Diving into Disco, Part 4 — Funk and Memphis Soul

Diving into Disco, Part 4 — Funk and Memphis Soul

“What you gonna play now? Bobby I don’t know but whats it ever I play It’s got to be funky!”—James Brown, “Make It Funky!”

Born in Barnwell, South Carolina, James Brown had to hustle his way up and out from extreme poverty. Partly raised by a mostly-absent mother and abusive father-husband, young Brown bore the brunt of a rough, tough childhood, shining shoes for less than a dime, and living with one of his aunts in a brothel; his mother left them for New York when he was four. After winning a talent contest, he drew heavy inspiration from preachers and gospel singers, borrowing visual and oratory skills for what would become his exciting live shows.

1956 concert poster
(photo source unknown) The Famous Flames, with James Brown as lead singer – C. 1950s

In 1956, Brown got his first big break when he got signed as a member of the Famous Flames through Little Richard’s manager, Clint Brantley.

The Flames’ first single, “Please, Please, Please” planted the seeds of soul music, earning Brown the monikers, “The Godfather of Soul” and “Soul Brother No. 1”. But soul was not the greatest gift the Godfather giveth.

Make it funky”

As early as the mid-1950s, jazz musicians, such as pianist Horace Silver, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, combined bebop elements with R&B, and traditional Black gospel sounds.

(photo source unknown)Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers

Signed to Alfred Lion’s Blue Note label, they coined this new hybrid style hard bop. By 1964, Brown was experimenting on a formula of his own, shifting emphasis from beats ‘two’ and ‘four’ of the song’s measure to the “one”, the downbeat, to emphasize the first beat of every measure, all the while prioritizing rhythmic groove and horn stabs over melodic content and chord progressions. Guitar playing took on strictly rhythmic duties over any soloing.

(photo by Michael Ochs Archives) James Brown performs on the T.A.M.I. Show (live), in October, 1964
(photo by Don Paulsen) James Brown at the Apollo Theater in New York City, 1964

Released in July, 1964, “Out of Sight” featured Brown’s first forays into funk territory. The album, of the same name, also featured the original version of “I Got You“, a full year before the single hit the top of the charts. This new way of thinking and playing progressed with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag“, released in June, 1965.

“Hold on I’m comin’…”
(Photo by Everett Collection) Otis Redding

Harvesting the southern soul foods from the music fields of Memphis, singer Otis Redding digs up a lot of “Respect” in August, 1965.

Aretha Franklin would earn even more respect with her defining version of the song in March, 1967, channeling the civil rights movement and spearheading women’s rights with her own interpretation. Musically, Redding’s version, with its strong and steady 4/4 time signature, helped define disco’s “four on the floor” rhythm pattern.

(photo source unknown)The Mar-Keys

Backed by Booker T. & The M.G.’s, The Mar-Keys, and The Memphis Horns, things are rocking on Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul, where the soul legend covers Sam Cooke’s “Shake” and “(A) Change Gonna Come“, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction“, and Smokey Robinson’s classic composition “My Girl” (linked version performed by The Temptations).

In December, 1965, Redding released “I Can’t Turn You Loose“, a song that re-emerged as a disco hit for singer Anthony White in May, 1977. R&B and soul duo Sam & Dave, supported by Stax songwriters Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter, penned the duo’s first hit “Hold On, I’m Comin‘”, released in March, 1966. Canadian singer, Karen Silver, would cover it in a colder electro-style version in 1979.

Sam & Dave would again hit the jackpot with “Soul Man” in August, 1967, from the LP Soul Men, and a final time with “I Thank You” in January, 1968.

Another Stax stalwart was Eddie Floyd who released his biggest hit, “Knock on Wood“, in September, 1966, while singer Amii Stewart had even greater success with the song when her disco-fied version of it came out in late December, 1978. Guitarist Steve Cropper co-wrote the song with Floyd.

Next stop, put on your dancing boots, because we’re going to a go-go!

Reference List (singles, albums, and labels):

  • “Please, Please, Please” [Federal 45-12258 or King Records 610]
  • “Out of Sight” [Smash Records DJS-5 or MGS 27058]
  • “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”[King Records 45-5999 or 938]
  • “Respect” [Volt V-128]
  • “Respect” [Atlantic 45-2403]
  • Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul [Volt S-412]
  • “I Can’t Turn You Loose” [Volt 45-130]
  • “I Can’t Turn You Loose” [Salsoul Records 12D-2030]
  • “Hold On, I’m Comin’ ” [Stax 45-189 or SD-708]
  • “Hold On, I’m Comin’ ” [Skyline Records SKY D 103]
  • “Soul Man” [Stax S-231]
  • Soul Men [Stax S725]
  • “I Thank You” [Stax 45-242 or Atlantic SD 8205]
  • “Knock on Wood” [Stax 45-194 or SD-714]
  • “Knock on Wood” [Ariola Records America, Hansa PRO 7736]

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