By 1968, James Brown was not just a vocal megastar and a musical innovator, but a social commentator who had the ear of a generation. In the politically charged atmosphere of the times, the Godfather of Soul was now reaching an audience that few politicians could match, with a credibility and integrity born of his own struggles to break through the inter-racial barriers.
On September 7, his boldest musical message yet, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud (Part 1)” became the highest new entry on the pop chart, the Billboard Hot 100, starting as high as No.60. It was proof that he was reaching an audience of all creeds and colours, and the message spread like wildfire: a week later the King Records single was at No.39, and in another five weeks, it was peaking at No.10.
Finding his voice
On the R&B survey, the single became a true anthem, going on to log six weeks at No.1, his seventh record to reach that summit. After a dozen years of being billed as James Brown and the Famous Flames, “Say It Loud” was also the first single to be credited just in his name. He really had found his voice.
It was Billboard magazine itself that had described Brown as a “credit to his race, his profession and his country” after his vital role earlier that year as a voice of reason in the powder-keg of anger and violence that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
There were those black activists who didn’t appreciate Brown’s integration into the American mainstream. Two months before the “Say It Loud” recording, he performed for American soldiers in Vietnam. But the naysayers were outnumbered by those for whom the song became the unofficial anthem of Black Power.
The song featured JB’s new trombone innovator Fred Wesley, who became an important ingredient in his cutting-edge sound. Saxman Maceo Parker was on duty too, as was fellow tenor St. Clair Pinckney and other regulars such as drummer Clyde Stubblefield and bandleader Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis.
Brown always achieved a live, spontaneous vibe on his recordings, but “Say It Loud” was a masterpiece of in-the-room innovation, with the Godfather and his band facing each other so that the musicians could respond to his hand cues. The extra ingredient was a choir of about 30 children from poor areas of Los Angeles in the call-and-response choruses.
Brown’s longtime manager Charles Bobbitt recalled at his funeral: “I got an old school bus and we rode around Watts and got 30 children, brought them down to the studio, recorded ‘Say It Loud’…I gave them $10 [each] and a James Brown album. That’s how the song that you love so well was played.”
Buy or stream “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” on James Brown’s album of the same name.