that recorded "Sex Machine," which is again very different from the group that recorded "The Payback." So what I think I want to do is look at the different what I think are the best songs of each era and break down the different manifestations of the funk that came about. The eras as I describe them here are based on the following Polydor records reissues of James' work: Foundations of Funk: 1965-1969 Funk Power: 1970 Make It Funky: The Big Payback1971-1975 There are some other good anthologies out there, but this set is top-notch. Anybody who wants to get a good in-depth understanding of what James Brown's work was about should invest in these. I like these principally because on every disc there is some previously unreleased work, which provides the sharpest contrast to the the hits we already know. While I appreciate James Brown's early work, including some of his most recognizable hits, Please, Please, Please, I Got You (I Feel Good), and Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, those don't necessarily constitute funk for me. I can't help but like the personnel because there's a Tooley in there playing the trumpet. (I don't know if there's any relation. I doubt it, but it's nice to imagine sometimes.) In them are elements of funk, but it wasn't until 1967 that James kicked in the door of the funk era with "Cold Sweat." The first thing to notice about Cold Sweat is the One. Rickey Vincent writes extensively about this in Funk, so I will not attempt to retread his points. What I will say is that the listener must pay attention to the fact that the accent is on the first beat of the first measure. The listener should also notice that all the instruments come off the One as well. That's the engine that drives Cold Sweat. The importance of the change in emphasis from the 2-4 to the One cannot be overstated. Everything was different after that. The song that perhaps illustrates the changeover best is "Funky Drummer." At the beginning of FD, the drummer and band use a rhythm that was typical of early r&b/rock & roll (which are at times indistinguishable.) Both the snare and the punch of the horns is on the two and the four beats for the first 3:10 of the song. Then there is a middle part, during which the drummer doubles down on the one but no clear pattern is established. Then, at 4:06, we get the first appearance of the Funky Drummer beat, which has been sampled so many times. The pattern is, of course, most obvious in the drum solo. If we allow the onomatopoetic values of 'Boom' for the kick (bass) drum, 'Bap' for the snare, 'sssp' for the high hat, and 'Chicka' for a quick one –two comprised of a tap of the high hat with a light hit of the snare, then the beat would go like this: Boom boom BAP chicka chicka boom Bap sssp This description is, of course, simplified, since I cannot verbally represent sounds layered sounds. Now, back to Cold Sweat, which preceded Funky Drummer by three years. The early James was marked by a massive horn section. (Unfortunately, all my CDs with the liner notes are up in Philly so I can't break down the personnel like I want to) But suffice it to say that he could effectively split them up into brass and woodwinds. In reality, it's probably best to say that he had an orchestra without the strings. That's how many people he had on stage. With all those people, control is a must and control is what he had. Everybody was locked in. Cold Sweat is not different from his other songs in that respect, but the tightness of the band on that track is unmatched. Keeping Cold Sweat in mind, that era produced my favorite James Brown song, and the one that I think best typifies everything James and the boys had going on at that time, "Let A Man Come In and Do the Popcorn." This is the one. Nobody really knows this song; except for the Foundations of Funk compilation, it's not on any CD I've found. It wasn't a big hit. Nevertheless, this is not just a James Brown song, it's a meta-James Brown song; to understand this record is to understand the principles behind all James Brown records. First, let's deal with lyrics: the lyrics in this song don't really make sense. This song was not written to express a thought, it was written as a conduit for a groove. Hence gems like, "Waterboy/the boy with the bucket/if you didn't want the job/you shouldn't oughta tuck it" Musically, we have the evidence of the orchestral horn arrangement. On one hand we have one set of horns (woodwinds, I think) doing a slow descent, then the brass comes behind them and does a faster descent, then they all punch out circular round to close out the measure. This display is all about control. There are two tempos at work that get combined into one. The bass line stays consistent throughout, and there is no improvizational drum solo. James exhorts the drummer to "gimme a little bit mo'" at one point in the song, but there's nothing like Funky Drummer going on. There is, however, one trombone solo. The reason I think "Let A Man Come In..." is the best James Brown song is that it represents the tight focus of Cold Sweat, and it also displays James' gospel roots. If someone is familiar with the asthetics of Black preaching, it's all present here; all the way down to the shrieks of "Early! In the mornin'!" that would be heard in any Easter Sunday sermon. Also present are James' band-instructing grunts, yowlps, and hollers. It's wild because when you listen to the song, it seems as if the tempo changes, but it really doesn't. It's a mirage that appears because of the massive amount of energy that is infused into the song. Maybe next time, I will break it down a little further. Right now, my brain is frying from trying to put these observations into words. It's one thing to point out what's going on to somebody who is listening to a song. It's another thing altogether to try to explain aspects of a song while assuming that the reader has never heard the song, and probably never will. Having said that, I recommend that anybody who wants to hear some good James Brown records get the Foundations of Funk cd, if nothing else. Then you can hear Let A Man Come In. I will definitely break down the 2nd era next time.