James Brown was always in the moment. His greatest records, from “Cold Sweat” to “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothin’,” were performances; that is, they were recorded as if he and the band were sweating through a live show. The affect left their grooves soaked-through with spontaneity.
Brown was not just the bandleader, the singer, and the focal point, he was a member of the band, his rough voice a rhythmic instrument, his body the lead sheet. Hand gestures shaped the arrangements. A head-nod emphasized a beat or a horn blast. Every few bars held an opportunity to be alive—what the Man called “deep in it.” All the while, tape was rolling.
Brown sets the band’s solos on course. “Maceo, I want you to blow” isn’t just a clever rhyme, but an instruction. Brown’s greatest hits are littered with them: “Give the drummer some,” “Tim, let me hear you walk a little bit,” “I’m gonna let Fred blow about two choruses then I’ll wave y’all in,” “Sharper now!”
A personal favorite is the direction given to guitarist, Phelps “Catfish” Collins, in the rare re-recorded version of “There Was a Time.” About halfway through, Brown, who had been spitting freeform rhymes, is dry. “Hey—hey—hey—hey,” he screams. No other words come until he shouts, “I can’t hold out much longer…I need some help. Phelps, help me!” A screaming guitar solo follows, one unlike anything heard on a James Brown record. Brown is inspired. “I’m gettin’ stronger,” he says three times. “That means I can do my thing…longer.” Brown scats a few more screams. Refreshed, he tells Phelps, in syncopation, “I got it, I don’t need no help.” Phelps lays back, picks up the rhythm guitar lines, and Brown continues his rhymes.
“Cold Sweat Pts. 1 & 2,” in which James Brown tells tenor saxophonist Maceo Parker, then drummer Clyde Stubblefield and bassist Bernard Odum, when and how he wants the groove.
Maceo! Come on now… Brother, put it—put it where it’s at now
Ahhhhh! Let ‘em have it
Put it on ‘em!
Uh! Oh! Blow your horn
Uh! Git it! Ah!
Hunh! Looky here
So much soul—unh!
Ha! Funky, funky Broadway, unh
Blow! Play it!
‘Scuse me while I do the boogaloo
Sometimes I clown—back up and do the James Brown
Let’s give the drummer some—wanna give the drummer some? Give the drummer some? Give the drummer some? Give the drummer some? Give the drummer some?! You got it, drummer!
Help him out, Bernard, go on and play with him
Huh! Looky here
Uhn! Funky as you wanna be! Unh!
Hah! Unh ah!
Git it—double up on it
Come on! Come on!
Ah! Unh! I think I’ll count it off right here
1—Unh! —2—Unh! —3—Unh! Ha heh! —4—whooah! Hit it!!
[return to the hook]