James Brown and the Birth of Funk

July 17, 2020 by

Come here, sister
Papa’s in the swing
He ain’t too hip
‘Bout that new breed thing
He ain’t no drag —
Papa’s got a brand new bag

Funk music (arguably) began on this day, July 17, in 1965 when James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (Part 1)” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100. The first Top 10 crossover hit for The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, “New Bag” went to #1 on the R&B chart and spent 13 weeks on the pop chart, peaking at #8.

In early 1965, The Godfather of Soul had not recorded for King Records, the label that launched his career, in over a year due to a contract dispute. He had started recording singles for the Mercury imprint Smash Records, the biggest hit being 1964’s “Out of Sight” (which some argue is actually the first funk song). There is a school of thought that Brown didn’t do true funk until he abandoned 12-bar blues with 1967’s “Cold Sweat.” In any case, recorded at Arthur Smith Studio in Charlotte, NC in February 1965, “New Bag” was Brown’s first release after the new contract with King was inked. It’s notable that this contract gave him full artistic control of his work.

“New Bag,” which went on to win the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording in 1966, was a sharp departure from Brown’s early gospel-influenced ballad hits, such as “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me.” As the single climbed the charts, Brown himself was surprised that a song so different was a hit.

“It’s a little beyond me right now,” Brown told disc jockey Alan Leeds in 1965. “It’s just out there. If you’re thinking, ‘well, maybe this guy is crazy,’ take any record off your stack and put it on your box, even a James Brown record, and you won’t find one that sounds like this one. It’s a new bag, just like I sang.”

“New Bag” has stops and extended funky breaks without singing – ideal for Brown’s stage show as it allowed him to focus on his incredible dancing (seen here at the Olympia Theater in Paris in 1967):

The essence of funk music is the emphasis on the downbeat, and “New Bag” emphasized the first and third beat, instead of the standard two and four beats. Musicians would later refer to this accentuation of the first beat as “on the one.”

“Funk is the root of the blues,” Brown told SPIN in 1988. “It’s soul, jazz and gospel. Funk is coming down on the one. If it’s on the one, then it’s funky.”

The Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk (one of my faves of his many nicknames) recorded the song in one take. He hadn’t memorized the words yet, so he read from a sheet. On the nearly 7-minute full version (included in the 1991 4-CD box set Star Time), there’s studio chatter at the start. Brown can be heard saying, “There’s a lot of words here, man.” He then yells, “This is a hit!”

In a brilliant post-production editing move, King Records chief engineer Ron Lenhoff cut the single in two parts so that it began with the glorious horn blast. Lenhoff also sped it up so it would be more likely to get played on pop stations.

“That mono recording was terrible,” Lenhoff told music journalist Richard Buskin. “It was so muddy; you could hardly hear all the instruments. It took me two days of copying, recopying, increasing the tempo, raising the pitch, editing, EQ’ing and editing again just to brighten it up. Still, the music was really good, even without the sax solos that I cut, and after that James and I got to work together a lot.”

The influence and appeal of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” cannot be understated. In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked it #71 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs. But is it the first funk song ever recorded? That remains a topic for debate. I asked bassist and funk aficionado Corey Christy his opinion. “Not sure if it’s the first funk song, but I am sure it influenced many many young Black musicians from the era,” Christy said. “I love the driving bass line with that groove. Can’t help but move to it.”

Jump back Jack, see you later, alligator! Now, let’s take ‘em to the bridge!

Other Versions and Covers

Brown made the song a staple of his dynamite live shows for decades. His 1970 album Soul On Top has a big band arrangement conducted by jazz great Oliver Nelson. I love this version.

Otis Redding gave us one of the greatest covers. This live recording, a single from the album In Person at the Whisky a Go Go, peaked at #21 on the pop charts in early 1969, over a year after Redding’s untimely death.

Soul-jazz organist Jimmy Smith recorded a groovy version for his 1995 album Damn!

And talkbox master Roger Troutman of Zapp & Roger fame covered it on his 1987 solo LP Unlimited!

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