[29 August 2007]
If you bought one of the 18 singles James Brown released between 1964 and 1965, you stood roughly an 83% chance of getting duped. With the exception of three major records scattered throughout those two years, “Out of Sight”, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, the seemingly fruitful inundation of new Brown singles was, in fact, a spate of deception and opportunism sparked by legal battles and label trouble. The long-term effect of those few groundbreaking songs is irrefutable, but the short-term glut of recycled and doctored material, vault salvages, and futile instrumentals make ‘64-‘65 an overwhelmingly awkward period in Brown’s otherwise superhuman ascension into R&B’s uncharted places.
Hip-O Select’s The Singles, Volume 3: 1964-1965 does a bang-up job (as usual) of documenting this period, but it also confirms the majority of its music as disposable. Brown spent those two years trying to wriggle out of his contract with King Records, the label he had been with since the late ‘50s, by refusing to record for them. Syd Nathan, King’s owner, retaliated by doctoring previously released songs and passing them off as new. For the first King single of the year, Nathan added canned audience reaction to the original 1956 studio version of “Please, Please, Please” and backed it with 1962’s “In the Wee Wee Hours (Of the Nite)”, also overdubbed with audience cheers. It was an attempt to cash in on the success of 1963’s Live at the Apollo, a low-budget trick that Nathan would rely on when dust-collecting pickings from King’s vault became slim. (Listen closely and you can actually hear the edits pop into the track before and after each wave of crowd noise.) Nathan’s most bizarre recycle job was the September 1964 release of “Think”/“Try Me”; the A-side was taken from Live at the Apollo and the B-side from the Prisoner of Love album, but both tracks were slowed down enough to bleed the distinctiveness from Brown’s vocals.
Brown, meanwhile, was recording sides for the Smash label with similarly lackluster results. For “Caldonia”, one of the few singles pulled from Showtime, an album of retro R&B bombast, he overdubbed audience reaction and looped the final 30 seconds containing banter between himself and a band member. Other Showtime songs (the organ instrumental “Evil”, the blues ballad “The Things That I Used to Do”, and the twisting original “Out of the Blues”) backtracked on the evolutionary steps Brown’s music had been making, and can hold no candle to July 1964’s “Out of Sight”, a swinging new adventure into the realm of the vamp. A top-ten R&B hit, “Out of Sight”, backed with the gospel burn of “Maybe the Last Time”, was the song that caused Nathan to finally sue Brown for violating his King contract. Smash was soon barred from releasing any records with Brown’s vocals, and so it continued to spotlight Brown’s lesser instrumental chops, with a handful of singles featuring him leading his band from the organ seat. “Devil’s Hideaway” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” go through the Booker T. and Jimmy Smith motions, while instrumental covers of hits like “Try Me” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” are just as superfluous as the flotsam that Nathan had been tossing from the embattled King craft.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, from June and October 1965, respectively, marked Brown’s full-time return to King and stand out as much-welcomed lights at the end of a murky two-year tunnel. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, in particular, set a new course for Brown’s funk innovations, predicting a greyhound-esque rhythmic modernization that would continue to develop into songs like “Cold Sweat” over the next few years. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” may be a more pop-oriented example, but taken within the context of The Singles, Volume 3, it resonates like a cloud-clearing epiphany of bony, efficient groovemaking: That declarative “Oww!” and the sudden snare drum hit that answers it, dropping like a weighted gavel and rolling out the red carpet for something audaciously new. It pushes aside the clutter and redundancies from the preceding year, those oddities of corporate necessity that Brown’s music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s would render obsolete.