Saturday, January 27, 2007

Disco Delivery #33:
James Brown - The Original Disco Man (1979, Polydor)

As promised in Part One, here is "Original Disco Man, Part Two." I've been itching to get this album posted for a little while now. After two posts on James Brown at around the beginning of this year/end of last, I thought three in a row would have been a bit much, especially considering the whole media frenzy surrounding him at the time. Although it still lingers somewhat, that frenzy seems to have died down considerably, so I figured this was as good a time as any..

Given how of some of his mid-late 1970's efforts were received, putting 'James Brown' and 'disco' in a sentence together probably won't elicit too many positive adjectives from music critics or many of James' fans. There is an interesting quote in his 2003 Autobiography "I Feel Good" (page 179) about disco: "There was a new sound in the air, and it was just about the opposite of everything I had come to stand for in music. It was called disco." Now, he doesn't really specify exactly how it was the opposite of everything he stood for, but nevertheless disco seemed to mark the beginning of the end of that golden era where James Brown seemed to be right at the forefront of things. While I suppose he never ceased to be relevant in the way that someone as groundbreaking like him was, disco seemed to mark the end of that period of particularly vital cultural relevance where someone like James Brown commanded the full attention (eyes, ears and minds) of the public. Essentially, after being at the forefront for years, disco seemed to have him struggling to keep up.

Listen on Spotify:
James Brown - It's Too Funky In Here
James Brown - Star Generation
James Brown - The Original Disco Man

Given the uneasy place that disco has within James Brown's legacy, I suppose it's easy to understand why he might have had mixed feelings about it. While he said that it was the "opposite of everything I had come to stand for..," more recently, he had no bones of acknowledging his place in it, saying in a 2003 interview that "Disco is James Brown, hip-hop is James hear all the rappers, 90% of their music is me.." as well as acknowledging in his book (page 180) that "Sex Machine" was arguably one of the first disco songs. In his book (page 180), he also summed up his situation this way: "Because disco was taking over, Polydor tried to get me to record something in that style with the hopes we might capture a share of the market... Although I wasn't particularly into the sound, the truth was that I had recorded every one of those rhythms in my own music, without the disco label attached.." Judging from that quote and his records at the time, it seems like he felt would still be able to make his mark in disco by sticking to his guns as much and for as long as possible, making only minor adaptations in his sound. Despite the occasional reference to disco in the grooves and on the covers of his records, it wasn't until 1979, and his "Original Disco Man" (1979, Polydor) LP where he would make a full-on disco album, according to his record label's wishes.

Judging from the album, by 1979, things must have been in pretty desperate shape for him. Not only did he give in to his label's demands, but instead of running the show himself so to speak, as he had usually done, the production duties were completely turned over to Brad Shapiro along with a team outside writers. I believe this may have been the very first time James Brown has reliquished this much control on one of his own albums. Somehow, Mr. Brown himself doesn't seem to have a single writing or production credit on the entire album. Not to discredit Shapiro's excellent production on the record, but I wonder why the heads at Polydor or perhaps Brown himself chose Shapiro as the man to bring James Brown to the disco, since as Robert Christgau's review says, Shapiro was "no disco man himself." Shapiro is perhaps best associated with the signature country-soul sound of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, much more so than disco. Some of the artists Shapiro has produced include the likes of Millie Jackson as well as Joe Simon, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Moore and Betty (AKA Bettye) LaVette among others. Out of all those though, I'm only familiar with his work on Millie Jackson's albums, and as much as I love his work with the fabulous Millie J., I don't think he was particularly well known for ushering his artists to the dancefloor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his diminished input and the widespread disrepute of anything "disco," Brown would later completely disown this album and it's Shapiro-produced follow-up, "People" (1980, Polydor) as some of the worst material he's ever recorded. Personally speaking, I definitely wouldn't go that far. In fact, I'd say as far as his disco-era efforts go, some of the tracks on this album are among his best from the time. Surprisingly, some of the critics don't completely write the album off either. Now, I'm only going by the two that I've come across so far, but for one thing, Robert Christgau gives the LP a generous A- rating, while Jason Elias at the All Music Guide gives an especially positive review, complete with a generous four-star rating. Not too shabby for the Godfather of Soul's disowned disco effort.

