James Brown 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag'

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Published in SOS June 2014
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'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag' was James Brown's statement of intent as he abandoned soulful ballads in favour of a raw and frenetic new sound.

Richard Buskin

"Most of the time, working with James Brown, it would be down to the first complete cut,” recording engineer Ron Lenhoff told me when I interviewed him in 1988. "He'd say to me, 'Ron, are you ready?' and if I said, 'Yes,' he would cut it. After that, if he got all the way through it without stopping, I'd better have it on tape. I never ran into the situation where I didn't have it on tape, but I sure as hell always worried about it.”

Lenhoff captured many of Brown's most iconic performances during the halcyon years when he was signed to the independent King Records label in Cincinnati, Ohio. This was founded in 1943 by one Syd Nathan, who, after initially owning a record store there, launched King as a country‑oriented label and, in 1944, based it within an old chemical plant in Cincinnati's Evanston neighbourhood.

This facility was subsequently converted into a pressing plant and business offices while the adjacent icehouse was transformed into a recording studio. In 1945, the Queen Records subsidiary was formed to release the work of black artists, before being folded two years later so that musicians of all creeds, colours and musical genres could be incorporated under the King banner. This was in line with the company's non‑discriminatory policy of employing black and white workers at a facility that took care of recording, mastering, electroplating, printing, pressing, artwork and shipping under one roof. Indeed, Nathan ensured that, in addition to performing their own music, black artists such as Wynonie Harris delved into country while hillbilly acts such as Moon Mullican and the Delmore Brothers recorded R&B. This was several years before Sam Phillips did the same on his legendary Sun label with the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. What's more, King only recorded and released songs that they owned.

James Brown on stage in 1964.Photo: GettyIn 1950, Syd Nathan launched another subsidiary, Federal Records, and this was the label that, run by R&B record producer Ralph Bass, signed James Brown and his backing group the Famous Flames. As it happens, Nathan originally passed on Brown after hearing his demo of 'Please, Please, Please', rejecting it as "a piece of trash [with] only one word in it”. Bass, however, thought otherwise, taking Brown and his colleagues into the studio so that he could produce the record that went on to become a million-seller. Several subsequent releases flopped, before the ballad 'Try Me', released in October 1958, became the first of 17 Brown recordings to top the R&B chart.

This, in turn, led to Syd Nathan reappraising James Brown's talents and, in 1960, shifting him from Federal to King. Brown had several more hit singles before, against his supposedly better judgement, the company boss was persuaded by the fast‑rising 'Mr Dynamite' to release


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