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James Brown: Ow! An Appreciation

"Norman, how you gonna narrow down James Brown to your 10 favorite sides?"

"Bobby, I don't know. But whatsoever I choose, they got to be funky."

At Georgetown, I became obsessed with James Brown. I blame The Soul Brother #1 hisself. In "The Payback," James sang "I don't know karate, but I know karazy." Truer words were never sung. He was in prison, I was perpetually running for student government. Every year, lobbying for his freedom was part of my platform. In part, it was a joke. In part, it was wanting people to understand the power of his records and my own musical passions. It was the early days of CDs and I coveted the few JB discs I could find.

In show programs, I dedicated my college theatrical performances to family and James Brown. I read every scrap I could find about him along with his autobiography, "Godfather of Soul." Trying to understand him. I never did. I've never been able to do the splits, never will be. But part of my brain still dreams of being able to dance like James. He created a whole vocabulary of words and sounds that I freely admit to imitating.

Every time I heard "Funky Drummer" or another James sample in a hip hop song, my heart would skip and my brain would knowingly wink to itself. I was a tribe of one. The night Mr. Brown was released from prison? I was at Maceo Parker's show at Blues Alley in DC with my man, Christo. No lie. I have the autographed CD to prove it.

Now, 25 odd years later, and in anticipation of the new JB biopic that opens today, I give you my James Brown Top 10. Get On Up!

10. "Living In America." I remember buying the 45 when it was contemporary and feeling that it was a bit risque. This was the track that really introduced me to the Godfather's music. I think I've always been aware of who James was, but this was the first time I paid money for one of his records.

9. "Cold Sweat." Primal funk that will never fail to fill a dance floor. 'Scu'me while I do the boogaloo.

8. "Think." James was notorious for re-re-rerecording his songs. I love his early 60's version with His Famous Flames. The 1973 side was his funkiest workout of a rerecord. Dang. That is a stone groove. Outtasite either way.

7. "It's A New Day." A deep cut. You know this one, I'll give you serious props. It's a mover. Ain't it funky, now.

6. "I Got You (I Feel Good)." This is where it begins for many people; James' biggest crossover hit. This is the second, poppier version of the song. Ski Party and the T.A.M.I. Show introduced JB to wider audiences in the early-mid-60's. Movies have always been good to JB. The Blues Brothers, Rocky IV and Good Morning Vietnam all showcased James and/or revived his music for new generations. I also recommend you watch the documentary Soul Survivor: The James Brown Story, in which James participated. It features so many great interviews and James doing those great dance moves.

5. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." This recording sounds raggedy and otherwordly. Like James was speaking to all of us from a different part of the cosmos. He was. Watch the Ed Sullivan Show and witness "excitement."

4. "Sex Machine." At Georgetown, I had this thing memorized and woe be upon unsuspecting roommates who had to play Bobby Byrd to my JB, complete with cape routine.

3. "Super Bad." Heeeeeeeeeey! This single is the party. Few records are this declarative, and definitive. He and the band let loose and if you don't dance you got to get out of James' house. BRIDGE! Blow me some 'Trane. The live version on Love Power Peace is an explosion of #SOUL. It was James big single and the Parisian audience can't even comprehend what's happening to them (Trivia: that's Bootsy Collins on the bass). Clark Kent was Superman. James Brown was Super Bad.

2. "Bewildered." I still don't know how James pulled this off. This should be recognized as one of the great ballads of all time. How this isn't a standard is beyond me. There are three versions and I love them all equally.

1."Mother Popcorn." Y'gotta have a mother for me. Wonder where Prince, yes Prince, cribbed those lines for "Gett Off?" If Prince is copping it, it's a groove. This song is excitement. This record was for one of the many dance moves that James introduced, you can feel James doing the dance in the studio. That's how bad this record is. "Jump back, baby. James Brown's gonna do his thing."

Listen to that horn section. That arrangement is popcorn. What popcorn has to do with havin' a mother, or puttin' on a little salve? Don't get boint by this hot buttered jam. Yeeeeyeaah! James vocal acrobatics are as avant garde and hard bop as anything Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis were laying down. You can't do that on a pop record, James. POPCORN!

On the long version, James exhorts saxophonist Maceo, "don't want no trash." Maceo is the man. The solo is jazzy, funky and one-take perfection. James is moving around the mic moving and squealing like a kernel about to burst from the hot oil in the popcorn machine. Here, however, James is the kernel, the oil and the machine. Dig?

"Mother Popcorn" was a #1 R&B smash that also crashed the pop Top 20. James unleashed this in 1969 and it is fresh every time I hear it. Does it help that popcorn is my favorite food? Perhaps. Gimme a refill, good God!

I reserve the right to change my mind and the order of these. Depending on the day, "Super Bad" and "Mother Popcorn" really duke it out; but they never displace "Bewildered."

This list is incredibly incomplete. Missing are "Please, Please, Please," "Night Train," "Licking Stick-Licking Stick," "Out Of Sight," "I Got The Feeling," "Try Me" & "It's A Man's Man's Man's World."

As for his LPs, my favorites are two live albums. The historic Live at the Apollo (1962) and Love Power Peace, Live at L'Olympia Paris, 1971. Please seek them out. They rank among the greatest live vocal recordings ever.

I've got Apollo on reissued vinyl, still waiting to be played. Love Power Peace is being released August 5 on vinyl. The Star Time 4 cd box set is still comprehensive; but I enjoy the CD of JB (a lot of Mono single mixes). Of course, if you can find JB on wax - WINNER!

Love Power Peace


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