Perhaps one of the reasons why some of the album's straight-ahead disco efforts are so satisfying is that while Shapiro's production considerably changes and adapts Brown's well-honed signature sound to the times, it still retains a great deal of reference to it. Particularly in those meaty rhythm and horn arrangements, not to mention the notable absence of a string section, as a result, the sound still retains a signature James Brown edge to the whole thing. Additionally, the production leaves enough room for Brown to do his thing, vocally, instead of overpowering him and relegating him to the sidelines. It at least gives the impression that, whatever he may have said later on, he seemed to have at least enjoyed the sessions. At the very least, he infused the proceedings with enough of his personality that he managed to keep things enjoyable and engaging, whatever the circumstances may have been. In other words, while he may not have been in full control behind the scenes, in this case, it was still James Brown, not Shapiro's production that was the star of the show. In my estimation, it seemed Shapiro's role was in taking key elements of the James Brown sound and simply translating them into disco, if you will; incorporating (as opposed to erasing) them within his own sparkling clean, ordered, classy production style.

"It's Too Funky In Here" was the first single off the LP, which reached a respectable #15 on Billboard R&B, but seemed to stall at #65 on the Billboard Disco Charts. Despite that, overall, it's perhaps the most satisfying James Brown disco track, with that meaty bassline (which sounds very similar to the bassline on Mary Wilson's "Red Hot," believe it or not), those blaring horns right up front and that excellent guitar work, particularly in that break two-thirds of the way in. Those horn arrangements in particular infuse a good deal of the classic James Brown while, for the first time it seems, that bass drum reins in Brown's sound with a steady disco beat. It certainly wasn't the lack of tight kickin' basslines, nor lack of strings or anything else that kept his earlier disco-styled records on the sidelines. It was, however that steady and prominent four-on-the floor beat, which is present on "..Too Funky In Here," but was probably the key element missing in many of his previous "disco" productions. It was that anchor, that steadiness, or rather, the lack thereof, that probably kept most of Brown's self-branded "disco" work, as enjoyable as some of it was, from really gaining a foothold in the disco scene.

Even though "..Too Funky In Here" was the lead single, "Star Generation," is probably the most out there, unabashedly slick, show-bizzy disco track on the album. Taking the tempo up a little, there's no mistake about it with the beat and bass out front, right out of the box. Just to bring the point home, there's that "star of the disco" lyric and those synths, especially in that electronic Gino Soccio/Giorgio Moroder-esque breakdown, with more "disco laser" sound effects than you can shake a stick at. It's precisely the sort of thing that would make a hard-core funkster/rockist shake their head and cringe. And really, they probably overdid it a little with those sound effects, but that infectious, albeit jarring breakdown is for me, one of the major highlights of this track. Seemingly out of nowhere, The Godfather of Soul was thrown into electro-disco territory, for at least a couple of minutes or so, for what is probably the first time. It's enjoyable in a gimmicky, over-the-top sort of way, but hell, I can't deny it, myself..

The album closer, and the 'cherry on top' so to speak, is the title track "The Original Disco Man," with sole writing credits to Brad Shapiro himself. His lyrics really seem to sum things up, with the back up ladies, right from the beginning, lavishing Shapiro's lyrical praise all over the man himself: "He's the original disco man.. with the original disco band... he's the original disco man.. his groove is.. where it all began.." Which is followed up by Mr. Brown reminding everyone: "In nineteen-hundred and fifty-five.. you were dancing to all kinds a' jive.. in nineteen-hundred and sixty-six.. you all got down with my funky licks uh-huh!" That pretty much sets the tone for things, with the sweet background harmonies alternating with Brown's gruff vocals, and with those horns right up front. The horn arrangements are especially captivating here, like nowhere else on the album, especally towards the end when they're put to work with a shifted, escalated tempo.. For the most part, the track picks up where "It's Too Funky In Here" and "Star Generation" left off, albeit with more sweetening, especially with those backing vocals.

With that, I've got to give credit to those ladies on back up. Those sweet voices behind James Brown were a female trio known as Brandye, who had done backup vocals on this and quite a few other Shapiro productions (i.e. Millie Jackson) around that time. The ladies, whom I believe were Donna Davis, Cynthia Douglas and Pam Vincent, had also released an excellent album (their first and only one) called "Crossover To Brandye" (1978, Kayvette/TK), also produced by Shapiro, which featured a disco single called "Rhythm of Love." Listening to these ladies, I'd say that they were perhaps one of the most underrated female groups at the time, with some of the sweetest, most angelic harmonies that I've ever heard..

