Friday, December 25, 2015

Debbie Does WFMU

Tonight!  7-8 PM.  Join me here on the playlist.  For *adult enthusiasts* only.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

James Brown Month: James Brown Says It Loud pt. 3 - Tell Me That You Love Me

Wrapping up our series on the loudest, craziest, least-in-control James Brown numbers ever (which, as you may recall, I have designated a subgenre all its own, "Free James Brown"), we arrive at the top of the heap, the apex of insane, the single wildest track JB ever laid down on wax. It's the B-Side of "Don't Be a Drop Out", "Tell Me That You Love Me".

It's a live cut, and if you lop off the 10 second intro, it's about a minute and a half long. A wild two guitar duel opens the show, and then the band and James come in, playing as fast and screaming as loud as they can possibly muster. There is no structure, a sudden stop in the middle eats up another couple of seconds, and the track fades out on just about the craziest scream JB or anyone ever screamt, which I believe might just be a loop of the crazy scream he screams right before the stop.  All in all, crazy. 

Apparently cobbled together from some live tapes by Bud Hobgood, Teo Macero style, this track is guaranteed to clear the floor of all but your bravest dancers while everyone else runs away holding their ears in pain.  SO GREAT.

Monday, May 28, 2012

James Brown Month: RJ Smith Interview Part III

The final installment of our interview with The One author RJ Smith.

ICHIBAN: How in the world did James Brown have time to do everything that he did for himself AND produce the number of records he produced for other people? Do you have any insights on how involved he was in productions, or was it more of a brand name thing?

RJ SMITH: My sense is those numerous productions happened every way possible – some were cut without him being anywhere NEAR the studio. Some were built on ideas he had talked out with the musicians, or with JB stopping by the studio without being much invested in the moment. And some happened with JB at the center of the action. Then again, as Jim Dickinson once told me, sometimes the guy who brings the coffee is the one who really produces the session – you never know what is going to be the catalyst. It’s a mystery.

"Needs more . . ."
ICHIBAN: You posit in the Dancer chapter of The One that Brown was a dancer first and had to make up music to go suit his movements. Do you think that this was a conscious or unconscious process? Also, are you aware of how much Brown was exposed to African music in the 50s and 60s? Was his piling of polyrhythms something he picked up from somewhere or was it kind of instinctively sui generis?

I think Brown got the attention he craved, and the sustenance he needed to survive, first from dancing, and a little later from singing. He learned he had a mastery over audiences first by moving to a rhythm.

An amazing thing – and maybe in the end, the most amazing thing – about Brown was how he carried the lore of the African diaspora as fully as anybody ever did. I think he was listening to everything, and was influenced by all kinds of things (I’m struck for instance by how every time he was coming to LA in the late 50s/early 60s, he seemed to get paired with a mambo band. Wonder what he took from that!) I suspect he heard a lot more African sounds coming through the Cuban and Puerto Rican music – boogaloo! – around him in the streets while he was living in NYC in the ‘60s than from whatever Afro pop itself he might have heard. I think his piling of poly-rhythms has everything to do with being a profoundly responsive African-American from the South – and not just any part of the South, but South Carolina, with a very particular role in the slave trade, and a very specific and rich slave culture. The mystery of the guy is how he became this clear channel signal for the culture of the slave south – it was fragmented and outlawed during and after slavery, yet James Brown put it all together and made America feel it. I bet he didn’t even totally know how it happened – I’m sure he never would have talked about it, because his most comfortable line on Africa’s influence on him was that while, sure, he heard some overlaps, he wasn’t playing African music, he was playing James Brown music! He wasn’t going to acknowledge anything beyond his own innate genius.

JB working a postage stamp

In this age where everything is recycled from the past, how in the world is it that JB's amazing TV show Future Shock is not available as a DVD box set?

You speak wisdom. I thought the film and whatever documentation of it were in the posession of Ted Turner, who apparently would sometimes come in from a night of Atlanta partying and hang out with Brown on the set. But someone recently suggested that CNN now owns the recordings as part of the deal that Turner signed over. It kills me that this stuff is not on DVD, accompanied by a deluxe booklet with notes by Pete Relic and Questlove. Not right.

somebody hook a doctor up

What, to your mind, is the last great James Brown recording/single?

