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Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to James Brown

James Brown: What can be said that hasn’t already been said to death? Well, nothing, which is why I’ve decided to look at some of his more essential vocal performances, which should paint a fuller picture of the artist than I ever could. And with a voice as powerful as his, how can any writer hope to compete?

For Brown wasn’t a man of frill, furnishings or metaphors, as he was too angular for such notions. His vocals were boisterous, brash, energetic and full of potential and love. As it happens, Brown was one of the most committed vocalists of his generation, embodying a vocal delivery that went beyond race, age and creed. He was a true artist.

The man died in 2006, and as such, this list is anything but exhaustive, but rather hopes to highlight a collection of standouts that showcase his energy and infectious style of singing. He was always a consummate professional, giving everything he had to the work at hand.

This list offers his view as a man, a black man, a voice of a generation and a songwriter of high repute. He was a singular artist who inspired devotion and loyalty from millions, but most of all, he set out to entertain — and did so in strides.

James Brown’s six definitive songs:

‘Please, Please, Please’- 1956

What a way to start the trajectory off. Brown’s smoky vocals cement the track, creating an atmosphere that is deeply connected to the world at large, creating a vocal that is based in part on truth, and in part on feeling. It’s a richly produced performance, summoning decades of vented up frustration in the hopes of creating something more prosperous, yet deeply animal in its resolve. It’s like listening to a panther, purring on the verses, before launching for attack during the chorus.

Indeed, the song features a vocal that would have been considered a career-best for anyone else, but for Brown, it was his first step into a world of music, that only grew more meaningful and more impactful with each passing cadence and chord. In its place, the song was deeply honest and offered a power that was frenzied, fanatical and fantastic in its display. For Brown, it would only get more interesting, the more he invested himself in the music.

‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’- 1965

James Brown was growing less interested in extending the lexis of the work, instead prioritising the importance and essence of the performance in question. The following introduction is one he flaunted in his concert “So now ladies and gentlemen it is ‘Star Time’. Are you ready for ‘Star Time’? Thank you and thank you very kindly. It is indeed a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time, national[ly] and international[ly] known as ‘The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business’, the man that sings ‘I’ll Go Crazy’…” He was addressing the importance of the chorus in question. And this ditty from 1965 is all about the chorus, and it feels good.

These days, the song stands as his signature number, bolstered by a sense of commitment and bonhomie that’s as enjoyable as The Beatles at their battiest and most ‘Taxman’ like. The single is bolstered by a collection of horns, pushing the wild vocal to the forefront of the mix. But the power of the single doesn’t rest on the frame, but on the painting, or panting in this case, of the singer delivering a strong vocal delivery.

‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and Proud’- 1968

For Nile Rodgers, this song proved to be a clarion call, a call to arms and an anthem that celebrated his standing in life. Producing Diana Ross, he decided to use ‘I’m Coming Out’ as his way of applauding and championing the LGBT movement, much as ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ gave African American youths the valedictorian tune they had spent a lifetime waiting for. It asked them to be proud of their heritage, keenly understanding that their class and station was being overshadowed by the Anglo-Saxon contingent around them.

“People called ‘Black and Proud’ militant and angry,” Brown recalled, “Maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children’s song. That’s why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride… The song cost me a lot of my crossover audience. The racial makeup at my concerts was mostly black after that. I don’t regret it, though, even if it was misunderstood.” It certainly made an impression on the public, and allowed Rodgers to feel accepted as an artist.

‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ – 1970

‘Brown’s trajectory stemmed from sex. Sex, sex and sexy sex. He was a sexy man, and unlike The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Mick Jagger, he was unafraid to sing about his sex life to the world. And in this piece, the singer created a funk flavoured piece that showed every inch of the man as the lothario he presented himself to the world. Sex fuels the song, and Bootsy Collins recalled the live energy that went into piecing the song together.

“Once we got to the studio it was pretty much what it sounds like,” Collins recalled. “Someone said, ‘It sounds great, Mr. Brown. When are you going to mix it? He said, ‘Mix it? It’s already mixed, son!’ He was teaching us how to be dynamic, with the ups, the breakdowns, the hard and soft parts. He felt that everything he did with a band was already mixed.” The song certainly made an impression, proving to be one of his most important anthems.

‘Something’ – 1973

George Harrison was notoriously picky when it came to artists. He hated Oasis, particularly their singer, feeling that he was silly; he was unimpressed with The Hollies’ rendition of ‘If I Needed Someone’, and said so publicly; and then there was the small matter of Ringo Starr covering one of his songs, only to be told that Harrison wasn’t happy with the result, and was taking him to court over it. “All right George, you can sue me,” the drummer recalled, “But I’ll always love you.” So it’s saying something about Brown’s abilities that his rendition of ‘Something’ was one the Beatle really loved, and regularly listened to. Harrison considered it an “excellent” rendition of his most successful song and wrote about it at length in his book, I Me Mine.

True, Brown takes some liberties with the lyrics, so it’s less about the search for undying love, and more about the beginnings of a spiritual journey that starts from within, before revealing its true face to the material world. Considering Harrison’s lifelong apotheosis, it was a reverent and respectful cover of a song Harrison gifted to the world.

‘Living In America’- 1985

It’s hard to say whether or not Brown was being earnest in this recording, or flippant, something the baffling musical sequence in Rocky IV did little to highlight. But there’s no denying that the production is a dizzying cocktail of fusion and fun, as Brown lets the bass guitars amp up and play. Fittingly, Brown ends the song with a rousing “I feel good”, tying this boisterous anthem back to the brass-heavy antics of the debut single. Indeed, it’s a rollicking work, and one that only grows more exciting with every listen.

Even for those of us living in Europe, the song makes its mark as both a jingoistic pop number par excellence and a rousing comedy number that sets out to make fun of the stipulations of nationalism as an authentic property, pummelling through the proceedings with one of Brown’s liveliest most spontaneous vocal deliveries. ‘Living In America’ is, by any definition of the word, a triumph.