January 8th, 2007
The legendary artist James Brown hardly needs an introduction. Although he is widely remembered as the Godfather of Soul, Brown came into the musical world through gospel, then ventured into rhythm and blues. Born in rural South Carolina in 1933, he was known to sing R&B songs on his friend’s stoop. Later, inspired by Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, the Dominoes and the Clovers, Brown gathered together Bobby Byrd, Sylvester Keels, Nash Knox, and Johnny Terry to form the singing group known as the Flames. In time, Brown emerged as their lead singer and brought the group its initial successes.
James Brown: The Federal Years 1956-1960 examines the very beginning of Brown’s multi-decade career. This limited edition two-CD set by Hip-O Select is a compilation of 38 of his singles released on the Federal label (a subsidiary of Cincinnati’s King Records) over a four-year period. Musically, Brown’s rhythm and blues style on CD 1 borders on formulaic for the majority of the tracks. He begins with a brief, melismatic solo line (for example, “I walked alone”), which is followed shortly thereafter by a similar textual response from the backup singers (singing the word “alone”), using a call-response structure. The musical accompaniment is typically a piano line with the popular ‘50s shuffle beat, along with saxes, horns, guitar and a walking bass line.
Producer Pat Lawrence has added to the historical value of the set by including alternate takes of various songs. For example, CD 1 features the original self-financed 78 rpm demo version of “Try Me” (recorded in the summer of 1958), the song that launched Brown’s career as a hit singer-songwriter. This track is unaltered, with a fair amount of surface noise resulting from the low quality of the recording and groove wear. The version as originally released in October of 1958 (with Kenny Burrell on guitar) appears in CD 2, which also contains “I’ve Got To Change” and “It Hurts to Tell You,” in both mono and stereo versions. Most of Brown’s early sessions were recorded in mono, but the advent of stereo technology in 1959 prompted King Records owner Syd Nathan to utilize the new technology as a way to sell more records. Though there is not a very marked difference between the two versions (sax, drums, and piano were overdubbed to create the second track for the stereo release), it is interesting to hear these distinctions.
Overall, the compilation is very informative, especially the extensively researched liner notes by musicologist Alan Leeds, who was also Brown’s tour director for four years. Brown’s aesthetic ideal is quite different from the music of his later years, and this compilation provides listeners with a chance to hear his early rhythm and blues style, before he became the ‘Godfather of Soul.’
Posted by Stephanie Fida
Editor’s note: For a really fascinating history of James Brown and his career at King, check out Uncle Dave Lewis’s article, I’ll Open the Door and Get It Myself: James Brown, King Records, and the Funk Revolution, on www.allmusic.com.
Review Genre(s): Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk