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Following The Funk To Its Shake-Your-Booty Maturity With Its Architect, James Brown

Allan Green
AP Photo
James Brown performs at the rock festival held at Roosevelt Raceway in New York on August 12, 1972.

Take a listen to “Sex Machine” from 1970 by the architect of Funk, James Brown.

Brown is the focus of our discussion as we follow this music from its roots in R & B to full-blown, shake-your-booty Funk.

First let’s try to define Funk music. Let’s pick out three things. First, there’s the emphasis on the groove with the bass and drums featured. Number two, the drums, bass, guitar and horns have interlocking rhythms. And third, Funk features repetition.

And believe it or not, here’s where it all begins: James Brown’s first hit single, “Please, Please, Please” from 1956.

"Please, Please, Please"

This sounds very typical of music from the mid ‘50s; it almost has a kind of doo-wop flavor.

But we do hear one of the elements of Funk, which is repetition. This song is basically just “please, please, please, please” over and over, and over.

Let’s jump ahead four years to 1960, and this is James Brown performing “Think.”


What catches the ear about this tune is that it’s obviously syncopated, and his vocal style is really starting to come forward. The syncopation comes from the fact that early on, he was working with New Orleans-influenced drummers.

He’s starting to get funky, but still kind of within the existing rhythm-and-blues template.

Let’s move forward a few years to 1964 and James Brown's “Out of Sight.”

"Out of Sight"

And what differentiates this song from the one we just heard is that the groove is getting more powerful. That groove is really one of the dominant things you notice about the song.

About a year later, Brown released another single that was a game-changer for him, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

"Papa's Got A Brand New Bag"

“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is kind of like “Out of Sight” on steroids, but there are some important differences. The electric guitar is very much more forward in the mix, and it seems like those interlocking rhythms are happening more aggressively.

The song may sound funky, but it’s not yet Funk; it has to be just a little bit simpler.

Whereas “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” has three chords, here comes 1970’s “Sex Machine,” which basically has one chord for the whole song.

"Sex Machine"

And now we’ve arrived at Funk. The song places emphasis on the groove. The bass and drums are dominant, the interlocking rhythms are present and there is plenty of repetition.

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.
Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.