Earlier this week, the Mick Jagger-produced, Alex Gibney-directed, James Brown estate-approved documentary Mr. Dynamite debuted on HBO. Following as it does on the heels of this summer's overcooked and underthought Get On Up biopic, the well-rounded, well-researched film feels like a breath of fresh air. Focusing on – as most things related to the Godfather of Soul do – the prime years of James Brown's power, Mr. Dynamite is packed with stunning live performances, insightful interviews with band members and thoughtful commentary from critics and musicians.
It's a great documentary, but it's still woefully incomplete, because by zeroing in on Brown's best years, it also necessarily neglects his worst. Or, more accurately, when it does focus on the bad years, the narrative is about Brown's personal and professional travails, rather than the many creative cul de sacs he circled at numerous times in his career. And here's the thing: James Brown was a goddamned certifiable genius, a bandleader whose creativity, innovation and dogged dedication to perfection put him in a pantheon along with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and, like, nobody else. However, he was also a man who was absolutely willing to make lazy, uninspired records that chased trends, cashed in on his name, or acted as "product" to promote while he was on the road (and he was always on the road).
Thankfully, a recent reissue series undertaken by the folks at Universal Music (probably under duress, but definitely under the aegis of "There's a James Brown movie coming out ... what the fuck do we have left to reissue?") helps round out the story in a way that no hagiography, biopic or well-researched documentary could do. There will never be a James Brown movie that goes deep on Take a Look at Those Cakes and there will never be an oral history of Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things, but this recent slew of digital reissues makes those albums, along with 15 others, available for the first time for digital download.
To be clear, these reissues are primarily appealing to completists (and, maybe in the case of The Original Disco Man, masochists), and most of the best tracks here are already well-anthologized on focused 2-CD collections from the '90s like Soul Pride (instrumental cuts) and Messing With the Blues (uh, blues cuts). Still, being able to finally get records like 1964's Grits & Soul (an instrumental soul-jazz outing that could easily stand up against Blue Note releases of the era) and 1971's Sho Is Funky Down Here (a driving, fuzzy and thoroughly weird album) in digitally remastered sound quality is a great thing.
And then there's the post-J.B.'s era, after James had fired all of the iconic members of his backing band (or they quit) (or both) (more than once), and he was struggling for relevance in an R&B world that had grown disco-fied and urbane. To me, these albums are the most interesting, as they've been nearly completely ignored forever, scoffed at by purists and dismissed (correctly!) as sloppy, druggy attempts to crack the charts. And yet ... they're kind of amazing. After all, only James Brown would think it a wise career move to release a leering, 11-minute paean to gawking at disco butt (which he does on the title track on Take a Look at Those Cakes). Records like that one, along with Jam/1980s (which features "The Spank," co-written with bassist "Sweet" Charles Sherrell, one of the only prime-era J.B.'s members who stuck with Brown), and even 1981's Nonstop! (a contract-filler that is both the ultimate in laziness as well as a trove of casually weird remakes), prove that while James Brown may have lost most of his influence and chart mojo by the late '70s, he never lost the ability to make music that nobody else could.
Here's a list of all the reissues that just came out. By no means should you buy them all, but you should definitely take some time to explore them on your favorite streaming service:
Good, Good Twistin' with James Brown (1964)
Grits and Soul (1964)
James Brown Plays James Brown Today and Yesterday (1965)
Handful of Soul (1966)
Mighty Instrumentals (1966)
Plays Nothing But Soul (1968)
Thinking About Little Willie John and A Few Nice Things (1968)
Sho Is Funky Down Here (1971)
Everybody’s Doin’ the Hustle and Dead on the Double Bump (1975)
Mutha's Nature (1977)
Take a Look at Those Cakes (1978)
The Original Disco Man (1979)