BY GRACIE JAMISON // PLAYLIST
Everybody knows James Brown. You, your aunt, your aunt’s cat, the cat’s best friend. Good–he’s the godfather of soul, y’all. You wouldn’t be a self-respecting individual if you didn’t know the man. But have you heard of the J.B.’s?
As their initials might suggest, the J.B’s were James Brown’s backing band– a silly phrase when you think about it, though. The J.B’s were too hot, too tight, too damn good to be to the back of anybody. They couldn’t have laid low if you paid ‘em. But man, were they a band! Thrown together in a hurry by a hard-pressed Brown after his original group walked out, the first incarnation included future legends like Bootsy Collins and Bobby Brown, Maceo Parker and Jabo Starks. Each personality was distinct– just think about Bootsy with his sparkling personality, strident playing, and iconic star-glasses, or Maceo Parker, whose staccato sax phrases could either float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, and more often than not drew shouts for a solo from Brown mid-song. Together, the players stirred funk with jazz, throwing a dash of experimentalism into a whole lot of groove. The incredible thing about the J.B.’s is that whenever you dip your spoon in, whatever musical stew you come up with, it’s always amazing, always different, and always new. If they were behind Brown, they tapped into his white-lightning river of energy and intensity, making him glow with red-hot bass lines and dazzling horns while answering call-and-response vocals. They were more than the mere flint to his flame– they gave him heat and played with that fire in a way that only musicians of the first caliber could. At times, they seemed to be warring with him, providing powerful counterpoints and adding tension and tenacity to the texture of the song, almost making the listener feel as if they were being given their own show. And when on their own? Heavy stuff, and a hell of a lot of fun. Always took it higher, with many members eventually reaching the stratosphere by leaving and joining Parliament-Funkadelic. At one point, in one song, we hear “I gotta get down to get deep”– you gotta have your feet on the ground if you want to get the good soil, that rhythmic pocket of a funk band working in perfect unison.
The song that probably best captures this duality is “You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight”. It’s my favorite of theirs, and the very first song I ever tried to physically transcribe. I spent hours driving my entire household up the wall by playing that guitar line over and over– it’s such a fantastic riff, though, I doubt they minded. Riff aside, the piece has so much to savor. The first half is layered gradually, a bright guitar line incorporating slides and quick back-and-forth between up-picking and down-picking while a moodier rhythm guitar line repeats in the background before the bass and guitar join the jam. Suddenly, before you know it, everything stops on a dime. Brown’s voice lets us know that he has arrived, and the song becomes hotter, harder. The pitch goes up a notch, the drums move up front, and Brown begins his magic act. It’s a virtuoso performance, not so much lion and tamer but high-wire walking– breath-taking, but with a beat.