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What are the key elements of James Brown’s musical and production style?

The most immediately obvious stylistic trait in the music of the black American soul and funk singer James Brown (1928-2006) is his unrelenting repetition of one verbal phrase, which David Brackett describes as 'resulting in a kind of ecstatic trance'. In the song I Got You this characteristic is in definite evidence. It is based on an expanded form of the following lyrical cell:

  • A: I feel good, I knew that I would
  • B: So good, so good, I got you

Brown's expansion of this cell operates in a blues-influenced manner: he repeats the first line (A) once before iterating the second (B) to achieve a pattern (AAB) that fits with the 12-bar-blues-based harmonic progression (I

This is not to say that such a study is necessary in order for Brown's music to function as it always has done - as highly entertaining music which works exceptionally well in live performance. Rather it could serve to quantify the remarkable subtlety of his performances, to provide a framework or system using which to guide the listener in the same way as a score and libretto is supplied to the student of opera music. In this situation the provision of a traditional score and libretto would be distinctly unsatisfactory, since to judge Brown's music on its lyrical content and harmonic structure is to miss the very way in which it is innovative.

The aforementioned study would take on an extra dimension if it were extended into the various types of music on which James Brown had influence. Most notably the discography of Michael Jackson bears significant debt to the style and not least in the appropriation of the focus on the value of entertaining stage shows and choreographic routines. Brown did much to develop the concept of the soul-singer as showman and cultural icon, and deserves to be remembered fondly as a great innovator who was not afraid to combine the seemingly simple and the cunningly complex to produce records of enduring quality.

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