One day when I was sitting in court in Aiken, SC listening to lawyers and family members arguing about who should get what, they started complaining about the alleged disappearance of a number of masters found in Brown’s pool house. Among them was a master recording of Johnny Paycheck! How the heck could that be? Since then I’ve wondered if JB and JP did some kind of thing together. Maybe THAT’s the last great Brown recording. 

One of the great JB divas who does not make an appearance in The One is Lyn Collins. Did you hear any good stories about her?

Regarding Lyn Collins, I recall her complaining in an interview in a British magazine that Brown had installed a telephone, like a hotline, in his house so that he could be in constant communication with her and know her every movement. She said dating him was like being in prison.

I've also seen lots of claims, which may have some accuracy, that Brown would paradoxically put out those records by proteges like Lyn and Marva [Whitney] and Bobby [Byrd], but should they start to take off, he'd start calling radio stations and tell them NOT to play the records. In other words, he was pretty okay with these folks feeling indebted to him, by putting out their records, throwing them some money. But if their records started stealing attention from him, he would have to intervene/knock them down - and being the producer, distributor and erstwhile check payer for various folks, he had lots of means at his disposal . . . But I have heard claims specifically about Lyn's version of "Think About It", that when it started heading for the top ten (r&b, I guess), JB began working the phones, calling his DJ connections and telling them to cool their action. How you prove that I don't know, but it seems somewhat plausible.

"I don't care how good it's doin'! I've got
money - now I need love! Shut it down!"
And, lastly, is there a particular song that you wanted to fit into The One that for one reason or another didn't make the cut, and what do you want to say about it?

I wrote out several thousand words on "The Grunt" [a 1970 JB produced instrumental by the Collins kids' version of the JB's], particularly its relationship to 18th and 19th century Cincinnati and how that town was known as Porkopolis. The abundant slaughterhouses used to dump trucks full of spare ribs into the river because they didn't know they tasted good. Wild dogs used to own downtown Cincinnati at night, wild dogs with pieces of meat in their maws scaring the shit out of visiting European ladies and forever shaping their impressions of Ohio and America. I couldn't find the right place for it in the book, but anyway "The Grunt" launched that particular jag. Something about "The Grunt" just leaves a man to thinking about pig flesh and wild dogs. It's that good. 

Special thanks to Mr. Smith for taking the time to chat with us about Soul Brother #1. The One can be found at the usual retail and online outlets, for instance here.  

Sunday, May 27, 2012

James Brown Month: Honky Tonk . . . POPCORN! Bill Doggett

This slammin' floorfiller bears the distinction of being the first James Brown production to feature Bootsy & Catfish Collins, Frankie "Kash" Waddy, Philippé Wynne, Robert McCullough, Clayton Gunnels and Darryl Jamison - they were called the Pacesetters at the time, but one night in Columbus, Georgia, on zero notice, after James had fired his entire band for wanting more money, they became the core of the JB's.

Friday, May 25, 2012

James Brown Month: RJ Smith Part II

Continuing our interview with JB biographer RJ Smith.

ICHIBAN: JB's stints in prison serve as symbolic bookends to his career . . . you hypothesize the first was what gave him a great deal of his discipline and drive. How do you think that his second sentence changed him?

RJ SMITH: The second prison trip made him more of a bluesman than he had ever been in his life. It seemed to make him sadder, older. It was a thoroughly humiliating experience, and one he could never conquer, because he could never engage with the root reason he was in there: his addiction to PCP. He could never admit he had a problem, and in his mind his incarceration was some sort of punishment by God, or crucifixion, ultimately he processed it as a sign of his martyrdom. It’s sad, too, that in his time of need, few seemed to want to visit him. Lee Atwater did, and Strom Thurmond probably kept him out of harm’s way; I think Brown came out of the South Carolina prison with a feeling of gratitude to some extremely conservative SC pols.

ICHI: A couple of months ago I wrote about the James Brown/Joe Tex feud. http://wfmuichiban.blogspot.com/2012/02/amazing-story-of-joe-texjames-brown.html.  Do you have any interesting tidbits about the Joe Tex/James Brown relationship?

