Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

 Main page 

 New additions 

 Pop: 00s  90s 80s 70s 60s 50s


 Top 20: DBW JA 


James Brown

Reviewed on this page:
Think - Live At The Apollo - Out Of Sight - It's A Man's Man's Man's World - Live At The Apollo Vol II - Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud - Hot Pants - Revolution Of The Mind - There It Is - Get On The Good Foot - The Payback - Hell - Slaughter's Big Rip-Off - Reality - Jam 1980s - Soul Syndrome - Gravity - I'm Real - Love Over-Due - I'm Back

James Brown died on December 25, 2006 of pneumonia. We have no further details at this time.
James Brown, one of the most influential singers, songwriters and producers in music history, finally started to get his due respect, thanks to a generation of rappers who propelled him back into the spotlight by sampling his volcanic polyrhythmic grooves. Although he was influenced by a large number of musicians including fellow Georgians Ray Charles and Little Richard, he pioneered the chicken-scratching guitars, blaring horns, syncopated percussion and offhand, sometimes spoken vocals and chanted backgrounds that later became known as funk. Brown's first professional recording, "Please, Please, Please" went on to become a million seller, but he has not had an easy road, struggling over the years with exploitative managers, racist radio programmers and a variety of personal problems. By the 1990s, like Bob Dylan, he became a caricature of his former self, but don't make the mistake of thinking his original works are overrated.

Brown was a singles artist extraordinaire, and his albums usually contain lots of redundant filler. At least, that's my excuse for not having so many of his original studio LPs. I can tell you, though, that both The CD of JB and The CD of JB II are essential compilations.

We've reviewed Brown's fascinating autobiography on our book reviews page.

I finally found a decent James Brown fan site. (DBW)

Please Please Please (1959)
The title track was his first big hit. (DBW)

Try Me (1959)

Think (1960)
This is a collection of singles - some hits ("Bewildered," title track) and some flops ("This Old Heart"). Brown was very much still figuring out his approach at this point, and the tunes are all standard late 50's rock fare, with undistinguished arrangements (the first appearance of the J.C. Davis-led James Brown Band), routine structures and changes, generic lyrics and short running times. If Brown hadn't gone on to much greater things, this record would be totally obscure today, notable only for his usual impassioned vocals. (DBW)

The Amazing James Brown (1961)

Night Train (1961)

Shout And Shimmy (1962)

Tour The USA (1962)

Live At The Apollo (1963)
This was a groundbreaking recording that, together with Little Stevie Wonder's Twelve Year Old Genius Live, convinced record company execs of the viability of live albums -- it went all the way to #2 on the pop chart, the only time James has ever managed to do that. It's also innovative in that each side is one continuous medley -- the songs are bridged by brief instrumental sections. Personally, I don't quite see what all the fuss is about: James gives his usual manic, on the edge performance; the band is tight; and the sound quality is excellent. But the songs are mostly pedestrian, pop-influenced R&B, with unexceptional tunes and lyrics, and the best ones are rattled off in medley form so fast that you barely have time to enjoy them. If you're exclusively into 50's rock and roll and "race records" this is the place to start with James Brown; if you're interested in his phenomenal influence on funk, soul and hip hop look elsewhere. (DBW)

Prisoner Of Love (1963)

Pure Dynamite! Live At The Royal (1964)
This live release hit the Top 40 as well. (DBW)

Showtime (1964)

Grits And Soul (1964)

Out Of Sight (recorded 1964, released 1968)
After the release of the hit title track, legal complications prevented Brown from releasing this album, which sat in the vault for four years before finally being released in 1968. This is an important record for anyone seeking to study Brown's musical development, as it documents a turning point: the syncopated funk that would become his late 60s trademark appears here, on his original version of "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (not the 1966 hit version, but very similar) and the hit title track. But most of the record is in his earlier mold, Litle Richard-inspired fast rockers ("Good Rockin' Tonight") and show tunes he doesn't really have the chops for ("Mona Lisa," "I Love You Porgy," "Nature Boy"). There's even a Ray Charles tribute, a "Mint Julep"-like instrumental with Brown on organ. The instrumentation is basic, his road band with string sweetening on the sappier numbers ("Come Rain Or Come Shine"). Interesting for fans of early or mid-period James, not essential for the casual fan. (DBW)

Papa's Got A Brand New Bag (1965)
The first album released after Brown successfully renegotiated his contract with King Records, contains one of his biggest hits (title track), a comment both on his own artistic freedom and the civil rights movement. (DBW)

I Got You (I Feel Good) (1966)

Today And Yesterday (1966)

Mighty Instrumentals (1966)

Plays New Breed (The Boogaloo) (1966)

