Wednesday, May 16, 2012

James Brown Month: Hank Ballard Hangover - need a cup of Coffee

From the "really random covers" department, here's a Ft. Lauderdale lounge trio from the late 60s doing "Butter Your Popcorn".

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

James Brown Month: Wall of Browned pt. 2 - Hank Ballard

James Brown was never afraid to give his King/Federal forefathers some - producing singles for the "5" Royales, recording a tribute album to Little Willie John and an album for Bill Doggett. But even if you were a major influence on JB, it doesn't seem like you got to ride for free.

None of his fellow Federales entered JB's circle more deeply than Hank Ballard. According to RJ Smith's Brown biography The One, seeing Ballard and the Midnighters' act was a major influence on the Famous Flames, and Ballard claimed that he repeatedly told Syd Nathan to sign the Famous Flames. So when the man who wrote "the Twist" saw his fortunes failing, Brown stepped in to help him out.

The first record Brown produced for Ballard was a 1963 recut of a Midnighter's classic, "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)". The new version adds a vamped up intro and coda to the familiar parts of the song, and Ballard sounds clearly jazzed on the recording - shouting a Joe Tex/Jerry Lee style "THIS IS A HIT!" at the outset and commenting on the general quality of the track 2/3 of the way through.

1n 1968 Hank was put on the JB consciousness train, recording a couple of James's "black power" numbers, including his biggest post-Midnighters hit, "How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet)". This musically and thematically direct sequel to "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)", laden with some of the heavy didactics of "Don't Be a Dropout", except this time it was all about straight v. curly hair. Ballard delivers the message well, and the Dapps, who backed JB on "I Can't Stand Myself", rock out.

According to RJ Smith, Ballard that tells the story of this song. Apparently Hank and James suddenly found themselves surrounded by Black Panthers, who pulled guns on the two and demanded that Brown stop wearing his hair processed. So in some ways, "How You Gonna Get Respect" was James and Hank buying a little "protection" from the Panthers!

The two modes of James' handling of Ballard established by these two tracks, specifically either updating Ballard's classic sound or turning him into a kind of Brown spokesman, play back and forth across the records they'd make together. 

Ballard released the Brown-produced You Can't Keep a Good Man Down in 1969, and it mainly sticks to updating the Ballard sound. The Dapps are the principal backing band, and their slighly-less-slick-than-the-JBs sound meshes well with Hank's voice. There's a version of "Unwind Yourself", which came out in its definitive version by Marva Whitney, and a remake of the Midnighters' "Teardrops on Your Letter" and a "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go" rip, "Thrill on the Hill".  There's also a modernized reinvention of "Sexy Ways" called "You're So Sexy", a snazzy cover of "Slip Away", and a fine addition to the canon of songs about trains that have soul, "Funky Soul Train".

Ballard's next couple of singles, "Butter Your Popcorn" and "Blackenized" were far more Brown-centric, and I'm not sure either Ballard or I feel them very much.  Both are catchy and fun enough, and "Blackenized" has some great lines, but I don't know that either have that leering joy that makes the best Ballard records get up and strut. "Blackenized" in particular sounds like Brown making further political gestures to the Panthers through Ballard.

Mr. Ballard, may I help you with something?

Note JB does the intro his own bad self

Hank's next major appearance in the James Brown universe is without a doubt his weirdest - his two numbers on Get on the Good Foot.  Now, this may hardly be the post to say it in, but I'm going to say it here and say it loud - with one or two exceptions, James Brown's studio long players are chaotic and make little sense. I know he claimed that "Papa Don't Make No Mess", but he was obviously not talking about his studio LPs. It didn't matter whether it was Syd Nathan putting them together haphazardly or James Brown putting them together with total artistic control - they're almost all messes.  JB was a singles artist, even if most of his best post '65 singles should have been 12" 45s, rather than seven inch two-siders.  

Even by his messy standards Get on the Good Foot is outright weird and full of filler.  And even a 13 minute "Please, Please, Please" is not quite as weird as "Funky Side of Town" or "Recitation by Hank Ballard". 

"Funky Side" is as loose and one-take as it gets - James Brown, Bobby Byrd, and Hank Ballard namecheck everybody from themselves, to Bob Dylan, to the Honeycombs, to Isaac Hayes, to, grudgingly, Joe Tex - and the results are just peculiar. First off, no one sounds quite together - the harmonies are random at best, everyone keeps cracking up, none of the psychic connection that exists between Brown and Byrd on, say, "Sex Machine", is present, and Ballard seems incapable of working ahead of the beat - his own signature vocal style was to lay back. 

But nothing is odder than "Recitation by Hank Ballard", which is, essentially a testimonial/advertisement for a record that you presumably have already bought and brought home and are listening to.  For six minutes. The first half is just Hank kind of reading through the song titles, but the second has him ruminating on his career, how he got caught "wandering around the graveyard of losers" and how James Brown was the only one who believed that his talent was still relevant. 

The variety of scenarios about how/why this track was laid down and/or included on the record beggar the imagination, especially since Ballard's voice carries with it equal parts ambivalence and gratitude. Did Hank hear the album, pull up some prerecorded vamp and testify? If so, JB's bottomless ego certainly would not pass up the chance to have one of his heroes say so many nice things about him. Did they need six more minutes for the double LP so James sent Hank in the studio to fill out the space? If so, is there some kind of passive/aggressive sarcasm in some of the lines, or is Hank just so laid back it just sort of sounds that way?  There is a major story in these two's relationship that has yet to be fully unpacked.

Ballard recorded several more singles for People Records in the 70s, and even had a =hit with "From the Love Side" (he even calls himself "Love Side" Ballard in his recitation) in 1972.  Let's wrap this up with a cool live version from Soul Train.