After last month’s look at 1967, let’s jump ahead and examine 1968, the year the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy shocked the world, leaving an indelible mark on America’s collective consciousness. These events gave momentum to the already-expanding civil rights struggle, and they inspired James Brown to use his music to address current social concerns. “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” was Brown’s shout-out to the African-American community, and its infectious groove put it at the top of the Billboard R&B charts for six weeks. The significance of this song at that point in time cannot be overstated: Not only was it a rallying cry for communal pride, as a hit record it reached ears of all colors, building a bridge of funk that crosses social boundaries to this day. Perusing the list of #1 R&B hits from that year, we see the usual suspects making the groove happen—James Jamerson dominated the field, playing on eight #1 hits that year! Other bassists represented include Tommy Cogbill and Jerry Jemmott (both with Aretha Franklin), David Hood, Ronnie Baker, and Duck Dunn (who are all featured in my book The R&B Masters: The Way They Play, 2005, Backbeat).
In the R&B Gold extraction process, I often find a story other than the one I planned for. In this case, it was discovering the song “We’re a Winner” by the Impressions, with Curtis Mayfield on lead vocals. Recorded in Chicago and released in 1967, the track hit the #1 slot the week of March 1, 1968. While James Brown’s “Say It Loud …” is widely hailed for its theme of empowerment, “We’re a Winner” arrived earlier, serving as an unofficial anthem for the civil rights movement. The inspired chorus refrain of “moving on up” predates a certain ’70s sitcom by several years, and it’s underpinned by the seriously funky bass playing of Lenny Brown. Not much information is available on Brown, who is said to have worked with Mayfield and the Impressions between 1966–68. Sadly, just a few months after “We’re a Winner” hit #1, Brown and fellow Impressions Billy Griffin (drums) and Joseph Thomas (guitar) were killed in a Georgia car wreck. Listening to Brown’s adventurous playing, one can only imagine the grooves this 26-year-old firecracker may have gone on to create.
Example 1 emulates the pickup and basic groove of the verse. It’s a unique take on what I call the “bom-bom” groove—named because the two eighth-notes on beat one can be sung as “bombom.” The structure of the two-bar phrase sets up a fairly typical first measure, starting with “bom-bom” on the root (Eb) and anticipating the 6th on the “and” of beat two, a pattern that echoes the Impressions’ 1965 hit “People Get Ready.” Beats three and four are a walkup to the next chord—the Vsus (Bbsus) in bar 2. But Brown delays the beginning of the lick to the “e” (the 2nd 16thnote) of beat three, giving it a jerky but-funky start as he moves up chromatically to the Bb. Bar 2 is unusual in that you might expect him to leave some space after hitting the peak of the previous walkup. He “bom-boms” the root on beat one and immediately starts another off-beat walkup back to the I chord starting on the “e” of beat two. Beat three continues the syncopated rhythm, but the line finally hits the downbeat on beat four for two solid eighths that set up the repeat of the phrase. While it sounds typical of the time period, it is deceptively tricky to nail this line. Example 2 is similar to what Brown plays at the end of the verse when the progression goes to the IV chord. Later in the track, there is a fourbar instrumental break to the IV chord that is set up with a one-measure rhythmic figure, and while Brown plays some cool stuff (approximated in Ex. 3), to my ear it sounds like he got off track in the last bar. Instead of returning to the root of the IV chord, he walks up to Eb, which is the root of the I chord. Luckily, this works anyway, as the note is also the 5th of the IV chord. He saves it with a chromatic walkup to the V, squarely landing on the next verse’s downbeat with a hearty “bom-bom” on the root.
After Lenny Brown’s untimely death, he was replaced in the Impressions by Joseph “Lucky” Scott, who later followed Curtis Mayfield into his solo career. I briefly mentioned Scott in the September ’16 installment of R&B Gold when I highlighted his iconic groove on the title track of Superfly. But back to 1968: The year started out with Gladys Knight & the Pips’ famous recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in the # 1 slot, held over into the new year for one week after five weeks on top at the end of ’67. This track is one of James Jamerson’s finest examples of theme and variation, and the syncopated 16th-note style he developed was firmly locked in at this point. The year ended with Marvin Gaye’s version of “Grapevine” featuring Jamerson again, but with a slower eighth-note groove that has become legendary. Gaye’s version hit #1 for the last three weeks of the year and carried over into 1969 for another four weeks on top. The year began and ended with the same song in the #1 chart position, performed by two different artists for the same record label, and using mostly the same players. When you consider the virtual ownership Motown had on the 1960s R&B and pop charts, a coincidence like this is not so far-fetched—but it does qualify as a nugget of R&B Gold!
Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.