James Brown and the JB's
The Band Lasted a Year, Impacted Generations
An unstoppable force through most of the 1960s, James Brown hit a rough patch in 1969, when his longtime band, known as the Famous Flames, walked out on him. For most fussy and demanding singers, this might be a catastrophe; for Brown, it proved to be a new lease on life. A few months later, in early 1970, Brown hired a Cincinnati group known as the Pacemakers, who'd been pestering people at the James Brown Productions office. Among the teenage musicians were bassist William Collins and his brother, guitarist Phelps Collins—better known as "Bootsy" and "Catfish," respectively.
Here's how good the group was: Among the fruits of its first day in the recording studio was "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine."
That was not beginner's luck. It's pure rhythm euphoria built from the simplest of tools, just a two-note recurring guitar phrase and a tightly wound bass figure. A minimalist in the studio, Brown was constantly seeking these kinds of all-day vamps; inside his extemporaneous vocals is the sound of a man who knows he's hit paydirt, and is determined to enjoy every funky minute. Nobody has to work hard to keep things going—already masters of the controlled burn, the Collins brothers might be playing the same phrase over and over, but by leaning into certain notes, and adding slight emphasis in key places, they keep the vamp at the very edge of percolation. Whatever happens on top of it—at one point Brown asks tenorman Robert MacCollough to "blow me some 'Trane, brother"—is, in a real sense, totally secondary.
"Sex Machine" became a hit, and its architecture served as the template for much of Brown's '70s work, even though this band would only record with Brown for a year. The best way to encounter the tune is on the compilation Funk Power 1970: A Brand New Thang, which includes the ten-minute studio jam of "Sex Machine" and the single mix, as well as "Super Bad" and "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing." Its nine tracks (there's also an antidrug public service message) amount to the last bursts of true greatness from the Godfather—incendiary 1000-watt groove vamps that defined a whole new phase of funk.
Released: 1970, Polydor
Appears On: Funk Power 1970: A Brand New Thang (1996, Polydor)
Catalog Choice: Love Power Peace, Live at L'Olympia, Paris, 1971, which, despite its too-fast tempos, is the best document of the JB's band in performance.
Next Stop: Sly and the Family Stone: Stand!
After That: Bootsy Collins and Bootsy's Rubber Band: Ahhh . . . The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!
Book Pages: 121–122