RJ: That feud with Joe Tex continued, though possibly without firepower. Brown had a public beef with Joe over “Skinny Legs and All,” which Brown felt was disrespectful to women. And in 1969 Brown wrote an elliptical column in Soul magazine in which he pretty much says that Joe Tex should just shut up and be content with being Number Two, there’s no dishonor in being second best. If only Joe could admit it, Brown says, he could help him! I think Joe’s likeability and his clowning really got under Brown’s skin.

apparently he had no such issues w/
"Ain't Gonna Bump No More w/no Big Fat Woman"

Let's talk about Bobby Byrd.  He was there from before the beginning to after the end, and I don't feel his importance to the entire James Brown story can be overstated.  How do you see Byrd in terms of being one of the major cogs in the wheels of the James Brown machine?

No Bobby Byrd, no James Brown. It’s approximately that simple. I mean, Bobby’s family gave JB a way to get out of prison, by letting him live with them. Then Byrd sort of gave Brown his band, or JB took over Byrd’s crew and Byrd was cool enough with it to stick around afterwards. Byrd knew the show, and knew how James liked things, and was constantly there to help bring James' vision and wishes into reality. I think Bobby Byrd was a very good guy, the kind of nice guy that Brown pushed around until they finally pushed back. For Byrd that would mean leaving, or taking JB to court as he did in later years to get money he felt he was due. But Bobby was always grounded enough to see the big picture; he kept his ego in check, and was there, on and off, for much of the ride. 

I Need Help! (I Can't Do It Alone)*
You spend several pages discussing the long version of "There Was a Time" on Live at the Apollo Volume 2  - it's almost the most wordage spent on any particular performance in the book. What was it about that song/particular version that made you want to delve so deeply into its guts? 

That performance of “There Was a Time” is amazing. The way he name checks dances from the African American tradition, and then introduces the ultimate dance, the one at the end of the line: The James Brown. He makes you see how a whole music, and a variety of traditions, telescope into him. He never sounds as in control of an audience and in charge of the moment as he does there. And there’s something bottomless about the way Clyde and Jabo play off the beat – one a hair in front, the other just behind – and pull time apart. 

"Well I'll be ----!"

As a follow-up to that question, how did you decide which songs and performances to write about, aside from their historical importance? And how big a challenge was it to convey what is actually going on in those songs? 

With music there is so much to talk about, so many ways into a discussion, it’s hard to stop. Sometimes you talk about how a song was written or recorded, sometimes you talk about what it means, or what it meant to the one who made it. And sometimes folks wonder how you could possibly miss “Pass the Peas” or “Funky Drummer” or “Santa Claus go Straight to the Ghetto” – there’s so much to cover. And I have to save some room to talk about “I’ve Got Money”: ALWAYS gotta save room for that. I tried to pick songs and performances that would keep the momentum moving forward – rather than end a thought or line of discussion with a song or show, I hope I used them as often to keep moving us forward in time.

keep moving forward in time!

In the late 60s, JB's opening act was a white instrumental band called the Dapps [they also back James up on "I Can't Stand Myself" and released several singles JB produced]. If there were some issues with certain audience members on there being a white player or two in Brown's band in the late 60s, as you mention in The One, what was the reaction to an all-white opening act? 

It was a core of nationalists and some Islamic groups that had a beef with the whites in Brown’s band, not so much the average ticketholder. They were also incredibly incensed that Brown was still processing his hair and would not go with the Fro.  Of course, any pressure Brown got for having Caucasians onstage just made him double down. Maybe that’s the real reason why he recorded with the Dee Felice Trio: how you like me NOW, Eldridge Cleaver?

JB with the Dapps
Be back on Monday with the thrilling conclusion of this interview, wherein Mr. Smith talks Lynn Collins,  JB's production techniques, "the Grunt", and . . . Future Shock.

*all credit and praise to the original gif animator for that bit of internet wonderment. I found it here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

James Brown Month: RJ Smith Interview part 1

RJ Smith's James Brown biography, The One, was published in March by Gotham Books. James Brown's life is so large and complex that making sense of it is a lot like staring directly into the sun (which is why we've taken such a scattershot approach to celebrating it this month on Ichiban) but Smith manages to hit all the major points (the music, the ego, the dancer, the ego, the politics, his disturbing relationships with women, the ego, his dictatorial relationship with his bands, his worldwide social impact, the drugs, the ego) in a compelling and fascinating way.  In this e-mail interview Smith discusses some of the more obscure parts of the book and some of the events and people from JB's life that there was just no room to fit into The One. The interview ran longer than a JB single from 1969, so we're splitting it up into three parts, just like Hot Pants.  Catch the first flipside tomorrow!

