JAMES BROWN / “Georgia On My Mind”

You want covers—which way you want it? We’ve got covers of JB’s classic “Cold Sweat” and we have James Brown covering his state song, “Georgia On My Mind.” Let’s start with “Georgia.” This is from a live concert in the late 80’s. By then JB was on the downside of his monumental career, but JB’s descent still left him higher than most pop performers ever reach. Because of his quantum funk prowess, we sometimes forget that brother Brown was a distinctive and capable vocalist who could turn in amazing treatments of ballads and blues. “Georgia” is one of those amazing performances. james brown 31.jpg What I like most about this performance is its utter sincerity. Whereas there used to be the Famous Flames and their doo-wop derived backings, now there is a mellow female chorus coo supporting the Godfather. Maceo is still there showing up with two brief solos, the first in his own bluesy voice, the second, near the end, fiercely channeling a Coltrane influence. Just past the two-minutes-left mark, the band slips into a hip ¾-jazz waltz groove, further highlighting the Coltrane influence. Topping it off is Brown at his blow-torch best, scorching the song with red-hot intense vocals that are surprisingly effective in this ballad setting. Brown never tries to croon this one nor go for the intimacy of a whisper. Naw, this is full throated shouts from a barrel-chested man who is not afraid to testify and declaim his love. I love it. The arrangement and the vocal treatment—it’s a brilliant demonstration of the enduring and endearing power of JB. james brown 11.jpg Now “Cold Sweat” is a classic slow-mo(tion) one drop with a hip little hesitation on the up-beat that gives the groove an irresistible, shoulder-shaking shimmy. This truly deft arrangement is really a combination of three distinct elements, each one of which is, in and of itself, the epitome of funk. First is the funky drummer on the bottom. Second is the bass running a counter-riff on the top, thereby actually leading the melody.  Third are the horns in a melodic-percussion mode, with a gruff baritone bottom that never quits. The original is one of the numbers James would use as a dance feature, and, good God, could the man dance. You can bet you ain’t seen nothing yet, tell you see him do the James Brown. But damn, imagine how furious he must have been stepping to keep up with this version. Back in the summer of 1970 there was a 12-hour extravaganza in the old (long-ago demolished) Sugar Bowl Stadium in New Orleans. Everybody from Ike & Tina Turner to Pacific, Gas & Electric to Isaac Hayes (with a full string orchestra) was on display that day. It was one of the greatest out-door Soul concerts of all time (yeah, better than WattStax). I, for one, thought the promoters had made a gigantic faux pas by putting James Brown at the bottom of the bill, which meant that he would not appear until after 10PM. The gates had opened before noon. By two in the afternoon over 60,000 people had nearly filled the gigantic football stadium. Somewhere right before sundown Isaac Hayes had everybody in the palm of his huge hands, massaging us with his mellifluous messages of love.  Who in the world was going to feel like boogieing down after well over eight hours of Soul music? Oh, me, of little faith... JB showed me something that night and ever since then I have been an undoubting protelytizer of the superbad, dead-on-the-one Godfather Phunk. I remember standing on the field (I had a press pass), looking up and surveying the audience. James Brown was in full throttle and the whole goddamn stadium was throbbing like one huge heart at the height of orgasm. I swear, it was awe-inspiring to see so many bodies up on their feet, synchronized in their movements, everybody bopping on the one. Not just waving their hands or clapping, not just, well, hell, maybe you can imagine what it sounds like if sixty-some thousand flat-foots respond when JB screams: STOMP YOUR FEET! The sound of it. The sight of it! The feeling. It was like everybody was wired up to the same control center. I don’t remember if JB played “Cold Sweat” that night, but “Cold Sweat” is precisely the kind of song made for stomping. james brown 15.jpg If you listen closely to the lyrics, JB is calling out dance steps and setting up for his amazing fleet-of-foot routines as well as featuring different members of the band. This was never meant to be a song in the sense of a vehicle for a vocalist, this was always meant to be a showcase for Mr. Brown the dancer. There is a North African singer from Carthage, Tunisia whose family moved to France when she was 12. During