Title: Damn Right I Am Somebody
Artist: Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s
Label: Get On Down/Universal Special Markets/People Records
Format: LP with bonus “Flexi Disc” single
Release Date: February 5, 2016
The first half of the 1970s was a very productive time for James Brown and the musicians in his orbit. Damn Right I Am Somebody, produced by Brown under the moniker of Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s, was released in 1974 on the heels of Brown’s highly successful double-LP The Payback. Many of the same musicians are heard on both albums—some parts were recorded by the same J.B.’s who toured with Brown, and other parts with a band of crack NYC studio musicians.
Fred Wesley, trombone player extraordinaire, was Brown’s bandleader in that era. The J.B.’s were in constant personnel flux in the 1970s, particularly with saxman Maceo Parker and bassist Bootsy Collins moving between Brown’s orbit and the George Clinton/Parliament world. As was the case on previous and future J.B.’s albums, the emphasis here is funky instrumentals, and longer explorations of riffs and hooks, rather than tight, radio-singles-oriented vocal-centric songs typical of Brown’s name-brand output (although, on his LP releases, Brown and his band always included stretched-out versions that featured instrumental solos and pyrotechnics).
At the time of this album, James Brown was in his peak Godfather of Soul period, and used his voice in the popular culture to espouse black liberation and empowerment. The album title is a reference to the poem “I Am – Somebody,” written in the 1950s by Rev. William Holmes Borders, Sr., the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Wheat Street Baptist Church. In the 1970s, Rev. Jesse Jackson often quoted the poem in his public speeches, perhaps most famously at the 1972 Wattstax music festival. A loop of Jackson quoting the poem underlies part of “Same Beat – Part 1,” the first cut on side B of this funky vinyl slab. A studio-chatter riff of Brown calling on various band members and asking, “are you somebody?” followed by the response “damn right, I am somebody!” starts off side A and the title track.
Another “message” song is the last cut on side A, “I’m Payin’ Taxes, What Am I Buyin’.” Given that it’s tax-paying season, perhaps a listen to this tune on Youtube will salve some of the sting.
Another significant cut on the album is “Blow Your Head.” In an interview with the Red Bull Music Academy, Wesley told the story of how a Moog synthesizer ended up on the track:
“We used a New York studio band sometimes and that was recorded with the studio band. So James came in and he wanted to hear it. I thought he was gonna put his voice on it. He saw this Moog synthesizer, and he said [mimicking James’ voice], “What’s that?” So we said, “Oh that’s a Moog synthesizer, Mr. Brown. We’re thinkin’ about using it on some of the tunes.” He said, “How’s it sound?” “Well, we went through some sounds with it.” He said, “Turn it on! Put it on the track!” We said, “What? No, we were gon’-” “Turn it on! Put it on the track!”
So he put it on the track. [imitates sound of synth intro] I said, “Oh lord, I hope he don’t leave this on, it’s messin’ up my track!” [laughs] So he put it on THE WHOLE TRACK. And we could not believe it. We were like, it’s just an experiment, this will stay in the studio forever, no one will ever hear this. And what do you know, it got out on the album and the next thing you know it’s a hit all over the world.” (full interview here)
Hip-hop fans will probably recognize parts of “Blow Your Head.” It’s been widely sampled by artists such as Public Enemy, Digable Planets and De La Soul. Included with this LP reissue is a 7-by-7-inch “flexi-disc” of the “2000 undubbed version,” which doesn’t include the Moog synthesizer. It is fertile sampling fodder, aside from being a super-tight funk instrumental.
This album flows from song-to-song without breaks. As each tune fades out or stops on a beat, a loose studio jam, replete with Brown shrieks and screams, fades out, rides for a few dozen seconds, and fades out, with the next tune immediately starting. This technique was later used as a “concept album” method by Brown and other funk and soul artists. The “faded in and out jam” serves as a musical connector and bedrock. Here, it give the album a feeling of an endless groove/jam, to the last 33⅓ rotations.
Also worth mentioning about this vinyl reissue are the heavy cardboard jacket, faithful reproduction of original graphics, and the column of repeated text on the back which relays the album’s core message: “Think that you are somebody, and you’ll be somebody. Positive Thinking, Positive Thinking, Positive Thinking.”
To get a flavor of James Brown and the J.B.s in the early 70’s, check out their appearances on the Soul Train TV show circa 1974 (“Damn Right I Am Somebody” and interview) and September 14, 1974 (medley of “Cold Sweat,” “Payback,” “Damn Right I Am Somebody”). Also, see the excellent documentary, Soul Power.
Reviewed by Tom Fine