ICHIBAN:  What inspired you to spend this much time writing about James Brown? Was there an initial point of revelation that connected you to him as a subject matter? 

RJ SMITH: The first connection I had with him was when I was growing up in Detroit in the late 60s and early 70s. That of course was Motown country, and Top 40 radio was laced with bubblegum, “The Sound of Young America” and local garage rock and then ... you encountered ... the scream. That scrofulous shout that just shredded everything on the air. I don’t even remember what song I heard first, or any song at all, I just remember the noise of his voice, and I was interested.

After that, well he just seemed more interesting, and confusing, and larger than life than about anybody else I can think of in life. I mean this guy just talked and talked and talked, and he kept getting more mystifying while he kept speaking these deep truths in broken poetics. What kind of life was this? If you are gonna live in somebody’s head for four or five years, may it be as interesting as this one.
talkin' loud and sayin' somethin'
ICHIBAN: Your technique of grounding the various eras of James's bands by focusing on the drummers really tied the disparate elements of his career together. When did you decide this was the way to go?

RJ SMITH: There were so many amazing musicians in that band, how do I give them credit without overwhelming the story I’m trying to tell? You need this CNN crawl across the bottom of the page flashing all these folks names as you read about the records. But then, if I start naming people, it’s hard to do it part way, there will be reader’s who quite rightly ask, where’s Sugar Pie DeSanto, where’s Country Kellum, where’s the Dapps, right? Reasonable questions, but there’s so many great players – they need their own book. I started thinking about the drummers as a way to at least symbolically nod in the direction of the whole unit, and then the more I thought about rhythm at the core of his sound, and Southern-if-not-New Orleans rhythms in specific, the more reasons I had for focusing on the drums.

Give (some of) the drummers some!
Jabo Starks, Clyde Stubblefield, Melvin Parker, Clayton Fillyau
How do you view JB's artistic career arc?  Modern consensus seems to make the 60s a long slow build to the apotheosis of the early 70s with the Bootsy version of the band, and that was the artistic peak. But in the 70s, critical consensus put his peak more in the late 60s, but this was before the importance of funk music was really understood.  I guess my question is: Is, say, Sex Machine a more radical artistic breakthrough or amazing piece of music than, say, Live at the Apollo?  

Probably – this is the baby boomer divide with JB, whether you think Live at the Olympia is better than Live at the Apollo. That early 70s outpouring with Bootsy and the other iterations of the JBs and assorted projects of this era is singular. Those funk records are so deep, and Brown was just popping them out like beads of sweat, it’s pretty unprecedented. It was this whole new genre of sound for a while that mostly had only itself to refer to, and then it started touching other musics. We still haven’t gotten to the bottom of this era. I sure would love to hear rehearsal tapes, or to have been a fly on the wall when the JBs got together in the studio – how did they talk to each other, how did they establish a bass line, etc? It seems so complicated and hard to assemble, but they had to be laying it down pretty quick and on the fly.

What says you, Ichibunnies?

Syd Nathan [head honcho of King Records and frequent JB financial sparring partner] and James Brown would have probably made one of the great comedy duos; their relationship seems so contentious and codependent.  I was surprised to learn that Brown was a pallbearer at Nathan's funeral - were they closer than their antagonistic reputation lets on?  Did they have a genuine friendship or was it strictly business? And did Nathan EVER like anything JB did, besides make him money?

There’s a great story Syd’s nephew told me about James putting a Mezuzah around his neck whenever he had to get something from Syd, because who knows, it might help somehow. Syd never totally saw talent on its own terms – money shaped his view of a great many things. But I am sure he understood how special James was. He had to have. Syd liked the way “No” sounded, but at some point he learned that telling James “No” lead to great things down the road. Doesn’t a great comedy team need contrast? These two were like Redd Foxx and Slappy White together, but with two Redd Foxxes! They were so much alike, I think they totally UNDERSTOOD each other and fed off the mirror image they found in their competitor.  Part of what encouraged Syd to stick it to James every chance he got was that he felt he had to keep the guy in check. When Charles Spurling told me he was hired in the late ‘60s at King (besides his considerable musical value) to be pure thug muscle to push back at James, it totally made sense.

