If there’s one artist who’s most responsible for fusing jazz, gospel and R&B—and inventing a new form of high-octane soul in the process—it's James Brown. From 1956 to 1981, Brown’s trampoline rhythms, high-pitched squeals and horn-fed dance steps lifted soul to a new level while crystallizing the spirit of the civil rights movement and sexual revolution.
But Brown (1933-2006) was more than music. He was an electrifying performer whose stage presence, dance steps and artistic courage generated awe. Deeply influenced by Little Richard and gospel-R&B groups like the Five Royales, Brown became a model for generations of artists who followed. This list includes Sly Stone, Kool and the Gang, Tower of Power, artists on the Stax and Motown labels, Earth Wind and Fire, Prince, Rick James, Michael Jackson and other dance-centric video stars of the 1980s, and even the Black Eyed Peas today.
Last week, Universal released James Brown: The Singles Vol. 11, 1979-1981, another remastered double-CD set that represents quite a label commitment. In anticipation, I asked Harry Weinger [top], vice president of a&r at Universal Music, and Alan Leeds [left], Brown’s publicity director and tour manager and leading Brown authority, a series of key questions about the “hardest working man in show business”:
JazzWax: Is James Brown still relevant today?
Alan Leeds: Absolutely. The volume of musical devices in today’s music that James Brown either originated or popularized is stunning. It is well known that hip-hop all but owes its existence to James Brown’s beats. His use of staccato horn lines, which were more rhythmic than melodic, is prevalent in many musical genres now. His spontaneous approach to recording vocals also has influenced countless black and white artists.
JW: What big changes does Brown bring to music?
Harry Weinger: Brown shifts the emphasis in music from the top to the bottom. He also makes the groove or vamp the main element of a song rather than merely using it in the intro or outro. Brown’s impact on jazz is apparent in Miles Davis’ bands of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, as well as the jazz-funk groups of the era, like Sly [pictured] and the Family Stone and Kool and the Gang. After Brown, the bottom—the bass and drums—is king.
JW: I didn’t realize there were so many Brown singles—11 double-CD sets' worth.
HW: Alan [Leeds] and I had been creating James Brown compilations and reissues for years. Then one day I realized we had never completely documented the masters of his singles. Eventually, an entire, important segment of Brown’s career was no longer available. The simplest and most straightest path to make that happen was to put them all out in sequence. Frankly, we took a page from the Motown Singles series that I worked on—the concept of reissuing everything. But for Brown, we decided to do it in an extended series of two-disc installments.
JW: There seems to be a double influence on Brown—Stax’s horn licks and John Coltrane’s groove-based song weaving. True?
AL: Stax hardly influenced Brown, whose early musical templates pre-date the Stax-Volt success years. If anything, the reverse was true, although the Memphis horns sometimes tended to be more melodic and less syncopated. The John Coltrane analogy, however, may be more appropriate.
JW: Is the church a better place to start for Brown?
AL: I think so. The concept of stamina combined with hypnotic, groove-based material dates back to African music and evolved through slave migrations into various modern genres from salsa to reggae to American gospel and soul music. For many years, time limitation of single records prevented the recording of groove-based material to last longer than three minutes. Thanks to two-part singles and recorded concert performances, Brown eventually popularized the idea of extended performances.
JW: How far back do hypnotically repeating rhythms and riffs go?
AL: These funk music prototype devices appeared on record as early as the 1940’s in the son montunos by Cuban salsa architects such as Arsenio Rodriguez. The persistent tumbao bass patterns in Cuban dance music were particularly suggestive of what Brown introduced to American music in his earliest funk records, such as Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag .
JW: What factors caused Brown to jump from gospel and American Songbook in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s to his hypercharged brand of soul?
HW: It’s less of an artist making a leap than an inventor in the middle of figuring things out. Of course, Ray Charles was the model of an artist who could do it all at a high level of excellence. Brown figured why not do all of these things, too.
AL: I agree. I’m not sure that Brown’s music ever shifted, at least not abruptly. I prefer to look at his career arc as a gradual evolution, informed by a variety of factors including both personal and musical growth. The changes in the subject matter of his lyrics mirrored the socio-political world around him. One can debate whether he was the proverbial cart or the horse. But for the peak years of his career he was arguably at the forefront of cultural paradigms.
JW: Did Brown like jazz?
AL: Surprisingly, Brown’s taste in jazz was rather conservative. In a mid-1960’s Down Beat article, he admitted a fondness for what he called "soulful jazz," citing Jimmy Smith and Dave Brubeck among his favorites. He suggested that Sonny Rollins might be more of a challenge than his ears could manage.
JW: Did he perform and record jazz?
AL: Yes. His bands frequently performed songs by Horace Silver, Lee Morgan and particularly Cannonball Adderley. Brown also had a fondness for Sinatra-like cocktail jazz and traditional big bands—formats in which he sometimes recorded.
JW: Did Brown ever meet John Coltrane?
AL: There’s no record of Brown encountering John Coltrane, nor is there documentation of Brown appearing with either Coltrane or Miles Davis. However Brown was known to visit jazz clubs, so it’s certainly possible he may have heard both Coltrane and Davis in the 1960’s.
JW: Did Coltrane or Davis go to hear Brown?
AL: We do know that Miles went to see a Brown performance in 1971 at the RKO Albee Theater in Brooklyn, N.Y.—intently watching the show from the backstage wings. Brown loved to tell people how Miles was so caught up in the music that he kept creeping closer and closer from behind the curtain in the wings until he was visible at the far side of the stage.
