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Wednesday
Sep222010

James Brown

I'm currently reading an autobiography by James Brown, which was the incredibly thoughtful Christmas gift from my brother-in-law who knows I'm a big fan.  As keen as I am though, I have to admit it's a tough read - I can't think of any biography I've read that bombards you with as many dates, names and places as this one does, and it must be a result of an incredible memory or a helluva lot of research.

It genuinelly is fascinating though - his stories about growing up in a brothel, his time in juvenile prison, his early interactions with up and coming stars like Little Richard and Tina Turner; but out of all these stories, there was one that I really wanted to share with you guys.  The following is an extract from the book and it details his very first recording session for King Records, 4th February 1956:

They rolled the tape and we ripped into "Please" in our style. When we were halway through, Mr Nathan [Syd Nathan, who started the record label] suddenly jumped up from the board.

"What's that? What in the hell are they doing? Stop the tape," he yelled. "That doesn't sound right to my ears." He was in a rage. "What's going on here?" He turned on Gene Redd, who just shrugged because he didn't understand it, either. Then he turned to Ralph Bass. "I sent you out to bring back some talent, and this is what I hear. The demo was awful, and this is worse. I don't know why I have you working here. Nobody wants to hear that noise."

"It's a good song, Syd," Ralph said. "Give them a chance."

"A good song?" He looked at Ralph like Ralph was crazy. "It's a stupid song. It's got only one word in it. I've heard enough." He stormed out of the room and up the stairs to his office.

We were frozen in the studio. We had made it through only half a track of our first professionalrecording session, and the owner of the company had walked out in the middle saying we were so bad he couldn't use us. We were thinking, "Oh, Lord, we're fixing to get sent away, and we just got here." Gene came from behind the glass to talk to us.

"Can't you do it some other way?" he asked.

"That's the way we've always done it," I said.

"But Mr Nathan doesn't like it," he said.

"Mr Nathan doesn't understand it," I said. He looked disturbed at that. "Everybody's music can't be alike, Mr Redd. If everybody comes up here and goes to cutting alike, then nobody's going to do anything."

I showed him the chord changes on the piano and explained to him what we were doing. Once he understood, and it made sense to him, he said he would go and tell Mr Nathan that they should try it, even if it sounded funny. He was gone a long time. While we were waiting, hanging out in the hall, we could hear them yelling upstairs behind closed doors. When Gene came back, all he said was, "Okay, we're going to cut it." When Mr Nathan never showed up again, we couldn't help feeling that the session wasn't legit, but we went ahead with it anyway.  [...]

Before we left Cincinnati we saw a handful of 78 RPM pressings of "Please," but as soon as we got back to Macon we got worried. We heard that Ralph Bass had been fired and King wasn't going to release the record. Mr Nathan hated the master as much as he hated the demo. Mr Brantly was on the phone to him every day for nearly a month. At the end of February, Mr Nathan told him against his better judgment he was going to put the record out on his Federal label. So on March 3, 1956, "Please Please Please" was released. Eventually, it sold a million copies.

James Brown 'The Godfather of Soul', James Brown and Bruce Tucker, 1986, Aurum Press.

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