By Dave Thompson
Soul Brother No. 1.
The Hardest-Working Man In Show Business.
James Brown has been given a lot of titles over the years (usually by himself), but few are so appropriate as that conferred upon him back in 1997. The budget-priced live compilation “Grandmaster Of Funk” itself was not an essential purchase for any fan, but its title summed up more than 40 years of Brown’s music and impact as accurately as any, and more tellingly than most. To many people — the otherwise peerless George Clinton and Sly Stone included — James Brown IS funk.
As a child in Barnwell, S.C., Brown was a promising sportsman, adept at both boxing and baseball. The moment he won a junior talent contest around the age of 11, performing a song called “So Long,” his attention was geared toward music, as well.
In his autobiography, “The Godfather Of Soul,” (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002) Brown pinpoints two crucial influences on his path to greatness: the circuses that came through town, which taught him the value of showmanship, and a short film of Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, which proved the importance of performance. A vibrant R&B-jazz quintet shot through with a broad sense of theatrical humor, the Tympany Five’s showstopper was “Caldonia, What Makes Your Big Head So Hard” — a song which, Brown recalled, “you could really put on a show with.” He learned to sing and play it and soon was hamming up his own version at every opportunity. Reflecting upon how his own future act used many of the tricks which the Tympany Five developed, Brown admitted, “I guess that Louis Jordan short is what first started me thinking along those lines.”
Brown formed his first band, the Cremona Trio in 1945 (in fact, the band often boasted up to five members). Having already won a succession of talent nights at both the local Lenox and Harlem theaters, Brown had developed a strong local following, and the trio soon was gigging around high schools and the local army base.
Brown’s dreams were curtailed in 1949, shortly after his 16th birthday, when he was sentenced to eight to 16 years imprisonment for grand-theft auto. The music continued, however, when he and fellow inmates Johnny Terry, “Hucklebuck” Davis and the singularly named “Shag” first formed a gospel quartet, then began adding home-made instruments — a comb and paper, a washtub bass, a drum kit made from lard tubs and for Brown, what he calls “a sort of mandolin [made] out of a wooden box.”
Serving time at the jail in Toccoa, Ga., Brown was also on the prison basketball team, visiting neighboring schools to play. It was during one of these outings that he first encountered pianist Bobby Byrd, and, when Brown was paroled in June 1952 after serving three years, Byrd’s family put him up for a time while Brown sorted himself out.
Brown joined a new group, the Ever Ready Gospel Singers, and cut his first record, an acetate of Ethel Waters’ “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” He lost heart, however, after the Singers drove as far afield as Nashville in search of a DJ to play it and couldn’t interest one. He returned to Toccoa, where Byrd invited him to join The Avons, a vocal group he was trying to get off the ground, but whose hopes had been seriously dashed after the group’s best vocalist, Troy Collins, died in an car crash.
Modeling themselves after the top R&B groups of the day — The Orioles, The Five Keys, Billy Ward & the Dominoes (featuring Clyde McPhatter) and so forth — The Avons featured vocalists Byrd, Sylvester Keels, Doyle Oglesby, Fred Pulliam, Nash Knox and Roy Scott, plus Brown and fellow former prison-mate Johnny Terry. Gigging throughout Georgia and into South Carolina, The Avons were one of dozens of similar acts playing the local juke joints.
Indeed, it transpired that they were also one of at least two other outfits called The Avons, later choosing to become The Toccoa Band to avoid confusion.
Brown constantly was on the lookout for ways to improve The Toccoa Band’s standing and reputation. He recruited guitarist, Nafloyd Smith, complete with a cheap Sears guitar and amplifier, and inadvertently, the group took the first step toward its destiny as members learned to increase the volume of their vocals to drown the little amp’s incessant feedback. When their newly acquired manager, local undertaker Barry Trimier, suggested adding percussion to the troupe rather than trying to keep the beat by stamping their feet, Brown fashioned a cymbal from a piece of metal and contributed that to the lineup. With a tom-tom and a field drum somebody found in storage at a nearby high school, plus any other instruments the came to hand, The Toccoa Band sounded like nothing else on earth.
By 1954, the group was gigging as The Flames, becoming The Famous Flames after a Macon promotor thought it might help draw more people into his club. The Flames performed their own material, too. Brown’s “Goin’ Back to Rome” and Brown-Terry’s “Please Please Please,” an impassioned shouter based around The Orioles’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” were early additions to the repertoire. The Famous Flames also launched their recording career, cutting tracks at local radio stations, then handing them to various labels to be pressed. Brown himself apparently remembered only one of them, “So Long,” cut for the NRC label in Greenville.
