Few artists can claim to have so irrevocably influenced an entire musical movement as did the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown. With a career that spanned six decades, Brown completely reshaped the sound of funk and soul with a dynamic voice that blended the theatricality of gospel music with the desperation of the blues. Through a raucous and horn-inflected noise, he broke down stereotypes and forged a new timeline of musical innovation. His work possesses an overt rambunctiousness and fervor that often feel more like a sermon than any individual rhythmic dalliance.
From his earliest releases in the late ’50s to his seminal ’70s recordings, Brown molded the landscape of modern music-and his influence extends far beyond the genres within which he worked. Brown became an icon and a legend, both for his electric stage presence and for the strides he made in furthering the art of funk and soul. There is both an ecstatic joy to his work and a dark underbelly that provides a needed depth of emotion to his music. Regardless of where and how you first encountered Brown, there’s no doubt that moment will stay with you forever.
Brown was born in 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina, to Susie and Joseph Brown. The family lived for a time in the impoverished city of Elko, South Carolina, before moving to Augusta, Georgia, to live with one of his aunts. They settled into one of her brothels but moved into a separate house with another aunt. The family dynamic wasn’t especially pleasant for Brown, and his mother left for New York shortly thereafter. After this, he wound up spending a good deal of time on the street, hustling to earn extra money-although he managed to stay in school until he reached the sixth grade.
His performances began early with him singing in various talent shows as a kid. When he lived in Augusta, he would often perform buck dances for the soldiers stationed at Camp Gordon in order to earn a little change. He also learned how to play the piano, harmonica and guitar, and was inspired to pursue a music career after hearing a performance of “Caldonia” by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. However, he was convicted of robbery and sent to a juvenile detention center in Toccoa when he was 16. While there, he formed a gospel group with a handful of his fellow cellmates and was eventually paroled.
After his release, he took on a handful of different jobs, joined a gospel group and befriended musician Bobby Byrd, who would invite Brown to join his band, which went through a series of names before settling on The Famous Flames. The original lineup broke up after the name was changed to James Brown and the Famous Flames to capitalize on Brown’s larger-than-life personality. In the following years, Brown and his band would follow an elaborate funk trajectory and redefine our assumptions about the genre.
And with the release of his seminal 1973 record, “The Payback,” Brown altered his line of sight slightly, focusing on a more soul-induced sound that favored a bit more introspection than his previous work had evinced. This was the 40th studio release from Brown, and even after all those sessions, his ability to speak honestly and directly to his audience hadn’t wavered. Initially scheduled to be the soundtrack to the blaxploitation movie “Hell Up in Harlem,” it was rejected by the film’s producers because they thought it was just “the same old James Brown stuff.”
But over the years, “The Payback” has proven to be one of the great statements of Brown’s career, with its title track being the source of countless samples and homages. The trademark funk flair is still in evidence, but it is tinged with a seriousness, a solemnity that he hadn’t really explored before. Built around a repeated motif of soul jamming and some canyon-sized grooves, the record deals with a softer soul identity, one that is energized by a current of social commentary and overt emotional retribution. This isn’t exactly your “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” James Brown-it’s something a bit more measured and fluid.
Tracks such as “Doing the Best I Can” and “Forever Suffering” highlight the ever-changing perspectives found within this record. It’s composed of a comparable funk and soul noise that people had been hearing from Brown on past albums, but there is something slightly different, something more attuned to raw nerves and primal frustration. Brown touches on aspects of his own work, which reveals a deeper understanding of the world than most people might have assumed. The sharp burst of brass is muted to allow for a strong voice to climb from the darkness and express a series of universal truths to those within earshot.
“The Payback” is one of James Brown’s most revealing records and an important piece of his enduring musical legacy. It’s a dense and often-winding collection of songs that clouds as much as it exposes. By submerging himself completely in these rhythmic waters, he discovered the soul of funk within these emotionally charged narratives. Fueled by anger, desperation and love, “The Payback” is an album that embraces the motions of its numerous thematic layers and allows us to glean some great knowledge from its constantly evolving soul mechanisms.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.