R&B Gold: James Brown - The Godfather of Everything

December 1, 2016

James Brown. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 50-plus years, you have been touched by this man’s genius. Revered as the Godfather of Soul, Brown began his career as a standout performer within the relatively predictable confines of early R&B music. His output followed established forms like the 12-bar blues, and employed standard grooves—12/8 ballads like “Please Please, Please,” and “Try Me,” shuffles like “I’ll Go Crazy,” even-eighth Twist beats like “Nitetrain”—all performed by a crack band with one of the most evocative singers the genre has ever known. Pre-1965, the funk that Mr. Brown would one day be credited for inventing was just bubbling under the surface, showing itself in subtle ways. There is a lot to learn from James Brown, but this month, I’d like to examine the beginnings of his rhythmic evolution. By 1966, James Brown had effectively torn the world of popular music “a new one,” but it didn’t happen overnight. Let’s take a look at a few early tracks that hinted at the funk that was to come.

Using the Hip-O Select Records 11-volume collection James Brown: The Singles for my timeframe, the first track that sticks out as a “rhythm” number is the 1959 release “Can’t Be the Same,” which is an uptempo rocker with the classic tresillo/triad bass line played over a 12-bar blues. Another obscure track from ’59 that foreshadows Brown’s future funk is “Baby Cries Over the Ocean,” which also follows the 12-bar form, this time adding an eight-bar bridge. The drums play a half-swing/half-straight shuffle feel, while the bass plays simple walking patterns. But the bass line anticipates the downbeat of each bar on the “and” of beat four throughout the entire track, giving the groove a rhythmic “hiccup” which, while tame compared to Brown’s later work, is unusual for the time. Example 1 gives you the basic idea of the line played by Edwin Conley, a Cincinnati bassist who did sessions for King Records and played on several early Brown tracks.

In 1960, Brown released “Good Good Lovin,” a groovy Twist number with an arpeggiated bass pattern played by Bernard Odum. Odum began playing with Brown occasionally in 1956, but by ’58 he had joined the band full-time, remaining until 1969 when the entire band quit over financial disputes. During his tenure, Odum played on some of Brown’s biggest hits, like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and “Cold Sweat.” Example 2 is similar to Odum’s line on “Good Good Lovin.” Another early JB classic that Odum anchored is “Think,” a tune that signaled a change in Brown’s music toward more syncopation. In Alan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky’s excellent book The Funkmasters: The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections, you will find a full score of the rhythm track for “Think,” as well as detailed musical and historical information about the men behind the man—highly recommended.

“And I Do Just What I Want,” released in late 1960, is another example of Brown’s progression toward his signature sound. The song has a frantic eighth-note bass pattern played by Hubert Perry, who temporarily took over for Odum while he shifted over to singing with the Famous Flames, James Brown’s background-vocal group. Example 3 shows the pattern to be nothing more than a standard root-5, but the constant eighths give the groove a sense of urgency. Later in the 12-bar form, JB orchestrates double-punch stops in bars 10 and 11 the same way he would several years later in his most famous tune, “I Got You (I Feel Good).”

A rare gem, “I’ve Got Money” was released as a B-side to 1962’s “Three Hearts in a Tangle,” a tamely arranged Latin-inspired number that seemed targeted for a more polite audience. Imagine the shock when they flipped over the record to hear James Brown introduce what is now referred to as “jungle music.” The track opens with a fast and furious funk beat that could easily segue into a hardcore techno break-beat— but it was 1962, and it was James Brown laying it down. The A section of “I’ve Got Money” is a sparsely furnished room, with jungle drums underscoring a strident guitar chord on the downbeats; the bass plays long tones that can be interpreted as inversions against the somewhat ambiguous guitar chords, skewing the harmony for an unsettling effect. It releases into a bizarre B section that sounds like a cross between the Grambling State University marching band and the Skatalites. Example 4 replicates the quirky B-section box pattern line played by Hubert Perry.

The last obscure track we’ll examine this month is “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” (not to be confused with the Stevie Wonder song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”). This track made it to #2 on the Country charts for the man who wrote it, Cowboy Copas, a singer who would tragically die in a plane crash along with Patsy Cline in March 1963. But although the James Brown version only hit #77 on the Pop charts, it served a more important function as a proving ground for musical ideas that would soon take over the charts. The boogaloo feel and punctuated bass line would make their way into other JB hits like “Outta Sight,” the original version of “I Got You,” and his first Grammy winner, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” “Signed…” follows a compositional strategy Brown employed frequently: a one-chord vamp punctuated by a hit on the V chord on beat two of the last measure of the phrase, with a two-chord B section that intensifies the groove. Examples 5 and 6 represent the A- and B-section lines played by Bernard Odum.

Our look at James Brown is far from over, but this closeup of his lesser-known early tracks helps us trace the origin of his signature sound, and better understand his contributions to the world of music. He became the Godfather of Soul and the Father of Funk, but at the very beginning, James Brown was pure R&B Gold.

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