R&B Gold: James Brown - Building a Bridge to Funk

Before I jump into this month’s column, I need to issue some corrections from last month.
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Before I jump into this month’s column, I need to issue some corrections from last month. I mistakenly credited Bernard Odum as playing on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” when in fact it was Sam Thomas on bass. I also gave Odum credit for playing on “I Got You (I Feel Good),” which is only partially true. Odum played on the original 1964 version, but not on the definitive 1965 version, which was David “Hooks” Williams. Researching who played on what song 50 years ago can be a tricky and inexact business—this time, I got it wrong.

Last month, we looked at some obscure tracks by “the Hardest Working Man In Show Business,” Mr. James Brown. While it is widely recognized that Brown invented funk as we know it, examining how he got there revealed some interesting experiments in rhythm, and some forgotten grooves that predate trends in contemporary music—in some cases, by decades. By the mid 1960s, James was getting closer to the funk, one song at a time.

In April 1964, James Brown released an album for Smash Records called Showtime, but due to contractual issues with King Records, it is mostly covers of R&B and jazz standards, with a cheesy applause track dubbed in for good measure. However, the tune “Out of the Blue” stands out as notable for its tight, Earl Palmer-esque Twist groove, two-chordvamp song structure, and a cool bass line by Sam Thomas. Example 1 shows the arpeggiated pattern Thomas built his line around, and true to what would become a hallmark of James Brown’s non-Bootsy Collins-fueled music, the bass part never changes. By September of that year, Brown released “Out of Sight,” the track that many (including the man himself) consider to be the start of a new era in R&B. The track uses a 12-bar blues form with a break in bar 11, followed by a horn-punctuated rhythm figure—a template for several future hits as well. A more detailed history, and a master rhythm score of this track, can be found in the excellent book The Funkmasters: The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections by Alan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky. James Brown was known to have multiple drummers and bassists with him on the road, and while Odum had made his way back to the bass chair after a two-year period singing with the Famous Flames, newcomer Sam Thomas got to lay down the bass on this one (Ex. 2).

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Another pivotal though lesser-known track from 1964 is “Have Mercy Baby,” released as a single on King, but eventually showing up on the 1965 album release Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag. Once again borrowing heavily from the New Orleans sound, the tune is built on a Twist beat, with a groovy bass line similar to the horn riff from Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns’ “Well I’ll Be John Brown.” Example 3 shows the basic pattern used to fill out the song’s 12-bar blues form. Personnel info proved difficult to find, but my best guess would be Sam Thomas on bass. While influenced by Odum’s style, and easily mistaken for him, Thomas played with a firmer, more consistent attack—which I hear on this track. If anyone knows the correct answer, let me know.

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While largely unfamiliar to most of us, the original version of “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is a significant link in the evolution of James Brown’s music. Recorded in 1964 for Smash Records, this version was featured on the album Out of Sight, but it was never released as a single. The song structure and melody are the same as on the iconic 1965 version, but the groove is more of a boogaloo feel supported by the ride cymbal, with a loose, syncopated bass line that stands alone rather than supporting the horn figures. “I Got You” also follows the 12-bar-blues-with-breaks compositional format, with an added eight-bar bridge to the IV chord, and Bernard Odum is credited with the track. This version appeared in the 1965 teen film Ski Party, which featured James and his band lip-syncing while wearing some seriously un-funky Christmas sweaters. As corny as it looks, James lays out some of his trademark incendiary footwork for the clean-cut kids— creating a bizarre confluence of worlds. Example 4 shows the basic pattern used on this track.

In 1965, James Brown scored big time with his hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Recorded while the band was touring through Charlotte, North Carolina, this seven-minute track had to be divided into Part 1 and Part 2. “Dr. Licks” gives us a fuller picture of the score and bass line in his book, but for the sake of completeness, it must be included here. The track hit #8 on the Billboard Top 100, sat at #1 on the R&B charts for eight weeks, and earned Brown his first Grammy. One of the many significant points of this track is the debut of Jimmy Nolen on guitar, playing what has become one of the most famous rhythm guitar riffs in the world during the break in bar 11—yes, this tune is another 12-bar-withbreaks form. Drummer Melvin Parker plays a crossstick backbeat and introduces a brand new bag of his own with an open/closed hi-hat pattern that would soon become a signature part of the Brown sound. Sam Thomas created a bass part with lots of space, interspersed with a few runs that have been vexing bassists for years. The relaxed tempo helps these lines fall into place, but in videos of later, much faster live performances, the original line gets jettisoned and replaced with something less quirky. Example 5 is a close approximation of Sam’s line.

Finally, we come to James Brown’s most famous hit, the 1965 version of “I Got You (I Feel Good).” As mentioned at the top, the bassist on the track was David “Hooks” Williams, a man that had the good fortune of joining the band just before this landmark recording. (Although known for his jazz playing, Williams is not to be confused with David “Happy” Williams, a Trinidadian upright player who moved to New York in 1969 and had a long musical association with jazz pianist Cedar Walton.) The updated version of “I Got You …” has all the earmarks of the classic James Brown sound: primal screams, snare hits, open/closed hi-hat, punctuated horn blasts, an alto sax break, funky bass line, and an almost telepathic lock between band and singer as they navigate tricky, extended syncopated figures. Example 6 shows the basic pattern for this version. Take note: The eighthnotes in bar 1 alternate between D and C#, not D and Cn. The half-step movement in bar 1 anchors the horn figures, and the b7 (Cn) in bar 2 outlines the dominant chord structure. During the bridge, the bass line switches to a descending, pumping eighth-note line, played in “double strokes” as shown in Ex. 7.

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This is a good point to draw an imaginary line in James Brown’s career. The transition from talented interpreter of old R&B styles to a man with a clear vision of a new sound has taken place. He has risen to commercial and creative success perhaps never known before by an African-American artist, and while he has successfully redefined R&B, by the mid ’60s his innovations are far from over. His funkiest stuff is yet to come, starting with 1967’s “Cold Sweat,” but moving ahead, let’s look at how the rest of the R&B world changed as a result of James Brown. The first half of the 1960s were the dawn of the soul-music era, and James Brown—a.k.a. the Godfather of Soul—opened the door and led the way.



Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee.