CHARLES THOMSON

 

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James Brown: The Lost Album
When James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006 he left behind a near complete album. Amidst the legal wrangling over the Godfather's estate, the new tracks were forgotten and never released. Speaking to those who knew him best, Charles Thomson goes in search of Brown's final album.
May 2009, JIVE

In February 2005 James Brown was restless. Diagnosed with cancer in late 2004, the Godfather of Soul had successful staved off the disease and looked and felt younger and lither than he had in a decade. The star was feeling rejuvenated after a number of recent collaborations with younger artists including Will Young and Black Eyed Peas producer Will.I.Am. It was time for a new album, Brown decided, so he pitched the idea to his manager Frank ‘SuperFrank’ Copsidas.

But Copsidas was unconvinced. Brown’s last few albums, recorded with gospel singer Derrick Monk, had seen him move towards a more digitised sound, almost entirely scrapping the ‘live in the studio’ ethos that had made his name. The result had been a series of critical and commercial failures. Was another one, Brown’s manager wondered, really what James Brown’s legacy needed? Copsidas would only finance the album, he told Brown, if he went into the studio with his band and recorded it old school.

“James Brown wasn’t made for software like Pro-Tools,” sighs Copsidas. “His music should never have been recorded that way. It just lost all of its energy. I said he should go back to the old way of doing it - just go into the studio with his band and record it live to tape.

“Of course, that became ‘his idea’,” he chuckles. “He came into my office the next day and said, ‘I’ve had an idea! Let’s try doing it the old way!’”

And so a meeting was set. One sunny morning in February 2005 three musicians waited quietly in James Brown’s atrium. They were Brown’s former chief arranger Fred Wesley, former collaborator and Sex Machine co-vocalist Bobby Byrd and producer Derrick Monk. The three men were joined by Charles Bobbit. Bobbit, now in his late seventies, had dutifully served as Brown’s personal manager for almost four decades.

The atrium was expansive and palatial. The nervous hush was broken by the constant trickle of an indoor waterfall that stood on one side of the room. Opposite it stood a bar carved out of thick German marble. Portraits of Brown hung from every wall and beside the seats in which the four men waited stood a majestic old Hammond organ, Brown’s favourite instrument.

Eventually, dressed in a burgundy leisure suit and his hair perfectly coiffed, James Brown entered the room with his typical swagger. “Gentlemen,” he said, “Let’s talk about it.”

More of an audition than a meeting, each man presented his concept to the group and awaited feedback from Brown. First to pitch was Derrick Monk, who gave the most polished presentation. As the Godfather sat back in his chair, Monk played a CD consisting of four completed tracks, Monk singing the vocals that he hoped Brown would later record.

Next to pitch was Fred Wesley. The trombonist had left Brown’s camp decades previously and on bad terms with the star, but had gone on to work with George Clinton before carving out a successful solo career. Always aloof, Wesley had composed his track the previous night at the Landmark Hotel, using Derrick Monk’s Triton keyboard.

Third to pitch was Bobby Byrd, who simply sang acapella. But Byrd had two shots at the project. Even if Brown turned down his own pitch, one of Monk's tracks was intended as a duet between the pair.

Brown listened intently to each pitch, offering criticisms and suggestions. At times he would climb out of his chair and sit before his organ, punching out chords and melodies, scatting rhythms to the musicians. At the end of the meeting Brown told the three musicians that each of their ideas had been accepted.They would be sent to a studio the following week to begin work on the album.

However, days later Brown had a change of heart. Bobby Byrd’s services would no longer be required, he decided, and Charles Bobbit was to break the bad news.

“Bobby was real hurt. They were lifelong friends,” says Bobbit. Brown never disclosed his reasons for cutting Byrd out of the album but, says Bobbit, Brown was not a man to be questioned and especially not about his business.

Brown was famed for his temper. At the height of his powers he was known to fine his band members for all manner of faux pas, from bum notes to scuffed shoes. Countless musicians were fired for their lack of discipline and plenty more walked out, unable to cope with his fiery moods.

In the days after the meeting, Wesley began assembling a crack team of musicians. His first port of call was legendary bandleader and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who had worked alongside Wesley during the late sixties and early seventies, arranging hit after hit for Brown, from 'Cold Sweat' to 'Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud'.


From Brown’s current group, the Soul Generals, Wesley drafted in trumpet player and bandleader of 30 years, Hollie Farris, stoic bass player Fred Thomas, who replaced Bootsy Collins in the mid-seventies and drummer, Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson. Waldo Weathers, a seasoned Brown saxophonist, completed the horn section with a session musician on guitar and Derrick Monk on keyboard, although according to studio engineer Mark Williams, “they got rid of him pretty quickly.”

The super group assembled in February 2005 at the Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. Free of Brown’s iron fist, the musicians set about creating what Mark Williams describes as ‘the record the band thought James Brown should make’.

The atmosphere, says trumpeter Hollie Farris, was far more musician friendly than recording with Brown himself.

“Fred and Pee Wee were excited to be back onboard and the rest of us were excited because we had free run of the studio. We could cut and arrange it however we wanted and Brown wasn’t there to give us a ton of direction.”

But Brown’s presence still loomed. Charles Bobbit stood quietly throughout each session, reporting back to the Godfather at the end of each day.

Wesley brought with him a series of incomplete tracks, which the band used as the foundations upon which to build a series of intricate jazz-funk instrumentals and mid-tempo blues tracks, one of which Wesley rapped over, musing on various addictions.

“It was a real group effort,” says Waldo Weathers. “Sometimes we would start with just a rhythm track – sometimes not even that – and we’d all give Fred our ideas. He’d write them down and we’d try them all out. Fred produced the whole thing, but writing it was a group effort.”

Brown's bandleader, Hollie Farris, was perhaps the most excited by the possibility of creative input, having spent 30 years involved in a one way dialogue with Brown. He brought to the table a ballad entitled ‘I Want It to Be Right for You’. The song, recorded live in the studio with Farris on piano, was a classy affair; a soulful, mid-tempo blues number complete with string arrangements. The track was also a favourite of Mark Williams, who says the whole experience was a breath of fresh air.

“We were just a bunch of crazy old cats making great music. It really reminded me of the R&B sessions I worked on back in the seventies. Bands nowadays are increasingly dependent on editing software because they can’t play properly, so it was refreshing to work with musicians who actually wanted to step up to the plate and play live in the studio. We were recording everything at once.”

Seemingly, Derrick Monk was not having as much fun in the studio as the rest of the group. Brown’s chief writer and producer for over a decade, Monk preferred to work digitally and became disheartened by what he perceived to be interference from Brown’s new management, who he claims were trying to ‘eliminate’ him by encouraging Brown to return to live studio work.

Disgruntled, Monk threatened to abandon the project altogether and found himself summoned to the Godfather’s South Carolina home. The pair sat under a tree where Brown voiced concerns over his own mortality, telling Monk, “Son, I’ve been behind you a long time now and this is not the time to quit. You’ve got to get your name on whatever you can with me now.”

However, Monk’s work on the project would turn out to be over. He did not return to the Charlotte session and Brown died before he could record the vocal tracks for his four contributions to the album.

Back in the studio, although the group revelled in the creative freedom Brown's absence had afforded them they also felt their one-week time constraint bearing down on them. At the tail end of the week, Ellis asked to listen back to a solo he had recorded. “Buy the CD,” Fred shot back, “We’ve got to keep moving.”

The product of the Charlotte session was eleven dynamite tracks consisting of fiery jazz, soothing blues and an array of powerhouse funk numbers. On leaving the studio Wesley gave a copy of the tracks to studio manager Robert McClure.

“Those tracks were just wonderful,” says McClure. “I listen to them just about every other day.”

Brown’s response was less enthusiastic. When Mark Williams sent him a copy of the rough mixes, the replied nonchalantly, “It’s OK. Send it down here and I’ll fix it.”

The following month Brown’s band, the Soul Generals, was summoned to Augusta. They were booked into the Ramada Inn, their usual haunt, where Brown’s managers delivered drum kits, amps and other backline equipment, and the band were told to rehearse a number of instrumental jazz tracks usually reserved for short intermissions in Brown’s live shows.

“We had no idea what we were doing there,” says saxophonist Jeff Watkins. “Sometimes the band would be called to Augusta like a military drill, to rehearse or record. But this time there was no plan. We didn’t know if we were there to record two tracks or ten. It seemed like a lot of time wasted on nothing – just a couple of silly, throwaway jazz tunes.”

In actuality, the band was there for a three week recording session.

Howard Lovett, studio engineer at Studio South in Augusta, spent much of the first week transferring the tracks from the Charlotte sessions and playing them to Brown, who dismissed most of them.

“They were nice,” says Lovett, “but they were a little cleaner than James Brown. They were too produced. It was great music but it just didn’t have that raw edge. But he used little pieces of the tracks – he’d take a drum beat or a bass line or a guitar riff and then just build a new song around it.”

But according to those close to Brown, a problem was developing. By the time the Studio South sessions rolled around, the Godfather had lost all interest in recording his new album. His enthusiasm had dissipated in the weeks that it had taken to get the project moving.

Brown was used to working quickly. In his heyday he would finish a gig, drive the band straight from the venue to the nearest recording studio and emerge in the morning with a near complete album. Inspiration came to Brown in flashes. Hollie Farris, who joined Brown in the mid-1970s, recalls Brown’s work ethic of bygone years.

“He used to be real focused. He would just hum everybody their individual parts, then roll tape and record. The first album I recorded with him was ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot believe this guy!’ We’d never even played the song through before we recorded it, but the first cut was the cut you heard on the radio. But that’s how he worked. It was all about the feel of it. He’d say ‘The first take is God, the second take is man’. He didn’t care if people made mistakes as long as it felt good. Every two hours you’d cut a song and then bang, you moved right onto the next one.”

By delaying the recording process, Brown had lost his fire. According to Charles Bobbit, sometimes he had to force the star out of his house and into the car.

“He was hesitant to go to the studio. He would refuse to even go out of the door. Myself and SuperFrank would tell him ‘We need to go to the studio. We have the time booked.’ He would just say ‘I don’t wanna go to the studio today.’”

SuperFrank, who was bankrolling the sessions, began to irritate Brown, who did not appreciate what he perceived to be interference. Consequently, Brown imposed a studio ban on his manager.

When Brown did arrive at the studio he was often moody. Engineer Howard Lovett recalls, “There were days where nothing one person did could be right. It just wasn’t their day. If he felt the players were getting too big-headed, he’d bring them back down to earth. He’d tell them, ‘You ain’t got nothin’.”

One such day came early in the three week session when Brown decided to record a twelve bar blues track called ‘Ancestors’. The song featured a long, rapid, staccato guitar riff, which he gave to Keith Jenkins.

“He would spend hours finding out what you found difficult and then make sure that became the most important thing of the day,” says Keith. “When we recorded 'Ancestors', he just stood in front of me all day saying 'Play da da da da da...” I would play it and he'd say 'No, I said play da da da da da, you're playing da da da da da'. In those moments, you did not feel like you were in the presence of a genius.”

“We thought that song was gonna put Keith in hospital!” laughs fellow guitarist Damon Wood. “We were all watching through the booth and cracking up. Brown kept getting suspicious and looking over so we all had to act serious. We decided it was a new genre – Torture Funk.”

The session continued in a similarly haphazard fashion, leading some to question whether the Godfather still had his magic.

“It was like he had no idea of efficiency,” recalls Keith Jenkins. “Nothing made linear sense. He would record a rhythm track, then a horn track, then a vocal track, then go back and record rhythm all over again.”

“He'd make simple mistakes,” adds Hollie Farris. “He'd say he couldn't hear things, but he'd have hair under his headphones. You'd be thinking, 'You've been in this business for forty years, you should know this stuff!”

Once a track was recorded, Brown would then take issue with the mixing. The tracks were recorded onto music software Pro-Tools where they could be cleaned up and edited as Brown wished.

“With the version of Pro-Tools we were using you could do all of this amazing stuff,” says Keith, “but the one thing you couldn't do was slow the music down. So, of course, that became his mission. He did not want to be told that you couldn't slow it down. He'd act like it was a conspiracy – 'Can't, huh? Oh I see. I understand.' Then he'd walk away grumbling, 'Never had this problem with a tape machine...'”

One of the tracks from the Charlotte sessions that Brown decided to keep was Hollie Farris's ballad, 'I Want It to be Right for You'. Farris, honoured that after 30 years of service Brown was finally willing to record one of his tracks, leapt at the chance to direct the Godfather of Soul as he recorded the song. But the ballad would turn out to be one of the session’s biggest disappointments.

“He didn't even bother to learn the song before he went into the booth,” grimaces Hollie. “He just went in and made up the melody as he went. It was painful. I thought he'd do it once, butcher it, and then we'd go back and do it again. But he did one vocal take, declared his work on that song finished and refused to do it again. The whole session was like that. It was like pulling teeth.”

But the session wasn't a complete blowout. Brown used another of the Charlotte tracks – the slow blues number that Wesley had rapped over about various addictions. Scrapping Wesley’s lyrics, Brown stepped into the booth to record his own heartfelt rap about war, crime and famine. He called the track 'Message to the World'.

“One of the best things about those sessions was Brown's voice,” says saxophonist Jeff Watkins. “Even when he was just talking he sounded cool. That track was like a modern take on 'King Heroin'.

“After a while he went off topic and started talking about anything that came into his head, right down to just name-checking whoever was in the room and talking about why he liked sweetcorn and stuff. But that track is like fourteen minutes long – you could easily cut it down to five and it would sound great.”

The session produced another track, 'Gutbucket', in which Brown railed against rappers for their violent imagery and endorsement of gangster culture. During the second verse Brown yelped, “Hey rappers! Judgement day! We've got to save the kids, and music is the only way!”

“Gutbucket was the stankiest, funkiest track,” enthuses Damon Wood. Born out of a rehearsal session, Brown took the bass line from Soul Power and built a new song around it. But Keith Jenkins says Brown's methods were far from scientific.

“A lot of his contributions were just arbitrary, man,” he says. “If the wind had blown a different way then everything would have sounded completely different. When we were recording Gutbucket, I played the horn section on my guitar to show the guys how it should sound. Brown just used my guitar instead of the horns! Then he'd just tell Spike, the percussionist, to lay a heavy, offbeat shaker over the top of every single track. Arbitrary, man!”

Towards the end of the Augusta session Brown drafted in Fred Wesley. Reporter Jonathan Lethem, who sat in on two days of the Studio South session, describes Wesley as looking like he thought he'd walked into a trap. Brown had Wesley lay solos over 'Message to the World', 'Ancestors' and Hollie's butchered ballad. But even Wesley noticed that Brown seemed to be missing something.

“It was like he'd forgotten how to record,” says Wesley. “He just wasn't the old James Brown and consequently I wasn't the old Fred Wesley. I was glad a lot of the stuff I did with him didn't get released because it wasn't up to par. You have to understand that I'd been away from him for 30 years. We were going back into the studio after all that time and trying to recapture the old magic. It just wasn't there.”

At the end of the session Brown had recorded 8 new tracks. They included a couple of instrumental jazz tunes – some featuring Brown’s famously atonal organ playing, a cover of his own 1971 hit 'Soul Power', a cover of Sam and Dave's 'Hold On, I'm Coming', which he recorded with his wife Tomi-Rae, 'Message to the World', 'Gutbucket', Hollie's 'I Want It to be Right for You' and a ballad nobody remembers much about, which SuperFrank describes as sounding like Brown 'singing his own obituary'.

