❉ Get funky as James Brown’s sidemen take centre stage on these three influential albums.
“It took another generation to really realise how innovative and brilliant the three albums included here were. Providing not just building blocks to some of what is now called rap’s golden age, but also the the colours and rhythms of the nascent UK breakbeat scene. This was music whose influence and brilliant innovation wasn’t just inspired but would inspire. These two discs more than adequately explain why…”
Today the top 40 pop charts across the world are dominated by R&B and Hip-Hop. These genres have given more innovation and broader expression than the music played on guitars in the past 20 odd years and rock music has lost its place as the dominant force in music.
Part of this is due to the fact that, like the rock musicians influenced by the blues before them, the musicians of today are greatly indebted to the genres of the past. Hip-Hop’s use of samples, like the musical quotes of the greatest jazz improvisors, has always made its inspirations explicit in directly lifting the original sounds from the people themselves. If you look at those eternal lists in music publications of the most influential records you’ll struggle to find many of the most sampled grooves anywhere on those lists. However it’s arguable that they are as important and influential as the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Yet at the most crucial and fundamental stage of Hip-Hop turning from something many considered novelty into something serious something approaching art then the tracks on these three crucial albums made by James Brown’s backing group, The JB’s, are amongst its most important building blocks.
To anyone who considers the giants of funk music, James Brown is up there at the very top. An electric performer whose music went through almost as many seismic changes as another legend of black music, Miles Davis. Like the great quintets and wild collaborations which followed in the case of Miles Davis; the success of James Brown was as much about the people around him as the man himself – Brown’s legend was the sum of some other very considerable parts. This was never more so than during the early 1970s when the personnel, and the man himself, were at their most funky.
There was a big, big reason for this. In March 1970 Brown, ever the famous taskmaster, finally lost patience with his then backing band and sacked the lot of them. The replacements were a collection of young Chicago musicians called The Pacesetters who were led by the Collins brothers Catfish and Bootsy. The band had been working out of the King Records studios, where Brown had been recording, and were an obvious fit to replace his former sidemen.
In 1970 Brown formed Brownstone records with Henry Stone (who would later go onto great success with TK Records) and, ever the control freak, People Records on his own. Both were essentially vehicles for the sidemen and women of his group. This finally gave the unheralded members of his band the chance to take centre stage for themselves. The JB’s were one of the first to appear on People. The initial singles My Brother and Gimme Some More were both minor hits on the R&B charts and were included on the debut album Food For Thought, the first of the three albums on this double CD set.
By the time The JB’s were recording Food For Thought Brown had managed to convince Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker back into the fold. Although both Collins brothers had decamped to join George Clinton in Parliament/Funkadelic they had left an indelible mark on the music of The JB’s. In an interview Wesley explained,
“See James didn’t give Bootsy’s bass line, James would give Bootsy an idea of what, what the bass line should be and Bootsy would kind of take it to wherever Bootsy went with it, you know. And, ah, a lot of times, as I said before, when Bootsy starts playing you either get in with it or get run over by. So even James Brown had to get out of Bootsy’s way, so to speak, of, of lead, follow where Bootsy led him.”
Whereas previous incarnations of the band had very much followed Brown’s diktats the new sound loosened things and this was especially evident on Food For Thought. The two standouts tracks exemplify this. Pass The Peas is built on a solid rhythm section and simple chant and then Wesley lets rip with a solo which takes him back to his jazz roots. It’s the sound of a man whose been set free from the usual constraints and he lets fly. The Grunt does something similar for Maceo Parker. The band build a frantic groove and Parker opens with a wail which sounds not unlike a James Brown scream before he grabs the tune by the throat and leads off with some wonderful riffing. There’s a rawness to the track and you can tell the whole thing was done in one take. It’s no surprise that this track featured heavily on Public Enemy’s Rebel Without A Pause.
Within a year the group had assembled another album and enjoyed considerable commercial success with Doing It To Death. The phrase was, apparently, one Brown and the band used to describe when everything was falling into place musically. The title track itself is a bouncy ten minute jam with Brown directing the band but, unlike on his solo records, he allows The JB’s the space to enjoy themselves.
