Monday, January 10, 2011

"Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965)

5. James Brown, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (Aug. 7, 1965, #8)

One more time around that twisty bend at the river: James Brown's most significant song not only heralded and completed his transition from accomplished rhythm and blues rave-up artist and professional entertainer nonpareil into the everlasting king and high priest practitioner of funk and the related arts, from which sprang mind-boggling swaths of worldwide popular music—Fela Kuti, George Clinton and the entire P-Funk army, Prince, Michael Jackson, King Sunny Ade, Dr. Dre, Chuck D, and Afrika Bambaataa are just a few who credit his huge influence—but it was also the moment that floored and flattened practically everyone who heard it. And listen, this was a career, with dozens of albums and no fewer than 44 top 40 hits. Me, I was a kid when this came along. What I remember is the respect in the voices of the disc jockeys when they talked about this song, and I don't think that was the payola talking. I didn't get it, but I listened, and over the years, and the decades, he's become an artist I still haven't grown all the way into. Is there a better example than this? "This is a hit!" and they're off, the entire band transformed at once into an overwhelmingly focused unit, tight, working it, irresistible. The horns flutter and pipe and go way down low and never stop moving; nor does that guitarist's wrist. I like the short, raw blast of the single version best—says here it was recorded in less than an hour on the way to a gig, and the master tape later speeded up to get it in the key they wanted. I like that. But there's nothing hurried or rushed about it, upbeat tempo notwithstanding, and across his catalog there are a good half dozen or more versions with their own unique features. I've been hearing this all my life, and I'm still hearing it.

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