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The Boston Phoenix Heavy Funk

Dead on James Brown

By Douglas Wolk

JULY 13, 1998:  Given that he's been performing pretty much the same set for 15 years, it's a little hard to imagine these days that James Brown was once an unstoppable force at the forefront of pop music, whose innovations came monthly or even weekly. It's true, though: between 1965 and 1975, it was very rare that there wasn't a JB single or two on the charts, and the material he produced and wrote for members of his revue was a whole extra bag. Two new double-CD compilations released by Polydor -- Dead on the Heavy Funk: 1975-1983 and James Brown's Original Funky Divas -- take stock of interesting by-ways in his career: the years after he'd fallen away from the vanguard but before he became a self-parody, and the phenomenal singles he produced for the women who sang with him.

Dead on the Heavy Funk: 1975-1983 seems to be the conclusion of compilers Harry Weinger & Alan Leeds's multi-volume survey of Brown's glory years. The main thread of the series includes Roots of a Revolution ('56-'64), Foundations of Funk ('65-'69), Funk Power (Brown's annus mirabilis 1970), and Make It Funky: The Big Payback ('71-'75); there are also double-disc sets devoted to Brown's pre-'70 instrumentals (Soul Pride) and dabblings in his musical roots (Messing with the Blues), and the amazing records by various permutations of his '70s band the J.B.'s (Funky Good Time: The Anthology). Heavy Funk is the weakest of the series, and it still smokes, if intermittently.

There's a school of thought that says that Brown's funk mastery really ended in 1973-'74, with "The Payback" and "Papa Don't Take No Mess" as his final triumphs. Certainly after the Fred Wesley-led band dispersed at the beginning of 1975 and was replaced by one set of studio slickwads after another, things went downhill in a hurry; there's a reason Dead on the Heavy Funk has to cherrypick from 15 albums. After the fabulous remake of "Sex Machine" that kicks off the set, there are failed attempts to jump the disco bandwagon, all-too-successful attempts at same (like "It's Too Funky in Here") that caught the mirror-ball vibe but missed the deep groove, a few tracks where the Godfather ran out of new lyrics and started reprising the words from his old standards, a couple of mediocre ballads, and a hilariously shameless ripoff of Bowie's "Fame" called "Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved, Loved)." But there are also some inspired experiments (particularly the long, Afropop-inspired jam "A Man Understands") and low-key funk throwaways that would be a shame to miss. Brown was trying to follow in the path of people who'd taken their cues from him, but he was most interesting when he got it wrong: when Van McCoy's chirpy hustle got transmogrified into the dazed "Hustle!!! (Dead on It)," or Mandrill's heavy buzz became the weirdly airy "Nature."

James Brown's Original Funky Divas, on the other hand, is a total delight no matter how you look at it. The women who sang in Brown's revue -- as duet partners, soloists, back-up singers, and foils -- cranked out records of their own through the '60s and '70s; they all had phenomenal voices, and they were backed by Brown's equally phenomenal bands. Their albums are samplers' favorites, and there are half a dozen vinyl bootlegs of this stuff in circulation, but only a few songs have turned up on legitimate CD reissues before this. So what we've got here is the motherlode: seven tracks by Marva Whitney, a gospel-trained screamer who toured in Vietnam with Soul Brother #1 (and whose albums sell for $250 and up); nine by Vicki Anderson, whose "Answer to Mother Popcorn" is the equal of the original and whose "I'm Too Tough for Mr. Big Stuff (Hot Pants)" arguably trumps Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff"; and 11 by Lyn Collins, "The Female Preacher" (she delivered secular sermonettes at the beginning of a couple of her albums), who could come on like a bedroom-eyed siren or an air-raid siren, and whose "Think (About It)" you've heard sampled if you've turned on a radio in the last 10 years. Then there's a batch of one-offs and oddities, from a single by Tammy Montgomery (better known, later on, as Tammi Terrell) to Yvonne Fair's "I Found You" (the prototype of "I Feel Good") to a great acid-funk-gospel single by Kay Robinson to a bizarre version of "Summertime" recast as a duet about ecology by Brown and his back-up singer of nearly 30 years, Martha High.

Even the stuff that's not great is interesting (like a cover of "All of Me" by the 350-pound blues belter Elsie "T.V. Mama" Mae), and the great stuff is great -- electrifying, intense, sexy, with as much rhythmic oomph as Brown's own material and a lot more formal structure. Aretha Franklin and Ann Peebles were crossing over to pop audiences in these years, but Brown's divas made the 45s that heavy-duty soul fans bought and played to death. Thanks to their new life as sample sources, they still sound startlingly modern, and the singers literally scream for attention. It's about time they got it.

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