The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club ’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
There’s a strong case to be made that James Brown was the most influential musical artist of the 20th century. Had he retired in 1964, he’d still be remembered as the greatest soul singer ever, and had he wanted to rest on those laurels, he could have lived out the rest of his life as The Godfather Of Soul simply on the strength of “Please, Please, Please” and the rest of his work with the Famous Flames. But in 1965, Brown changed his sound, and with it the sound of popular music itself. With the help of bandleader Pee Wee Ellis, Brown created a new sound in which he saw everything—horns, bass, guitar, even his own voice—as a form of percussion. Brown and Ellis replaced the 6/8 time signature that had dominated their earlier work, and soul music in general, in favor of a driving 4/4 that was soon imitated by artists of every stripe.
While JB’s new sound was innovative, it was also instantly accessible, giving him a string of hits including “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Cold Sweat,” and “I Got The Feelin’.” With a string of hits, a huge fan base, and a reputation as The Hardest Working Man In Show Business (he put out 31 studio albums in the 1960s—including seven albums in 1966 alone—and 23 more in the ’70s), the rest of Brown’s career could have easily been an extended victory lap.
Instead, James Brown changed music again, as he and a band that included Ellis, Maceo Parker, and Clyde “The Funky Drummer” Stubblefield more or less invented funk, a bass- and drums-oriented style of music that smashed the verse-chorus-verse structure that had dominated popular music as long as popular music had existed, building songs around one or two repeated figures.
Nowhere is Brown’s upheaval of pop music’s unwritten laws more apparent than on one of the nine singles he sent up the charts in 1968. “Say It Loud—I’m Black And I’m Proud” pushed JB’s new sound to its logical extreme. The band vamps on a single chord for the entire length of the song, apart from a bridge, which sticks to just one note. The horns play a figure and the guitar answers, echoing the vocal call-and-response of the chorus.
There’s basically no singing in this song. Brown had a powerful and versatile voice, capable of the tenderness we hear on “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” or the guttural intensity of “Cold Sweat.” But on earlier songs, he’d often abandon a melody to speak or shout a phrase. “Say It Loud” doesn’t have a melody; Brown’s vocals are simply a series of declarations on a favorite theme of black self-reliance and empowerment.
With vocals that are merely speaking in rhyme over a repetitive musical figure with a strong drumbeat, “Say it Loud” created a blueprint for hip-hop, mapped out a full decade before “Rapper’s Delight.” Early hip-hop was overrun with samples of Brown’s music—his voice and Stubblefield’s drumming in particular. But the very idea of rap music is laid out in this single; it just took the rest of the world 10 years to catch on.
That alone would make a strong case for “Say It Loud” as the most influential single of the 20th century. But what cements the claim is the second half of that title: “I’m Black And I’m Proud.”
In 1967, African Americans were still called Negroes. That was the term used by civil rights leaders, by the respectable middle class, and by white people who had some modicum of respect for their fellow man. “Black” wasn’t an epithet, per se, but it was far from the preferred term, and was sometimes used as an insult. By the late ’60s, some efforts had been made to reclaim the word, and some inroads had been made. But James Brown blew things wide open with those five words: “I’m black and I’m proud.”
As uplifting as the language of the Civil Rights movement had been in the decade prior, the tone was one of equality—“we’re as good as you, we’re the same as you, we deserve the same treatment as you.” Brown’s statement was no less noble, but the tone was completely different. In this song, Brown loves being black, he’s proud of who he is, and he portrays his race as something to celebrate, not as an obstacle to work around. What’s more, Brown doesn’t simply ask the listener to feel the same way—he insists on it.
James Sullivan’s excellent biography The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved The Soul Of America tells the singer’s life story, focusing on the historic concert in Boston on the night of Martin Luther King’s death, in which Brown kept a citywide TV audience spellbound, effectively preventing the kind of widespread rioting that was happening in other areas of the country. “Say It Loud” was released only four months later, and helped cement Brown’s place as an icon within the black community.
Also included in the book is the story of the song’s recording. The title phrase had already been in use for a few years, and Brown had been using it as an inspirational mantra for his touring ensemble for some time. As trombonist Fred Wesley said, Brown “took a lot of credit for things other people said, but he said it on a record. He said it louder.” While in the studio, JB decided to attach the phrase to a horn riff he and Ellis had worked out. He wanted the call-and-response of the chorus to sound like a playground chant, so he sent a band member to a nearby Denny’s restaurant to drag bunch of kids—not all of them black, according to Brown—back to the studio to shout the response.
The result was an instant smash. The song went to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was one of Brown’s 16 no. 1 hits on the R&B charts. But the cultural impact was bigger than that: By the end of the decade, “black” had replaced “Negro” as the preferred term. That didn’t happen only because of “Say It Loud—I’m Black And I’m Proud,” but Brown put the phrase on everyone’s lips. The singer himself had become the public embodiment of Black Pride, even cutting off his iconic pompadour and going natural for several years following the song’s release.
Musically, Brown would continue to innovate for another decade. In 1970 most of his band quit en masse in a pay dispute, to be replaced by new players that included brothers Bootsy and Catfish Collins. The new band, called The J.B.s, boldly announced Brown’s new sound with its first single, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” and Brown and The J.B.s spent the next decade exploring funk, and laying down beats that would make up hip-hop’s foundation. Still, the origin of both genres can be traced to the same song, one that still resonates 45 years later.