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The Genius

He invented funk and laid the beat for hip-hop. A look at the unmatched musical legacy of a man who made rhythm his life's work

book cover

James Brown was the greatest musician of the rock era, no contest. But before we examine the details, two of his many titles must be addressed.

As things turned out, James Brown was the Genius and Ray Charles the Godfather of Soul. Soul music was a pre-eminently vocal style, and while Brown was a magnificent singer, he was no Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles--as a lyrical interpreter, more in Wilson Pickett's class. Also, soul music had a forgiving softness to it. Brown strove to be hard, and before most white Americans knew what soul music was, he found his lifework with 1965's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." As he told Bruce Tucker in a terrific autobiography: "Aretha and Otis and Wilson Pickett were out there and getting big. I was still called a soul singer--I still call myself that--but musically I had already gone off in a different direction. I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm."

In other words, funk.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, sure. Just don't believe, as CNN declared, that "what made Brown succeed where hundreds of others failed was his superhuman determination." There weren't hundreds of others. In fact, there weren't any--Brown was unique. Since not all geniuses get over, thank the God he believed in that he was also a workaholic and an egomaniac. Otherwise we wouldn't have P-Funk or Prince or hip-hop as we know them; otherwise we wouldn't have most of today's drummers. Work was the means to the end his genius made possible.

But work was also thematic. As a lover-in-song Brown could muster the romantic positivity of "Out of Sight" and "I Feel Good," but having grown up in deprivation bleaker than even Louis Armstrong's, he was generally a needer--a "desperate man." Moreover, he became much less a lover after he mastered funk. It was a man's man's man's world because man made cars, trains, boats, and electric lights; lust-in-song--"take a look at those cakes"-- made man a sex machine. Most of his best-known dance records celebrate discipline and self-determination--or else just importune us to "Get It Together," to "Get Up, Get Into It and Get Involved," to "Get Up Offa That Thing" so we can at least "(Release the Pressure)." The greatest body of body music ever recorded, his funk is at the same time imposingly abstract. Listen to it nonstop and its intricacy equals its energy. It's as much Bach as Ray Charles.

The only place to start is the finest box set ever released, 1991's four-CD Star Time--as essential a package as the biz has ever hawked, not just because it's James Brown, but because compilers Cliff White and Harry Weinger invested so much care and knowledge in it. The sequencing is so deft it's as if Brown added three or four classic albums to the couple he actually managed. You'll duplicate tunes galore as you explore further. But you won't mind.

The weakest disc presents Brown the r&b workhorse, from 1956's gospel-derived "Please Please Please" (please note that Brown recorded pop albums and blues albums and instrumental albums but never a gospel album) to the untweaked original "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (which purists should never forget was sped up and reverbed for the commercial release that changed the world). This is where you can get down with the "Good Good Lovin'" of a "Bewildered" "Prisoner of Love," and with the creator of Live at the Apollo--a striking but more conventional performer than the raw hit-seeker of the all-r&b Roots of a Revolution double-CD, whose shouts, screams, and pleas were freakish macho novelties by the doowop-softened standards of the time.

Live at the Apollo itself is so encrusted in legend it's hard to hear anymore. Recorded in 1962 and barely half an hour long, it lacks the heft we associate with live albums, relegating major songs to the same eight-title medley as forgettable ones. But not only did it establish Brown as an r&b superstar and a sales force to be reckoned with, it's a time capsule, living testament of a chitlin circuit now defunct. The band is clean as a silk suit, and how the women love this rough singer's tender lover-in-song act. There is no music anywhere quite like the perfectly timed and articulated female fan-screeches that punctuate the 10-minute "Lost Someone."

Starting with the official "Brand New Bag," Star Time's second disc camel-walks across the four years of funk's invention--from "I Got You" fare-thee-welling 12-bar blues to "Cold Sweat" embracing modality to one-chord vamps like the incomprehensible "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)." Laying track on the last were four white guys from Cincinnati who included bassist Tim Drummond, later a key participant in, of all things, Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. But by then Brown's ever-changing road band had given history a cohort of crucial sidemen.

Pounding and teasing funk's topsy-turvy beats were power drummer Clyde Stubblefield and his subtler partner Jabo Starks. Guitarists Jimmy Nolen and Alphonso Kellum scratched and riffed. Adding textures, breaks, and more riffs were the great horn men: future leader Fred Wesley on trombone, future arranger Pee Wee Ellis on alto, and bringing on the tenor juice Maceo Parker, whose brother Melvin had manned the drums on "Brand New Bag." But framing and conceiving them all was the greatest musician of the rock era, no contest--a bandleader on the order of Ellington, a master arranger who used Pee Wee Ellis and Dave Matthews the way the Beatles used George Martin, and a singer whose strength was in the rhythm, promising relief with curly intro shrieks and hooking or texturing like a horn player over the groove. Stubblefield's famous "Cold Sweat" solo needs Brown's grunts and exclamations; "I Got the Feelin'" and "Give It Up or Turnit Loose" mine his motherlode of sound effects. Everywhere his attack sharpens and embellishes the beat.

Disc three is funk in flower, beginning with five distinct, indelible classics. "Mother Popcorn" is the second and finest of five JB hits to exploit that dance craze (the popcorn, that is--"mother" meant booty). Stubblefield's eight bars of give-the-drummer-some aren't the only reason the organ vamp gone wild "Funky Drummer" is the most sampled song in history. "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)" introduces revolutionary bassist Bootsy Collins and his diplomatic guitarist brother Catfish. "Super Bad" had musicologists talking to themselves decades later. And the one-chord wonder "Talking Loud & Sayin' Nothing" is the loosest and most infectious of Brown's many socially conscious jams. Yet the climax comes quietly nine tracks later: the orchestrated sermon "King Heroin" still packs a depressing wallop despite some typically bizarre moments ("Be you Italian, black, Jewish, or Mex"). Maybe it's Richard Tee's organ, or the French horns Dave Matthews hired. More likely it's JB hitting everything right, as at a given moment he always could.

