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. Read more
Here’s a clip of one of the Founding Fathers of Funk, Maceo Parker and his band All the King’s Men with their 1970 funk workout “Funky Women”. The song comes from the album Doing Their Own Thing.
One of the things that top drawer funk musicians do very well is take the attention off of their own individual skill, and shift it to what the band as a whole is creating in the moment. And they do this in a few ways, it seems to me.
First, the emphasis is on the groove, which is simply the nature of the beast; everything interlocks and interrelates to achieve this end. Second, they keep everything simple by having equally straightforward goals, namely to get people on the floor and get them moving. There is no funk if there is no sweat, after all. And third, even if each band member is named and invited to solo, the ultimate objective is to contribute to what has been offered by the one who’s played his bit before. And fourth, the band lets the audience in on what is being created as it’s happening, sometimes even letting them know where the music is going to go (‘Let’s we hit it and quit it! ‘We gonna give the drummer some?’).
“Funky Women” does all of this, and has the additional benefit of being really, really playful, and very sexy too. We get some fine playing from all involved, each band member having gone through James Brown’s school of hard knocks where they were fined for mistakes among other punishments. Yet, this isn’t workmanlike playing – it’s pure joy, pure excitement, pure funk, with each instrumental solo delivered with a woman’s voice in mind. The lilting trumpet is the voice of the breezy, talkative girl. The deep tenor sax is the voice of the sultry man eater in the red dress. And Maceo’s own alto sax the short and sassy party girl.
All the while, Maceo is the master of ceremonies, the spinner of the tale, the setter of the scene, inviting his guys to imagine a humid evening playing a club in a roomful of appreciative, and vibrant women, who are to be looked upon not as mere decorations in the scene, but the very lifeblood of it, the living reasons for making music in the first place – to see them dance, to see them laugh, to draw them closer. I just love this tune, an ode to the beauty of women and a reminder of how closely music and dance is tied to other physical yearnings. And “Funky Women” is ultimately about acknowledging how great it is to be alive, as a physical being.
A close friend and collaborator with James Brown during his mid-to-late 60s period, Maceo Parker is of course a figure of authority in his own right, having made albums of notable consistency together with Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Prince, as well as on his own, even if his profile isn’t quite as high as some of these artists. Parker’s handle on funk, soul, and even jazz remains undiminished, active as he is as a touring performer and recording artist today.
Here’s a clip of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and one of the architects of funk, singing “Say it Loud (I’m black and I’m Proud)” in November 1968. The clip is from Hugh Hefner’s ‘Playboy After Dark’ TV program‘, which featured musical guests, comics, and other celebrity appearances on a set that looks like a bachelor’s pad.
This was an anthem of cultural pride, with not just a bit of the taste of unrest that existed in black communities at the time. The Watts riots had marked a sea change in August 1965, and the pop artists and songwriters of the time began to feel a sense of obligation to their audience to address it. Martha Reeves’ ‘Dancing in the Streets’, Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man’ (a title inspired by graffiti songwriter Issac Hayes had seen on the street), and even Aretha’s cover of “Respect” all had an undercurrent of political protest, fueled by the need to establish a social identity for a community that had been marginalized for hundreds of years. By the time James Brown had taped this appearance, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were dead, both assassinated. Yet soul music as protest music was only to get more mainstream, and more overt, as the 60s faded into the 70s.
The one thing I noticed about James Brown’s appearance here, and his choice of song, is that his immediate audience sitting right there in the room with him are all white people (one of whom appears to be Sonny Bono!). I find it interesting that the smiling faces belie the message of the song. This is no party tune. It’s a song of defiance, as much as it is a song of pride in one’s identity. I wonder how many people there really understood the implications of what James was singing. And I wonder how many of the TV audience understood as well.