After James Brown unleashed the funk with his blistering 1967 hit “Cold Sweat,” the rest of the world needed a little time to catch up—one can only imagine the state of musical shock that occurred immediately after it hit the charts. Shortly after, James released some killer tracks, like “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)” and “Get It Together,” but he didn’t hit us with the second punch until 1968’s “I Got the Feelin’.” Once again, the rhythm section of Bernard Odum on bass and Clyde Stubblefield on drums produced an otherworldly track that is next to impossible to duplicate, and it soared to #1 on the R&B charts and #6 on the Pop charts. The elements of James’ new style were all in place: tight horn accents, syncopated unison stabs, interlocking riffs woven into a funky tapestry, and vocals drenched in soul—sometimes pleading, sometimes exhorting the most primal imperative, “Baby, baby, baby, I got the feelin’!” Once again, you will find detailed analysis of the rhythm bed in Dr. Licks’ The Funkmasters: The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections, but let’s take another look at this timeless classic that grabbed the world by the tail.
One thing that stands out in this track is the exceptional balance between activity and space. The drum part careens like a hyperactive toddler on a Big Wheel, while the bass part clears the way—leaving the Funky Drummer plenty of room to bend and stretch the groove. Jimmy Nolen’s scratch rhythm guitar gets in the middle of it, gluing the two parts together, while Alphonse “Country” Kellum’s single-note riff lays into a half-time feel that fills in the gaps left by the horns, giving this otherwise frantic track a laid-back touchstone.
After the four-bar intro, Stubblefield adds an eighth-note to bar 2 of the first verse, creating an unintentional “golden moment” that has beguiled me since the first time I tried to transcribe this song 30 years ago. Is it a mistake? Or was it an attempt to put the bass line in the “right place”? I can’t definitively say why it happened, but I have some ideas. In bars 1–4 (Ex. 1), the low E acts as a pickup note on the “and” of beat four to the F on the downbeat of beat one of a two-measure phrase—a now-classic funk rhythm, but back then, a fresh concept. My guess is the bass line was supposed to be that: a strong downbeat, followed by four eighth-notes starting on beat three, the last note of the group acting as an anticipated downbeat of the second bar of the phrase. The second bar starts the eighth-note run on beat two, setting up the downbeat of the phrase repeat with the low E on the “and” of beat four. Those first four bars would have kicked butt as the groove, but once James came in with the actual verse, it got weird real quick.
James was legendary for riding his sidemen hard, keeping discipline with an iron checkbook, and throwing them a curve right in the middle of recording a song. This meant his sidemen were always watching, always expecting something to happen—so when it did, they were on it. But this can backfire when you are so poised for something to drop that you psyche yourself into reacting, for no reason. Did Stubblefield react to a cue from the boss? There may have been a visual thrown in the studio, but there is no audible indication that the groove needed to shift. James enters singing “I got the feelin’,” but during the next line, “baby, baby, I got the feelin’-uh,” Stubblefield adds a half-beat to bar 2 (notated as a bar of 9/8), flipping his syncopated backbeat to the traditional placement of beats two and four, and shifting the bass line back an eighth-note to effectively make the “and” of beat four the downbeat—as shown in Ex. 2. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Stubblefield hit the downbeat of beat one very deliberately, right after the bass note anticipates it an eighth-note earlier. It’s pretty whack, but once the groove adjusts, they never look back—the song is played to the end with this bizarre, yet magically off-kilter feel. Whether by accident or not, there is no denying how incredibly funky and influential this track is. “I Got the Feelin’” is a certified cornerstone of funk, and a big chunk of R&B Gold.
Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.