her teenage years she formally studied music and then at 24, dropped her first single, rapping over a Grandmaster Flash track. Three years later, she debuted Yalil, her first of three albums. That album contained “Belly Dance” and, the remix with the sample of “Cold Sweat,” promptly marched up the French dance charts. Her name is Amina Annabi. She is also an actress of note and a politically committed artist. amina 01.jpg Amina’s re-visioning of “Cold Sweat” is very interesting for the drum beats which manage to be both exotic-sounding and funky. Over the last ten years of so, I have played the track a number of times on the radio and usually someone calls in totally intrigued by this, this… what is this, who is this… that is always what people want to know. Amina Annabi from Tunisia. She illustrates the international influence of James Brown on dance music, especially the electronic, Euro-pop dance scene. “Cold Sweat” is not just a dance song, there is also a jazz element, especially in terms of some of what Maceo does on tenor. By the way, during his early tenure with James Brown, Maceo played tenor, probably because Mr. Brown's music director at that time, Pee Wee Ellis, played alto. craig harris 01.jpg Trombonist Craig Harris leads a mixed-bag of mostly jazz musicians, but with some R&B stalwarts, on a second cover of “Cold Sweat.” Harris even calls the band Cold Sweat. I’ve long admired Harris’ musicianship, his off-kilter and technically adventurous approach to his chosen instrument. The trombone is rarely used as a lead instrument in contemporary popular music, but Craig does it and does it extremely well. david murray 06.jpg As might be expected, Harris’ version of “Cold Sweat” features a saxophone solo. It’s whirling dervish David Murray spinning off into the stratosphere with his ultra-altissimo high notes. David can play above high C for hours with an unmatched and superb control of his instrument. Technically there is no comparison of Maceo Parker to David Murray. Murray is gifted with a double-dose of saxophone talent that he honed to an even higher level through years of hard work. For handling the full range of his horn, the only other living tenor saxophonist who might give him a run for the money is Pharoah Sanders. David is a jazz player and, as such, spins off longer lines and plays across the bars focusing on melodic or harmonic development, whereas Maceo the funk player is playing melodic rhythm-riffs that are complete within two to four bars. Part of the brevity of Maceo’s phrases is because he is accompanying a dancer, i.e. James Brown, whose dance steps are generally a series of striking moves. craig harris 05.jpg In checking out trombonist Craig Harris’ jazz version of “Cold Sweat” one is immediately struck by the fact that the jazz musicians want to play, not dance. They would get quickly bored if they had to play the same three notes for fifteen minutes, but horn players on a funk set are adept at doing just that. Moreover, a good funk player can invest so many minute variances in those three notes that neither the player nor the audience ever tires of hearing the seemingly endlessly-repeated riff. And that goes doubly so for the rhythm section. A good jazz rhythm section is always inventive, always improvising, always finding a variation to make while keeping the pulse, the beat, while swinging non-stop. But jazz swing is not the same is funk grooves. I think Harris’ version of “Cold Sweat” really illustrates the differences from the horn players on top to the rhythm section holding down the bottom. Same tune going for a similar type of feel, and though both version are well executed, the differences are unmistakable. james brown 28.jpg Finally, we have JB doing a live version. If the original was some classic superbad heavy funk, this live version recorded on August 24, 1968 in Dallas, Texas is some black-hole, ultra-funk that only a James Brown could conceive and deftly execute. The tempo is damn near doubled. The wicked drummer is a space booster playing with rocket ship intensity. Fortunately, whomever engineered the session gave us excellent placement in terms of miking the bass drum. You can really hear how Stubblefield is syncopating the downbeats with the double-bumps and even triplets pumping up the excitement. What he does would make the average drummer’s foot fall off even attempting to keep up. I have eternal admiration for Clyde Stubblefield. I have already spoken about Maceo Parker, however the real star of this version is bass player Alfonzo Kellum whose solo is a textbook case study on playing rhythm-bass. OK, you got it. “Cold Sweat” and “Georgia.” Folk covering JB and JB covering a standard. There ain’t nothing more to be said. —Kalamu ya Salaam             Soul to burn           OK, as much as I don't want to be the little kid snickering from the back row during church, this version of "Georgia On My Mind" just makes me laugh. I was trying to take it seriously, but when James suddenly requested a round of applause for 'Miss Lucy at the Day's Inn,' I couldn't take it anymore. I was laughing my ass off. I'm not saying James wasn't being sincere, but to me at least, it doesn't sound sincere. Actually, it sounds 'Las Vegas' sincere. And the last, half-strangled "Georgiaaaaaaaaaa" sounds like James got knifed between the shoulderblades right when he was reaching for that last note. I have to admit though, that I listened to "Georgia" several times. I do like it, but for all the wrong reasons. I also like the Amina tune, but not a whole lot. I certainly can't compare it to any of J.B.'s versions of "Cold Sweat," or even to the jazz version of "Cold Sweat" for that matter. james brown 23.jpg Speaking of the various versions of "Cold Sweat," Kalamu really nailed the differences in his write-up. We have the super-heavy, sweaty-club funk of the original. It's a classic piece of soul/funk that has stood the test of time. Then there's the lightspeed virtuosity of the live version. While it doesn't have that undeniable 'classic' vibe of the original, it is the more technically amazing of the two versions. This is textbook funk musicianship...at the post-graduate level, that is. The record is 12 minutes long, so try this. Listen to just the bass player for a few minutes. Try to imagine playing those callus-inducing riffs without ever missing a note. Now listen to just the drummer. As Kalamu points out, to play what Stubblefield is playing, both feet and both hands must be in constant, frenetic motion, but with a rhythmic logic that is mystically exact yet sublimely soulful. As for that solo.... What can I say? Just note that my man carries the rhythm through his entire solo, there's nothing random about it. That's a sign of a true funk master. Or try listening to the horn section for a few minutes. These cats have to be joined at the proverbial hip, or maybe they're sharing a brain, I don't know. But they somehow manage to play virtually the same riff over and over and over and over, the whole while keeping it hot and soulful yet perfectly coordinated. This is bad, bad stuff. I hate to even think about how many hours these cats had to practice their rhythmic timing to get tight enough as a band to perform like they do. The jazz version of "Cold Sweat" is illuminating for the way it highlights the differences in musicianship required for jazz musicians as opposed to funk musicians. I'm not here to claim that funk is harder to play than jazz nor would I claim that jazz musicians are doing something more difficult than their funk brethren are doing. The two disciplines are different. Kalamu already discussed the differences, so while I'm not going to get into repeating everything he said, I'll just add that like him, I immediately heard the way the jazz musicians played through the bars to create complete and coherent 'statements' with their solos whereas Maceo, a funk horn player, played brief 'comments' that never extended past a bar or so. I dig both styles. Neither is better than the other, it's just that there's a fundamental difference between funk and jazz; these two versions really illustrate that. One last thing. There's a moment in the live version of "Cold Sweat" when James is trying to get the audience to help him count-off the rhythm stabs. There must have been one or two iffy-looking faces staring back at him, because James says, "If you ain't got enough soul, lemme know and I'll loan you some. I got soul to burn." Soul to burn. You tell 'em, J.B. —Mtume ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 22nd, 2006 at 11:44 pm and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “JAMES BROWN / “Georgia On My Mind””

tayari kwa salaam Says:
April 26th, 2006 at 11:44 am

Okay. I do not n nevuh did like Georgia On My Mind. But James Brown can sing it fuh me anytime, anywhere.

Though jazz is mah favorite music genre, I’m not sure the jazz version of Cold Sweat gets it.

Ahmad Rasberry Says:
May 9th, 2006 at 6:41 pm

James Brown is the king of funk. Im a trumpet player that looks up to James Brown horn section. It would be a pleasure to meet or play with the KING!

JoVaughn Jones Says:
March 19th, 2007 at 3:27 pm

James Brown is the best singer in the history of the world

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