[17 December 2008]
The cultural debt that America owes to James Brown is both enormous and obvious. Brown was soul music’s most conspicuous force in the 1960s, his stature as a musical and political figure outstripping even that of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, or Marvin Gaye (though Gaye came to rival him on both counts in the following decade). Brown’s famous work ethic, along with his sustained success, resulted in his becoming a chart-topping superstar, an icon of style, and an ambassador between the fractured mirror universes of black and white America, all at once. His music was both infectiously groovy and socially symbolic, a call to the dance floor and a call to arms. As the decade wore on, thousands of young black men (not to mention a goodly number of whites and Hispanics) in every corner of America banded together with the intention of playing in the nascent style of funk, using music as a weapon against marginalization and taking Brown as their primary influence. Few of these groups ever scored major record deals or charted Top 40 hits, and the plumbing of record label archives and regional radio playlists has become something of a cottage industry, as funk aficionados search for nuggets of gold amid the massive collective output of these bands.
The Fabulous Counts were one such group, luckier than most, who managed to parlay a regional hit into a multi-album career. After serving as a backing band for touring acts who came through their native Detroit, they won notice with their single “Jan Jan”, and struck a deal with Cotillion Records, who released the full-length Jan Jan in 1969. They scraped the pop charts with the single “Get Down People” in 1970, then changed their name to just the Counts and issued three more albums before splitting in 1976. Though all three of those albums were somewhat successful, the group has been largely forgotten, and it wasn’t until 2008 that their debut was finally reissued on CD and vinyl by Rhino subsidiary DBK Works.
Given the towering presence of Brown in this setting, it’s unsurprising that the group chose to lead off the eleven-track, entirely instrumental album with a cover of his 1966 smash “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Hewing closely to the simmering feel of the original, the song serves to foreshadow the rest of the album superbly; it leaves the listener craving for a fat slice of funky Detroit soul, and what The Fabulous Counts serve up is delicious. Nearly half of the disc is comprised of covers, including Sly Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song”, Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love”, Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut”, and their improbably good take on the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”. The album also contains several first-rate originals, such as “The Bite”, a sax-heavy blues with a short, crisp hook reminiscent of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”. Side B opener “Dirty Red”’s opening line sounds a little too much like “Sing a Simple Song” over again, but the track eventually settles into a tight swing that pays back any repetitiveness with interest. The album features a smattering of bongo, but not enough to overwhelm the overall ambiance, and the title track highlights the spare, tasteful playing of the group’s organist and primary songwriter, Mose Davis.
The reissue is carefully curated; the sound is preserved excellently, and the additional liner notes by longtime Allmusic editor Richie Unterberger offer up a wealth of previously unpublished information about the group’s early history. But given that the album is only thirty-one minutes long, was there any reason why a few bonus tracks couldn’t have been thrown in? One wishes that the “Get Down People” single, which isn’t on any of their full-lengths, could have been included at a minimum. Regardless, the disc is worth picking up as is; it’s a valuable addition to any soul or funk fan’s musical library, and an intriguing document detailing what people were dancing to while the world around them changed forever.