Although Christmas should be a happy time for all of us, those in the music world will always feel just a bit sadder since one of the greatest soul legends and the man who brought us the funk, James Brown, died on Christmas day 14 years ago.
And while he’s missed by all, he’ll never be forgotten because of his bigger than life personality and incredibly powerful voice. Even though he’s been dead for 14 years, the sound of his maniac screaming will never leave our collective heads. It’s like he’s screaming from beyond the grave, but not in a scary way… more of an oddly comforting one.
With that in mind, here are 10 prime examples of JB at his screaming best:
10. Dick Hyman “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose” from The Age Of Electronicus
This one isn’t even a Brown scream. But sometimes you have to step outside the man.
When jazz pianist and organist Dick Hyman began to play around with the Moog synthesizer in the late ’60s, he covered JB’s “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose” on The Age Of Electronicus. He explains in the liner notes that he simulates Brown’s vocals “electronically by the synthesizer in swooshes, sweeps, and explosions of what engineers call, ironically, white noise.”
It’s a brave attempt, but it was already well-proven by 1969 that no machine could ever duplicate anything about the hardest working man in show business.
9. “Smokin’ & Drinkin'” from Soul Syndrome
While it was quite common to hear Brown start off a track with a spectacular scream, he only ever started or ended one coughing his lungs out.
JB made a career out of letting the youth of the world know that he believed they should stay in school and away from bad influences like drugs. Classics like “King Heroin” and “Public Enemy” were hard-hitting raps on these dangers. But by 1980, the message seems somewhat diluted with “Smokin’ & Drinkin.'”
He starts off by coughing and exclaiming, “I need some Listerine!” He also hacks his way out, too. Ironically, Brown found himself becoming exactly what he had preached against for so long in the ’90s when he fought with wives, shot up bathrooms and had wild car crashes with the cops due to some mighty bad drug abuse.
8. “Down And Out In New York City” from Black Caesar
JB isn’t really remembered for his soundtrack work like contemporaries Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, but he did some that still stands up and, of course, features lots of crazed screaming.
“Down And Out In New York City” was really a bit of a departure for JB, since it sounded like something Mayfield might have done for Superfly, the only soundtrack in history to do better than its film. Check out things from the three-minute mark as JB opens the floodgates for about 24 seconds, letting loose all the pain of being down and out.
7. “I Got Ants In My Pants (And I Want To Dance)” from Motherlode
The studio equivalent of JB screaming like the proverbial banshee has got to be “I Got Ants In My Pants (And I Want To Dance).”
It kicks off with a scream and, by the middle of the track, there are both short bursts and elongated yelps all over the place. This one even stops a few times just so they can start it all up again with another belt from the master’s molten larynx. I guess ants in the pants would make anybody scream, but only JB can pull it off for eight minutes.
6. “Mother Popcorn” from Sex Machine
Every once in a while, there wasn’t much in the way of singing at all, just unadulterated sonic blasts straight from the man’s gut. A lot of the time these moments came in the frenzy of the live experience.
So you should experience the recorded live version of “Mother Popcorn,” which was released in an edited version on 1970’s Sex Machine. The full version appeared on the Foundations Of Funk – A Brand New Bag: 1964-1969 compilation, and the last two minutes of the song is JB constantly shouting.
5. “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)”
from Foundations Of Funk – A Brand New Bag: 1964-1969
When JB really got working, he’d have all these elements mixed together in one classic, like the immortal “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me).”
This one has it all, from the first scream clocking in at the three-second mark to one of the craziest riffs to lock down a funk tune. In its complete unedited form (available on Foundations Of Funk), it runs more than seven minutes and features one of JB’s famous workout sessions with the band (the inevitable Part 2 of the 45).
He gets the band to come in all at once when he screams, or as he explains it, “When I say ‘OW!’ and I say ‘OW!’ again, and I say ‘now!'” How many guys could record band practice and turn it into a hit? And if all this wasn’t enough, the original album has a photo of some sweet young things checking out Mr. Dynamite’s package!
4. “Brother Rapp” from Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off
JB sometimes wouldn’t even wait for a song to start before he began screaming.
One of his biggest hits ever, “I Got You (I Feel Good),” starts and ends with a holler. “Give It Up And Turn It Loose” begins with the audio equivalent of sitting on a tack. When he redid “Sex Machine” in 1975, he started it off with a heavily processed disco-electro yelp.
But the best of the thunderbolts that started songs have to be in “Brother Rapp.” The title might suggest someone with something to say, but JB quickly establishes that even though he might have something to say, he still feels he has to scream to get our attention. As he became more of a legend and had the world’s respect, the screaming seemed to die down.
3. “Lost Someone” from Live At The Apollo
Live At The Apollo was the record that brought JBrown to national attention and is considered by many to be one of the greatest live albums of all time. The 1962 record includes a lot of screaming from both Brown and the ladies in the crowd.
During his super-extended version of “Lost Someone,” JB feeds off the crowd so much that he tells them he has to hear them scream. “Don’t just say ‘ow,’ say OWWW!,” he exclaims, “and I believe my work will be done.” And you can tell he means every word of it. Again, this became a constant JB device, heard to a frantic degree on Sex Machine during “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
2. “Shout And Shimmy”
You can’t do much better than “Shout And Shimmy” for screaming intensity. Brown has the rest of the band yelling with him right out of the gate. Ten seconds in, he’s already in mid-scream. And while it may get lambasted as being a rip-off of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” this was the one that got covered by The Who and influenced countless other garage bands.
1. “Baby, You’re Right” from Think
Brown began his career in the R&B era of the ’50s before moving more towards soul and eventually creating funk. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t already screaming his fool head off.
There are countless examples from this period (check out Roots Of A Revolution), but the winner for sheer intensity is “Baby, You’re Right,” which was written by Joe Tex and recorded in September 1960. The song is almost a dirge with a bit of a swagger, and JB’s screaming for a lost love. It’s also a great example of a trick Brown used throughout his career: if you can’t come up with lyrics, just scream the titles of your past hits.