Beginning the deep dive into James Brown’s album releases at before the beginning: James Brown was born into poverty in South Carolina, he spent some of his childhood living in a brothel, and when his mother left his abusive father James spent the rest of his childhood on the streets making money by hustling and, from the age of eleven, performing at talent contests.
As inevitable as a story from the hip hop he so deeply influenced, Brown was imprisoned at the age of sixteen for robbery. It was there he began singing Gospel with the choir and when he got out of prison he joined the Ever-Ready Gospel Singers. They worked the chitlin’ circuit and churches and eventually signed to “race records” label King. They recorded James Brown’s self penned “Please, Please, Please” and saw it sell a million copies in 1956 though the follow up singles weren’t as successful.
In 1958, Brown got his second # 1 on the r&b charts with “Try Me”, and King Records compiled his two hits and 14 misses on his debut album, the astonishing Please, Please Please. If “Please Please Please” and “Try Me” was secular r&b as blueprinted by Ray Charles, “I Walked Alone” an a doo wop wonk, the classic, and brilliant “That Dood It” -a novelty track retelling of Jack and The Beanstalk with a woman also involved, “when it come to choosin’ between my money—and my honey, I take my money—what I’m sayin’?—I mean my honey everytime.” -a Rudy Toombs and Rose Marie McCoy song, this if first and foremost a dance album and a live performance augmentation. The “Chonnie-On-Chon” is a chug-a-lug party track as the mid 50s race music was morphing into r&b and rock and roll (Little Richard was an early fan of Brown). There is a direct connection between JB and MLK: the white kids loved r&brown and were therefore open to the civil rights movement (to flash forward, Brown single-handedly stopped the black population of Boston from burning the city down after MLK’s assassination) and the music Brown was performing was very black music, with no reaching out to the white community at all.
The two big hits, the title track and “Try Me” remained in his repertoire throughout his life, and all the songs were on The One (incidentally, the name of RJ SMith’s standard bearer biography is “The One”), give the drummer some is precisely what happens on the songs here, even the slow and sweet Five Satins style “Just Won’t Do Right”.
The production values are minimal but His Famous Flames, featuring his childhood friend Bobby Byrd on piano, were very tight throughout, especially the drummers, jazz drummer Panama Francis, Edison Gore and Reginald Hall. James Brown already had that longing voice rasp that morphed out true grief and overwhelming excitement depending on song and the album certainly wasn’t funk yet, just as certainly as it conceded nothing to anyone. It reach # 1 in the r&b charts and #48 on the Pop charts (back when that meant something).
Oddly, the reviews today are a little cool but they must be grading on a curve -it is a masterpiece of r&b, the first album by the great JB, while being a set of singles it doesn’t coalesce as an album, as a set of singles it is excellent.
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