20. James Brown

James Brown was a singer, dancer and songwriter. He was a bandleader, and played piano, organ and drums. James grew up in the woods near Augusta, Georgia, and moved into Augusta at an early age to hustle and make his way. He quit school after seventh grade. For James it was always hustle time.


James Brown (1933-2006), vocals, songwriter, bandleader, piano, organ, drums

A Short List of James Brown’s Most Significant Contributors:

Bobby Byrd (1934-2007), vocals, keyboards, producer
Bobby Bennett (1938-2013), vocals

Fred Wesley (b. 1943), trombone
Maceo Parker (b. 1943), saxophone
Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis (b. 1941), saxophone, arranger

Bernard Odum (1932-2004), bass
William “Bootsy” Collins (b. 1951), bass
Fred Thomas, bass

Jimmy Nolen (1934-1983), guitar
Alphonso “Country” Kellum, guitar

John “Jabo” Starks (b. 1938), drums
Clyde Stubblefield (b. 1943), drums
Nat Kendrick, drums

The Short List

My short list of albums to own:

Live At The Apollo (1963)
Live At The Apollo II (1967)
Star Time (1991) (4-CD compilation)

The More I Listen To James Brown

Many times over the years I have said “the more I listen to James Brown’s music, the more I like it.” Although I heard a few James Brown songs on the radio beforehand, the first time I really listened was in 1976, when my friend Rich played me the second side of Live At The Apollo II. Muscular, athletic dance music, with chicken scratch guitars and thumping horn ensembles. James Brown sang with such confidence; even when he begged please, please, please for love, the agenda was to satisfy his unquenchable desire. Nicknamed “the hardest working man in show business” with good reason, James Brown rose from abject poverty and neglect to become a great American bandleader, though in his prime, his music and live performances were mostly enjoyed by non-white audiences. One of the most compelling and creative artists in this countdown, I recommend the Wikipedia entry and these magazine articles as a starting point to learn about this tireless force of nature.

“Being James Brown, by Jonathan Lethem, Rolling Stone Magazine, December, 2010

Downbeat Magazine, “James Brown’s Musicians Reflect On His Legacy”

With the exception of one or maybe two friends, I like James Brown music more than anyone I know. Was it because I loved basketball and was good at it, which moved me into an athletic, talented, and bi-racial circle of friends? While this may account for my fondness for soul music, it doesn’t explain the interest in James Brown, whose music covers decades of trends, is jazzier and often very intense. In my case, it’s more about being an introvert, the guy who sits at home and studies music, reads books and listens carefully for songs I make my own. It’s also about dance; I get that mostly from my mother. James Brown was an influential dancer who created good dance songs, both the swinging hot numbers and the slow grinders.

The ultimate criteria for the iPod collection is whether a song is enjoyed in iPod shuffle mode. From the doo-wop R&B songs of the fifties to the funk classics of the early seventies, there’s a wide variety of quality James Brown songs. Every important review guide or ranking puts James Brown among the all time greats. I agree, and have over sixty songs in my collection.

Though James Brown is a seminal influence on rap and hip-hop music, I have little interest in the music created by sampling his rhythms and grooves. Here are three links to lists of rap songs that sample James Brown music:

Article: Hip-Hop’s Top 25 Greatest James Brown Sampled Records

A.J. Woodson, 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs That Sampled James Brown

Kevin Nottingham: The 10 Most Sampled Songs in Hip-Hop

James Brown Song Notes:

1. James Brown is the first artist in the countdown to have zero star songs included as recommended songs. Four of these are connecting passages, ten to forty second snippets of music that connect together full songs on Live At The Apollo and Live At The Apollo II. I consider “Opening Fanfare”, the introduction to the star of the show on Live At The Apollo, iconic and worth two stars. These connecting pieces are essential to the pace and enjoyment of these concert albums, and are an enjoyable amusement during an iPod shuffle.

James Brown’s studio and concert performances are distinctly different. In concert, the songs are often played at a fast tempo, as Brown and his singing group, the Famous Flames, dance manically and go for maximum emotional impact. James Brown becomes one of the first artists in the countdown where the live performances add a significant component to the collection. Several of the top twenty artists (including some like Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams that seem out of place) are there because of the good live performances I’ve collected. Fortunately for James Brown fans, the best live performances are readily available.

The fifth zero star song, “Funky Drummer (Bonus Beat Reprise)”, is included as a widely used sample for hip hop music.

2. James Brown created great new beats, syncopated rhythms using drums, bass, guitar and horns together in inventive ways. He owes a lot to his great bands for helping him. Often, the lyrics he adds are based on a simple mantra — “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” and “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing” are good examples — upon which Brown augments the simple story of pride. At other times he comes up with a priceless, simple set of lyrics. The two quatrains in “I’ll Go Crazy” are ambiguous and special:

“If you leave me, I’ll go crazy,
If you leave me, I’ll go crazy,
‘Cause I love you, love you,
Oh, I love you too much.

You’ve got to live for yourself,
Yourself and nobody else,
You’ve got to live for yourself,
Yourself and nobody else.

— James Brown

The overt chauvinism of “It’s A Man’s World” may distract the sensitive (female) listener from hearing the beauty:

“How man needs a woman,
How man needs a woman.
The man who don’t have a woman. He’s lost!
In the wilderness.
The man who don’t have a woman. He’s lost!
In bitterness.
The man who don’t have a woman. He’s lost!
In loneliness.”

