The release of the film Get On Up in early August rekindled interest in the life and music of James Brown. One of the most staggeringly influential entertainers in American culture, a man for whom we need to invent a new grunting and huhn-ing language with terms that go beyond legend and icon, Brown began his fifty-some year recording career on King Records.
The Cincinnati-based indie label specialized in unearthing genius in out-of-the-way places (and music forms). But company owner Syd Nathan (played by Fred Melamed in the film) never topped James Brown. Arguably, nothing ever topped James Brown. “He took the heavy funk into America’s living rooms,” Jon Hartley Fox tells us in his new paperback edition of King of Queen City: The Story of King Records. The man deserved a Nobel Prize for that alone!
Brown enjoyed his first hit with “Please, Please, Please,” a song Nathan hated, and then released nine straight duds. Brown faced being dropped from the label when he presented Nathan with “Try Me.” As Fox tells it:
Brown had thoroughly road-tested his original song and knew that it had caused pandemonium at his shows. Nathan rejected it out of hand. “I’m not spending my money on that garbage,” he told Brown, who offered to pay for the session himself. Brown booked the studio time and musicians and cut the song. Nathan still hated it, said it “didn’t make sense,” and he didn’t want it for his company. So Brown took the tape with him…
Brown then had a few copies of the record pressed and took them around to the disc jockeys he knew. When WLAC started playing it, the orders flooded into King—for a record that didn’t exist. Nathan held firm until the orders represented 20,000 records. He then called Brown and said, “Well, James, I’ve decided to give the song a try.” Brown thanked him, but insisted on re-recording the song. On Nathan’s dime this time.
In between “Try Me” and his Live at the Apollo, Brown strung together enough hits to take him to the top of the R&B world and, for the seeing-is-believing crowd, even stole the show in the teen flick Ski Party. Soon after—
Whoa, whoa, hold on. Like we can go on without the life-changing Ski Party scene.
Soon after, Live at the Apollo set the standard for live albums. In many ways, it still does. Nathan didn’t want that one, either.
[Brown] knew there was a disparity between his record sales and the hysteria his show caused night after night in city after city. The show really did blow the roof off most nights. People had never seen anything like it—trumpet players doing flips, the whole band doing intricate, choreographed routines, the Famous Flames singing and dancing, Brown doing the camel walk across the stage while screaming his latest hit. There had to be a better way to capture the excitement of the James Brown Show than a three-minute single.
After a few more heated arguments on the subject, Nathan finally told Brown that if he wanted to do a “live” album so much, he should pay for it himself. To Brown’s eternal credit, he again put his money where his mouth was and financed the project himself.