The rest of the album is made up of another four long pieces. More Peas revisits one of the previous album’s highlights and provides Brown with the opportunity to add a moody organ solo whilst both La Di Dah La Di Day and Sucker sound like the laid-back studio jams they clearly are. Sucker comes on as one of the jazziest things in the group’s (or even Brown’s) entire catalogue and features a succession of fine soloing. Closer You Can Have Watergate Just Gimme Some Bucks & I’ll Be Straight is the funkiest track of the set. Like so much of the great material produced by the group it’s deceptively simple and works its six plus minutes out so effortlessly you’ll think you’ve been there for just half the time.
By the next album Fred Wesley was honoured with separate billing. His role as director was often to decode Brown’s compositions into cohesive musical arrangements from the claps, shouts, squeals, and footstomps they began life as. The third track on the album I’m Payin’ Taxes, What Am I Buyin’? seems to illustrate the process opening with what sound like a collection of voices scatting a tune before the music bursts in, taking all its cues from the voices we’ve heard at the beginning. The music and voices drop in and out of each other at certain points and, if this what Wesley really had to work with to create this, it goes to show what an exceptional talent he possesses.
The album opens with its title track, the empowering Damn Right I Am Somebody, whose grooves set the tone for the album. Whereas its predecessor felt like a set of loose ended studio jams, this album is tighter and funkier. The opener’s jazzy grooves are laidback and it’s Wesley as it’s star until Brown rolls up to rest the track back under his control.
Its other innovation is Brown using synthesisers on three of the key tracks. The centrepiece of this is Blow Your Head, one of the most sampled tracks in the whole James Brown/JB’s catalogue. It is probably most famous for turning up on Public Enemy’s Public Enemy No. 1. There’s something strangely otherworldly about the sound. It feels like it’s come out of nowhere and then Wesley & co. come in with something akin to a chase scene in an imaginary blaxploitation movie. The electronics return in muted form on Same Beat (Part 1) yet here their place in the laidback groove of the tune is more muted.
The album was to be one of the last Brown recorded with Wesley and you can hear all the reasons why in the closing three tracks of the album. They are, in a sense, emblematic of the sudden and sharp decline in James Brown’s creativity. In an interview in 2015 Wesley stated,
“…it was obvious that he thought he’d run out because he never would come up with any new music. After I left he did “Body Heat,” which I thought was pretty good, but it wasn’t as good as “The Payback.” He thought “The Payback” was the apex of his career, he really did.”
The closing tracks on Damn Right I Am Somebody, released in 1974 (the year after The Payback) begin with Make Me What You Want Me To Be. It’s a decent enough tune but ruined by the inclusion of some cheesy sounding string arrangement hinting that Brown was scrabbling to find something extra for the tune. The closing track is a cover of Marvin Gaye’s You Sure Like To Ball. It is an ok straightforward cover but it feels like the only purpose of it being there is to fill an additional four minutes to stretch the album to a decent enough length. The album wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t there. Yet there clearly wasn’t enough material to provide another track without resulting to a cover.
Worse was to come in Brown’s career not long after this which showed the confidence had reached the point where he’d gone from innovator to follower. Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved) took a large section of David Bowie’s Fame and just copied it. The confidence to be original completely gone.
Brown’s sudden loss of creativity was coupled with former JB Bootsy Collins backchannel coercion (which had gone on for a number of years) to get Wesley, Parker, and Pee Wee Ellis (who were the backbone of The JB’s) to defect to George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. The trio had finally had enough and they went from the discipline of Brown to the cosmic open-ended world of P-Funk. The JB’s carried on with Brown with different members, making a number of indifferent records through the late ’70s like Brown himself, a shadow of the former glories included here.
It took another generation to really realise how innovative and brilliant the three albums included here were. Providing not just building blocks to some of what is now called rap’s golden age, but also the the colours and rhythms of the nascent UK breakbeat scene. This was music whose influence and brilliant innovation wasn’t just inspired but would inspire. These two discs more than adequately explain why, and when you consider buying an original copy of any of one these albums in pristine condition would probably cost at least three times the price of this entire CD collection alongside the fact this is the first compilation of any sort in over two decades, this title’s release feels like cause for celebration.
❉ The J.B’s: Food For Thought/Doing It To Death/Damn Right I Am Somebody (Robinsongs ROBIN47CDD) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red.
❉ Peter Robinson is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.