James Brown: The Lost Album
When James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006 he left behind a near complete album. Amidst the legal wrangling over the Godfather's estate, the new tracks were forgotten and never released. Speaking to those who knew him best, Charles Thomson goes in search of Brown's final album.
May 2009, JIVE
**NB: This is an extract from Charles Thomson's Guardian Award-winning full article**
The following month Brown’s band, the Soul Generals, was summoned to Augusta. They were booked into the Ramada Inn, their usual haunt, where Brown’s managers delivered drum kits, amps and other backline equipment, and the band were told to rehearse a number of instrumental jazz tracks usually reserved for short intermissions in Brown’s live shows.
“We had no idea what we were doing there,” says saxophonist Jeff Watkins. “Sometimes the band would be called to Augusta like a military drill, to rehearse or record. But this time there was no plan. We didn’t know if we were there to record two tracks or ten. It seemed like a lot of time wasted on nothing – just a couple of silly, throwaway jazz tunes.”
In actuality, the band was there for a three week recording session.
Howard Lovett, studio engineer at Studio South in Augusta, spent much of the first week transferring the tracks from the Charlotte sessions and playing them to Brown, who dismissed most of them.
“They were nice,” says Lovett, “but they were a little cleaner than James Brown. They were too produced. It was great music but it just didn’t have that raw edge. But he used little pieces of the tracks – he’d take a drum beat or a bass line or a guitar riff and then just build a new song around it.”
But according to those close to Brown, a problem was developing. By the time the Studio South sessions rolled around, the Godfather had lost all interest in recording his new album. His enthusiasm had dissipated in the weeks that it had taken to get the project moving.
Brown was used to working quickly. In his heyday he would finish a gig, drive the band straight from the venue to the nearest recording studio and emerge in the morning with a near complete album. Inspiration came to Brown in flashes. Hollie Farris, who joined Brown in the mid-1970s, recalls Brown’s work ethic of bygone years.
“He used to be real focused. He would just hum everybody their individual parts, then roll tape and record. The first album I recorded with him was ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot believe this guy!’ We’d never even played the song through before we recorded it, but the first cut was the cut you heard on the radio. But that’s how he worked. It was all about the feel of it. He’d say ‘The first take is God, the second take is man’. He didn’t care if people made mistakes as long as it felt good. Every two hours you’d cut a song and then bang, you moved right onto the next one.”
By delaying the recording process, Brown had lost his fire. According to Charles Bobbit, sometimes he had to force the star out of his house and into the car.
“He was hesitant to go to the studio. He would refuse to even go out of the door. Myself and SuperFrank would tell him ‘We need to go to the studio. We have the time booked.’ He would just say ‘I don’t wanna go to the studio today.’”
SuperFrank, who was bankrolling the sessions, began to irritate Brown, who did not appreciate what he perceived to be interference. Consequently, Brown imposed a studio ban on his manager.
When Brown did arrive at the studio he was often moody. Engineer Howard Lovett recalls, “There were days where nothing one person did could be right. It just wasn’t their day. If he felt the players were getting too big-headed, he’d bring them back down to earth. He’d tell them, ‘You ain’t got nothin’.”
One such day came early in the three week session when Brown decided to record a twelve bar blues track called ‘Ancestors’. The song featured a long, rapid, staccato guitar riff, which he gave to Keith Jenkins.
“He would spend hours finding out what you found difficult and then make sure that became the most important thing of the day,” says Keith. “When we recorded 'Ancestors', he just stood in front of me all day saying 'Play da da da da da...” I would play it and he'd say 'No, I said play da da da da da, you're playing da da da da da'. In those moments, you did not feel like you were in the presence of a genius.”
“We thought that song was gonna put Keith in hospital!” laughs fellow guitarist Damon Wood. “We were all watching through the booth and cracking up. Brown kept getting suspicious and looking over so we all had to act serious. We decided it was a new genre – Torture Funk.”
The session continued in a similarly haphazard fashion, leading some to question whether the Godfather still had his magic.
“It was like he had no idea of efficiency,” recalls Keith Jenkins. “Nothing made linear sense. He would record a rhythm track, then a horn track, then a vocal track, then go back and record rhythm all over again.”
“He'd make simple mistakes,” adds Hollie Farris. “He'd say he couldn't hear things, but he'd have hair under his headphones. You'd be thinking, 'You've been in this business for forty years, you should know this stuff!”
