Funky Five: James Brown in the '70s

James Brown performing in England in the 1970s.
Photo Credit
Vincent McEvoy/Redferns

By 1970, James Brown was more elder statesman than young gun, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to his records. There was one thing about the man that was absolutely true - no one played funk like him; he practically invented it. Come to think of it, no one wrote songs like him, or sang, howled or danced like him. And as funk evolved at the dawn of the decade, no one rode those changes quite as well as James Brown.

Read More: Songs of Black Lives Matter: James Brown, "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud"

Need proof? All you have to do is drop a needle onto one of his records from the era - the proof is in the groove. Here are five examples of James Brown’s exemplary ‘70s funk.

“The Payback”

Albums, rather than singles, became the standard format for musical expression in the ‘70s - it had happened in the rock world and gradually made its way into R&B and funk. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and others had embraced the expansive qualities of the LP, and by 1973, so had Brown. The Payback album (intended originally as a soundtrack to a Blaxploitation film) practically drips soul and funk for all four of its sides, and the title track is pretty indicative of why it’s so special.


A recitation of all the ills of living in American society might seem like bluster when a politician is giving it, but when James Brown does it, it’s the funkiest recitation one can imagine. And he lays it all out, bearing down on the word "hell" for supreme emphasis (“Oh, it's hell trying to make it / When you're doing it by yourself / It's hell paying taxes / When there's no money left”).

“Funky President (People It’s Bad)"

Brown was a spokesman for Black empowerment for much of his career, even though some of the ways in which he expressed himself (endorsing Richard Nixon, for one) seemed to be counter-productive. Not so here, where he implores his fans, “People, people, we've got to get over / Before we go under” and calls out the titular “brand new funky president,” which happened to be Gerald Ford, who might have been the least funky president this country has ever had. Top five, at least.

“Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”

With his backing band The Famous Flames disbanded, Brown hooked up with a younger group built around bassist Bootsy Collins and his brother, guitarist “Catfish” Collins, and one of the first things they did was beam this stone-cold classic out into the world.

Read More: The Name is Bootsy, Baby! In Tribute of the Bass Legend

“Get Up Offa That Thing”

Released in July 1976, this is bicentennial funk at its finest and funkiest.

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Warner Records
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