May 3 of this year marks what would be the Godfather of Soul, James Brown’s 83rd birthday. Of course Mr. Brown is a big hero of this blog and my musical activities and outlook in general. This year I want to take a different approach to remembering him and his music. I want to talk about a small idiosyncrasy of his legendary performing style, his love of spoken introductions. James Brown records were all about getting you into the groove as quickly as possible, and his recording style reflected his unique position as singer/bandleader. It really was Brown’s interest in, feel for, and direction of his backing music which took him places very few singer/performers ever go, into the realm of total musical influence, without spending much time on an instrument. He also pioneered a loose, laid back production style that would find life in things like Hip Hop skits. James Brown productions often feature a little “rap”, hip, stylized expressions. Browns penchant for band directions however, was a big part of his performing, band leading, and recording/production style, and it’s also a feature that’s been mocked by great comedians such as Eddie Murphy. It’s in that spirit that I serve up this list of James Brown’s greatest song introductions
17. “Hit It”/”Doin it to Death”: getting straight down to business, JB’s “Hit It” on the Fred Wesley and the JB’s 1973 classic “Doin it to Death” is one of his most straight up, immediate intro’s. The groove the JB’s had cookin was hot, and JB didn’t need to waste a lot of time setting the groove up, the band was already “Doin it to death”, just like the workers in the factory where Fred Wesley once worked that inspired the song title.
16. “Owwwwww”/Ain’t That a Groove”: the scream of ecstasy, passion and pain, “ow!” Is of course one of JB’s favorite exclamations and he opened a bunch if songs with it. This particular “Ow” is super stylized though, as befitting the groovy, swinging soul jazz tune to follow.
15. “Pick up on This!”/”I’m a Greedy Man”: JB means serious business here as he barks out his commands. This is a “pay attention to papa” type opener. Salt n Pepa would pick up on it for their Hip Hop classic, “Push It” about fifteen years later.
14. “One, Two, Three, Make it Funky!”/”Make it Funky”: This one follows one of James Brown and Bobby Byrds most celebrated intro bits, with Mr. Byrd telling Brown, “What you go’ play now? And Brown replying, “Bobby, I don’t know, but WHATSENEVER I play….it’s got…to be…FUNKY!” JB’s count off perfectly sets up the slow, heavy, grinding funk with a light swing of this early Funk classic.
13. “Owwwwww!”/I Got Ants in my Pants”: Another song, another “Ow”, but this time delivered with more in your face gusto.
12. “One, Two, Three, Take your Time!”/”I Refuse to Lose”: As most JB fans are probably aware, most of his song openers are verbal variations of him counting off the groove. What’s interesting is thinking about the relationship between his count offs, the excessive, strict, blue collar rehearsals he put his bands through, and the relationship between his count offs and the grooves the band are able to fall into and stick to with absolute conviction. “I Refuse to Lose” is a lesser known Funk classic from 1976’s comeback record “Get Up Offa That Thing.” The song is anchored by a tense, super funky Jimmy Nolen guitar part. James count off is brisk, and perfectly sets up the uptempo groove to follow. I’d guess his instructions to “Take your time” were based in any tendency he noticed during rehearsals to rush the groove and make an uptempo groove even faster, again, James Brown music locks it in the pocket!
11. “One, Two, One, Two, Three”/”Let Yourself Go”: “Let Yourself Go” was one of the important songs as James Brown made his transition over from a personal brand of Soul and R&B into Funk. It’s laid back, phat groove, accented with Afro-Latin percussion, would pave the way for his show stopping, “There was a Time.” JB’s count off really fits right with what was,a new kind of groove, slow and funky.
10. “One, Two, And she Go!!!!”/”Funky Drummer”: “Funky Drummer” is one of those tunes that’s all about the band, basically an instrumental with some funky talk from JB that would allow it to sneak on the radio under JB’s name. Of course it’s also a showcase for one of the most influential drumbeats of all time, the contributions of Clyde Stubblefield the tune is named after. Brown’s count off is directed at setting up an easy, swinging groove, much more laid back than the other funk hits of this era, such as “I Got the Feeling”, or “Mother Popcorn.” I must admit though, I’m not 100% sure he actually said “and she go” as that opening phrase, but Ima roll with that until something better comes along.
9.”One, Two, Three, Hit It!”/”Super Bad”: this is one JB’s most violent, aggressive count offs, for one his most tension filled, funkiest hits. “Super Bad” is one of the high points of Bootsy And Catfish Collins brief time in the James Brown band. The rhythm section is basically just a taut trio of Bootsy, his brother Catfish, and long time James Brown drummer John “Jab’O” Starks playing a drumbeat he says he got from beats for tap dancers. The beat is also accented by the percussion of long time JB percussionist Johnny Griggs, and the horns play sharp, stabbing literal jabs. The track is like Muhammed Ali, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.