It's A Man's Man's Man's World (1966)
Another smorgasbord of tunes in different styles, but it's not as enjoyable as most other Brown from this period. The hit title track is a ballad that's very rudimentary for 1966 from production and composition standpoints, and the other slow tunes - "Bewildered," "The Bells" - are just dull. Funk is represented by "Ain't That A Groove," split into parts 1 and 2, but that's about it. Then there are several bare-bones R&B tunes which sound made up on the spot: "The Scratch," "I Don't Mind," "In The Wee Wee Hours (Of The Nite)," evidently a Ray Charles tribute. The running times are short, which is good news because the grooves are so simplistic. Once again, no personnel are listed, but it's his usual instrumentation for this period: chattering guitar, straight-down-the-middle bass and drums, occasional horns and organ. Produced by Brown; don't pick this up before you've heard some of his better records. (DBW)

Christmas Songs (1966)

Headful Of Soul (1966)

Raw Soul (1967)

The Real Thing (1967)

Live At The Garden (1967)

Cold Sweat (1967)
The title track is one of his most irresistable grooves. (DBW)

Show Of Tomorrow (1968)

I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me) (1968)

I Got The Feelin' (1968)

Nothin' But Soul (1968)

Live At The Apollo Volume II (1968)
Do not mistake this for the much more historically important earlier Live At The Apollo release. This is a two-record set on one CD, packed with overlong emotive ballads ("Prisoner Of Love") and show tunes ("That's Life"). Uptempo numbers like "I Got You (I Feel Good)" are reduced to unsatisfying 30-second snippets. But Brown makes it all worthwhile with incredible rhythm guitar-driven funk on side two building to an unforgettable audience participation bit ("There Was A Time"/"I Feel Alright"). (DBW)

Thinking About Little Willie & A Few Nice Things (1968)

A Soulful Christmas (1968)

Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud (1968)
A reversal of Brown's normal pattern with LPs: this time the single sides aren't as great as usual, while the album tracks are surprisingly solid. The title track is one of his most powerful, direct lyrics, but the music is just another syncopated Clyde Stubblefield groove, done better on "I Got The Feeling," among others. "Licking Stick" (with Tim Drummond laying down the bass line) is masterful, but the mix here is both shorter and less biting than the single released the year before. However, the ballads, usually a weak point, are moving and original: he milks the tearjerkers "Let Them Talk" and "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye" for all they're worth, and "Goodbye My Love" has a heavier bottom than anyone else's R&B ballads offered in this era. There are a few other enjoyable funky tossoffs: "I Love You," "Maybe I'll Understand." Not as packed with great riffs as my very favorites, but precisely because it's such a potpourri, the disc stands as a good introduction to his late Sixties work. (DBW)

Gettin' Down To It (1969)

It's A Mother (1969)

Plays & Directs The Popcorn (1969)

Ain't It Funky (1970)

Soul On Top (1970)

It's A New Day - Let A Man Come In (1970)

Sex Machine (1970)
Courtesy of Polygram records, I recently obtained a two LP's-on-one-CD copy of the legitimate live album released under this name in 1970. But before getting it, I fell for a deceptively packaged budget release with the same name that appears to have come from a much later show (possibly in the 1980s). My advice is to avoid that release if you can: it features versions of "Super Bad" and a bunch of oldies, including "Try Me," "Prisoner Of Love," and even "Georgia On My Mind." The sound quality is lousy and the performances not much better. The legitimate release seems more promising. Most of the material features the original JB's split and dates from 1969. But a few later tracks were recorded in the studio and feature his "B team" of local Cincinnati musicians, including William "Bootsy" Collins and his brother Phelps. (JA)

Hey America (1970)

Super Bad (1971)
The title track is one of his classic riff tunes. (DBW)

Sure Is Funky Down Here (1971)

Hot Pants (1971)
By the time of this release, the Collins brothers and company had already moved on, and Brown was recording with another brand new band. The grooves still sound about the same, though -- a testament to the clarity of his vision during this period. Anyway, the title track is more classic, syncopated funk with minimal lyrics, and "Blues & Pants" is just as good. Also includes "Escape-ism," one of the weirdest Top 40 singles you will ever hear -- loose jamming while James interviews some of his new band members, asking them where they come from, and asking them to reprise licks from some of his earlier hits. The CD includes the full 19-minute take of "Escape-ism" as a bonus track. (DBW)

Revolution Of The Mind - Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1972)
Cut during a particularly hot period for Brown, most of this two-record set (on one CD) is drawn from recordings of the previous two years. It's a thrilling ride, driving funk usually at a faster tempo than the original versions, and the band is right on target throughout. One of the oldies, "Bewildered," is changed beyond recognition into a bass-heavy vamp with James rapping at length about why he likes hot pants, and urging the women in the audience to go off their diets! Fun. Packed with hits ("Make It Funky," "Super Bad," "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose," etc.), this is probably a better introduction to his big hit years than any of his studio albums. (DBW)

