Monday, September 12, 2011

James Brown's in a Cold Sweat.

There's no doubt that James Brown can rightfully be called "The Man From FUNKle." Along with Maceo Parker, Bobby Byrd and Pee Wee Ellis, he pretty much invented in the '60s the music that everyone from Sly Stone to George Clinton would amplify and popularize throughout the '70s. It was essentially uptempo soul with jazz and Latin rhythms swirled in.

If you look back, you can hear the roots of funk in JBs work as far back as 1965 with "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag."  "Cold Sweat" dates from a couple of years later, in 1967, and like "Papa" and "I Got You" and "Ain't That A Groove" it was a monster hit. Brown was on a real roll during this time, churning out record after record, most of them instant winners. And with every new 45 he pushed the boundaries just a little further, getting a little more boisterous, a little more... well, funky. And "Cold Sweat" itself was a giant piece of fatback. It was easily the funkiest thing Brown had yet cut - it sounded like nothing else on the radio.

I picked this disc up on my last trip to Vegas, during this year's NAB. Record hunting is one of the things I most look forward to when I'm in Vegas; so many people cross through there that you can find virtually everything, musically speaking. This copy is in perfect mint condition, plus it's stereo, and a first-press, so it set me back a little, but it was worth it. Old JB albums don't just turn up, you understand, at least not on this side of the country. And when they do they usually have more scratches than a club full of DJs.

But this album's a fascinating dichotomy, because for all the funky groove and stop/start staccato of the title cut, the rest of the disc is amazingly laid back. "Nature Boy"? "Mona Lisa"? "I Loves You Porgy"? WTH? Yes, James loaded up the whole rest of the disc with covers of ballads and standards. The only thing I can figure is that Brown, still feeling his way with what he called "the New Breed thing", felt that "Cold Sweat" was sooooo badass that he'd better mellow out for the rest of the disc.. But don't think that just because those songs are downtempo or standards, they're not worth hearing. JB cries, squeals and smooves his way across these songs, adding a new dimension and texture to each one.

The other possibility is that James just wanted to use up some previously cut material. You see, he'd tried to jump his contract with King records by pre-emptively recording with Smash in 1965, and when the dust settled in '67, he was back with King (at least for a few more years) - but there were a ton of songs he'd cut before he tried to exit stage left. And some of these were them.

This album has been reissued a couple of times; first in the '80s by Polydor UK and available as an import; then as a Japanese CD with the mastering errors of this vinyl release (re-channeled stereo, reversed phase tracks) corrected. It's still amazing music, even 45 years later - it simply a shame that the record companies in Brown's own birthplace don't see fit to make it available.

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