July 1967

There needn’t be any intricate introduction or prolonged formalities for this one. If you don’t already know, James Brown is one of the funkiest men to ever walk this Earth. His heart beat to a syncopated rhythm as he glided across the stage with all of the regality deserving of his title as the “King of Soul.” When we talk about James Brown, we often connect with his incomparable stage presence. His music reflected the boisterous nature of his personality. It was vivacious and completely outlandish even during its most tempered moments. No other artist in history could make the wearisome act of fatigue look so stylish. Adorned in his signature cape, placed over him by the legendary MC Danny Ray, Brown could walk of stage with an unparalleled cool. This is the James Brown we most often discuss.

But in doing so, we overlook parts of a man whose influence and abilities far outreached our own understanding of him as an artist. As we take a look back, we should never forget James Brown, the risk taker. This was highlighted most on his rare 1967 release Cold Sweat, an album greatly overlooked amongst his many great works, despite its rich connection to various other sounds.

As a whole, the project wanders across genres. This musical rollercoaster ride begins with the funk-infused two part jam “Cold Sweat.” It is great music, without a doubt, but it’s musical impact was much greater as, in many ways, it was the bridge connecting the past to the future of American music. On the song’s composition, Brown’s bandleader, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis said, “After one of the shows, one night somewhere, James called me into the dressing room and grunted a bass line of a rhythmic thing (demonstrates), which turned out to be “Cold Sweat.” I was very much influenced by Miles Davis and had been listening to “So What” six or seven years earlier and that crept into the making of “Cold Sweat.” You could call it subliminal, but the horn line is based on Miles Davis’ ‘So What.'”

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“Cold Sweat” is a groundbreaking moment if only for the fact that it ushered in the entire funk era. Its intrigue, however, lies within the fact that it falls into the lineage of jazz motifs created by Miles Davis. Funk became the music of the day, only thanks to the music of the past. Its contributions to the future can be found on most popular records today. On this record, Brown shouts the classic line “give the drummer some,” a nod to his longtime collaborator, the renowned drummer Clyde Stubblefield. This seemingly routine call led to a drum solo that would define the concept of “breaks,” a model that not only influenced dance music of the era, but ultimately led to the sampling dynamics of hip-hop music that we have seen over the last 30 years.

What is interesting about this album is that once it lays down an essentially new sound for the time, it reverts to a more traditional music styling with several covers of jazz/pop standards. It begins with a rehashing of the Eden Ahbez composition, “Nature Boy,” made popular by Nat King Cole. It’s important to note the obvious differences between the voice of Cole and Brown. The smooth vocal proclivities of Cole were an appropriate fixture of singers in the field of jazz and pop music during that era. Brown on the other hand, will forever be known for his erratically brilliant voice, chock full of wails and commanding vibrato. For many, it was not an appropriate vehicle for covering standards, only enhancing the album’s lukewarm reception. I, however, believe that these sort of divergent takes on traditional sounds should be applauded. Going on to tackle such popular songs as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “I Loves You Porgy, and “Mona Lisa,” Brown brought his own vocal sensibilities to the table making these distinctly unique from other cover versions. What some may call cacophony; I call a masterpiece of contradictions.

Cold Sweat is a fascinating project. While it may not be heralded like many of Brown’s other great works, it should be noted that this is easily one of his most influential and diverse. Without this project, we do not get to fully see James Brown as the innovator or the jazz man, two roles, I believe, he played quite well. If you appreciate contradictory sounds and historical relevancy, this is a project worth your while.

Words by Paul Pennington



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