Listen To This Playlist #2: Covering James Brown
This is #2 in the Listen to this Playlist series at Freeway Jam, in conjunction with Rhapsody Radish. Here, we look at playlists of an offbeat nature, on a variety of themes. Then, you can go listen to the playlist over at Rhapsody Radish, for the full experience.Listen to this playlist at Rhapsody Radish
Covering a performer as idiosyncratic and original as James Brown is a daunting task; unless you can match the Godfather of Soul (and uncle of funk, too) in intensity and spirit, you're setting yourself up for a fall. Here's ten interesting, offbeat James Brown covers:
1. Drink Me: I Got You (I Feel Good)
Drink Me are best known as an alternative folk-rock group from the early 90's featuring Mark Amft and Wynne Evans that recorded two albums for Bar None records. Their albums featured only non-electric instruments; guitars, accordion, tambourine, kazoo and the like. Consequently, their albums are quiet, muted affairs. Thus, it is a surprise that they would have even covered James Brown's signature shouter, let alone include it on a 1995 album containing 17 songs with some connection, in one way or another, to sleep. How does James Brown's energetic original relate to sleep? You'll have to listen to find out. The original peaked at #3 in 1965, becoming Brown's first top-30 on the pop charts, although it was already his 29th single to reach the Black charts, over the course of 6 years, a remarkable number. Many of those hits also made the lower reaches of the pop charts, but it wasn't until "I Got You" that James Brown was a true crossover success.
2. The Who: Please, Please, Please
On their 1965 debut, The Who included not one, but two James Brown covers. "Please Please Please" was James Brown's very first hit, making #3 on the Black charts in 1956. The original was a soulful R&B number with doo-wop and gospel backing vocals. The Who evolved from a British hard rock unit, the Detours, which featured Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, and Keith Moon together in its lineup from late 1963. The Detours had been around since '62 and featured Daltrey on vocals; Entwistle joined him, followed by Townshend, and finally Moon. Dubbed the Who briefly in 1964, the band then took the name the High Numbers, and revamped its setlist to include a number of R&B, soul, and Motown classics, which the group would rip through, earning their music the nickname "Maximum R&B". "Please Please Please" was a regular part of their set and is included here, the band's name reverting once again to The Who.
3. Widespread Panic: Sex Machine
"Sex Machine" is the 1970 hit that turned James Brown from Godfather of Soul to Funk Pioneer. It features a spare, primal, elemental funk backing by bassist William "Bootsy" Collins and guitarist Phelps "Catfish" Collins, then known as members of the JB's, both of whom would find even greater fame in George Clinton's Parliament. It's a heavy cut, frequently referenced by later funk bands, and reached #15 on the charts. Veteran jam band Widespread Panic, famous for tackling challenging covers head on with tight, fluid musicianship, took on this seemingly un-coverable song as part of their annual Halloween show, which is where they traditionally showcase a range of unusual and daring covers. The album this is from is a document of one of their Halloween shows, featuring covers of Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix along with 5 others, including this one.
4. Otis Redding: Papa's Got A Brand New Bag
"Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" was Brown's followup to "I Got You" and had similar success; #1 on the Black charts, #8 on the pop charts. The live album from which this is taken was originally released in 1968, a year after Redding's untimely death in a plane crash. Recorded in 1966 at the famed Whisky a Go Go live house on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, he was just about to reach his peak, which would see him get mass crossover acclaim following his appearance at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967. In addition to some great originals he tears through a pair of roaring covers, the other being "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", which he'd do at Monterey. This is the only album to document Redding in a club setting, and it's worth seeking out.
5. Paul Revere & the Raiders: Night Train
"Night Train" was a 1962 #5 hit on the Black charts for Brown, and even edged into the pop top-40 at #35, his third single to squeeze in. The album from which this was taken represented a watershed crossroads for Paul Revere and the Raiders. Known for gritty R&B singles in a garage-band vein, the band had become television stars prior to this 1966 album; it was also produced by Terry Melcher, the Byrds' producer, who had a big hand in shaping the album's overall sound. It's a mixed bag; half of the album are lightweight poppy numbers aimed at the teen market watching them on TV, putting them closely in league with the Monkees. On the other hand, they still come up with half an album's worth of gritty rockers and r&b numbers, including this one. It became their first top-10 album.
6. Joni Mitchell: How Do You Stop
"How Do You Stop" is late-era James Brown, from his 1986 album, Gravity. Written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, the same team that wrote "Living In America", also from Gravity, and three other songs on the album. It peaked at #10 on the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart in 1987, but missed the pop charts. Joni Mitchell covered it on her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo, which was something of a return to her sparer styles of the 1970's. The original is one of Brown's more sedate numbers, and Mitchell is able to do a good job with it. You'd never guess from listening to it that it's a James Brown song, but of course, it isn't really; it's a Dan Hartman song, and therein lies the difference.
7. The Countdown Singers: It's A Man's Man's Man's World
One of seven charting singles for Brown in 1966, the lyrics of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" were written by Betty Jean Newsome, a girlfriend of Brown's and Bible student. Brown added the music, and had another #1 Black single, #8 pop single. The Countdown Singers aren't a real group at all, but an amalgamation of session musicians and singers who cover hits of the day for cheap-o compilations not unlike this one, of songs from movies. "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" was featured in the 1996 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle The Associate; why anyone would need the Countdown Singers' version is beyond me, but this got pressed, so somebody must be the target buyer.
8. The Who: Shout And Shimmy
"Shout and Shimmy" was a 1962 single for Brown, and isn't one of his best known; making it to #16 on the black charts; #61 on the pop charts. However, it left enough impression on The Who that they recorded it for their debut along with "Please Please Please" and a third Brown number "I Don't Mind". Only the latter two turned up on the debut album; "Shout and Shimmy" appeared as a B-side, and vanished into the mists of history until it turned up in 1985 on Who's Missing, one of a multitude of odds-and-sods collections from The Who of B-sides and other arcana.
9. Rob Moitoza: I Got You (I Feel Good)
Rob Moitoza worked (usually as bassist) on albums by Sons of Champlin, Cold Blood with Lydia Pense, and Jerry Miller. As a producer, he has recorded Holly Near and Tim Noah. Originally from the San Franscisco Bay Area, he's now based in Seattle. His own albums are slightly Zappa-esque combinations of comedy and social commentary; Rob Moitoza's Cavalcade of Stars closed with a strange r&b version of "I Feel Good". Given very limited release in 2000, it was heard by precious few, but has some good word of mouth from those who have heard it.
10. Johnny Thunders/Wayne Kramer: I'll Go Crazy
Gang War, a meeting of the minds between legendary New York Dolls guitarist Thunders and legendary MC5 guitarist Kramer is subtitled "A Rock 'n' Roll Document". That's code-speak for "murky, sludgy recording of historical interest", which this album intermittently is. Both artists' hardcore fans are no strangers to sludgy recordings, so leaving aside questions of fidelity, we get an album's worth of chaotic guitar rave-up, recorded at the Channel Club in 1979. Thunders' own band, The Heartbreakers had just broken up, and he was on heroin. Kramer had just been released from prison after serving two years for cocaine possession. Their short-lived band, Gang War, never amounted to much and broke up within a year. Both were past their prime and out of shape when they did this, but as the label says, it's a document, so the diehards will want this. "I'll Go Crazy" charted for Brown in 1966, but the recording dates from 1960.