Tuesday, August 30, 2016

James Brown: Star Time

Star Time, the four-disc anthology issued in 1991 by Polydor Records, of the music of the amazing James Brown, is a remarkable document.

While it is easy to focus attention on the middle two discs, spanning Brown's greatest period from roughly 1965 to 1975, where he released choice hit after hit and refined the diamond-hard grooves that make him one of America's greatest musical figures, it might be easy to overlook the first and last discs, which show his transformation, in the first example, from a fine R&B performer in the 1950s to the Godfather of Soul, and then the gradual decline as the music world changed dramatically after the mid-Seventies.

Yet, there is much to enjoy in those bookend discs.  From his early, pleading "Please Please Please" to his successful 1984 track "Unity" with pioneering rapper Afrika Bambaataa, there are many examples of comparison and contrast between the two periods, but also with the pinnacle of the always-busy career of The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

It is hard, though, to dispute that discs two and three are consistently mind-blowing, with everything from "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to "I Feel Good" to "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" to "Mother Popcorn" to "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" to "Super Bad" and a whole lot more.  By the middle of disc 3, it might be apparent that, once Brown got his funk formula refined, it became stuck in a rut, but what a rut!

A great deal of the genius is undoubtedly due to Brown's vocals, including his trademark screams and grunts, but also his often impeccable sense of timing, but a lot of it is having the discipline, and the hardness, to be an effective bandleader.  That may be Brown's most underrated quality, being able to hone one of the most efficient and effective bands, in various incarnations, to a T.

At the same time, he also had a very impressive group of musicians with which to work, including the great Maceo Parker on sax, Fred Wesley on trombone, bassist Bootsy Collins and his guitarist brother, Catfish (both of whom went to anchor George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic mothership), drummer John Starks, bassist Bernard Odum, drummer Melvin Parker, guitarist Jimmy Nolen, drummer Clyde Stubblefield and his longtime vocal foil and organist Bobby Byrd.  Without these amazing players, even Brown's considerable gifts as a singer, bandleader and all-around entertainer could not have sustained the heights that he attained.

This listener had pretty much a passing exposure to the greatness of James Brown before this box set was purchased, but it really opened up an appreciation for just how incredible he and his bands were in creating some of the best and most exciting music this country has ever produced.  Brown never lacked for confidence and self-appreciation, which can be off-putting, to say the least, but this is a document that convincingly shows that, at this greatest, Brown could back up the boasting, big time.

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