There It Is (1972)
Not necessarily the best James Brown studio album ever, but it's the best one I've heard so far. The title track is wonderful, with swaying, knowing horn riffs and wild, wah-wah'd rhythm guitar. The hits "I'm A Greedy Man" and "Talkin' Loud And Sayin' Nothing" are pure JB funk, with pumping bass lines and an abundance of Brown's offhand comments, bizarre call and response, and screams. Then he gets ultraserious on a suite of antidrug raps over subdued, sympathetic backing ("King Heroin" and "Public Enemy"). He also throws in a couple of ballads and even an instrumental, making this a good introduction to the breadth of his talent. (DBW)

Get On The Good Foot (1972)
This album (two LP's on one CD) set a pattern for Brown's 70s releases: lengthy funk jams (title track, the excellent "Funky Side Of Town," the instrumental "Dirty Harri") mixed with ballads, partly recorded with the latest lineup of JB's, partly with anonymous studio musicians. Here he also remakes several old tracks: his reinvention of "Please, Please, Please" is an uptempo, heartfelt look back at his early career, but the others are uninspired retreads ("Cold Sweat"). The low point is a voice-over by Hank Ballard that's nothing but a commercial for the album. Overall, the high points don't make up for all the schlock. (DBW)

Black Caesar (1973)
After Shaft, everyone wanted to do a movie soundtrack (see also Marvin Gaye). Brown recorded several, and this was the first. Here even the title recalls Isaac Hayes, whose nickname was "Black Moses." (DBW)

Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973)
It's tempting to call the album itself a big rip-off, but it's not: it's an atmospheric, largely instrumental soundtrack along the lines of Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man, not profound but often entertaining. Most of the backing is by anonymous studio musicians, except for the smoking "People Get Up And Drive Your Funky Soul" performed by the latest incarnation of the JBs. The Female Preacher Lyn Collins doesn't save any souls with her rendition of the weepy "How Long Can I Keep It Up." The most interesting stylistic innovation is the arabic motif on "Transmograpfication"; otherwise, the record's at its best when James is pounding out his standard grooves ("Slaughter Theme"). (DBW)

The Payback (1973)
A double album, mostly songs from a film soundtrack that never materialized. The title song, besides being a tremendous success on its own, was responsible for female soul quartet En Vogue's entire career: their first hit "Hold On" and their biggest song "My Lovin' (Never Gonna Get It)" are both derived from "Payback." There's also a lovely ballad, "Doing The Best I Can." Besides that, there are five long grooves that don't grip me the way most of Brown's work does: the syncopations and riffs are mostly routine, and the wah-wah guitar that's used so brilliantly on "Payback" is recycled over and over again. (DBW)

Hell (1974)
Another double album on one CD, with an extended version of the autobiographical "Papa Don't Take No Mess," a Latin remake of "Please, Please, Please," and even a take on "When The Saints Go Marching In." There are a number of ballads, one of which has a moving, plaintive vocal ("A Man Has To Go Back To The Crossroad Before He Finds Himself") but the rest aren't much ("Stormy Monday"). For maximum annoyance value, Brown starts track after track with a gong ringing. The biggest problem, though, is that his signature funk just isn't up to standard, except for the Parliament-like "My Thang" - the title track is ruined by prominent helium-induced female backing vocals, while "Papa" is strikingly unoriginal. Once again, the album is padded out with pointless remakes - this time of "I Can't Stand It" and "Lost Someone." This is one to skip, unless you already have his other mid-70s releases and want more. (DBW)

Reality (1974)
Brown was riding a serious bummer throughout 1974, and his view of Reality is harsh: plant closings, drugs, violence, despair. But it doesn't stop him from writing one kinetic, funky dance groove after another (title track, "Funky President," "Check Your Body"). The odd touch on this record is a wide-ranging batch of cover tunes, from Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" to the Briscusse show tune "Who Can I Turn To" to the blues "Further On Up The Road" to an unrecognizable rendition of Hank Ballard's "The Twist." He doesn't have much vocal technique in any traditional sense, but somehow he pulls off these disparate genres with nothing but his compelling sense of urgency. Listenable all the way through, without any of the irritating tracks that James was prone to in this period. (DBW)

Sex Machine Today (1975)

Everybody's Doin' The Hustle & Dead On The Double Bump (1975)

Hot (1976)

Get Up Offa That Thing (1976)
The title track was his last significant hit for a while. (DBW)

Body Heat (1976)

Mutha's Nature (1977)