“The whole session was such a disappointment,” says Jeff Watkins. “We knew this would probably be his last album and we really wanted to create something amazing – something for the ages. He had a group of twenty people behind him who would have done whatever it took to make that album marvellous. But to go into the studio and record some silly jazz tunes and a cover of 'Soul Power'... What's the point?”

When Brown left the studio he went back on the road, his first tour since he staved off prostate cancer, and gave some of his most dynamic concerts in years. Despite repeated pleas from SuperFrank to return to the studio and finish recording his album, Brown refused.

One year later frustrated manager SuperFrank began plotting ways to cajole the Godfather back into the studio. Suspecting that an ego massage might do the trick, he mailed a near complete track, ‘Gutbucket’, to MOJO – without Brown’s permission – for inclusion on a free CD.

Brown remained unaware of the move until July 2006 when guitarist Keith Jenkins picked up a copy of the magazine in an airport and presented it to his mentor. Brown peered confusedly at the CD. “You got something started now, kid,” Brown scowled. “Read me what it says.”

Brown listened as Keith read aloud the CD liner notes, which celebrated the singer’s illustrious career and expressed great enthusiasm for the new track. Brown looked pensive for a moment, smiled and nodded to himself before wandering away.

“He liked what it said about him,” says Keith, “so after that he changed his mind and decided that it had been exceptional managerial practice.”

SuperFrank’s tactics had the desired effect. When Brown returned from his summer tour he agreed to record two final tracks, submitted by young singer/songwriter Gabe Lopez.

“SuperFrank told me that Mr Brown would be a lot more receptive if I impersonated him on the demos, so I did my best. I even had the grunts and the screams going on,” beams Lopez.

Lopez describes the first track, ‘Security’, as a traditional James Brown funk number – a love song about a man offering protection to his woman. The second, ‘Rock Me’, was a more unusual choice for Brown. “It’s like funky pop meets R’n’B” explains Lopez. “It’s all about going out to a club and having a good time. It’s a lot like the stuff Justin Timberlake is recording right now.”

Lopez and SuperFrank were both taken aback when Brown agreed to record both songs. “Gotta put some James Brown in there, though,” he told them.

It was agreed that on January 2nd 2007, while the Godfather was staying in Montreal on his Canadian tour, he would record both tracks. SuperFrank booked the studio and Brown took a brief hiatus before embarking on yet another European tour.

In October 2006 Brown, in London to perform at the BBC Electric Proms, appeared before a handful of invited press at Camden’s Roundhouse. Having undergone major dental surgery just days previously, a heavily medicated Brown arrived forty minutes late for the press conference and made several cryptic comments when asked about the status of his new album.

“You should have had that two years ago!” he exclaimed. “There’s some great stuff on there, but somebody’s gonna have to die before we get that out. I won’t say much more than that.”

Presented with an awkward silence, Brown’s personal manager, Charles Bobbit, leaned forward apologetically and added, “You should get the album early next year.”

“I remember that press conference,” says Bobbit. “It was as if he had a premonition. I guess it came true, huh? Mr Brown was very perceptive. A lot of people thought he was psychic.”

Perhaps speculation about Brown’s psychic abilities is not entirely unfounded as it would seem that the star’s mortality troubled him more than ever during his last year.

“He’d say things like ‘I’m gonna have to retire soon, I don’t have long left,’” says SuperFrank. “But then on other days he’d be talking about how he couldn’t wait to play a concert on his 100th birthday. It really just depended what mood you caught him in.”

However, it wasn’t only Brown’s words that raised eyebrows at the Camden Roundhouse. Brown appeared frail and gaunt. His voice was quiet; his speech slow. He sounded congested. Despite delivering a barnstorming two and a half hour concert that night, the Godfather did not look well.

“It was like he aged five years in that last year of his life,” says saxophonist Jeff Watkins. “He lost a bunch of weight and his face became far more drawn. Before, he looked about fifty or sixty. In that last year it was like he suddenly became an old man.”

Despite having beaten cancer two years previously, Brown’s prostate was beginning to cause him problems again. Additionally, the singer spent his final years battling ulcers, diabetes and high blood pressure.