While the album title and the three tracks posted might lead one to believe this is an entirely disco album, there are also some slow to mid-tempo tracks on the album like, "Let The Boogie Do The Rest," which contrary to it's title is not a disco song. There's also "Still," which is the dullest moment on the album, and finally, "Women Are Something Else," which is probably the most notable. Essentially a renouncement of "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World," amid all of it's pleasant sentiment of women's equality, I thought there were some particularly telling, ad-libbed (I believe, anyway) verses in which he says: "they're hard sometimes.. you know they can be a.. bitch! ..But they're sweet.."

Listen: James Brown - Women Are Something Else

Well, so much for renouncing the past, I guess.. Although he does counter himself, a few verses later when he quips "sometimes they say..I'm a bitch, too.." Even still, pretty telling though, wouldn't you say?

Admittedly, this album is hardly among Brown's more revolutionary or influential works. That said, it's not an entirely bad, disappointing effort either. Although much more slickly produced than his self-produced material, on it's own terms it's actually a rather enjoyable, engaging album. Though at this point, perhaps it was too little, too late for James Brown to be proclaiming himself "The Original Disco Man," especially with disco about to bottom-out and really, everyone and their dog releasing disco records at the time. While I can only speculate on this, given the timing and the legacy it was attached to, it would have had to have been nothing short of an amazing, blow-you-away kind of record to really leave a mark. Though solid and competent, it however, was not that. Additionally, "..Disco Man," seemed to be an album which also, given his dimished input, seemed to solidify his diminished status. I'd say that is probably one of the main reasons why some don't look upon it too favourably, the album being symbolic of his struggles in keeping up with the musical landscape. That said, it certainly wouldn't be his last attempt at getting outside help in doing just that. While he may have resisted working with an outside producer for this album, it would be something he would end up doing quite frequently into the 1980's, case in point: "Living in America," his comeback, co-written and produced by Dan Hartman, and later on, "I'm Real," produced by Full Force..

While I don't really base any of my enjoyment on the critics' opinions, the fact that this album is not quite as universally maligned like other disco 'bandwagon efforts' from the time (see Aretha Franklin's "La Diva," for example), seems to speak, in large part, to Brad Shapiro's commendable production values. Although, again, hardly groundbreaking, or perhaps even anywhere near some of his greatest works; on it's own terms, regardless of timing or anything else, it's a record that is seriously solid and enjoyable. And that is probably more than can be said for other similar efforts of the time.

Anyway, round of applause for you if you're still reading this, but just one more note about the CD release.. The "Original Disco Man" CD reissue was put out in (I believe) late 2003 by Polydor/Universal in Germany. However, it seems it's already out of print, but some sellers on might still have some copies available if anyone's interested..

Some additional trivia: The cover shots for the album were taken in the New York, New York discotheque in, well, where else?






Anonymous said...

Great James Brown tracks especially "Too Funky..." , this just grooves and jams.

Tommy said...

Yeah.. Too Funky is THE jam on the album.. Glad you like it! :)

Anonymous said...

Always been a big JB fan, but steered clear of this album due to the bad rep this LP always seemed to carry.

But these are all great tracks, if you approach them from the 'disco' side, rather than the 'James Brown' side (if you get what I mean!) - Thanks for posting

Tommy said...

No problem koolstup! Glad you liked..

I think you're absolutely right about approaching it from the disco angle.. Very well said.. Thanks for the comment! :)

soulbrotha said...

Too Funky was my JAM!!!! What??
We used to do The Wop to that joint!

RIP Godfather!

soulbrotha said...

Oh and thank you tommy!

PS. A request: Back in the 80's Rose Royce released a 12inch single only BALLAD (of all things) called "Ready For Your Love". Any chance you have that or can track it down? I have been trying to find it for years now. Great tune!

Tommy said...

Hey, no problem.. Thanks for the comments soulpeeps!

I just looked up that Rose Royce single on Discogs.. I've never heard of it myself. Apparently a one-off on Prelude records, never knew they did one for them! I'll be on the look out for it now.. Thanks for the tip! :)

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