Listen to this track by funk-soul giant and musical Godfather to soul and her many children, James Brown. It’s “I Got The Feelin'”, a key track as taken from the album of the same name, I Got The Feelin’ released in the spring of 1968.
This song was one of a few key singles that would help to establish James Brown as a true innovator. The year before, he’d released “Cold Sweat”, a song of such importance to so many musical streams down through the years and up until today that its value cannot be measured. It helped to open up several musical directions for everyone from seventies funk, to electro, and hip hop in the eighties and sampled heavily ever since. But it initially set James Brown and his band on a path to create some of his most memorable and musically innovative songs of his career, like this one.
Among the most important elements that this song builds upon is the idea of what a lead vocal means, and how traditional singing is adapted to a new paradigm that has less to do with literal meaning or even straight melody, and more to do with something that only the body can express.
Among those songs released during this critical phase in James Brown’s career by the end of the 1960s, “I Got The Feelin'” is my personal favourite of the bunch. Like many of the songs Brown and his band worked up during this phase of his career, the song takes a musical motif and riffs on it, repeatedly, almost hypnotically. The verse-chorus-verse structure of pop music is left behind for an emphasis on raw groove instead, concentrating on the moving parts you’re hearing as they interlock. The hook here is that tight groove, and the interest around it that puts it front and centre.
It helps that the musicians on this song rank as luminaries in the field of funk and soul music, many of whom would go on to influence it into the next decade and beyond. This includes Maceo Parker on tenor saxophone, Clyde Stubblefield (the original funky drummer), and Pee-Wee Ellis on alto saxophone. The music that is created is super-tight, with the horns slipping and sliding over a sassy interlocked riff, while the rhythm section pushes and pulls in an irregular beat, piling on the tension-and-release elements to an unprecedented degree. This was a departure from pop songwriting in which frequent chord changes, repeatable melodies, verses and choruses, and middle-eight sections take their turns politely. This is a whole other beast; soul music pared down to its essence, which is pure expression, pure groove, pure impulse, taking cues from Africa and not Tin Pan Alley.
Then, there’s Brown’s own delivery to be considered. By this time in his career, James Brown had established a unique style which he’d developed for many years that went beyond traditional lyric writing, and beyond a conventional approach to delivering the lines, too. His approach was aligned to the church even in another way than Ray Charles or Sam Cooke were aligned. Instead of taking the sacred music of the church and singing secular tales in front of the music, Brown’s approach is less the secular sermon with a beginning/middle/end structure, and more like “speaking in tongues”, with established soul and blues language in place, punctuated by his own grunts and yowls that say more than traditional language ever could. In this respect, the “feelin'” could be positioned as being somewhere between being filled with “the spirit”, and filled with forces that are more physical and even carnal in nature. Brown’s performance isn’t about literal meaning. It’s about how listeners, and musicians playing it, respond to what Brown is laying down in the moment. It’s a visceral thing, and not to be dissected by any intellectual process as we react to it.
In this, we don’t really know what getting the feelin’ really means. And yet we completely do know, all at the same time. It’s spirit and sexuality all at once, instead of those two elements being on either side of the sacred-secular fence. This approach is as important to how modern R&B and hip hop would emerge in the coming decades, on par with any ubiquitous funky drummer break. We’re meant to respond in kind, and let our bodies react. And with that, we know we’ve got the funk.
James Brown died in 2006, not before cutting many records that would inspire multiple generations of musicians all across the musical spectrum.
If you’re ready for Star Time, get on up and go to jamesbrown.com to learn more about this irreplaceable musician.