Jam 1980s (1978)
James is pictured in a silver and black Shazam costume with a moustache, which is the most unusual thing about the record. It sounds like a hastily-recorded attempt at Brown's early 70s groove, but without the same freshness or energy: "Jam" is a twelve-minute rerun of "Doing It To Death"; "Nature" has sub-standard riffs and one of Brown's least meaningful lyrics yet; "Eyesight" is just dull. "The Spank" does have a good groove, but it's more like A Taste of Honey than Soul Brother Number One. The late 70s slippery bass and cool electric piano give the proceedings an unpleasant sterile vibe - you feel like you're watching a diorama of James Brown and the JBs, instead of listening to them. Written and produced by JB; this may be better than the immediately previous releases (which I haven't heard) but it's nothing you'd want to listen to (or sample, for that matter). (DBW)

Take A Look At Those Cakes (1979)

The Original Disco Man (1979)

People (1980)
Produced and arranged by Brad Shapiro; Brown didn't write a single tune here. I have this, but haven't had time to listen to it yet. (DBW)

Hot On The One (1980)

Soul Syndrome (1980)
This is a solid record, a lot better than I expected based on what I'd heard about his 80s output. Opens with "Rapp Payback," which is effective but gets old by the end of its 14-minute running time. (But if you're not bored with it, the CD has both sides of the 12" single as bonus tracks.) Then there's a full plate of updated late 60s R&B with "Funky Men," "Smokin' & Drinkin'" and "Honky Tonk" the standouts. (DBW)

Nonstop! (1981)

Can Your Heart Stand It? (1981)

Live In New York (Studio 54) (1981)

Gravity (1986)
Brown didn't have much to do with this album; everything was written and produced by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, and James overdubbed his vocals when everything was finished. This contains his last well-known hit, "Living In America," and the ballad "How Do You Stop?," later covered by Joni Mitchell (!) The sound is typical 80s pop, lots of pounding drum machines, slap bass and synths; guests include Maceo Parker, who lends his customary sound to the retro "Dr. Feelgood," Steve Winwood and Stevie Ray Vaughan. (DBW)

Universal James (1988)
Produced by Full Force, the production team best known for the cheesy/landmark Latin hip hop tune "I Wonder If I Take You Home" by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. (DBW)

I'm Real (1990)
I don't know why critics are so dismissive of the Full Force work: this is a pretty decent effort. "Can't Git Enuf" is a clever collage of James-sounding riffs and a spare, crackling percussion track; "She Looks All Types A' Good" and "Keep Keepin'" are so-so dance tracks lifted into the stratosphere by the return of Maceo Parker: the minimal arrangement gives Maceo maximal blowing room. He's also enjoyable on the otherwise mawkish ballad "You And Me." The weak link in the chain is the Godfather himself: his vocals are remarkably uninspired, as if he was on the clock; the title track, which he co-wrote, is a lame attack on rappers using his approach; the interview that opens side two is a self-serving commercial for the album you've already bought. That said, if you see this on cassette for 99 cents, snap it up. (DBW)

Love Over-Due (1991)
Brown produced here, and wrote much of the material; it's even more retro than Soul Syndrome, drawing on 50's and early 60s soul ballads (including a cover of Henry Glover's "Teardrops On Your Letter"). When he plays modern funk, it's pretty effective ("(So Tired Of Standing Still We Got To) Move On"); "Dance Dance Dance To The Funk" is saved from monotony by a wild keyboard solo courtesy of composer Charles Sherrell. Overall, the record sounds very familiar, without his old spark, but it's still good enough to hold your attention. (DBW)
Sherrell was Brown's bassist in the 60s. (JA)

Live At The Apollo Volume 4 (1995)

I'm Back (1998)
It's a pleasant surprise to find out that Brown is still capable of making an energetic and sincere album. The chintzy packaging of this release made me think it was a low-budget compilation of old cuts, and in a way it is: several tracks rely on samples of Star Time hits ("Funk On Ah Roll" loops "Hot Pants," etc.) and there's a remake of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." But much of the material is new, and quite vivid: Brown turns in a terrific vocal performance of the standard "That Lucky Old Sun," updated with sociopolitical commentary, and he even returns to the organ for the instrumental feature "Every Part Of My Heart." There are also some of the head-snapping funk jams Brown used to turn out so effortlessly ("I Don't Hear No Music"). The arrangements are straightforward, with live drums, bass and guitar augmented with backing vocals and the occasional sample, but none the worse for that: the musicians keep it in the pocket without taking up too much room, and it's a shame Brown couldn't find space to list their names. Produced by Derrick Monk, who's listed as co-writer for all the songs, even the remakes of old hits (huh?). (DBW)

Please, please, please get me out of here.

 Main page 

 New additions 

 Pop: 00s  90s 80s 70s 60s 50s


 Top 20: DBW JA