In 2006, Universal Music Group’s limited-edition reissue wing, Hip-O Select, initiated a career retrospective of James Brown called The Singles. The simply titled series methodically collects the artist’s singles and divides them according to key periods onto two-CD volumes. Although the first two sets chronicled the soul singer’s initial burst of popularity in the late ’50s with “Please, Please, Please” and his entry onto the pop charts in the early ’60s on King Records, the third installment deserves special attention for outlining his mid-’60s transformation into a pop icon. Though most of the material on Volume 3 sounds relatively outdated or underwhelming, it belies the tremendous leap to come.
By 1964 Brown had grown tired of his contractual obligation to King Records and started a parallel recording career on his own label. This independent venture, distributed through Smash Records, initially brought little attention. His debut seven-inch was a strangely out-of-date tribute to his childhood hero, Louis Jordan, a cover of the classic “Caldonia.” However, after the breakout success of his proto-“Cold Sweat” jam “Out of Sight,” Brown earned both the self-regulated success he had long sought as well as the fury of King. A yearlong legal battle resulted, during which little new material made it to record.
For the next twelve months, King combed its archives to keep Brown product in constant circulation. As a result, past album cuts like the bluesy “The Things I Used to Do” and the jumping “Fine Old Foxy Self” found a second life as a single. Even some nuggets were uncovered, like previously unreleased live takes of “Think” and “Try Me” (although King inexplicably slowed the tapes down, thereby deadening the effect and making Brown sound more like baritone sideman Bobby Byrd). Unfortunately, none of these recordings vaguely resembled the whirlwind pre-funk James Brown performed live almost every night. To the credit of the mid-’60s audience, some of the material, like the syrupy “So Long,” should have remained in the past. However, collected here the vast majority is still effective as period rhythm ‘n’ blues.
What makes Volume 3 remarkable is that out of this purgatory came the first of the Godfather’s new new super-heavy funks. Stymied as a recording artist, Brown secured key appearances in the teen flick Ski Party(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_xBT_xavzM) and concert film T.A.M.I. Show(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l89xJPi2U_Q). These appearances finally allowed him to broadcast what he and his touring band had honed on the road over the last couple of years. They also set the stage for when litigation resolved in the middle of 1965 and Brown unleashed his signature songs, “I Got You” and “Papa’s Got a Brand-New Bag.” As Brown’s former road manager Alan Leeds details in the song-by-song liner notes, the two songs were unlikely hits at the time: “I Got You” retooled parts of two earlier Brown songs, and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was recorded in the sticks of North Carolina by a weary band that “wasn’t strong enough to make it faster.” Additionally, “I Got You” suffered a false start. It was widely disseminated through Ski Party and an appearance on a Dick Clark special, but litigious loose ends halted Smash’s single release in June 1965 (the song was ultimately re-recorded and released four months later as “I Got You (I Feel Good)” with the more familiar punchy rhythm). However, the two songs ultimately went straight to the top of the R&B charts and helped confirm Brown’s superstar status.
Although Volume 3 closes with another retread of Brown’s back catalog, “Lost Someone,” from his seminal Live at the Apollo, the compilation illustrates one of many winding paths Brown took to become the Godfather.