The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

25 December 2006

He's not too fancy, but his line is pretty clean

The hardest-working man in show business has gone to his eternal rest: James Brown died this morning of pneumonia at Atlanta's Emory Crawford Long Hospital. He was 73.

Legend has it that King Records owner Syd Nathan, hearing Brown and his Famous Flames working up "Please, Please, Please" back in 1956, demanded that the tape recorder be stopped, then informed producer Ralph Bass that the song was a bunch of crap. Only he didn't say bunch. Or crap.

Bass finished up the record anyway; Nathan reportedly fired him for insubordination. Brown and his managers eventually persuaded Nathan to issue the track, though it came out on the subsidiary Federal label (as #12258) rather than on King. "Please, Please, Please" eventually moved about a million copies and even hovered just under the bottom of the pop chart; Bass got an apology from Nathan and his job back, though three years later he left King to work for the Chess brothers in Chicago.

The relationship between Brown and Nathan would always be prickly. Brown's live shows were legendary, and he wanted to put out an album recorded at one of those shows. Nathan had never heard of such a thing, didn't see any money in it, and turned him down. Brown kept asking; Nathan kept refusing. Finally, in 1962, Nathan relented to this extent: he would put out the LP if Brown paid for the recording expenses. Brown anted up $5700 and cut an October live show from the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Nathan didn't like it; it was finally released in January 1963, and promptly sold in seven figures, hitting #2 on Billboard's album chart.

I have to believe that had Syd Nathan stuck to his guns, the album would still have eventually come out. Two years earlier, Nathan had balked at recording Brown's new backup group; shortly thereafter, down in Miami, Henry Stone cut a track with Brown called "(Do The) Mashed Potatoes." Stone decided that maybe it was not a good idea to risk the wrath of Syd Nathan, and scraped Brown's one-line-per-verse vocal off the tape, replacing it with the voice of Miami DJ Carleton "King" Coleman. The single, released on Stone's Dade label, was issued as by Nat Kendrick and the Swans, Kendrick being Brown's drummer at the time; Atlantic picked it up for national distribution, and while "Mashed Potatoes" sold rather modestly, it kicked off a brief dance craze.

So James Brown wasn't averse to doing things out of Syd Nathan's earshot. Arguing that King owned his contract only for vocal performances, he cut an instrumental called "Out of Sight" in 1964 for Mercury's Smash label, which made the pop Top 20; Nathan took him to court. In early 1965, matters were settled, mostly in Brown's favor; he would get his own publishing company, a higher royalty rate, and almost complete artistic control over his recordings.

Brown's first recording under the new contract was "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," which topped the soul chart and made Top Ten pop despite sounding like nothing anyone had ever heard before. Dave Marsh described it this way:

With the possible exception of Little Richard, no one has ever made a rock or rhythm and blues record this extreme. At a time when Motown had made comparatively ornate records seem the wave of the future, Brown posited the most radical alternative: a record so totally immersed in rhythm that you barely noticed ornamentation at all. No record before "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" sounded anything like it. No record since — certainly no dance record — has been unmarked by it.

Which is almost hyperbolic enough to be true.

In 1968, Syd Nathan died. Nashville's Starday Records took over ownership of King; both labels were sold to LIN Broadcasting, which in 1971 sold James Brown's contract to Polydor. King's last pop hit for Polydor ("Body Heat") came in 1977; he scored in 1986 with "Living in America," a song written for Rocky IV, but by then the students had overtaken the master.

A couple of years ago, I was musing on the trend away from "pretty" pop voices, and here's one of the voices setting that trend:

James Brown's "Prisoner of Love" [was] recorded in 1963, a song previously associated with ultra-smooth crooners like Billy Eckstine and Perry Como. The Godfather of Soul couldn't croon if his life depended on it, so he got the song across the only way he could: by scraping away pop boilerplate and replacing it with his own desperate screams. This wasn't the first time Brown had attempted a pop standard — two years earlier he'd given a similar treatment to "Bewildered," another song from the Eckstine repertoire — but "Prisoner" did well enough on the pop charts (#18 in Billboard) to suggest to Brown that he was on the right track. Not that you could have persuaded him otherwise.

And that, when you get right down to it, was what made James Brown the James Brown of his time: a willingness, maybe even a compulsion, to experiment, and hang the consequences. It's hard to imagine how anyone could possibly fill his shoes.

Posted at 11:30 AM to Tongue and Groove


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