SYD NATHAN: Give the drummer some . . . money!

The stories in The One about tent show culture and its influence on Brown in the 50s was very interesting, particularly the contrast between the Daddy Grace religious version of a travelling tent show and the Esquerita/Little Richard nascent drag-queen version.  Do you have any more anecdotes about either or both of these traditions and what JB took from them? 

Hats off to The Hound there – he’s really blazed the way in chronicling the whole gay tent show masquerade culture in the South. I keep telling my academic friends there’s a lot to write about here, but so far nobody’s dug in. I wish I understood better the sexual identity dynamics of this phenomenon. How did James Brown become not quite a part of this scene, but cognizant of its stars – Billy Wright, and of course Little Richard, probably others too – and how did he think about the queer undertow (and text) of this scene? The “Man’s Man” dressing like Little Richard, and walking down the same streets of Macon. How did that play itself out in daily life, and what did people say about Brown, and what did Brown do when he heard it?

As for Daddy Grace, any chance I can take to write about him I will totally go for it. The guy is one of the great American stories, and I am convinced he had a crucial imprint on funk (through the drumming and bands in his church) that has yet to be fully understood. So many cool things happen in tents, we definitely need more tents in America today. 

Tune in tomorrow for James in jail, the Dapps, Bobby Byrd, "There Was a Time" and the return to the Ichiblog of Soul Brother #? - Mr. Joe Tex!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

James Brown Month: GODFATHER in the GARAGE - Papa's Got a Brand New Trash Bag

While "Out of Sight" is probably the number one garage/frat/show band JB cover, and there's no shortages of "Try Me", today we're featuring a trio of versions of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."

First up is this lo-fi live version from Mike St. Shaw & the Prophets, found on the Audio Fidelity (of all things) release Where It's At: Cheetah, in 1966. Cheetah was a dance club in New York, on the sight of the old Riviera Ballroom at Broadway and 53rd. It's a weird Audio Fidelity release, in that there is little fidelity to the audio, and not all the material is ace, but Tucson, AZ based St. Shaw and the Prophets perform a ripping medley of Good Lovin/Papa, the papa portion presented here.  

papa's got a brand new hump!

The Invictas version is pure snotty teenage thrust, which is appropriate from this band of Rochester, NY humpers. 

The slickest, floor-fillingest version of the lot comes from future Redbone stars Pat and Lolly Vegas, from their At the Haunted House LP. The Haunted House was located in Hollywood, and while I doubt the album was recorded live, it's an excellent California rock 'n' roll party record with a  great guitar/bass sound. 

Special thanks to Greg Cartwright for the loan of the Invictas and Pat & Lolly records.  More from the Cart-chives in the next couple of weeks.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Who's Got The Good Foot?

Al Sharpton and James Brown, 1998.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

James Brown Month

Unsung with Tammi Terrell

Thursday, May 17, 2012

James Brown Month: THINK

Of all the songs James Brown covered, he returned to none as many times in so many different ways as he did the "5" Royales 1957 classic "Think", written by the great Lowman Pauling.  Tracing versions of the songs gives us a window into the ever evolving Brown sound.

It's not hard to hear why this was such a fine tune for JB - the performance is mesmerizing, Pauling's guitar is great, the lyrics are fantastic both rhythmically and thematically - so many wonderful lines that shoulder and deflect responsibility for a broken relationship in such a smart way. And deflecting blame in a smart way was a JB specialty! "Think of all the bad things I tried not to do!" is just one of those lines that says it all.

Brown's initial single version, recorded in 1960, removes much of the melody and the finger-snapping stop-and-start rhythms from the tune and adds a great horn chart/riff, turns up the drums, and speeds it way up. The result is to my ears his first step towards creating funk - complete with Maceoesque sax solo.

The next version appears on Live at the Apollo, and is as wilder than the single version as the single version is from the "5" Royales, even as it interestingly reincorporates some of the elements from the Royales version JB's initial version jettisoned. Guitar returns to the mix to scratch out the rhythm (Les Buie really chanks it up), and the Flames clap along for dear life, since the speed of the thing is almost ridiculous. 

