JAMES BROWN-BLACK CAESAR.
JAMES BROWN-BLACK CAESAR.
Recently, I was listening to Isaac Hayes who recorded one of my favorite Blaxploitation albums Shaft, made me revisit some of my favorite Blaxploitation albums, including Black Caesar, written and performed by James Brown. This was a 1973 Blaxploitation film written and directed by Larry Cohen, which starred Fred Williamson and Gloria Hendry. Interestingly, it was a remake of a 1931 film Little Caesar, which proves that it isn’t just today that the film industry looks to the past for inspiration. James Brown provided the soundtrack for the film, and this was the first time James had written a film soundtrack. With this being his first soundtrack, James had to rely heavily upon his bandleader Fred Wesley. He co-wrote seven of the eleven tracks on the album, which also featured Lynn Collins. Later in 1973, a sequel was released, Hell Up In Harlem, but this time, Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren were responsible for the music. Black Caesar was the first of a trio of Blaxploitation films James Brown where James Brown contributed the soundtrack, the others being The Payback and Slaughter’s Big Rip-off. However, before I tell you about the music, I’ll give you a short synopsis of the movie’s plot.
Tommy Gibbs is a young boy growing up in Harlem and as a child, his leg is badly broken when he’s assaulted by a racist white policeman, when a pay-off goes bad. After this brutalization, he’s drawn into a life crime. When he grows up, he performs a freelance hit to attract the attention of Mafia crime bosses. This leads to Tommy joining a New York mafia family. Eventually, he becomes the head of a black criminal gang in Harlem. His criminal syndicate gets involved in a gang war with a gang of Italian mobsters in New York, and eventually, Tommy starts to build a criminal empire. After this, Tommy falls for a gorgeous black woman, Helen, and eventually, he ends up marrying her. In the film, Tommy Gibbs is played by Fred Williamson while Helen is played by Gloria Hendry. All the action in the film is played out against a backdrop of James Brown’s funk drenched soundtrack.
The soundtrack to Black Caesar had been recorded in various American cities during a hectic schedule for James Brown, Fred Wesley and The JBs. Joining James and The JBs were joined by a woodwind and string section, which added to the difficulties in recording the album. Once recording was finished, Black Caesar was released in February 1973. Critics loved the album, with i being critically acclaimed. Two singles were released from the album, with Down and Out reacing number thirteen in the US R&B Charts and number fifty in the US Billboard 100, while Lynn Collins reached number thirty-seven in the US R&B Charts. With these two tracks and nine others, Black Caesar is thirty-six minutes of music that helped James Brown gain the title “The Godfather of Soul.”
Black Caesar opens with Down and Out In New York City, the only track which James Brown wasn’t involved in writing. Instead, it was co-written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon. It’s a combination of percussion and funky rhythm section that combine with James’ powerful, angry vocal. Blazing horns punctuate the arrangement, and later, a flute floats above the arrangement, while an emotive and frustrated James howls and hollers his way through the track. With explosive drums adding to the drama, combining with the punchy horns that are almost ever-present, James sings of the hardship and poverty encountered by the young Tommy in the film. This angry, blazing track sees James Brown at his best, backed by the brilliant JBs, and together they produce a driving slice of funky music.
The JBs do what they do best in Blind Man Can See It, a short instrumental track, when they lock into the funky, yet laid back groove. The rhythm section and chiming guitars combine, before subtle keyboards enter. It’s an almost simplistic, but mellow groove they produce, showcasing their considerable talents, on a track that’s laid back, catch and very different from its predecessor. However, it’s still got that vital ingredient, funk.
Again, there’s an almost subtle, laid back sound, with a meandering introduction to Sportin’ Life mixing elements of jazz, soul-jazz and funk. It’s just the rhythm section and percussion that combine before gentle keyboards enter. Then, woodwind and horns braying join the arrangement, with the horns and organ combining to grow the arrangement. This moves the track from its previous jazzy sound, via soul-jazz and towards elements of funk music. By now the organ and horns are driving the track along, firmly responsible for its stunning, slightly laid back sound. This isn’t The JBs producing a dirty slice of funk, instead, its a track with its roots in jazz music, demonstrating their versatility and talents as musicians, on one of the best tracks on Black Caesar.
