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James Brown: Soul on Top

In 1970, James Brown took what has been judged both a bold leap forward and a career misstep with the jazz-tinged, big-band outing Soul on Top. Though the public literally didn’t buy the Godfather of Soul stretching out with the Louie Bellson Orchestra (Soul on Top climbed to a disappointing 125 on the Billboard charts at a time when Brown platters were all but guaranteed to turn gold), it remains an anomaly in a career so deeply steeped in funkified excess. As the much-anticipated CD reissue from Verve attests, Brown, working here with arranger/conductor Oliver Nelson, manages remarkable restraint on such traditionally soft, mellow fare as “What Kind of Fool Am I?” “That’s My Desire” and “It’s Magic.” Still, this is James Brown, a guy who has never pulled well in harness. He turns “Your Cheatin’ Heart” into three minutes of groove-shaking exuberance and renders “September Song” all but unrecognizable while urging aging listeners to “put more gut in your strut.” Most interesting are inventive covers of such then-contemporary Brown hits as “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” which do more than anything else here to demonstrate the breadth of his underrated musical dexterity.

The soul cognoscenti will heartily embrace this overdue rerelease, as they should. There is, though, also plenty here for the rest of us to learn and enjoy about a too-tightly categorized superstar’s noble attempt at something different. If nothing else, you’ve got to love the cover photo that looks as if Brown, dressed to the nines and lying in an open field with a particularly phallic felled tree behind him, is set to audition for a Mario Van Peebles update of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Originally Published