Friday, December 29, 2006

Tribute to the Godfather: What It Is!

James Brown:

Mind Power
Mind Power (alternate)



James Brown, like most of the funky soul brothers of the early '70s, was called upon to contribute to blaxploitation movie soundtracks as the genre flowered. JB was a natural for this, as he was still putting out hits at an amazing rate, but he showed very little interest in being an auteur a la Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield. His opinion was that he could just string together music he had already done to go alongside the movie's scenes; fortunately Fred Wesley and others impressed upon JB to do a little more work than that, but in the end the soundtracks are hit-and-miss affairs. Although the Black Caesar and Slaughter's Big Rip-Off soundtracks are nowhere in the same league as Isaac Hayes' Shaft or Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, however, they each had their moments: "Down In Out In New York City," "Blind Man Can See It," "The Boss" and "Mama Feelgood" from Black Caesar (the latter sung by Lyn Collins) and "People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul" and "Sexy, Sexy, Sexy" from Slaughter's Big Rip-Off come to mind right away. And then there's the soundtrack that didn't happen.

JB's second-strongest album of his entire discography, The Payback (the legendary Live at the Apollo is, of course, the greatest JB album EVER), was actually planned to be the soundtrack to Hell Up In Harlem, but studio execs, unbelievably, didn't think the music was funky enough to use in the movie! Fortunately, JB didn't shelve the rejected material. Polydor released The Payback in 1974 and the dark, brooding title track shot straight to #1 on the R&B charts and has endured to the present day as a funk anthem and as an immensely-popular source of hip-hop samples. (By the way, the neither the film nor its soundtrack - whose composer I can't recall - fared very well.) The Payback is full of good material, and the improv jam "Mind Power" closed out the album. Over a great groove, James gives a little autobiography and then uses some incoherent talk about ESP, positive thinking and mind power (not unlike his monologue on "Escape-Ism") to create the riff of "what it is, what it is" that drives the tune along. James' vocals are pretty meaningless overall, as this is just a solid slab of funk that doesn't let up for its whole twelve minutes. I first heard this great recording on the now-defunct KoolOut online radio show and find it to be a favorite to the very day.

The 1990s release of the Make It Funky: The Big Payback, 1971-1975 comp from Polydor unearthed a nice treat from the Payback sessions. When James and the band recorded "Mind Power" the tape reel ran out, but engineer Bob Both didn't tell JB. Instead, he stuck another reel on and continued to record. Assumedly, then, the ending of "Mind Power" on the Payback LP was a post-production move, as the captured material that made its way onto the Make It Funky comp finds JB and the band jamming along and having some fun. James admires the "stick player"'s groove ("that's how we started ... man I used to blow a can ... I sure wish I had a comb and some paper, I could play some music now!") and gets Fred Wesley to imitate a Dixieland trombone player, Guy Lombardo and Herb Alpert (!) It's a nice tune all by itself and is a great way to get the great "Mind Power" groove in a smaller dose.

1 comment:

t said...

Hey Jason! According to Blaxploitation.com, the Hell Up In Harlem soundtrack was produced by Fonce Mizell (of the Mizell Brothers) and Freddie Perren featuring Edwin Starr on lead vocals