— James Brown

“King Heroin” is a meaningful poem about the dangers of drug addiction:

“My little white grains are nothin’ but waste,
Soft and deadly and bitter to taste.
I’m a world of power and all know it’s true,
Use me once and you’ll know it, too.
I can make a mere schoolboy forget his books,
I can make a world-famous beauty neglect her looks.
I can make a good man forsake his wife,
Send a greedy man to prison for the rest of his life.
I can make a man forsake his country and flag,
Make a girl sell her body for a five-dollar bag.
Some think my adventure’s a joy and a thrill,
But I’ll put a gun in your hand and make you kill.”

— James Brown

3. Every song in this collection can be found on the three suggested albums, plus the Christmas album titled James Brown’s Funky Christmas, except:

“Make It Funky, Part 2” can be found on The Singles, Vol. 7: 1970-1972
“Living In America” can be found on Living In America
“Like It Is, Like It Was” can be found on Messing The Blues
“Funky Drummer (Bonus Beat Reprise)” can be found on In The Jungle Groove (another highly acclaimed compilation)
“The Boss” can be found on Black Caesar

4. One of my favorite musicians, Van Morrison, has covered at least two James Brown songs in live performances. Mr. Morrison adopted many of James Brown’s approaches to live performance, though he is very shy by contrast. Both men demand perfection from their bands, and both men sing with great emotion.


James Brown is difficult to profile. It would be fair to suggest that many black and Hispanic baby boomers considered James Brown a hero, someone who made them feel proud. Many of those same people lost respect for Brown when he endured highly publicized drug and legal problems in middle age. Accounts of hard life on the road with James Brown’s orchestra surfaced, and the bandleader was cast as a tyrant and a miser. Some years these men and women would play 300+ nights a year, often multiple shows each day, trying to execute perfectly to avoid paying fines and incur Mr. Brown’s wrath. On off days, Brown would bring the band into the studio to record.

And yet, there is no doubt that artists like Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker benefited from their association with Brown. Lesser musicians enjoyed the luxury of a long time gig with a legendary performer. He was clearly a tyrant, but it’s a double edge sword.

Great music was made because a desperate young man let nothing stand in his way for attention and fame. A tornado of energy, bravado and emotion, it was James Brown’s desire for perfection that created this music, and the music is what I focus on.

James Brown Songs:

It’s A Man’s World, James Brown ★★★★
I’ll Go Crazy, James Brown ★★★★
I’ll Go Crazy (Live), James Brown ★★★★
I Got You, James Brown ★★★★
Night Train, James Brown ★★★★
Let Yourself Go (Live) James Brown ★★★★
That’s Life (Live), James Brown ★★★★
Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, James Brown ★★★★

I Don’t Mind (Live), James Brown ★★★
Bring It Up (Live), James Brown ★★★
Get On The Good Foot, James Brown ★★★
I Got You (I Feel Good), James Brown ★★★
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, James Brown ★★★
There Was A Time (Live), James Brown ★★★
It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, James Brown ★★★

Papa Don’t Take No Mess, James Brown ★★
Opening Fanfare (Live), James Brown ★★
Try Me (Live), James Brown ★★
Kansas City (Live), James Brown ★★
It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World/Lost Someone (Live), James Brown ★★
Cold Sweat (Live), James Brown ★★
Please, Please, Please, James Brown ★★
Try Me, James Brown ★★
Think, James Brown ★★
Think (Alt Mix), James Brown ★★
Devil’s Den, James Brown ★★
Out Of Sight, James Brown ★★
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag (Parts 1, 2 and 3), James Brown ★★
Bring It Up (Hipster’s Avenue), James Brown ★★
Let Yourself Go, James Brown ★★
Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose, James Brown ★★
Soul Power, James Brown ★★
Make It Funky, James Brown ★★
I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door I’ll Get It Myself), James Brown ★★
Doing It To Death, James Brown ★★

The Boss, James Brown
Go Power At Christmas Time, James Brown
Merry Christmas Baby, James Brown
Think (Live), James Brown
Night Train/Closing (Live), James Brown
I Feel Alright (Live), James Brown
Like It Is, Like It Was (The Blues, Continued), James Brown
The Payback, James Brown
Living In America, James Brown
Make It Funky, Pt. 2, James Brown
Bewildered, James Brown
Prisoner Of Love, James Brown
Grits, James Brown
Super Bad, James Brown
Hot Pants, James Brown
King Heroin, James Brown
There It Is, James Brown
Say It Loud, I”m Black And I’m Proud (Pt. 1), James Brown

Funky Drummer (Bonus Beat Reprise), James Brown
Instrumental Bridge, James Brown
Instrumental Bridge 2, James Brown
James Brown (Thanks) (Live), James Brown
Money Won’t Change You/Out of Sight (Live), James Brown

Related Songs:

I Know You Got Soul, Bobby Byrd

Think, The “5” Royales ★★★

Night Train, Jimmy Forrest ★★

Merry Christmas Baby, Charles Brown ★★★
Merry Christmas Baby, Chuck Berry ★★

I’ll Go Crazy (Live), Chris Isaak ★★★

Kansas City, Wilbert Harrison ★★★★
Kansas City, Albert King ★★★
Kansas City/Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!, Little Richard ★★
Kansas City (Alt), Little Richard ★★
Kansas City/Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!, The Beatles
Kansas City/Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! (Alt), The Beatles

That’s Life, Frank Sinatra ★★
That’s Life (Live), Van Morrison

My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It), En Vogue ★★

I’ll Take Care Of You/It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World (Live), Van Morrison ★★★

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