Once a track was recorded, Brown would then take issue with the mixing. The tracks were recorded onto music software Pro-Tools where they could be cleaned up and edited as Brown wished.
“With the version of Pro-Tools we were using you could do all of this amazing stuff,” says Keith, “but the one thing you couldn't do was slow the music down. So, of course, that became his mission. He did not want to be told that you couldn't slow it down. He'd act like it was a conspiracy – 'Can't, huh? Oh I see. I understand.' Then he'd walk away grumbling, 'Never had this problem with a tape machine...'”
One of the tracks from the Charlotte sessions that Brown decided to keep was Hollie Farris's ballad, 'I Want It to be Right for You'. Farris, honoured that after 30 years of service Brown was finally willing to record one of his tracks, leapt at the chance to direct the Godfather of Soul as he recorded the song. But the ballad would turn out to be one of the session’s biggest disappointments.
“He didn't even bother to learn the song before he went into the booth,” grimaces Hollie. “He just went in and made up the melody as he went. It was painful. I thought he'd do it once, butcher it, and then we'd go back and do it again. But he did one vocal take, declared his work on that song finished and refused to do it again. The whole session was like that. It was like pulling teeth.”
But the session wasn't a complete blowout. Brown used another of the Charlotte tracks – the slow blues number that Wesley had rapped over about various addictions. Scrapping Wesley’s lyrics, Brown stepped into the booth to record his own heartfelt rap about war, crime and famine. He called the track 'Message to the World'.
“One of the best things about those sessions was Brown's voice,” says saxophonist Jeff Watkins. “Even when he was just talking he sounded cool. That track was like a modern take on 'King Heroin'.
“After a while he went off topic and started talking about anything that came into his head, right down to just name-checking whoever was in the room and talking about why he liked sweetcorn and stuff. But that track is like fourteen minutes long – you could easily cut it down to five and it would sound great.”
The session produced another track, 'Gutbucket', in which Brown railed against rappers for their violent imagery and endorsement of gangster culture. During the second verse Brown yelped, “Hey rappers! Judgement day! We've got to save the kids, and music is the only way!”
“Gutbucket was the stankiest, funkiest track,” enthuses Damon Wood. Born out of a rehearsal session, Brown took the bass line from Soul Power and built a new song around it. But Keith Jenkins says Brown's methods were far from scientific.
“A lot of his contributions were just arbitrary, man,” he says. “If the wind had blown a different way then everything would have sounded completely different. When we were recording Gutbucket, I played the horn section on my guitar to show the guys how it should sound. Brown just used my guitar instead of the horns! Then he'd just tell Spike, the percussionist, to lay a heavy, offbeat shaker over the top of every single track. Arbitrary, man!”
Towards the end of the Augusta session Brown drafted in Fred Wesley. Reporter Jonathan Lethem, who sat in on two days of the Studio South session, describes Wesley as looking like he thought he'd walked into a trap. Brown had Wesley lay solos over 'Message to the World', 'Ancestors' and Hollie's butchered ballad. But even Wesley noticed that Brown seemed to be missing something.
“It was like he'd forgotten how to record,” says Wesley. “He just wasn't the old James Brown and consequently I wasn't the old Fred Wesley. I was glad a lot of the stuff I did with him didn't get released because it wasn't up to par. You have to understand that I'd been away from him for 30 years. We were going back into the studio after all that time and trying to recapture the old magic. It just wasn't there.”
At the end of the session Brown had recorded 8 new tracks. They included a couple of instrumental jazz tunes – some featuring Brown’s famously atonal organ playing, a cover of his own 1971 hit 'Soul Power', a cover of Sam and Dave's 'Hold On, I'm Coming', which he recorded with his wife Tomi-Rae, 'Message to the World', 'Gutbucket', Hollie's 'I Want It to be Right for You' and a ballad nobody remembers much about, which SuperFrank describes as sounding like Brown 'singing his own obituary'.
“The whole session was such a disappointment,” says Jeff Watkins. “We knew this would probably be his last album and we really wanted to create something amazing – something for the ages. He had a group of twenty people behind him who would have done whatever it took to make that album marvellous. But to go into the studio and record some silly jazz tunes and a cover of 'Soul Power'... What's the point?”
-Click here to read Extract Two-
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