James Brown w/ the Louie Bellson Orchestra – Man In the Glass [King/Verve]
Whisper it but James Brown was an artist whom for the most part I admire more than enjoy. This is in part due to my preference for song and novelty over the sustained groove; the more mainstream output of Brown being ahead of its time, and great party fodder, but all about the groove and little else.
I am not by any means a JB denier however, and some of his earlier recordings really turn me on. Take the Furious Flames’ first hit ‘Please, Please, Please’; lyrically there isn’t much going on here either but the begging is so insistent, so heartfelt, so soulful that the song wins through. ‘Its a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ (co-written by then girlfriend Betty Jean Newsome) is pure gold too. Perhaps my tastes champion a big band R&B croonery over a tight funk strut; more likely it’s just that ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’, ‘I Feel Good’ and ‘Sex Machine’ just seem lyrically shallow in comparison and have been done to death. And back.
There is of course my own personal brand of music snobbery at play here too. It never ceased to appall me that as a DJ I could be playing straight ahead funk and someone will approach the tables and ask if I’ve got anything funky (though worse is “got anything good?”), or that someone will recognise that you’re playing funk and will request James Brown because this is their only point of reference. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstitious’ is another lowest common denominator. There is of course nothing wrong with such requests, barring their frequency, they are just a bit obvious and carry connotations of afro-wigged theme nights that jar with a DJ prone to taking himself too seriously. Ultimately, if you can hear it on commercial radio regularly enough you don’t need to hear it from me.
Given my prejudices I have inevitably been guilty of a certain degree of James Brown avoidance, the result of which has meant that this frankly statuesque cut had escaped my sphere of consciousness until really very recently. ‘Man In the Glass’ is a souped-up throwback to his 50s releases, recorded with the Louie Bellson Orchestra under arranger/conductor Oliver Nelson for Soul On Top, a deliberately jazz-orientated take on the JB sound – or a JB take on jazz – from 1970.
Adapted from Dale Wimbrow’s 1934 poem ‘The Guy In the Glass’ by Soul On Top‘s production manager Bub Hobgood, the track in question combines conscious lyrics with a kind of swinging, full-bodied rhythm and blues, that bubbles over with soul, hints at funk, and gives way to extended grooves and a brassy refrain for James to stretch out on and do his thing.
Given his tumultuous personal life, you only wonder whether Mr Dynamite gave much thought to its message.
Soul On Top [King Records] featured ‘Man In the Glass’ and was reissued in 2004 [Verve Records].