The Macon gig became a regular highlight of the band’s routine. It was promoted by Clint Brantley, a local entrepreneur whose roster also featured the then-unknown (but quickly rising) Little Richard. When Richard split town in 1955, following his first national success with “Tutti Frutti,” The Famous Flames took over every venue he had ever ruled, and, shortly before Christmas, Brantley had them cut a demo of “Please Please Please.”
Local radio loved the song and aired the acetate constantly. Not one label, however, was interested in releasing it. Even in the wake of the screaming shock of Little Richard, The Famous Flames’ brutal bellowing was simply too unorthodox. Only one industry figure sided with them, Ralph Bass, an A&R man at King Records in Cincinnati. He signed The Famous Flames, but the group’s very first recording session on Feb. 4, 1956, almost ended in disaster. Label head Syd Nathan had hated the demo of “Please Please Please”; he hated the re-recording even more.
For a time, it looked as though the record would not even be released — King’s standard practice was to ship a record within a few days of recording. “Please Please Please” sat for a month before Nathan finally announced that “against his better judgement,” as Brown put it, he would release it on the low-key Federal subsidiary at the beginning of March 1956.
With the band touring tirelessly behind it, “Please Please Please” became the label’s biggest 45 ever. Despite the success, however, The Famous Flames’ own position was unstable. In keeping with the traditions of the time, the next single, June’s “I Don’t Know,” was more or less a direct descendent of its predecessor, and the record buying public stayed away in droves.
“No No No,” “Just Won’t Do Right,” “Chonnie-On-Chon” followed it into oblivion and, as the first anniversary of the group’s first hit rolled around, The Famous Flames themselves broke up following a dispute over their future billing. They had recently recruited a new manager, Universal Attractions Agency Chief Ben Bart, who insisted on renaming them James Brown & The Famous Flames. That was the last straw for Brown’s bandmates, who quit en masse.
Brown spent much of 1957 working with pick-up musicians, while King maintained a barrage of further unsuccessful releases. Brown consoled himself with the knowledge that, “you can hear a lot of where soul music came from by listening to some of those tunes,” but with King refusing to allow him back into the studio, Brown knew he’d been as good as dropped.
The turning point came following Little Richard’s retirement from rock ’n’ roll in October 1957. Brown was recruited to replace him at a string of shows, then followed through with a tour in his own right, backed by a new generation of Famous Flames: Bill Hollings, Louis Madison and J.W. Archer.
Impressed by the success of his concerts, King called Brown back to the studio to try to break what had now become a eight-single losing streak. “That Dood It” fared no better than its predecessors, but Brown persuaded the label to give him one last chance, joining with producer Andy Gibson for “Try Me,” a yearning, passionate ballad that could not have been further removed from “Please Please Please.” It soared to No. 1 on the R&B chart in October 1958.
Brown built a new band comprising Byrd, J.C. Davis (tenor sax), Bobby Roach (guitar), Bernard Odum (bass), Roscoe Patrick (trumpet), Albert Corley (sax) and Nat Kendrick (drums). This group debuted on Brown’s next single, the Top 20 entry “I Want You So Bad.”
Brown debuted at the Harlem Apollo on April 24, 1959, where he opened for labelmate Little Willie John, who nine years later, would be the subject of Brown’s “Thinking About...” album. He was accompanied by yet another generation of Flames, including returning founders Terry and Byrd, plus Baby Lloyd Stallworth and Bobby Bennett.
The gig preceded a period of absolute chart domination for Brown and The Famous Flames, both in their own right, and, initiating what subsequently became a common practice for Brown, under an unexpected pseudonym. In early 1960, Brown achieved a massive hit with “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes,” a novelty dance song released on Henry Stone’s Dade label under the name of drummer Kendrick and the Swans. Brown wrote, produced, and, alongside his bandmates, performed on the record behind Miami DJ King Coleman. The song rose to No. 8 on the R&B chart. Responding to Brown’s increasing ambition, Syd Nathan finally transferred the singer from Federal to the higher-profile King label in 1961.
