Listening to James Brown sing disco songs is an odd experience, sort of like watching a giant grizzly bear walk around in a tuxedo. The grizzly wears the tux well, but you can’t help noticing he seems a little hamstrung, like he’d rather burst free and start doing grizzly bear things – like catch some salmon or maul documentarians. Now, add to this mental image the knowledge that our hypothetical grizzly bear actually invented the tuxedo, or at least the materials and processes that led to its creation, and is shackled by the very ideas he set in motion 15 years earlier! If James Brown’s 1979 album The Original Disco Man wasn’t exactly Greek tragedy, that’s only because Brown sang it with the same immediacy and humour he gave his funk classics. And anyway, disco wasn’t the end of his story.
As you’ve probably gathered, it’s hard to capture the James Brown Life Force in a metaphor, though producer Brad Shapiro certainly tried. Probably best known in ‘79 for his work with soul singer and monologist Millie Jackson, Shapiro produced and arranged two James Brown albums – Disco and 1980’s People – at the request of Brown’s label Polydor. On The Singles Volume 11: 1979-1981, you hear Shapiro trying to stuff Brown into various tuxedos, all of which should, theoretically, fit like custom tailor jobs. The Disco Tex-flavoured “Original Disco Man”, Southern soul “Women Are Something Else”, and countrypolitan “Regrets” all sound just fine for what they are: metaphorical James Brown singles. They exist to make points. The word funky couldn’t exist without Brown, and the soul and country numbers are suited to his musical roots. But as well as Brown sings these songs, and as tightly as Shapiro arranges them, they’re not James Brown music. In his cheerfully ambivalent liner notes, Alan Leeds succinctly explains the Shapiro period using Brown’s own words: “The current music climate demanded a watering down and I figured Brad was suitable to fill that role.”
This two-disc collection isn’t completely watered down; far from it. There’s some jaw-dropping stuff on disc two, featuring a raft of 12-inch singles, although that term shouldn’t conjure any hopes of creatively remixed epics. In most cases, these 12-inches were simply album cuts re-released as one-sided promotional discs for DJs. “If You Don’t Give a Doggone About It” was actually shorter on its 12-inch than on its parent album. Even truncated, it’s a great jam – an assured meditation on the importance of keeping engaged, both in life and with your clavinet player. (That’s J.B.’s stalwart Charles Sherrell.) The highlight of the entire collection is the not-at-all-sexist 11-minute “For Goodness Sakes, Look at Those Cakes”, in which Brown outs himself – along with his bandmates, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder – as a cake man. Percussion, bass, guitar, and electric piano lock into a polyrhythmic formation that constantly shifts and reinvents itself, even as it lays out a bedrock for Brown’s drooling stream of cake-consciousness, like he’s some deranged Food Network personality.
The 12-inch disc also boasts the stinging “Eyesight” (Charles Sherrell on electric piano!), the roaring “Get Up Offa That Thing/Release the Pressure” (Charles Sherrell on bass!), and the percussion workout “The Spank” (Charles Sherrell on vocals!). “Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses)” is here in both its 45 rpm and 12-inch lengths; it notably features drummer Moses Turner playing the phone book. These are the James Brown songs you pay to hear. And while there are few more worthwhile pursuits than tracking down Brown’s late ‘70s albums and singles, you can’t complain about having these particular songs together in one package.
The Shapiro-produced stuff is educational, at least. Much has been written about the revolution that was James Brown’s funk. “The rhythmic elements became the song,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Robert Palmer, while, writing for the Village Voice, Frank Kogan called Brown’s music “an indigestible problem for modern R&B and hip-hop.” This is evident when you compare the two versions of “It’s Too Funky in Here” Brown released as singles. Shapiro wrote and arranged the original for the Disco album, and his version is all Chic opulence, with keyboard washes and a thick come-on of a bassline. A year later, Brown released a live version of the song, cut with his own band playing his own arrangement. The difference is revealing. Brown’s version has more people in the band, but it’s quick and urgent, with pockets of space around all those interlocking staccato rhythm patterns. Shapiro’s tune is still there, but it’s less of a focus than the pointillistic textures, which approach the musical ideal Brown once proposed in Rolling Stone: “Hard. Flat. Flat.”
Even if it’s not the James Brown comp to buy first, or fifth, Volume 11 has plenty to recommend it. Primarily, it’s got James Brown. If you pretend you don’t know who’s singing the Shapiro tunes, that they’re appearing before you in the context of, say, a mysterious late-night Southern soul radio show, they sound pretty good. But you can’t proceed very far with that particular thought experiment before you realize this singer couldn’t be anyone else in the world – the guy who arguably produced the most remarkable body of work in 20th century pop music.