“All of those things individually won’t kill you,” says bandleader Hollie Farris. “But what would happen is when Mr Brown came off of the road he would go home and let himself go. He’d just sit around and deteriorate. When he got back on the road it rejuvenated him. He started taking care of himself because being on the road gave him something to live for.”

“Touring made him stronger,” agrees guitarist Damon Wood. “The longer he stayed on the road, the stronger he got. But the longer he sat down, the worse he got.”

Band members had suspected for a while that Brown didn’t have long left in him. The singer, once famed for his marathon three hour shows, had gradually shortened his sets to a strict 90 minutes with no encore. Years of falling to his knees during recitals of ‘Man’s World’ and ‘Please Please Please’ had left Brown’s legs scarred and arthritic, so much so that often he would be pushed to the stage’s edge on a wheelchair.

Personal manager Charles Bobbit says Brown was losing confidence in his abilities. “He started telling me before he went onstage, ‘You watch me tonight Mr Bobbit and if I look like I’m falling, you come help me.’"

Despite this, Brown's final tour saw him return to performing two and a half hour concerts. In hindsight, band members view this as Brown’s acknowledgement that his time was coming to an end. Brown’s ego, they all agree, wouldn’t let him go without a bang.

Hollie Farris recalls Brown’s penultimate concert; “It was an amazing show. There were around 20,000 people there and he tore it up. He was incredible. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this guy will never stop... ever.’ Two months later he was dead.”

On December 23rd 2006 James Brown attended his annual Christmas toy giveaway in the town of Augusta and Charles Bobbit’s wife called him to the television to watch the local news report.

“That man looks sick,” she told him. “You need to get him to a doctor because if anything happens to him then you’ll be held responsible.”

After his brief European tour in October 2006 Brown had taken two months off – his longest break in a decade. The star fell into old habits, sitting around watching CNN and getting little or no exercise. Despite having been coughing for several weeks, the Godfather refused to see a doctor - a lifelong trait.

“He was a proud man,” says Bobbit. “He didn’t want people to know that the great James Brown was sick.”

On December 24th Bobbit was due to accompany Brown to a dental appointment, but arranged without the Godfather’s permission for a doctor to be present. Upon arrival, the doctor told Brown he was in no condition to undergo dental surgery and that he must be taken immediately to a hospital to be treated for pneumonia.

Hours later, Brown sat bolt upright in his hospital bed, grasped his chest and yelped, “I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” Then he laid back, gasped three times and stopped breathing. On Christmas Day 2006, one week before he was due to complete work on his final album, James Brown was pronounced dead.

The legal wrangling over his estate began almost immediately. On Boxing Day trustees locked his wife, Tomi-Rae Brown, out of the property they shared in Augusta, questioning the legitimacy of their marriage and the paternity of their child. Alleged love children stepped forward to stake their claim to the Godfather's fortune – some passed DNA tests, some did not.

Amidst the battle, the album became forgotten. According to HMV’s head of music, Rudy Osorio, the delay meant that Brown’s camp missed its golden opportunity to release Brown’s final album to a wide audience.

"Any pickup in sales tends to happen very soon after the death of an artist, during the emotional 'fall out', so the significance of a posthumous album may be limited,” he says. “[But] a lot will depend on how it's going to presented and marketed: Is there an anniversary it can hang on? That's how a lot of the Elvis reissues, for example, have been so successfully marketed.” 

Copsidas is playing his cards close to his chest with regard to the album’s release. “One never knows,” he says mysteriously. But the musicians, who have been told they will not be paid for their work until the CD hits shelves, are keen for a release.

“I think that there are moments of genius that the world should get to hear,” says Jeff Watkins. “I would really like to see those who were involved in the project allowed to take the material back into the studio and put it all together properly.”

But more than 30 months after Brown’s death, legal sparring over his estate continues. Until that is concluded, it is unlikely we will ever get to hear Brown's 'Message to the World'.

 

 

 

 

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