When James Brown released the single Living In America in December 1985, it had been nine years since he’d last had a hit single. The last time one of James Brown’s singles charted in the US Billboard 100, was 1976, when Body Heat reached number eighty-eight. Since then, although James Brown was still the hardest working man in show business, this wasn’t translating into record sales. However, he was about to get a break, one that would relaunch his career. Luckily for James, Sylvester Stallone wanted James Brown to perform Living In America for his forthcoming film Rocky IV. On the release of this Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight penned single, it would reach number four in the US Billboard 100 and number ten in the US R&B Charts. Later, Living In America would win a Grammy Award for the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. Before this, however, James Brown had a problem. He’d just had his first hit single in nine years, but no new album build on his renewed popularity. This meant heading into the studio to record his first new album since 1983s Bring It On. Producing this new album was Dan Hartman, who’d produced and cowrote Living In America. This new album would be Gravity, which will be rereleased by BBR records on 21st May 2012. Before I tell you about the music on Gravity, I’ll tell you about the background to the album.
Before James Brown released Living In America, he was without a record deal. Then when Johnny Musso, president of Scotti Brothers Records heard Living In America, straight away, he made a decision sign James Brown. Against record companies with deeper pockets, Johnny Musso secured James Brown’s signature. James signed a five-album deal, but with a caveat. The caveat was that Dan Hartman,who cowrote and produced Living In America, produced the first album.
While the pairing of James Brown and Dan Hartman may seem strange bedfellows, this was a clever decision. By 1985, James Brown’s brand of R&B and funk wasn’t as popular. So maybe Dan Hartman was the man to relaunch James Brown’s career. Maybe, Dan could make his music more popular and appealing to a newer, younger audience. Previously, Dan Harman had hits with Instant Replay andRelight My Fire, plus written songs for artists like Loleatta Holloway, Tina Turner and for film soundtracks. Now Dan Harman and songwriting partner Charlie Midnight would write an album’s worth of songs for James Brown.
Together, Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight cowrote seven further songs for James’ new album Gravity. Alison Moyet cowrote Let’s Get Personal with Dan and Charlie. Recording of Gravity would take place at the Multi-Level studios, plus additional sessions at Greene Street Recording Studio. For the sessions, Dan Harman had Alison Moyet sing backing vocals, while The Uptown Horns, guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan and Steve Winwood played synths. Maceo Parker plays alto saxophone and Dan Hartman sing backing vocals while playing everything from guitars, bass, keyboards, synths, drums, horns and programs the Fairlight. Soon the seven new songs, were recorded. Gravity would contain the seven new songs plus Living In America. James Brown’s first album for three years would be issued later in 1986. Would Gravity reinvigorate James Brown’s career?
Before the release of Gravity, the title-track Gravity was released as a single in September 1986. It reached number ninety-three in the US Billboard 100, number twenty-six in the US R&B Charts and number thirteen in the US Dance Charts. Then when Gravity was released in October 1986, it reached number 156 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-nine in the US R&B Charts, while reaching number eighty-five in the UK. How Do You Stop was the second single released from Gravity, reaching number ninety in the US Billboard 100 and number ten in the US R&B Charts. Although Gravity and its two singles never matched the success of Living In America, the album had the desired effect, reinvigorating James Brown’s career. With Dan Hartman’s production and musical skills, Gravity sees James Brown’s music given an eighties makeover, as you’ll see when I tell you about Gravity.
Opening Gravity is the title-track Gravity, which was the second single released from the album. Straight away, James vamps his way through the introduction. There’s a different and similarities with the arrangement. Washes of synths are new, augmenting a still fabulously, funky arrangement. Blazing horns, the funkiest of rhythm sections and backing vocalists accompany a vocal that’s unmistakably James Brown. He does what he’s been doing for over twenty years, deliver a powerful, emotive vocal, full of whoops and hollers. Behind him, the rhythm section and guitars produce a funk masterclass, while angry, rasping horns punctate the arrangement. Meanwhile, backing vocalists answer James’s call, as Gravity gets off to an explosive and funk drenched start.
Alison Moyet cowrote Let’s Get Personal with Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight. Not only that, but Alison adds backing vocals during the track, answering James’ call. Crisp drums and synths demonstrate the new James Brown sound. As his vocal enters, it’s laden with echo. Quickly, James gets funky, his backing vocalists helping get the party started. Along with chiming guitars, stabs of braying horns and the rhythm section, James vamps his way through the track. The arrangement sees funk meet eighties technology. Synths, drums and Fairlight all play their part. However, it’s the blazing horns and backing vocalists that are key to the track’s success. Together with James Brown, they add energy, enthusiasm and of course one other vital ingredient, funk, and plenty of it.
