Continuing with our look at the early funk output of James Brown, I chose two tracks—“I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)” and “Lickin’ Stick,” released in December 1967 and May ’68. The first track came a few months after the success of “Cold Sweat,” while James was still broadening the definition of soul music. “I Can’t Stand Myself” is unique for its sparse groove, and because it was Brown’s first big “one-chord” record. The vamp was already a well-established feature of his compositional style, but previously there was always some type of release, either a modulation to a B section, a unison rhythmic figure, or both. Another significant feature of “I Can’t Stand Myself” is a bass solo—an event that happened once before (with interesting results) in Brown’s premier funk tune, “Cold Sweat.” Our second track this month features another hypnotic, one-chord bass line—it’s rhythmically active, and right up front in the mix. Both tunes are in Eb, and both were played by Tim Drummond, the first white musician to play with the Godfather of Soul, and to my knowledge, the only James Brown bassist of the Caucasian persuasion. While integrated bands are commonplace now, 1967–68 was a year of a heightened tensions in the struggle for civil rights. When James Brown brought a white musician onstage, he got flak from the Afro-centric political movement. James’ well-known response to having a white bass player in the band was direct and to the point: “That ain’t no white bass player—that’s my bass player!”
Tim Drummond came into the James Brown orbit through his association with a Cincinnati band called the Dapps. However it happened, at the height of his career (having just rocked the world with “Cold Sweat”), James picked up an all-white band from Ohio and recorded “I Can’t Stand Myself.” Featuring the tight-knit drumming of William “Beau Dollar” Bowman, the lean, effective guitar work of Eddie Setser, and Drummond’s economical bass line, the track is a cross section of early funk, with all the intersecting parts clearly defined. Example 1 shows Tim’s bass line; as with previous James Brown examples, you can find detailed notation of the guitar and drum parts (for both of this month’s tracks) in The Funkmasters: The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections by Allan Slutsky and Chuck Silverman [1997, Manhattan Music]. An edited version of “I Can’t Stand Myself” was released as a single, with the full 7:22 jam appearing later on the album of the same name, labeled Part 1 and Part 2. Tim’s big solo happens at the 2:55 mark, making it fully on the track before the fade out of Part 1. Given Brown’s penchant for throwing a curve when the pressure is on, I have to wonder if Tim knew he was going to solo before they hit the record button. During the song, Brown starts pleading, “Ba-a-by, ba-a-by!” which morphs into “Ba-a-ss, ba-a-ss!” later in the track. Next thing you know, he’s calling him out by name (three times!): “Tim, help me out, Tim, let me hear you walk a little bit Tim.” What comes next is shown in Ex. 2—eight bars of now-classic R&B bass stuff. To my ears, it sounds like Drummond was caught off-guard by the request, as he briefly stumbles into the second bar, but regains his cool and delivers a fairly solid performance for the rest of the eight-bar solo. Unfortunately, he didn’t stop while he was on top, and the next four bars get messy. Brown calls him out again: “Wait a minute, Tim, let me get this little thing together over here,” and Drummond settles back into the main groove, undoubtedly relieved to be out of the hot seat. There’s a video from a 1968 appearance at the Apollo Theater in which Drummond nails the solo, even taking another strong eight bars while the “Big Bad Boss” does the boogaloo.
“Lickin’ Stick” is another one of James Brown’s one-chord vamp songs, featuring Drummond’s high-register ostinato bass line and a laid-back, funky, Latin-influenced cross-stick groove played by drummer John “Jabo” Starks. The syncopated 16th-notes in bar 1 feel edgy and relaxed at the same time, and are best approached with a light touch. Example 3 is the basic idea anchoring this sultry stomper, which hit #14 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B charts. As if playing with James Brown isn’t enough of a claim to fame, Tim Drummond’s no-nonsense approach, solid groove, and chunky tone put him in the company of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Miles Davis, Neil Young, Ry Cooder, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Albert Collins, Jewel, and many others.
James Brown opened the door to a brand new genre in the late 1960s. Some called it soul, some called it funk, but it was all R&B Gold. There is no shortage of groundbreaking James Brown tracks to examine, and we’ll grab a few more next time. For R&B Gold I set an arbitrary cutoff date of 1979, which means there will be many more visitations with the Man With the Master Plan. Some of his funkiest work is yet to come—so stick around!
Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.