R&B Gold: James Brown And The Birth Of Funk

As promised long ago, we return once again to the music of James Brown.
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As promised long ago, we return once again to the music of James Brown. Introduced onstage as “The Man With the Master Plan,” “The Big Bad Boss With the Real Hot Sauce,” “The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business,” “The Godfather of Soul,” or “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” he is one of the few artists where superlatives fail to express the magnitude of his work, the depth of his contribution to music, and the impact he had on society as a whole. His impassioned vocals and tight arrangements made his early work stand out from the pack, even though he mostly conformed to the parameters of the early R&B era. But it wasn’t long before he started breaking molds and starting new trends. For some background, check out R&B Gold from BP’s November and December ’16 issues, where we looked at the early period of Brown’s music. And of course, the book The Funkmasters: The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections by Allan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky is a must-have resource.

The world of R&B Gold encompasses several sub-genres, including jump, boogaloo, soul, and of course, funk. When the term “funk” is mentioned, most modern bass players think of slapping over a vamp in E. However, funk was around long before Larry Graham started thumping to replace the rhythm of a recently fired drummer. According to Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson, the word “funky” in relation to music can be traced back to the African Kikongo language term lu-fuki, which literally translates to “bad body odor,” but it’s also used to praise persons for the integrity of their art. In modern American music, funk as a genre began to surface in the mid 1960s, and the 1966 recording of Dyke & the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway” is considered the first use of the word in a popular song title. While the Blazers had a few minor hits, their version was soon eclipsed by Wilson Pickett’s 1967 remake. Pickett’s wicked vocals, supported by the crack Muscle Shoals rhythm team of Spooner Oldham on keys, Chips Moman and Jimmie Johnson on guitar, Tommy Cogbill on bass, and Roger Hawkins on drums made “Funky Broadway” #1 on Billboard magazine’s Hot Soul Singles chart, and #8 on the Hot 100 chart. But the Blazers version remains significant, because at 2:04, we hear the famously funky drum break usually associated with James Brown. As far as my research capabilities can confirm, the beat that is known generically as the “James Brown beat” seems to have appeared on the Blazers version at least a year before Brown put his stamp on it. A Phoenix, Arizona-based drummer named Rodney Brown played on the Blazers version, and he may possibly be the first man recorded playing this groove, which in its essence is a delaying of the backbeat to the “and” of beat four—the critical “unnh” factor that fueled much of James Brown’s subsequent work. Example 1a illustrates the basic kernel of that famous breakbeat, while Ex. 1b is a busier rendition with ghosted snare hits and a skipped downbeat in the second measure.

Given this background, it is hard to prolong the myth I’ve held for many years that the funk—and specifically that one groove—magically sprang from the head of James Brown as Athena sprang fully armed from the head of Zeus. While I can’t pinpoint the groove’s precise genesis, there is no doubt that it all came together with James Brown’s July 1967 mega-smash hit “Cold Sweat.” I refer you once again to The Funkmasters to examine a full, accurate transcription of the rhythm arrangement for this earth-rearranging track. Several aspects of “Cold Sweat” are revolutionary, the most basic being the use of a one-chord vamp as the A section. While a modal vamp (D Dorian in this case) was a well-established jazz practice, the concept had little or no influence on the popular music of the time. The bridge (B) section modulates to a C7F7 vamp, ending with a punctuated rhythmic figure that sets up the return to the D Dorian groove. This basic song structure would serve as the template for much of Brown’s future music. The lyrics were a re-working of a 1962 track called “I Don’t Care,” but the real funk happens when James rides the groove and does his thing. Grunting and grabbing kicks with the band, exhorting and reporting the news as it happens in real time, James directs the flow in the studio much like he would a live show. He calls out “Maceo!” (Parker, that is) for what is now the most legendary alto-sax solo in all of funk. As if to mark his territory, he calls out Dyke & the Blazers by briefly mimicking “Funky, Funky Broadway,” only to snicker and admit that “Sometimes I clown. Back up, and do the James Brown!” For the first time, James Brown calls out “Give the drummer some!” and history was made. Clyde Stubblefield had joined the Brown organization in 1965, but “Cold Sweat” cemented his place in the pantheon of the funkiest drummers in the world—the Funky Drummer in fact. Stubblefield contributed his blood, sweat, and tears (and likely a few $50 fines) to James Brown’s band from 1965 through 1970, leaving us with additional masterpieces of funk drumming such as “I Got the Feelin’,” “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and of course the eponymous “Funky Drummer.” Next, James calls out bassist Bernard Odum—“Help him out Bernard, go on play with him”—allowing us to hear his gristle-toned thump in all its glory. The two groove on while James peppers the groove, but 5:00 in, Brown throws a wrench into the works and says “Double up on it!” You can almost hear the rhythm section think “WTF?” through this momentary disturbance in the force, but they regain their footing quickly.

Example 2 shows the basic outline of Bernard Odum’s bass part through the A section. Although the D Dorian tonality is largely defined by the Fn, Odum is laying into a low F#, using the classic gospel-shout “drop down” pattern to the lower 3rd, and implying a dominant chord. It works based on its own strength, but in the realm of blues-influenced music, the rub between the b3rd and n3rd is a well-established texture. Example 3 is similar to the B-section vamp, and it is unique in how it delays resolution to the root of the F7 until beat three. Odum uniquely overlays a C major drop-down run on beat one of the F7 chord, laying into what is the 3rd of the C chord, an En. However, the En is the major 7th underneath an F7 chord (which would call for Eb), and it creates a compelling resolution when it finally pulls up into the F on beat three—finally, the root! Example 4 shows the rhythmic device cued after five repeats of the B section. The upbeat rhythm and chromatic motion harkens back to “I Got You” among other Brown hits, and while I have witnessed Maceo Parker’s band land on an A9 chord in bar 4 to create a stronger harmonic resolution to the A section, James lays into a big, fat G9.

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Once James Brown put his own stank on the funk, there was no turning back. Over his illustrious if not tumultuous career, he honed the funk until it was razor-sharp, creating many definitive masterpieces that form the foundation of the music. We’ll continue looking at some of these tracks in the next few months, because while it may be funky, it’s also R&B Gold!



Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.