How Do You Stop shows a quite different side to James Brown, one many people might not have heard before. There’s a tenderness in his heartfelt vocal, while the arrangement is much more soulful, rather than funk. The horns and backing vocalists combine with the rhythm section, playing with an understated, thoughtful style that suits the lyrics. Later, a synth solo played by Steve Winwood adds to the tenderness, before James gives an impassioned, heartfelt and quite beautiful vocal. This shows a very different, but very welcome side to his music, and is one of the highlights of Gravity.
After the understated sound of the previous track, James is back with fast and furiously funky track, Turn Me Loose, I’m Dr. Feelgood. At breakneck speed, the track gets underway, with the rhythm section, guitars and blazing horns accompanying James’ impassioned, frantic vocal. Stabs of howling, wailing horns, bursts of backing vocalists, frenzied, funky guitars and rhythm section take you on this high-speed journey into funk, with James Brown as your driver and tour-guide.
Living In America was originally, on the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and was the track that reignited James Brown’s career. It’s six minutes of what James Brown does so well, and by 1985, had been doing for three decades. It’s an uptempo, uplifting and joyous celebration of the American dream. Washes of synths, the rhythm section, bursts of rasping horns combine, before James’ vocal enters. He’s accompanied by backing vocalists, whose contribution, throughout the track is vital. So too, are the driving, funk laden rhythm section who create the track’s heartbeat. Rocky guitars sizzle along the arrangement, as James powerful, passionate vocal roars its way through the track. Horns add to the energy and vitality of James Brown, on this hook-laden comeback track from the hardest working man in show-business.
Goliath sees a slight change in sound and style. Although the music is still as funky, the arrangement isn’t as fast, and more spacious. Not only that, but the band seem to play within themselves. All the usual ingredients are still there. Yes, there’s still a horn and rhythm section, with guitars and keyboards augmenting their sound. However, they produce a more considered but just as funky sound. James meanwhile gives one of his best vocals on Gravity, while backing vocalists and stabs of horns accompany him. Later, Maceo Parker lays down a truly, stunning saxophone solo, as James can’t resist the opportunity to kick loose. Together with his band, this different approach results perfectly, resulting in an outstanding slice of funk from James and his band.
Repeat the Beat (Faith) sees a guitars and percussion combine, before the entrance of James sees the track almost explode. The track heads to 141 beats per minute, with the rhythm section, blazing horns and percussion combining. Backing vocalists sweep in, while horns growl, as James’ vocal drifts emotively in and out of the track. By now, you’ve realised that this is a hugely compelling and totally irresistible track. Horns rasp and howl, while backing vocalists again, play an important part in the track. Meanwhile, the rhythm section provide the engine-room, driving this hugely catchy, irresistible hidden gem along. So good is the track, that once it ends, you end up pressing repeat and reveling in fantastically, funky track.
Closing Gravity is the second slower track on the album, Return To Me. Again, we get another chance to hear another side of James Brown, which like How Do You Stop, is very welcome. His vocal is impassioned, full of emotion and tinged with sadness. Horns punctuate the track, while the keyboards and rhythm section provide a suitably emotional and dramatic backdrop for James’ vocal. Soulful backing vocalists sweep in and out of the track, while horns sprinkle drama above them. Of all the tracks on Gravity, James seems to have reserved one of his best vocals for this track, while his band provide the perfect accompaniment to James Brown’s comeback album. What a stunning way to end any album, never mind a comeback album.
Having neither released an album for three years, nor had a hit single for nine years, James Brown made a successful comeback firstly with Living In America, then Gravity. The release of Gravity brought his music up-to-date, introducing him to a newer, younger audience. Before this, many of this younger audience were only aware of James Brown’s music indirectly, when hip-hop artists had sampled his music. Pairing him with producer Dan Hartman was part of this master-plan, due to his previous track record. Dan gave his music an eighties makeover, but crucially, didn’t throw out the funk with the bathwater. Still, five of the seven new tracks from the pen of Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight were funk personified. The other two tracks, How Do You Stop and Return To Me introduced listeners to a much more soulful side of James Brown’s music. While Living In America is the best known track on Gravity, there’s much more to Gravity than one track. Truly, Gravity sees James Brown and his band, with Dan Hartman playing one of the most important roles. Not only did Dan cowrite and produce Gravity, but he adds backing vocals and plays a myriad of instruments. Together, with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Winwood and Maceo Parker, Dan Hartman played a huge part in James Brown’s comeback. The result of this collaboration, are the eight funky and soulful tracks, plus seven bonus track that make up Gravity, which will be rereleased by BBR Records on 21st May 2012. Standout Tracks: How Do You Stop, Living In America, Goliath and Return To Me.