Next up came a single version in 1967, this time recorded in a duet with Vicki Anderson - slowed down and funked up, with a bit of "Money Won't Change You" in the horn part and drum beat.

Although Vicki Anderson was out of there by the time it came to record Live at the Apollo V. 2, Marva Whitney came in and took on the duet role to keep the arrangement "current". The tempo is back up to "live appopriate" velocity. Think Link

Can't stop thinkin'!

The song came out again in 1973. This time the arrangement is full on mid-tempo funk, with the 5 Royales background "thinks" being brought into a JB version. In fact, this version in some ways, with its relaxed drive and reflective mood, is maybe closest to the original of all the versions JB cut.

And although it's technically not the same tune, there are definite lyrical similarities between the JB penned/produced Lynn Collins almost-a-hit "Think (About It)" and the mighty "Think", particularly in the outro vamp.

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.

Monday, May 14, 2012

James Brown Month: Godfather in the Garage - The Sonics

While what they really do is make me pine for a full-on Etiquette-fi version of a James Brown number, Norton's meltdown of early Sonics tapes, The Savage Young Sonics, features takes on JB's versions of "Night Train", "Hold It" and "Think".

Sunday, May 13, 2012

James Brown Month: You Got to Have a Mother for Me

Happy Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

James Brown says it LOUD part 2: More KING ragers

This is the second post in our series spotlighting the the most manic, crazy James Brown sides out there, the ones that sacrifice either traditional rhythm and blues structures OR the repetitive patterns that became funk for sheer rhythmic excitement and agitation. We're calling them James Brown's Rock and Roll for now, but I can't shake the feeling that's not quite right.

First up is another Roy Brown cut - "Love Don't Love Nobody", the b-side to "I Don't Mind" (which, let's just take a moment to note, is further proof that James Brown 45s are the best 45s of all the 45s). On the Messin' with the Blues double CD there's a fascinating false start where you can actually hear King owner Syd Nathan crabbing to the engineer about JB's performance. "Needs more melody" he grumps, and "Don't sing so HARD", he mutters. Aside from being a hilarious example of Brown and Nathan's contentious relationship, it's interesting that the things Brown was going for in this and later recordings (de-emphasized melody, the hardest of all singing) are exactly the things Nathan discourages here.

sorry about the ridiculous graphics on this youtube

The hard singing, lack of melody, and tendency towards rhythmic chaos is also present on 1960's "And I Do Just Want I Want".  Like "Love Don't Love", the primary instrument up top is a wandering guitar riff, but this time Les Buie plays it on the lower strings, giving it a bassier drive. It's an even more spare arrangement, too - a single sax wails a weird atonal figure around a shuffling drumbeat while Brown parties it up philosophic like.  


In 1962, JB released "I've Got Money (Now I Need Love)". He'd produced a more traditional version of this song for Baby Lloyd in 1960, but his own version is much farther out there, with what's been called the first funk drum beat and a manic horn chart that gives him the chance to sing as hard as he could possibly want. 

Tell the truth, Snaggle Tooth!

With their virtual abandonment of melody and a typical song structure, this stuff is as wild and raw as music gets.  In fact, I think the only one term we can use to commodify these tracks:  let's call it Free James Brown.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

James Brown Month: James Brown, Bobby Byrd and the JB's

Live on Italian TV, ca. 1971 - same tour as the Love, Power, Peace live album.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

James Brown Month: Your Cheatin' Heart (Hillbilly Avenue)

From the otherwise lightweight Soul on Top LP, here's a unique country/funk/swing hybrid take on "Your Cheatin' Heart."

Monday, May 7, 2012

James Brown Month: Fans of James Brown

Malick Sidibe's photographs of dancers, partiers, stylin' youngsters, and vinyl culture in Bamako, Mali in the mid 60s are some seriously inspirational and funky viewing material.  Great galleries of his stuff are all over the internet, especially this one and this one.  

This photo is called "Fans of James Brown 1965" although I doubt that date is accurate, considering Live at the Apollo Volume II wasn't even recorded until 1967.

Still - killer photo!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Get Up (I Feel LIke Being A) Dance Instructor!

Via the Life archives, here's a 1967 shot of James Brown showing Johnny Carson how it's done.

Godfather Popcorn

James Brown does his damndest to teach Mike Douglas the intricacies of the Popcorn.  Via the Jet archives.