EARWORM! Soul Brothers No. 1 and 2

You don’t expect a superstar to be discovered by his own backup singer, but that’s a debt we owe to Bobby Byrd. The gospel-trained shouter not only boasted an earthy voice and a powerful sense of rhythm, but he knew talent when he saw it, and what he saw in James Brown nearly struck him blind.

You don’t expect a superstar to be discovered by his own backup singer, but that’s a debt we owe to Bobby Byrd. The gospel-trained shouter not only boasted an earthy voice and a powerful sense of rhythm, but he knew talent when he saw it, and what he saw in James Brown nearly struck him blind.

Byrd was 18 and just a year older than Brown when they first met. They were competitors who became collaborators — Byrd’s baseball team took on Brown’s reform-school league in a game, and the juvenile offender’s off-the-cuff singing caught Byrd’s ear. He became a mentor and friend, arranging the fatherless Brown’s parole into his family’s custody.

Brown’s vocal approach was wild and unschooled, but Byrd, then heading up the Gospel Starlighters, saw a chance to harness its passion. “I didn’t need him in competition, I needed him with me,” Byrd later said. “That’s why I worked so hard to get him over to my group.”

An early hit, “Please, Please, Please,” was a traditionalist doo-wop number from which Brown yearned to fly. Set loose, his persona — the  improvisational banter with the band, the wordless whoops and yowls, the bare couplets — became the lodestone around which Byrd’s shifting band lineup would reorient. Byrd fell into the role of backing singer with the Famous Flames, here glimpsed in one of Brown’s ruthlessly choreographed stage routines in 1966.

What could Byrd do, if he wanted to ride this meteor, but be sublimated? His assertive baritone became Brown’s counterpoint, the “get on up,” the shouted refrain. After the Flames disbanded in 1970 and the instrumental band acquired its funkiest anchor in bassist Bootsy Collins, Byrd’s stage mic took its place just to Brown’s right and and slightly upstage. The flashy costuming, the dance artistry and the cape routine all belonged to to the man whose name now headlined the posters. Still, they were peers.

Byrd’s gruff phrasing was badly missed when Brown and the JB’s played “Soul Power” at Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974 — otherwise one of their finest filmed performances. And as one of James Brown’s People, Byrd earned a recording showcase that put his own voice front and center.

Part of greatness is recognizing greatness. Another part is getting out of its way. Brown and Byrd fell out over royalties and, perhaps more hurtfully, songwriting credit. Even if Byrd was never granted a written stake in some of Brown’s best work, his mark is as indelible as those left by Collins or Maceo Parker. And they loved each other: Byrd sang at Brown’s funeral, just nine months before his own death. That’s soul.

De La Soul feat. Butta Verses — You Got It

The Apollo Commanders — James Brown Medley (I Made A Mistake/Lowdown Popcorn)

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11 Responses to EARWORM! Soul Brothers No. 1 and 2

  1. runtobefit says:

    Great post…it was both educational and interesting. I enjoyed it!

    http://www.runtobefit.wordpress.com

  2. I did not know the history of Brown’s discovery. What a fantastic story…thanks for sharing…

  3. 2zpoint says:

    Excellent story! When you titled it Earworm it made my skin crawl so I had to see what I needed to be watching out for! I ‘m glad it just turned out to be a couple of elderly juveniles! They are some of the funnest singers there ever has been…or for that matter ever will be.

  4. rtcrita says:

    Are there any movies in the works on his life? I would surely tune in to watch. Love this kind of stuff! Nice post.

  5. How great singers and performers get discovered is always interesting. I always wonder if artist know they have a hit on their hands when the recording session is over.

  6. Whale Maiden says:

    I am just glad to see the word Earworm in someone’s post. I know exactly what that is.

    Congrats on being Pressed!

  7. Evie Garone says:

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing! Congrats on being FP’d!

    evelungarone.com

  8. Stephanie Robbins says:

    Never really cared for James Brown – something about his hair, I guess.

  9. clairela says:

    I have an OBSESSION with James Brown and his music, and the whole 70’s funk n soul music era. This is a great post, and the video clips are priceless!
    Thank you SO much for this funk-education!!!

  10. I discovered that I have a love for funk and soul music a little over a year now. Unbelievably, I haven’t really delved too much into James Brown’s career. Thanks for the interesting history and clips. I wish I could move my feet like that! Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” dance reminds me of James Brown.

  11. Tigner says:

    Great insight! I knew part of the history of James Brown but never knew about Byrd.
    great piece

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