From one excellent track to another with Dirty Harri, written by James Brown is a dark, moody track where muted rasping horns and a wailing Hammond organ, combines with a dramatic rhythm section. For little over a minute and a half, this moody, pulsating track enters your life, leaving a brilliant musical memory. It’s a pity that the track wasn’t longer, much longer, giving the listener the chance to revel in its moody genius.
The Boss sees the return of James Brown on one of his classic tracks. Here, there’s some great interplay between himself and The JBs, with the chiming guitars, driving rhythm section and punchy, rasping horns all playing their part. Each take their turn in helping the Godfather of Funk shine, feeding off his energy, as the song develops. From there, it just gets so much better, The JBs almost daring each other, to take things higher, develop the groove they’re locked into. This they do, the result is a hook laden, hugely catchy slice of funk, with James Brown strutting and vamping his way through three minutes of fabulous funky music.
Side one of Black Caesar closes with Make It Good Yourself, a fast and furious funky track. This is easily the funkiest track on the album, with James howling, groaning and hollering his way through a track where a driving rhythm section, searing guitars and blazing, braying horns accompany him. It’s almost impossible to keep up with The JBs, and even James Brown struggles as the track quickens, Somehow he manages to keep up with relentless tempo, but only just.
Lynn Collins backed by The JBs opens side two of Black Caesar, with a song she cowrote with James Mama’s Dead, a song that gave her a number thirty-seven US R&B hit single. As the track opens it’s a gentle, but drama laden introduction that you hear, with the rhythm section, guitar and keyboards accompanying a heartbroken Lynn. Horns rasp and woodwind gently enter as the arrangement slowly unfolds. Strings lush and sad, sweep in, as Lynn gives one of the most emotive and realistic portrayals of grief you’ll ever hear. Her performance is stunning, especially when sung against the dramatic, yet understated arrangement.
After the most moving and heartfelt song on the album, comes White Lightning (I Mean Moonshine), another laid back and catchy sounding track. It’s unusual combination of instruments that the track features, but has a fairly orthodox introduction, when guitars chime and shimmer as the rhythm section play slowly. It’s only when the keyboards, rasping horns and swirling strings combine, that you begin to hear a slightly unusual sounding arrangement unfold. Add to this woodwind, then blazing horns and it’s quite a strange combination, but one that somehow works, resulting in an unusually catchy and pretty laid back track.
All that changes on Chase where the tempo is much quicker, the track literally bursting into life with blazing, howling, dramatic horns signaling the track’s opening. From there percussion, horns and the rhythm section simulate chase, albeit one with a dramatic and funky soundtrack. Mostly the track is really quick, which occasional pauses at the start. After that, at breakneck speed The JBs combine bursts of dramatic horns with chiming guitars, a driving rhythm section and percussion to brilliantly provide the soundtrack to any Chase.
Black Caesar closes with a hugely sad vocal from James on Like It Is, Like It Was. Full of regret and feeling blue he’s accompanied by a piano that plays a huge part in the track’s success, while a thoughtful rhythm section and bursts of shimmering guitars combine. This is perfect for the heartache and emotion in James’ voice, allowing his voice to take centre-stage. The piano throws in some jazzy licks, while the track meanders along, before James sings refrains from the opening track, vamping it up, and getting in on the jazz theme, as the track closes. This jazz tinged track is a lovely way to end the album, introducing and allowing the listener to hear a very different side to James Brown and his music.
Although Black Caesar is deemed a James Brown album, James only really features on four of the tracks on the album. The JBs feature on all of the tracks, with Lynn Collins giving one of the most heartfelt vocals on Mama’s Dead, one of the album’s highlights. James Brown however, played an important role in the album, co-writing ten of the tracks and producing the album. This was his first foray into writing a film soundtrack, and as such, is an excellent attempt. Much as I like Black Caesar, I’ve always thought that The Payback was a much better soundtrack, even though it wasn’t used in the film. However, Black Caesar has much to commend it, with some funky grooves sitting next to jazz licks with The Godfather of Funk howling, hollering and vamping his way through the album. With Fred Wesley his ever trusted bandleader co-writing much of the album, Black Caesar, like The Payback are two must have albums for either lovers of Blaxploitation soundtracks or fans of funk music. Standout Tracks: Sportin’ Life, The Boss, Mama’s Dead and Like It Is, Like It Was.
JAMES BROWN-BLACK CAESAR.