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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: FUNK, PART ONE

The most universally recognized musicological beginning of funk—James Brown and the Famous Flames’ “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”—came together in a Charlotte, N.C., studio in a single take, three weeks before the assassination of Malcolm X. Recorded in February 1965, it was released to radio by King Records four months later. The song soared up the Billboard chart to become Brown’s first Top 10 pop hit the same month President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, outlawing racial discrimination in American elections. In the mid-’60s, Black America reached into a brand new bag of Black Power and Black Is Beautiful movements at the same moment a Southern-born soul singer birthed a wholly new music genre.

When rap first took hold in the late 1970s with “Rapper’s Delight,” The Sugarhill Gang didn’t formally announce hip-hop as the latest significant manifestation of youth culture; by all indications, they were oblivious to the seismic shift to come. But James Brown seemed to know exactly what he was onto, introducing funk music with the brazen title “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Though the song reused the framework of his 1964 single “Out of Sight,” his revisitation made everything we heard on the record—horns, guitar, drums, vocals—into a percussive instrument. Most importantly, the strongest emphasis of every measure fell on the first downbeat: “the one.” Brown’s innovation changed music as definitively as jazz combos had by improvising solo variations on instrumental melodies or Bronx MCs would by rapping poetry over breakbeats. Behold, the new bag: funk.

Funk music emerged in the late ’60s to completely dominate the Black radio of the following decade, often bleeding onto the pop charts. The soundtrack to African-American liberation in the immediate post-Civil Rights Movement era includes funk bombs like “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Impeach the President,” “Superfly,” “Soul Power,” “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” The period’s funk playlist is sonic testimony to the politics and cultural story of a significant slice of society—some say the tastiest, most flavorful slice.

Without question, any gargantuan granite sculpture of funk forefathers has to incorporate visionaries James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton. Colossal, Statue of Liberty-level monuments could also be erected in the likenesses of Stevie Wonder, Prince and others. But before we begin construction, there’s a lesser-known NOLA blues singer who deserves his own commemorative plaque, at the very least.

Born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, La., the pianist/vocalist widely known as Professor Longhair never stamped much of a commercial imprint with his discography (songs like “Bald Head” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”). Funk as a genre involves musicians emphasizing that first downbeat, soulful vocals and the interlocking interplay among percussive bass, drums, guitar and piano. That equation owes a sizable debt to the Professor. Tossing polyrhythmic Afro-Cuban influences into jam sessions with Caribbean musicians down in New Orleans, Longhair crafted his own playing style, the rumba-boogie. The innovations of Longhair and other NOLA bands heavily influenced rock ’n’ roll pioneers like Fats Domino and the drummers later employed by James Brown. As a formidable funk footnote, Professor Longhair deserves his flowers.

But as recent films like Get on Up and the Netflix documentary Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown make obvious, funk officially begins with one man. And one song. It is simply impossible to overestimate the importance of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” as the Big Bang of funk.

“It’s not like one of his ballads, where he’s pleading for a woman to come back,” author and filmmaker Nelson George, co-editor of The James Brown Reader, told NPR in 2000. “He’s very confident, upbeat, bright and excited. And that was a great time for black people. The Civil Rights Act of  ’65 was passed in that year. Desegregation was happening all across the country in various places, in various ways. There was a real sense of positive energy that we had made a change and were making changes and that we could not be stopped, that we had a righteous cause. You could also see the song and the lyric as a metaphor. In the ’60s slang sense, your ‘bag’ was who you were, what you thought the world was about, what you believed in. And Papa having a brand new one meant that change was happening.”

Prior to 1965, James Brown’s renown as a soul singer sprang from blues- and gospel-tinged ballads like “Prisoner of Love” and “I’ll Go Crazy,” as well as the tireless onstage theatrics demonstrated on his seminal concert album, Live at the Apollo.

James Joseph Brown, born in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933, the future Godfather of Soul, was abandoned by his parents, raised briefly in his aunt’s brothel, and incarcerated in a juvenile detention center at 16 for robbery. At that Georgia juvie hall, Brown met singer Bobby Byrd, and Byrd’s gospel outfit soon morphed into the Famous Flames starring Brown.

While they honed their act on the Chitlin Circuit—the network of black-owned clubs friendly to African-American performers during segregation—hits arrived slowly but surely: “Try Me,” “Night Train,” “Please, Please, Please.” JB’s lightning-fast feet, sanctified screams, microphone gymnastics and sweaty, incendiary performances made him the de facto star of the T.A.M.I. Show, the 1964 concert film where he famously put the Rolling Stones to shame (and, legend has it, inspired Mick Jagger to step away from the mic stand and shake his ass). James was on the brink of pop superstardom, which he clinched on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” the following year.

Read Part 2 here.

This playlist, Black History Month: Funk, contains most of the cuts referenced in our primary discussion of the genre, including a generous sampling of James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton's various P-Funk projects, The Meters, Prince and many more. We don't mind if you decide to stop reading and dance.

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