Goodbye, Mr. Good Foot
Look. I think you can gather my bias pretty quickly: New Orleans funk grooves in all their permutations and combinations. But there is no way anyone can deny that James Brown, who turned it loose for good on Christmas Day, changed this country’s musical landscape. See Larry Grogan's excellent appreciation of the man at Funky 16 Corners. One of the best shows I ever saw was the James Brown Revue at the MidSouth Coliseum in Memphis around 1966, when I was still in high school. It ranks right up there with other mindblowers of the period I was fortunate to experience: the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan backed by the Hawks, Howlin’ Wolf, Hendrix. I was one of the few white faces in the packed house that night; but we were all united in our fixed attention to and wild appreciation of JB’s showmanship, unflagging emotive energy, and deadly tight band. It made me a confirmed soul fan forever and helped me begin to understand what the groove was all about. When he made the transition into funk in the mid-1960s, Brown did so as an innovator who truly brought the genre into being. To honor him, here’s a cut that features the amazing (and young) Clyde Stubblefield on drums in 1968. It’s a fine snapshot of the Godfather’s funkification in progress. . . .
"Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose" (C. Bobbitt)
James Brown, King 6213, 1968
JB’s autobiography strangely does not go into how his pronounced and radical funk style developed; but, his being a drummer himself surely had much to do with the process, as did what the other drummers he used brought with them. Several have credited New Orleans counterparts with influencing the way they play. Clayton Fillyau, who drummed in Brown’s band during the early to mid 1960s and can be heard on Live At the Apollo 1962, learned the New Orleans two-beat or double downbeat style of playing from none other than Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams around 1960.* Also, another later (1970 – 1975) JB drummer, the incredible John ‘Jabo’ Starks, gives props to Cornelius ‘Tenoo’ Coleman, Fats Domino’s longtime drummer, saying: Tenoo was as funky as any of them. He would improvise so much. I knew him, and if we were in the same town as Fats, I’d go look for him or he’d come looking for me. I learned some of that funk listening to Tenoo.*
Another New Orleans drummer who influenced virtually everyone was Earl Palmer, whose studio work in New Orleans and Los Angeles on countless hits in the 1950s and 1960s was heard worldwide. Certainly other recording and touring funky HOTG skinmen such as Smokey Johnson and John Boudreaux have sown some seeds themselves. Brown played New Orleans dates frequently, often on bills with local bands; so he and his players had ample opportunity to hear what the city’s groove merchants had to offer over the years. So, I think the Crescent City had at least something to do with it.
Yet, it’s what Brown did with the raw materials of funk running through the music of the era that re-programmed all groove musicians, including, of course, those in New Orleans. His linear sense of laying a song out along a wickedly syncopated drum line without the usual fills and turnarounds, with every instrument in his band and his own vocal functioning as distinct polyrhythmic elements, made his funk very much about the beats in a multi-level, interplay of small parts. Brown was able to strip down or strip away melody, harmony, and the structure of popular music in his funk to focus intensely on just the dominant groove, the highly danceable good foot, and bring more of Africa (the ultimate funk wellspring) to the party. Not only did it work, it simply changed everything.
To come back to the Big Easy, what James Brown was doing in the later 1960s, I think, freed New Orleans musicians, who were his contemporaries and came after him, to explore their own deep rhythmic roots feel and bring it more to the surface, allowing the city’s unique blend of cultural influences to bear fresh musical fruit. So, let’s celebrate the man and all he did for the music of the world (a feedback loop that also includes, among others, Afro-pop and hip-hop). Sure, he had his faults, being human; but he made this planet a far better place by giving his all, breaking new ground, bringing people together, and letting them dance. You just can’t ask for more than that of a life. Bless your funky bones, JB.
*Second Line: 100 Years of New Orleans Drumming by Antton Aukes (highly recommended for serious beat hounds who want validation of New Orleans' place in percussive history)
Note: Charles Bobbitt, who was given writer's credit for this tune, was one of JB's managers at the time; and I am pretty sure he was just getting a financial reward here. Brown surely wrote this one. By the way, I read that Bobbitt was at Brown's bedside when he died.