Three of disc three's 14 tracks surfaced on live albums, which are confoundingly plentiful in Brown's catalogue, especially from the 1968-to-1971 period. The best of these is Brown's best non-compilation CD and also a phony: Sex Machine, where "Sex Machine" and the much-reprised "Brother Rapp" were cut in the studio, as were the "Bewildered" medley and its crowd noises. Worse, the truly live stuff includes Blood, Sweat & Tears and Tony Bennett covers (Brown loved "If I Ruled the World"). But the rest hollers and grooves with a typically free-wheeling and precision-tooled commitment that in no way renders competing live ones redundant. Rank those still in print Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68, Revolution of the Mind, Love, Power, Peace: Live at the Olympia, Paris, 1971, and the transitional, soulish Live at the Apollo Vol. 2. But try whichever comes easiest and then decide if you want more. All recycle Brown's vast playbook in varying permutations of rough and sweet, funk and corn, mercury and molasses, jam and citation, and all compensate for studio subtlety with knock-'em-dead intensity. Though Brown put on some bombast with the years, even the vintage-1985 Live at Chastain Park and Live at the Apollo 1995 revisit the old material as if hard work was worth getting emotional about.

As the '70s wore on, however, Brown's rule grew shakier. Long marginalized on pop radio, he scored his last top 40 hit for over a decade in 1974. By then Bootsy Collins had signed on with George Clinton, joined in 1975 by Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. Gradually, Clinton's psychedelic funk--theatrical, philosophical, comic--cut into Brown's African-American base, as did the simpler beats of disco. Yet the commercial desperation that ensued impinges hardly at all on disc four. The disco sellout is as dynamite as the Afrika Bambaataa collab, the second heroin sermon extends the first, and David Bowie's "Fame" is transformed into the needy-greedy-sexy stroke "Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved)." The sole dud, "My Thang," features an unexceptionable cast of studio hotshots that includes guitarist Joe Beck, whose failure of feel comes into relief when Jimmy Nolen returns to chank behind "Get Up Offa That Thing."

Loving the box and two or three live ones, you'll wonder how to proceed. Many of the glorious reissues of JB's CD-era revival--Dead on the Heavy Funk, Roots of a Revolution, Soul Pride: The Instrumentals 1960-1969, Messin' With the Blues--are now available only used from usurers; the matched 1996 Foundations of Funk and Make It Funky double-CDs vary Star Time for fans who want funk to the exclusion of r&b and soul; most of the renowned In the Jungle Groove is also available in briefer form on the box, making it for serious students only even though Brown is the rare artist who improves with length. But the finest of the classic comps remains: 1988's Motherlode, where Cliff White exhumes the unreleased "Can I Get Some Help" and rescues the head-on nine-minute "People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul" from the Slaughter's Big Rip-Off soundtrack. The string syrup saturating much of the useful recent Ballads collection isn't ruinous, and soon enough Dave Matthews and Pee Wee Ellis chip in some funk and Brown has turned Porgy into a woman protecting a guy who's getting manhandled by the cops. The choicest of the many sidepeople collections is the thoroughly enjoyable Pass the Peas: The Best of the J.B.'s, which establishes that when James himself is announcing "Gotta have a funky good time," said good time seems incalculably more necessary. But the only one I play is the second JB volume in Universal's budget Millennium Collection series--'70s masterpieces surrounding an embarrassing add-on called "Down and Out in New York City," it's perfect for vacation travel.

James Brown could be embarrassing and self-deluded, absolutely. Arrogant. Self-deluded. Coming up in an r&b business where the only way he could get King Records' Syd Nathan to cut Live at the Apollo was to pay for it himself, he inherited the hits-plus-filler theory of LP production, and the few JB studio albums that hold up as wholes are hard to find. So much of the superb There It Is has been recycled that it's hardly missed, but for the silly Hot Pants to pass to the usurers is a serious matter, and long-lost King product like Super Bad and Cold Sweat never reached CD outside of Japan. A few oddments remain, however. Gettin' Down to It, a what-the?? piano-trio record from around the time of "The Popcorn" that transforms "Cold Sweat" into cocktail music and "Time After Time" into funk, will pique Ballads fans. The all-new material on 1998's I'm Back is pretty damn funky for a 65-year-old some say was 70. And then there's 1973's The Payback, which probably remains in print because hip-hoppers like its aura of blaxploitation, although Brown's revenge fantasy never made the flick it was written for.

I liked it at the time and love it now, not just because "The Payback" prophesied gangsta but because "Forever Suffering" is empathetic and because "Mind Power"'s talk of "starvation" remains apropos. Then there's the utterly unlikely "Time Is Running Out Fast," which I once found shapeless and I now find just African- cum-Holiness, with Brown uttering sounds instead of words over a conga-spiced 13-minute vamp, leaving the talking to Fred Wesley's trombone. And most of all there's the deep-grooved rumination "Take Some . . . Leave Some," which includes these disarmingly simple-looking lines: "All my life I've dreamed of good food/Good lovin', shoes and clothes."

There are very few artists who would think to say such a thing, because there are very few who grew up in such deprivation that it's true. But James Brown had a dream, and he achieved it through music that's physical and transcendent simultaneously. The fact that his dream was so fundamental is one reason he achieved this synthesis. But the main one is that he was a genius.

Rolling Stone, Jan. 25, 2007