“Please, Please, Please” may be James Brown’s most soulfully elegant song. “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is his most politically incorrect and/or epic. “Mama’s Dead” somehow manages to tap a universal feeling without slipping into sentimental mush, and “I Feel Good” makes everyone else feel good as well. With an 800-song body of work, it’s difficult to say which is the best or smoothest or rockin’est, but it’s easy to figure out Brown’s most important and influential song: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
The song turned the rhythm pattern of black music on its head—or more precisely shifted it “to the one.” Before Brown, most R&B placed the accent on the backbeat (two and four); but Brown accented the first—or down—beat. It was a simple but monumental change.
Not everyone took to the change immediately. Even seasoned musicians were thrown off by the innovation that forced them to relearn a half-century of musical tradition. But they came to appreciate it, because the shift created more extended spaces for these musicians to wander without interruption.
Brown also dumped the verse and chorus structure of virtually all popular music, and in some portions of the song, he even abandoned chord progressions. Instead, his band hovered on a single chord that offered first Brown and then a tenor sax a wide-open and uncluttered space to fill all by themselves. Brown’s reliance on the baritone sax and horns to frame his vocals also gave the song a markedly funky sound. The catch was that “funk” did not actually exist until Brown introduced it to the world.
The new sound was highly—and in some ways dangerously—danceable. Its long vamps—or extended single-chord spaces—forced folks to either shuffle monotonously or dig deeper for some untapped muse. Musicians were offered the same. In this respect, funk was reminiscent of jazz in creating extended platforms for the talented to create and the mediocre to be exposed. As a result, Brown’s band turned into a testing lab and boot camp for innovative musicians. They came in, pushed the rhythm and arrangement innovations of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” even further, and then left, taking their degrees in funk with them.
By the end of the decade, other bands had adopted some of Brown’s style, including the Isley Brothers and Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. During the 1970s, an even longer list of funk artists found mainstream success, including Sly and the Family Stone, Chaka Khan, and the Ohio Players. But Brown’s influence did not end there. By 1980, the self-proclaimed “Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk” was writing songs with even more extended vamps filled with even more complex and overlapping rhythms.
In fact, rhythm became everything. Horns, guitars, and sax joined the drums and bass in one all-inclusive rhythm section, and melody and harmony all but disappeared as the entire band lay down overlapping, crosscutting rhythm lines. Even Brown’s vocals joined in the rhythm domination. The soulful wails of “Please, Please, Please” and the primal howls of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” were abandoned. Instead, Brown let his lines pop, grunt, and explode out of his mouth like verbal rim shots.
This obsession with rhythm, this subordination of melody and harmony to the beat, would be James Brown’s gift to hip-hop. In this age of digital appropriation, he is by far the most heavily sampled artist. Listen to Ice Cube’s “Jackin’ for Beats” and you’ll hear James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” Kool Moe Dee pulled from Brown’s “Night Train” in recording “How Ya Like Me Now?” Big Daddy Kane used “I’m Black and I’m Proud” in “Long Live the Kane.” Public Enemy drew from “Get up Offa That Thing” in recording “Rebel Without a Pause.” It’s a long list—in fact, one part of Brown’s 1969 “Funky Drummer”—Clyde Stubblefield’s drum solo—has been sampled or mimicked by more than 100 artists, including LL Cool J, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and the Beastie Boys.
Sometimes the Man’s Man’s Man’s World is Tough
It would be hard to overstate the importance of James Brown to American music. It would be just as hard to understate the deprivation and excess that came before and after his most productive years, though. Brown’s younger years were filled with torment; born in 1933—and subsequently pronounced dead by the delivering midwife—he was turned over to a brothel-running aunt in Augusta, Georgia, when his parents separated in 1937. As a kid he picked cotton, shined shoes, washed dishes, and sang and danced on the street for nickels when the soldiers from Camp Gordon came into town. He dropped out of school when he was thirteen and got arrested and sentenced to jail when he was sixteen.
The other end of Brown’s life was filled with a different sort of deprivation—PCP addiction, weapons and assault charges, allegations of rape, and recurring arrests for spousal abuse. He served three years in jail (1988-1991) after threatening people with a shotgun and then leading the police on a high-speed chase. In 2004, Brown paid a large fine after pleading no contest to charges of domestic violence.
But despite all this, Brown refused to be reduced to some sort of stereotype: the brilliant artist with a brutal past and a decadent streak. He was also an insightful businessman. When his label, King Records, rejected his proposal for a live album, he financed the project himself. The resulting 1963 release, Live at the Apollo, was not only a financial success; it also increased Brown’s following outside traditional R&B markets. When King still refused to more aggressively court white audiences, Brown formed his own production company, Fair Deal, to expand his fan base, and he negotiated a contract with Smash Records, a Mercury Subsidiary, to release some of his songs.
In fact, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” grew out of the legal battles that ensued between Brown’s old and new labels. After the release of “Out of Sight” in 1964, King Records took Brown to court. For the most part King prevailed; as part of the settlement, Smash was only allowed to release instrumental versions of Brown’s song. To patch things up with King, which was struggling financially, Brown reworked “Out of Sight” and renamed it “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” The lyrics are different, and the arrangements are not identical, but the basic structure and riff are unmistakable.
I Feel Political
Brown also embraced the political responsibilities that came along with his star status. He spoke at schools, supported black entrepreneurs, and set up programs for inner city kids. On the day following Martin Luther King’s assassination, he cancelled his Boston concert and instead performed live on TV. While violence broke out in several cities, Boston remained calm.
But Brown refused to be just a “stay in school and off drugs” kind of spokesman. He criticized “Hollywood negroes” like Bill Cosby, Leslie Uggams, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Diahann Carroll, who he claimed had managed to make it only by checking their race at the door. He visited American troops in Vietnam and pledged that yes, he would fight for his country, but he added, “if it doesn’t give me my rights, I’ll fight the country.” He accepted an invitation from President Lyndon B. Johnson to hold a public concert in Washington, D.C., to ease community tensions, but he refused President Richard Nixon’s request that he join him while visiting Memphis—“I didn’t want to be his bullet proof vest,” Brown said.
Please, Please, Please Acknowledge the Legacy
James Brown is the Master of Funk. With “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” he broke ground on what he and his followers would turn into a distinctive and influential style and sound. Funk was the most immediate child of “Papa,” but hip-hop owes just as much to this path-breaking old man.
But Brown was also the Godfather of Soul, the Sex Machine, Soul Brother Number One, and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Each of these labels reveals a bit of his legacy to American culture. Funk and hip-hop are a huge part of that legacy, but so are the soulful ballads and more conventional R&B recordings of his early career. His shrewd understanding of the recording industry and the record market became instructive to other musicians and artists; his 1963 live album demonstrated the potential for this sort of recording to more timid industry leaders. He modeled an unmatched intensity in his live performances, and his band was one of the tightest and most talented in the business. He brought a shocking sexual directness to the mainstream stage (his performance on Shindig in which white go-go dancers swirl around the black Dionysius no doubt led many fathers to lock up their daughters). He joined a handful of other black cultural leaders who demanded uncompromised access to the public arena. And he lent a responsible but not emasculated voice to the turmoil of a tumultuous decade. James Brown was a hugely influential artist in many ways, and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was his most important song.