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Six defintive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to James Brown

James Brown was a musician without equal. Not only was he one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, but he was also a pioneering dancer, record producer and bandleader. The effect he had on music and culture can be seen in the honorific nicknames bestowed upon him, with ‘Godfather of Soul’ clearly delineating his stature within music.

His extravagant and prolific career lasted over fifty years and influenced the development of several music genres including funk, pop and modern R&B. Encapsulating his nature as the ‘Godfather of Soul’ and the indelible mark he made on music, Brown was one of the first ten inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

‘Mr Dynamite’ began his career as a gospel singer in Georgia, and by the mid-’50s, he had gained widespread public attention as the lead singer in the Famous Flames. The group, founded by the legendary singer and talent scout Bobby Byrd, had hits with ‘Please, Please, Please’ and ‘Try Me’. Parallel to these hit records, Brown had started to build a reputation as an outstanding performer. He worked tirelessly, and in addition to his work with the Famous Flames, he gained more attention through the work with his own backing band, often known as the James Brown Band or the James Brown Orchestra. His success peaked in the ‘60s with the live album Live at the Apollo and hits such as ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ and the timeless, ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’.

Starting in the late ‘60s, Brown moved from the spheres of blues and gospel to what has been regarded as a profoundly ‘Africanized’ style of music-making. This is where he would catapult himself into the great halls of music legends. This new compositional approach emphasised stripped-down interlocking rhythms in traditional African music and hailed the dawn of funk music. Come the early ‘70s, Brown had fully established the funk genre with the formation of his legendary backing group, the J.B.’s, a band with massive revolving doors, but at inception its ranks boasted iconic musicians such as Fred Wesley and Bootsy Collins himself. The J.B.’s carried on Brown’s hit parade with records such as ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ and ‘The Payback’.

In addition to his huge critical and commercial success and pioneering work, Brown also became noted for his songs that featured social commentary — including the mammoth, ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black, and I’m Proud’. Like many other titans of that bygone era, Brown’s life and career were marked by many ups, downs and controversies. However, he continued to perform and record until he died in 2006. 

‘Soul Brother No.1’ released seventeen singles that reached No.1 on the Billboard R&B charts, and even posthumously, he holds the record for the most singles charting on the Billboard Hot 100 that did not reach the top spot. A remarkable feat for a remarkable man. There is no wonder he is regarded as being one of the finest musicians of all time.

Join us then, as we list James Brown’s six definitive songs that we could not live without.

James Brown’s six best hits:

6. ‘Super Bad (Part 1 and Part 2)’ – 1970

One of the standout James Brown songs with the J.B.’s, this entry was originally released as a three-part single, with the complete version extending to nine minutes. It features longer, extended jams and a stream-of-consciousness performance. Due to its funky swagger, there is no surprise it topped the R&B singles chart.

The song’s refrain “I’ve got soul, and I’m super bad” is an example of linguistic reclamation, a technique that Brown had done before to great effect in ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black, and I’m Proud’.  Furthermore, it features that classic tenor sax solo by Robert McCollough, during which Brown yells, “Blow me some Trane, brother!” — referencing legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

The song has also shown its stature by permeating popular culture. Judd Apatow’s iconic coming of age romp Superbad takes its name from the tune, and the soundtrack features none other than the J.B.’s Bootsy Collins and Fred Wesley. Additionally, Brown’s shout “Watch me!” was sampled on the 1987 hit ‘Pump Up the Volume’ by MARRS. These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

5. ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’ – 1976

There is not much to say about this classic, apart from it came when Brown needed it. It emerged from a period where Brown’s stock had fallen. Amidst ill-thought-out political alignments in tandem with other factors, he had not scored a hit in over a year. In his 1986 autobiography, Godfather of Soul, Brown described the toll this anguish was taking on him: “I looked out at all those people sitting there, and because I was depressed, they looked depressed. I yelled, ‘Get up offa that thing and dance till you feel better!’ I probably meant until I felt better.”

Well, those words would become immortal. Consequently, his star would rise to heights he had not prior reached. Released twenty years after his debut single, it remains an energetic dance floor staple to this day. 

4. ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’ – 1968

A classic anti-racism anthem is the most well-known example of Brown’s role in the Black Power movement of the late ‘60s and shows the massive impact Mr Dynamite had on culture. The song is effective in conveying its simple message, as it features children performing the call-and-response chorus. The children came from Watts and Compton in L.A., two impoverished areas mainly settled by the Black community.

This was Brown’s first recording to feature trombonist and long-term collaborator Fred Wesley. Furthermore, the impact it had on young Black listeners was massive. A musical pioneer in his own right, Public Enemy’s Chuck D remarked: “‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ was a record that really convinced me to say I was black instead of a negro”, “back then black folks were called negroes, but James said you can say it loud: that being black is a great thing instead of something you have to apologise for.”

Spending six weeks at No.1 on the R&B chart, there can be no doubt of this entry’s place in Brown’s catalogue and its importance in wider society.

3. ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (Part 1)’ – 1965 

Brown’s first top ten single, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’, is recognised as the first departure from his early music towards what would become his signature sound — and is considered a landmark in funk. The horns are used to percussive effect, and Brown’s vocals are tied tightly to the rhythm. 

Constantly regarded as one of the best songs of all time, it earned Brown his first Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording. Additionally, Papa did not really buy a new Bag, “brand new Bag” means a new interest, which in this case is an old man dancing with the young folks at a nightclub.

2. ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ – 1965

Without a doubt, Brown’s best-known hit, no definitive list of the ‘Godfather of Soul’ would be complete without this titan. It was the biggest hit of his first breakthrough period. The first recorded version came in 1964 and appeared on his album Out of Sight, which also appeared in the 1965 Frankie Avalon comedy Ski Party in which Brown lip-syncs it. This version was intended to be released as a single after but was withdrawn as Brown had entered into a contract dispute with label King Records

Robin Williams’ 1987 classic Good Morning, Vietnam sparked a resurgence in popular interest in the song, and it has now been featured in numerous films and has been sampled on countless occasions. Furthermore, it has broken into the realm of sporting events. Whenever German outfit RB Leipzig score a home goal the tune is played. Additionally, Brown re-recorded the song again in 1975 for the album Sex Machine Today.

1. ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ – 1966

This ballad demonstrates Brown’s sentimental, romantic side. Although a major hit, this side to his personality is lesser known than his explosive, extravagant on-stage persona. It is hard to believe that it was almost not released because of a legal tug-of-war between King Records, Brown’s label at the time, and Mercury Records, who owned the rights to some of his early recordings.

Given the majesty of Brown’s performance, and the emotive instrumental backing the song was a hit. It peaked at No.1 on the R&B chart. Showing Brown’s trademark humour, the title was a play on the title of the 1963 comedy movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. While the meaning of the song is hotly contested, the facets of civilisation mentioned in the lyrics “mean nothing without a woman or a girl” to the funk maestro.

Furthermore, Christina Aguilera’s performance of the song in tribute to Brown at the 2007 Grammy’s is considered one of the best Grammy Awards performances of all time.

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