A swing band performed at my wedding reception, partly because we hoped to inspire people to swing dance their way through the night, but also because I didn’t want some DJ spinning swill like “I Believe in Miracles” in heavy rotation. The band was composed mainly of older gentlemen, all with deft command of their instruments and a steadfast desire to perform the songs as written, no strings attached. That is, except for the tight-lipped bass player, a young guy who could have been the drummer’s grandson, decked out in hepcat black shades. He would break from the songs’ confines, dropping quick riffs up the fretboard like he was Paul Chambers. Eventually the band leader, a clarinetist, had enough of the boy taking liberties, and turning to him mid-song declared, with equal amounts disgust and irritation: “Bobby, please!”
No doubt some jazz aficionados felt like launching a similar chiding towards James Brown upon the 1970 release of Soul on Top, on which the Godfather of Soul tackled the big band format. The album was a true anomaly in Brown’s catalog (and remains so today), peaking at a distant 125 on the Billboard Pop charts at the time of its release (much lower than The Popcorn and Sex Machine, released around the same time). While Soul on Top may seem like an irreconcilable contradiction on paper — Soul Brother #1 helps a Count Basie-esque orchestra get funky — it’s actually surprisingly successful in execution.
Brown drafted saxophonist Oliver Nelson to conduct and drummer Louie Bellson to lead Soul on Top‘s 20-piece orchestra, the latter a seasoned musician who had spent time in the bands of legends Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington. (The one musician held over from Brown’s band is, of course, saxophonist Maceo Parker, the yin to Brown’s yang.) On the album’s original liner notes, Brown declared himself a “jazz man” at heart, which is obvious in the passionate performances he delivers. Who better to loosen up a big band, to make it really swing with soul, than the Godfather himself? The arrangements go with Brown’s flow, at times a little funky and red hot, often trying not to buckle under the insistent pressure of a voice that defies the laws of nature. Some of the songs are expanded at Brown’s insistent request, and the band is given the opportunity to jam alongside a passionate vocal improviser. (Indeed, this new Verve reissue of Soul on Top presents a few songs in previously unreleased, unedited versions; as those who have heard the extended takes of “Make it Funky” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” on Make it Funky: The Big Payback 1971-1975 can attest, the good stuff is hidden behind the radio edit fade-out.)
Brown approaches the album’s standards with a humbling restraint, nailing the smooth melodies of “That’s My Desire” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and crafting contemporary pop out of “The Man in the Glass”. He never allows the genre to suppress his untamed persona, and takes every opportunity available to inject trademark exclamations like “Hit me!” and “Can you feel it?” It’s these singular nuances that protect Soul on Top from potential schmaltz. Brown may love this kind of music, but that don’t mean he ain’t gonna cut it loose!
The band renders Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” unrecognizable by turning it into a big band funk number, complete with a groovy bass line. It’s the song that would seemingly be the top candidate for misguided failure, but Brown and the band make it work. Brown knows what Williams’ song is all about and can vocalize its pain and passion, whether with the help of a honky-tonk band or some jazz cats. Heck, Brown could play this song with the JBs and it would still translate as nothing short of sincere and inspired. Similarly, Brown lets it all hang out during a cracklin’ skillet rendition of Kurt Weill’s “September Song”, in which he pleads: “Put more glide in your stride / More gut in your strut”. One can only hope that Weill would say “Amen” to that.
Soul on Top‘s two show-stopping moments are — not surprisingly — re-recordings of Brown originals. “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” features an exhausting performance from Brown, who simply ravages his throat and gut by tearing through the song’s six minutes with a pent-up urgency. His ecstatic screams, yelps, cries, and howls (note: Soul on Top just may contain the most bloodcurdling stuck pig squeals of Brown’s career) are a tour-de-force of sexed-up improv smattered over the band’s two-chord vamp. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” employs the same groove as the original, but now sounds like Brown is sitting in with a righteous pep band. Brown summons a fiery whirlwind of primal yawps in such quick succession, they all step on each others’ toes: “Can’t stand myself — Uh! — Good God! — Heeeeey! — Hit me!” It’s invigorating to listen to a performer with such intense control of his voice. You’ve got to think that Louie Bellson’s band had the time of its life during the two days it took to record Soul on Top; who would want to work with anyone else after collaborating with such electric brilliance?
James Brown fans: you’re in for a real treat with Soul on Top. It’s been unavailable on compact disc since its original vinyl release, and the reissue sounds fantastic. Put it on the stereo, crank it up, and you’ll be grinning like Brown himself on the album’s cover: basking in an auditory afterglow, relaxing in cool blades of dewy grass, sweat-stained jacket removed to ensure a complete recovery from bringin’ it up and turnin’ it loose.