Photo Credit: Ronzoni
Editor’s Note: Welcome to PearShaped’s newest column, Around The Fruit Bowl. Every fortnight Hannah Weiss will be taking a look at some of the most influential music from around the globe and discussing the impact it has. From New York to Tokoyo, we hope you’ll enjoy the ride.
James Brown: The Soul of American Music
The USA has a tradition of dubbing their musicians as royalty. Michael Jackson was hailed as the “King of Pop”, currently Beyoncé reigns supreme as Queen Bey. But James Brown, now lauded as the Godfather of Soul, is by this title recognised for not only dominating and influencing a musical genre, but acting as the founder and precursor of many.
James Brown displayed great musical prowess from an early age, learning to play drums, guitar, saxophone, trumpet and bass. But poverty drove him to petty crime, and at 15 he was convicted of theft and wound up in a juvenile detention centre. It was by lucky chance that here Brown met right-hand man Bobby Byrd and began his musical career behind bars, as the two teamed up to form a gospel group before being released on parole. Brown’s showmanship swiftly led him to centre stage, and the group was named James Brown And The Famous Flames. Their song Please, Please, Please became Brown’s first R&B hit, selling over a million copies in 1956.
Throughout a career that spanned five decades, Brown retained this set-up, working with gospel singers and his own band, in which he employed jazz musicians such as saxophonist Maceo Parker and guitarist Jimmy Nolan to merge jazz with rhythm and blues, refining the intricacy of jazz to strip each track down to its spine – keeping only the essence of the rhythm.
James Brown is credited as the creator of funk, and as a major influence on hip hop. In 1967 Brown released what is often defined by critics as the first song in the funk genre: Cold Sweat. This track was his first to incorporate a drum break, the use of which went on to inspire the break-beats used in Hip-hop. Brown’s rapid fire vocals, shifting between speech and singing, laid the foundation for the technique used by rappers in the 80s. His incorporation of call and response patterns influenced Hip-hop choruses. The high energy dance moves he performed for 1969 single Get On The Good Foot laid the foundations for the first B-Boys in the Bronx, New York.
Today James Brown remains the most sampled musician in Hip-hop. Brown’s 1970 hit Funky Drummer has been mixed into tracks by artists including Nas, Dr. Dre and Public Enemy. Brown’s showmanship and skill as a musician still shapes that of many current artists, including Michael Jackson and Beyoncé. Watch a single James Brown performance and it’s not hard to see where Bruno Mars derived the inspiration for the foot-tapping band of brothers who join him onstage.
One of Brown’s final hits Get Up Offa That Thing in 1986 encapsulates his drive as a performer. In his biography, Godfather Of Soul, he claims the track was inspired during a concert in which his audience were sitting still.
“I looked out at all those people sitting there … depressed. I yelled, ‘Get up offa that thing and dance ‘til you feel better!’”
This is James Brown doing what he does best. The track is a blazing twist of disco and funk. There’s nobody sitting down to a jam like that.