By Kat Bein
By Shea Serrano
By S. Pajot
By Terrence McCoy
By Falyn Freyman
By Shea Serrano
By Jacob Katel
By Michael E. Miller
If Universal James finds the Godfather living on a fixed funk income, Soul Pride -- a two-CD set from Polygram's Chronicles reissue series -- reaches back into the Golden Age. Compiled by Harry Weinger (who oversaw the vital Star Time box set) and Alan Leeds, these three dozen vintage instrumentals, which span from 1960 to 1969, are a tour de force of showboat precision, a testament to James as juggernaut.
Brown's bands specialized in a particular kind of funk instrumental, nothing quite as bass-savvy as Sly & The Family Stone's "Sex Machine" or as protoplasmic as Miles Davis's Agharta-era band. With high-altitude horns and rhythm lines stretched tighter than a 6:00 a.m. hamstring, the music is caught halfway between Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers and Booker T & the MGs. Though they are rendered anonymous by the matinee pull of the most famous flame, the myriad players that made up the hardest-working band in show business are stars in their own right, Maceo Parker (tenor sax), Fred Wesley (trombone), Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis (alto sax), St. Clair Pickney (baritone sax), Richard "Kush" Griffith and Waymon Reed (trumpet), Bobby Byrd (organ), and Clyde Stubblefield (drums). And that's only the beginning. With this dream team of players, Brown himself could do what he loved, organ donation, serving Hammond from the shoulder, while his band smoked. Soul Pride plays like a set of snapshots from R&B history. There's Hubert Perry loading up his (Peter) Gunn to walk the bass line of "The Scratch." There's the brass nation deep knee bending for "Limbo Jimbo." There's Brown's noodling notes dueling with Pickney on the half-surf, half-sax "Cross Firing."
For all the majestic timing and exquisite musicianship marshalled here -- this band could stop on a dime, invest it, and compute compound interest before moving on -- the set has its peaks and valleys. Rather generic R&B fare, like "Can You Feel It" or "Soul Food" (with vocals by baritone saxophonist Al "Brisco" Clark) sandbags the impeccable execution, and some of the tracks A versions of Johnny Otis's "Every Beat of My Heart" and Brown's own "Try Me," with organ lines standing in for vocals A are merely leaden. Still, when the outfit cooks, it cooks gourmet, as on the sinuous snake-in-the-brass menace of 1963's "Choo-Choo (Locomotion)" and a trio of excellent Ted Wright compositions that range from the jaunty ("Evil") to the slow-burning ("Infatuation") to the breakneck ("Headache"). As the Wright stuff proves, the band's inconsistency is simply a matter of material; one Miami recording date in February 1966 yielded the visionary funk of "Jabo" (named after drummer John Starks) alongside two far more pedestrian efforts, "Fat Bag" and "Sumpin' Else."
While it's possible to argue that these instrumentals represent Brown's finest work, it's also possible to argue that Oswald acted alone. Honest fans will most likely want to place them in context, as period filler for the killer string of landmark hits Brown threaded through the decade.
The comparisons are illuminating: In 1960, when Brown was charting with the stark rave "Think," his band was moonlighting on the punchy "Hold It." "I Got You (I Feel Good)" heated up 1966 alongside "Jabo." And the shattering 1967 landmark "Cold Sweat" lines up with the dense, polyrhythmic "Gittin' A Little Hipper." As the Sixties shut down, Brown's sidemen were not only geting hipper, but getting funkier. And funkier and funkier. By the end of the decade, the word was spreading quickly -- George Clinton had revamped his New Jersey doo-wop quintet The Parliaments for Funkadelicism, Jimi Hendrix was collecting his Gypsies, and Sly Stone was getting familiar in the Bay Area. But James Brown still wore the signet ring, as Soul Pride proves again and again, with a searing 1968 concert performance of Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up" sizzling alongside such classics as "The Popcorn," "In the Middle, Pt. 1," "Soul Pride," and "Top of the Stack." Smart, snaky, and impossible to duplicate -- you try sync-stepping in a tuxedo -- these songs plant the seeds for Primus and Prince, Hammer and Liquid Hips, Mandrill and Steve Coleman, and just about everyone else.
Of course, this warm and fuzzy pluralism -- congrats all around -- doesn't mean there wasn't a frontman, or that that frontman wasn't the franchise, and the strongest tracks in this instrumental collection are those where JB makes his vocal presence felt. At first listen, these hardly seem like instrumentals at all: What about all that combustible screeching on the mid-decade concert staple "Devil's Den"? And what about the last two songs, "Make it Funky" and a rediscovered re-mix of "Funky Drummer" (complete with a time-keeping tambourine on the right side of the mix)? Well, maybe we journalists are especially suggestible, but in an instrumental context Brown's very voice starts to sound, well, instrumental. Using words as beat notches, Brown tosses phrases like a drill sergeant on the lam from the syntax police, "Bring on the juice," "Turn it over," "Turn it loose," and the ever-popular "Mashed potatoes if you want 'em." As any non-English speaking funkateer will tell you, James Brown is the universal language: he's the interpretive link between Elvis and Fela, running a circuit from rhythm to rhyme, and from rhyme to reason. He translates himself.