8.”Ready!?”/”Get on Up, Get Into it! Get Involved” & “The Funky Side of Town”: every now and then JB would ask the band if they were “ready” probably after 8 hours of rehearsals, checking to see if they still had a pulse. In this case, the “Ready” in “Get Up” has political resonance, and the “Ready” in “Funky Side of Town” is a call to have a funky good time.
7.”Whoooooah!”/”I Feel Good”: Of all JB’s wordless vocalizing intros, the holler that inaugurated “I Feel Good” is tops in my book. Of course “I Feel Good” is one of his best known, best songs, a catchy, peppy number with a groove formulated during the James Brown bands transition into Funk, grooving but still related enough to the pop music scene as to be twist fodder for the public at large. And the hook is one of JB’s uncomplicated best. But it’s all kicked off by a legendary scream that became good material for samplers of the future.
6. “One, Two, Get Down!”/”The Boss”: “The Boss” is one of the iciest funk grooves in the James Brown songbook, concocted for the 1973 gangster movie “Black Caesar.” The proper aggressive tone is set right at the top by J.B’s count off, with the “Get Down” taking on all kind of meanings; band instruction, cheerleading, and warning!
5. “Fellas I wanna get into it man, you know…”/”Sex Machine”: “Sex Machine” is one of J.B’s most important records a taut, sexy new funk groove for the dawn of the 1970s, anchored by the active bass imagination of Bootsy Collins, his brother Catfish’s space saving rhythm licks, and Jab’O’s cool, ice water veined funk pulse. Call and response between J.B and his right hand man, the great Bobby Byrd, is at an all time high on this song, and the interplay between their voices would be a key aspect of their records during this period. But J.B starts the song with a cool, hanging out type intro, leading to his famous, “can I count it off!?!?!”
James Brown on drums with an early version of The Famous Flames
4. “One, Two, One, Two, Three, UH!”/”Hot Pants”: Brown counts off a nasty tempo, punctuated by one of his famous band punches. The intro is a setting for “Hot Pants” slow, funky, ice cream melting in the summer time groove, anchored by the simple, ghetto bass throb of Fred Thomas and the insistent, chattering, lisping splank a lang of guitarist Hearlon “Cheese” Martin. This era of J.B might represent his and Fred Wesley’s greatest achievements as bandleader/arrangers, taking a band that was essentially raw, and making some of the best known hits of J.B’s career, going in a less dense direction than the Collins brothers/Cincinnati and they replaced. And it all starts with JB’s mellow but funky count off.
3. “One, Two, One, Two, Three, Four”/”Cold Sweat”: and off into history. “Cold Sweat”, after hundreds of years of African in America funkiness, is widely regard as the beginning of modern funk history, with it’s pistoning funk machine drumbeat from Clyde Stubblefield, Bernard Odums super deep bass tone playing an Afro-Latin line, a super funky two guitar arrangement, one guitar playing a funky single note line and the other scratching away in percussive strokes, a unique tonality from the key of Dorian, popularized on Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, and another thing borrowed from “Kind of Blue”, the actual famous horn riff/chord to “So What”, played by the horn section as interjection/response to J.B’s lyrics. And it all starts with the sultry tempo set at the top by Brown.
2. “Que Pasa People, Que Pasa, Hit Me!”/”Get on the Good Foot”: J.B opened up 1972’s peppy dance hit with a bit of Trans American slang, Proto-rapped in a chant cadence that perfectly took up one bar. This is one of James Brown Ebonics most controversial lines, with some people hearing it as “Can’t pass the peas.” But I go with “Que Pasa”, if you listen to the song all the way, Brown goes into some Spanish later on the fade out. James Brown toured the world many times over, and in the early ’70s he was particular interested in third world liberation. He has a song on the same album called, “The Whole World Needs Liberation.” He also opened up a club called “The Third World” in Georgia during this time period. James was fascinated at this time by the international impact he and other black figures like Muhammed Ali were having, it was almost as if through the struggle for rights here in the U.S, black figures were joining the global pantheon of Liberators, as maybe the best examples of them, in the belly of the biggest superpower the world had yet seen. If u check J.B’s stage performances you’ll find him speaking a few words of the language of whatever nation he happened to be Doin his thang in!
1. “UH! With your BAD self!”/”Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”: The top JB introduction is this funky soul brother street slang that led off the 1968 anthem. James opening “Uh” sets the stage for a funky drum beat, the count off is rock hard, with him using the black slang “Bad” as a term of encouragement and praise. The beat to follow is be rock hard, and James Brown’s legacy was cemented as musical and social icon of his time!
*we all know the late great Prince Rogers Nelson was one of the biggest students, inheritors, and expanders of the James Brown legacy, and his musical associate Sheila E was responsible for one of the freshest James Brown count offs in history on her Prince penned and played classic “Love Bizarre”, “A, B, A, B, C, D!”