The music continued changing as Brown’s success grew. He was incorporating more jazz into the brew — “’I’ll Go Crazy’ is a blues,” he explained, “but it’s a different kind of blues, up-tempo, a kind of jazz blues.” His cover of The Five Royales’ “Think,” he continued, “is a combination of gospel and jazz; a rhythm hold is what we used to call it. When people talk about soul music, they talk only about gospel and R&B coming together. But ... you have to remember the jazz.”
In 1960, Brown cut his first full album, “Think” (two previous LPs had simply compiled together singles, B-sides and unused session outtakes). Two further sets divided between vocal and instrumental performances followed, before Brown released his first live album, the classic “Live At The Apollo,” in January 1963. He also launched his own Try Me label, cutting singles by Tammi Montgomery (aka Tammi Terrell), Johnny & Bill (fronted by Pigmeat Markham) and The Poets, all members of the massive revue show that Brown first built around his own performance in 1960, which continued to expand as the decade progressed.
Indeed, the coterie of musicians at Brown’s disposal could turn their hands to anything, either backing existing artists or assuming the identities of new “stars.” Neither did the steady turnover of musicians affect Brown’s performance. Rather, it only encouraged him to further heights, refining his vision as he encountered ever-different players.
By 1960, guitarist Roach had been succeeded by Les Buie, and bassist Odum by Hubert Perry; J.C. Davis left in 1961 to join Etta James, to be replaced as band leader by one of Brown’s former schoolfriends, St. Clair Pinckney. Although he remained in the Famous Flames, Pinckney then stepped aside in summer 1962 for arranger Lewis Hamlin, a brilliant musician who Pinckney himself later described as “the forgotten man in setting the musical course of the band.”
In 1964, believing his King contract to be at an end, Brown formed his own production company, Fair Deal, and linked his entire operation to a new record label, the Mercury subsidiary Smash. King, however, disputed the arrangement and was granted an injunction preventing Brown from releasing any vocal recordings for Smash.
The injunction was upheld when the case came to court, and Brown was forced to record instrumentals alone for Smash, while ignoring King’s demands for vocal performances. It was only after some months of stalemate that Brown realized that there was more to the dispute than the rights to his own work. Mercury seemed to be actively trying to close King down.
Immediately, Brown swung back into action, recording a new song and handing it over to the embattled Syd Nathan. Working with Nat Jones, Brown redeveloped a rhythm first worked up for summer, 1964’s “Out Of Sight,” and created “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” a yelping, insistent tour de force that King gratefully released in July 1965.
It became Brown’s first R&B chart-topper since “Try Me”; it saved King from extinction (Brown was rewarded with a new, infinitely improved contract), and, while Brown himself considered the record to be simply the next stage in his own creative development, for other listeners it was the birth of a new musical genre altogether.
“‘Papa’s Bag’ was years ahead of its time,” Brown wrote. “I was still called a soul singer, but ... I had gone off in a different direction. I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm. I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums. Later on, they said it was the beginning of funk. I just thought of it as where my music was going. The title told it all: I had a new bag.”
The Famous Flames were gone; now Brown alone handled the vocals. The Flames’ final session with him was for “Out Of Sight”; “Papa’s Bag” was recorded with ex-Johnny Otis Band guitarist Jimmy Nolen and trumpeters Ron Tooley, Joe Dupars and Levi Rasbury augmenting the “Out Of Sight” lineup of bassist Sam Thomas; organist Jones; tenor saxophonists Pinckney, Eldee Williams and Al Clark; baritone wizard Maceo Parker; and his brother, drummer Melvin Parker. Together, they became the most innovative group Brown ever led.
“Papa’s Bag” — and the musical moods that it unleashed — was massive, not only in the United States, but also across Europe. British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore even recorded a parody version, in which Moore, as “Bo Duddley,” attempts to explain the lyrics to a bemused interviewer, Cook. “Papa’s Bag” was followed up the chart by “I Got You (I Feel Good),” which peaked just as “Papa’s Bag” won Brown a Grammy for Best R&B Performance.
The grandiose “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” the culmination of Brown’s musical alchemy, followed (it coincided with Brown’s first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”), and the musical die for the next decade was cast at last. Brown and his band were simply blazing, seeking out a groove and running with it.
Often the musicians would already be jamming when Brown arrived at the studio; he would listen for a moment, then leap aboard, improvising lyrics around whatever they were playing, then calling it a take. It was a spontaneous, seemingly magical process, music at its most organic and, when the mood was right, its funkiest. Brown was adamant. He wasn’t content with simply developing a whole new form of musical expression. He wanted to take it as far as he could as well.