JW: What did Brown think?
AL: Brown said to me, “I had to tell Miles [pictured] that if he wanted to direct my band so badly, why didn’t he just come on out and give it a try.” Brown’s band director Fred Wesley fondly recalled the incident. When I asked Fred if Miles had anything to say, Fred told me, “No, he didn’t say hello or any kind of greeting—as if we already knew each other. But when I walked off stage, Miles just said, ‘That drummer is dragging.’”
JW: There’s always a sexual tension in Brown’s music—and yet he’s actually rather restrained all things considered.
AL: Brown was quite conservative—typical, actually, of someone raised in the mid-century South. The sexuality in his music can only be gauged within the context of his times. While it seems laughable today given what’s out there, his 1970 single Sex Machine was viewed by some as lyrically controversial. Given the culture of that era, Brown was pushing the envelope about as far as he could go and still remain within the mainstream of popular music. Beyond Sex Machine, his own Southern sense of propriety wouldn’t have allowed him to go much further.
JW: What was Brown like off stage?
HW: The big surprise for me was how small he was for someone so imposing. But you didn’t want to mess with him or say the wrong thing. My default response always was, “Yes, Mr. Brown.” And I didn’t even work for him! But because I wasn’t an employee, he usually was kind and accommodating. He was only gruff when he was “on,” which I understood.
JW: How was he accommodating?
HW: Several years ago, when Brown was still alive, I was begged by a sales branch to have Brown sign some posters. I knew that would never happen, since Brown didn’t often do those sorts of things. But I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll follow through and see what happens.” One night, after a show at Radio City Music Hall, I told him how exciting it was that audiences were still clamoring for his music and oh, by the way, would he sign a few things for the sales team who brought the music to the people?
JW: What did he say?
HW: He said yes—but he said I had to come back the next day to his hotel. Which I dutifully did. But when I arrived at the appointed time, I found him packing up to leave. Despite the hubbub leading up to his departure and all the fuss going on around him, he signed everything I brought—complaining about record companies the entire time. He could embrace you and cut you off in the same breath.
JW: What was behind the edge?
AL: Brown was one of the more complicated individuals I have ever encountered. At the axis of his personae was a deep-seated insecurity, which drove obsessive needs for acceptance and control. He found it difficult to trust anyone. These traits flavored both his personal relationships and his style of business.
JW: And yet there was kindness.
AL: Yes. Contrary to his unpredictable and volatile wrath, his most surprising attribute was probably his warmth and sense of humor. While he was often boorish on the surface, Brown at the core was a people person who basked in the family members and associates he chose to surround himself with. Despite his trust issues, he seldom liked being alone.
JW: What was special about the production and engineering of Brown’s music?
HW: Everything. Virtually all of his major hits—except for a precious few—were recorded in the studio. He didn’t care how an engineer did it—you just had to capture what was going down through the glass. One day Bob Both, who recorded and mixed all of Brown’s output from 1972 to 1977, told Brown that he wanted to be careful to avoid over-modulation and distortion.
JW: What did Brown say?
HW: Brown had him put masking tape over the board’s meters. “If you blow them out, I’ll buy new ones,” Brown said. But if you screwed up, if the mikes weren’t set up right, Brown would rip you apart. The fact that everything was caught live on tape is right there in many of his hits: “Give the drummer some,” “Start over again,” “Hit me” and “Horns!” —these were all vocal cues that he left on the tape for drama and emphasis.
JW: What five Brown tracks best illustrate the arc of his special qualities for readers looking for an entry point?
HW: I’d have to go with Try Me (1958), the album Live at the Apollo (1962), Out of Sight (1964), Cold Sweat (1968), Sex Machine (1970) and The Payback (1974).
AL: Here are mine: Try Me (1958), Lost Someone from Live at the Apollo (1962), Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (1965), Cold Sweat (1967) and There Was a Time, the extended version from Live at the Apollo Vol. 2 (1967).
JazzWax tracks: James Brown: The Singles Vol. 11, 1979-1981 (Universal) is available at iTunes and here. If you assemble all of the CDs in this series, you wind up with 406 tracks. Some of the double-CD sets put out by Universal are growing scarce and pricey but all are available at Amazon as downloads.
I can't even begin to tell you how rewarding this set is. The true proof of James Brown's artistic significance and durability is that there isn't a bad track among all of the releases. Each packs a mighty punch, with big beats, catchy licks and riffs, and all-out gospel-soul vocals by Brown. It's a remarkable legacy.
JazzWax notes: One of the earliest and greatest visual performances by Brown appears on The T.A.M.I Show (1964), which is available on DVD. Though Brown battled with the show's producers to close out the show, he ultimately lost out to the Stones. But that didn't stop Brown, who went all out, terrifying any act that followed him. You'll find my post on The T.A.M.I. Show here and The T.A.M.I. Show DVD here.
JazzWax clip: Here's James Brown singing Mother Popcorn...
On April 5, 1968—a day after Martin Luther King's assassination—James Brown was in Boston delivering a performance that is widely credited with preventing riots there. Here's a clip from the performance (which is available on DVD here and a companion documentary here)...
My third favorite James Brown DVD is Soul Power. Filmed in Zaire 1974, Brown was featured in a concert held to entertain those waiting for the heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman ("Rumble in the Jungle"). The bout was delayed while a cut that Foreman sustained on his eye in training healed. You'll find Soul Power here. (Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, a superb documentary on the fight itself, is here). Here's a promo for Soul Power...