Looking for another reason why James Brown was called the hardest working man in show business? Consider that in 1969 Brown was recording some of the greatest earth shattering funk to ever hit the streets, both then and now, and throw in the fact that he was still touring relentlessly. Add to that the fact that somehow – did the man ever sleep or what – JB found the time to visit a Hollywood soundstage and record what I consider to be a funk/jazz masterpiece with the Louie Bellson Orchestra conducted by Oliver Nelson. James…are you kidding me?
Released in 1970, Soul on Top is unlike anything else in James Brown’s vast catalog of groundbreaking material. Backed by big band arrangements that swell with a swinging jazz energy, Brown proceeds to shout, scream, and shimmy his way through jazz standards, show tunes, and other assorted songs that become all his own. Based on the track list you could easily assume that this could be a potential train wreck of an album. But this is James Brown in 1969 and he is arguably at the most creative peak of his career. I mean, just look at that cover. Does the man look like he lacks the confidence to cover such an oddball collection of material? Do you really think that a 1969 JB is going to give any less than MORE than humanly possible?
Things start off innocently enough with a summery, almost lighthearted version of “That’s My Desire” that quickly sets the tone for the rest of the album with Brown’s trademark screams. Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” goes completely ballistic with a powerful jazz arrangement that just cooks while JB screams his funky heart out – you’ve never heard a Hank Williams cover like this. This is quickly followed by a beautiful version of “What Kind of Fool Am I?” that is sung with a quiet restraint that proves just how wonderful a singer Brown really was.
Of course, none of the preceding songs have prepared us for the epic emotional onslaught of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Sung with a fury that is perhaps one of his greatest vocal performances of all time, Brown wrings every available bit of emotion from the song and for more than six minutes there is nothing else in the world except James Brown and the Louie Bellson Orchestra. The band reaches a boiling point early on and hangs back while Brown goes into one of his classic soul reviews resplendent with numerous screams and grunts. There is a surge of power that is simply astonishing as James and the band tear through the song’s simmering groove with an ease that is quite unbelievable – that such a large band, and not even JB’s regular recording band, could sustain such powerful tension…it’s simply too much for words.
Then, just when you have been completely drained of all emotion, the album pulls out another stinger with an equally powerful “The Man in the Glass.” This pair of songs is some of the most alarmingly powerful pairings in album history. Again the band tackles the song with a stunning musical arrangement and lay back in the groove as James does his thing over top. And, man, what a thing he does. His pleads of “never give up!” go straight to the very core of man, the very soul of humanity, and suddenly James Brown is even bigger than any of us ever dreamed. That big, powerful voice of his cuts through the mix perfectly as the band builds up waves of tension and release that continually push Brown further and further into cosmic vocal climax. Amazing.
“It’s Magic” takes a very lazy summer day approach that leads perfectly into the horn lead grooving perfection that is the unedited take of “September Song.” Brown’s delivery is perfect as always, but what really makes the song is the coda which is simply stunning. Holy mackerel, what a ridiculous jam it is that ensues with Brown once again doing his thing over top and pleading with the band to bring him up. “For Once in My Life” and “Every Day I Have the Blues” both take a late night approach that just begs to be listened to with a glass of bourbon on ice and turned up loud – it’s just plain cool like no one does cool anymore. “I Need Your Key (To Turn Me On)” features some classic JB mutterings and a fantastic solo from drummer Louie Bellson that just cooks.
The album nears its end with two smoking renditions of James Brown classics. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” unfurls at a breakneck pace that seems almost inhuman in its execution while Brown and sax player Maceo Parker deliver their classic call and response with stunning results. That anyone could keep up with the unwavering tempo is just beyond comprehension. “There Was a Time” hits hard with a huge big band intro and an almost bolero like march to the beat. Brown is, of course, all over it and seems to be really, really enjoying himself and the music at hand.
Soul on Top is not only unlike any other James Brown album, but also unlike any other album in general. The energy from Brown and the band just pours forth from the speakers and is delivered in fantastic sound and excellent stereo separation. It is one of the most powerful, emotional, and just plain amazing things I have ever heard and I can’t recommend it enough. There was a lot going on with JB in 1969 and this is right up there with the best of it. It is indeed truly, truly amazing. Ridiculously recommended.
- “That’s My Desire” – 4:07
- “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – 2:56
- “What Kind of Fool Am I?” – 3:02
- “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” – 6:36
- “The Man In The Glass” – 5:52
- “It’s Magic” – 3:10
- “September Song” – 4:59
- “For Once in My Life” – 4:40
- “Every Day I Have the Blues” – 4:24
- “I Need Your Key (To Turn Me On)” – 3:42
- “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” – 4:38
- “There Was A Time” – 3:05