The passive fan of the Godfather probably imagines that a chronological retrospective of James Brown’s singles output would resemble a straight-line graph of funkiness. The distance between "Please, Please, Please" and "The Payback" traverses not just a sizeable chunk of rhythm and blues-to-R&B history, but also charts the increasingly syncopated palpitations of popular music’s beat.
Hip-O Select’s latest collection, The Singles, Vol. 4: 1966-1967, is similarly bookended by two widely different tracks — 1966’s majestic yet backward-glancing "It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World" and 1967’s career- and culture-defining "Cold Sweat" — that similarly support this premise. However, once again Hip-O Select’s comprehensive efforts uncover a trove of tangential material that illustrates how winding and nonlinear the road to funk was.
As The Singles, Vol. 3 demonstrated, Brown’s output was dictated as much by personal interests and creative innovation as it was by contractual disputes and business savvy. In 1965, "Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" — products of Brown and his road-weary band’s fevered creativity — effectively allowed Brown to leap from the "underground" of the chit’lin circuit to the mainstream. But he was hardly a household name yet. This changed with the success of "It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World," another retread of a song recorded nearly two years earlier (and also sans two "Man’s").
Though the performance and recording were strong, the song covered familiar and, frankly, comfortable territory, so his subsequent invitation to The Ed Sullivan Show was no surprise. While video footage of this performance would have been an ideal inclusion (considering how important television became in the dissemination of music), Alan Leeds’s descriptive liner notes summarize the significance of this performance: "Afterwards, a gleaming JB was called over by Sullivan to shake hands; years later, on video, you can see Sullivan mouthing the words, ‘Jimmy… you’re a star.’"
Though Brown’s disputes with King Records faded in late 1966 when his old contract expired and he re-negotiated for a more favorable one, his output remained kaleidoscopic and oftentimes bizarre. In keeping with the times, he recorded the elementary "Don’t Be a Drop Out," which sang the merits of staying in school. Though lines like "Without an education, you might as well be dead" pale in comparison to "We’d rather die on our feet than be living on our knees," Brown cleverly used the song to garner the support of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and even donated some royalties from the song to a "James Brown Scholarship Fund" to support black disc jockeys.
He also took a page from countless crooners before him and recorded a Christmas album of both standards (two versions of "The Christmas Song") and originals (the Rayettes-reminiscent "Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something"). And after an extended stint of gigs at the grown & sexy-leaning Latin Casino, he followed up the groovy "Bring it Up" with the bluesy "Kansas City." Though the results are decidedly mixed, they reflect a constantly calculating mind searching for another smash hit.
Appropriately, both 1967 and this compilation close with the return of James’s touring band to the studio (the majority of his records include studio musicians) and the next phase in the development of the New New Super Heavy Funk: "Cold Sweat." Unlike his heavily radio/format-conscious output, this nearly six-minute groove instead stretched and stacked verses and performance like a Coltrane solo to build tension. As Leeds recalls in the liners, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler described the song as "freak[-ing] out the musicians [he] knew."
Again, live audiences were the first lucky recipients of this gospel as Brown and his ensemble debuted this funk at the Apollo a week prior to the single’s release, but the recording alone stands in stark contrast from everything else on this compilation — and, more important, in pop music at the time. Alongside the similarly multipart single "Get It Together," The Singles Vol. 4 ends on such a deliriously high note that it comes remarkably close to capturing the delirious anticipation music fans must have felt in late 1967 as the beat of popular music stood on the verge of getting it on.
James Brown – "Cold Sweat" (live, 1968?)