James Brown might not have been the easiest person to work with or the nicest man to live with, but even his biggest critics would have to concede that the “Hardest Working Man In Show Business” was one of the finest artists of the 20th century. He created funk, influenced countless genres, became one of the first-ever inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and made some of the finest songs in history. Here, we pay tribute to the Godfather of Soul with our pick of the 10 best James Brown songs of all time.
10. Super Bad
In 1970, Brown climbed to No. 1 on the R&B chart with Super Bad, a super funky tune in which Brown tells us what we all knew anyway: “I’ve got soul and I’m super bad.” Originally released as a three-part single, the album version lasts a full nine minutes – long, perhaps, but so compellingly energetic, you barely notice the time pass.
9. Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine
Sure, it’s been played to death, but even ubiquity hasn’t managed to dent the charms of Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine. The backing band is so tight, you’d never know this was one of their first songs recorded together. Brown himself is in fine form, attacking the piano as only he could and delivering a vocal powerful enough to bring down a rhino. Released in 1970, it reached No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
8. It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World
James Brown might be best known as the godfather of funk, but he wasn’t averse to putting the grooves aside and getting romantic from time to time. On It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, he showed off his talents as a balladeer and managed to bag himself a No.1 hit on the R&B chart in the process. It’s since been covered by multiple artists (even the cast of “Glee” have given it a shot), but there’s no beating the original.
7. Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud
According to The Guardian, the simple message of Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud is “more radical, incisive and germane in relation to the civil rights movement of the late 60s than the entire lyrical output of Bob Dylan.” It’s a bold claim, but it’s a bold song, and one fully deserving of its revered place in music history. Released in August 1968, it reached number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 6 weeks at No. 1 on the R&B singles chart.
6. Cold Sweat
As udiscovermusic.com explains, Brown’s daring innovations on Cold Sweat gave birth to funk. As if creating a whole new genre wasn’t enough of an achievement, the song is electrifying, with a monstrous groove, a thunderous beat, and a Herculean vocal performance. Released as a two-part single in May 1967, it reached No. 7 on the Pop Singles Chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart.
5. Please, Please, Please
The first single released by James Brown and the Famous Flames was Please, Please, Please, a torrid, defiant piece of soul, soaked in raw emotion. After reaching No. 6 on the R&B chart in 1956, it became something of a signature song for Brown, who’d regularly use it to close out his live shows right up until his death in 2006.
4. I Got the Feelin’
By the late 1960s, James Brown was deep into his funk period. He’d ripped up the rule book, thrown conventional ideas about song structure out the window, and was chanting and yelping his way over some of the most relentless grooves in music history. I Got the Feelin’ represents one of his finest songs from the period – and his most successful. Released as a single in 1968, it soared to No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 6 on the pop charts. That same year, a ten-year-old Michael Jackson gave his best James Brown impression during a filmed performance of the song for the Jackson 5’s audition for Motown founder, Berry Gordy.
3. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
In 1965, Brown earned his first pop hit with Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag. A stripped-back classic with a monster breakbeat and a dynamite vocal, it was among a number of hits from that same year (including It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World and I Got You (I Feel Good)) that helped turn Brown from a promising singer into a worldwide phenomenon. Released as a two-part single, it became his first Top Ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 8. It also spent 8 weeks atop the R&B charts and won Brown his first Grammy for Best R&B Recording.
2. Living In America
Described by liveabout.com as the centerpiece of Brown’s return to pop music prominence in the mid-1980s, Living In America finds the singer strutting his way through one of the most overtly patriotic songs in his catalog. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t need to be – Brown didn’t ‘do’ shy, and here, he’s at his peacocking best. Released in 1985, it climbed to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 5 in the UK – Brown’s first, and last, UK Top Ten.
1. I Got You (I Feel Good)
1965 was a good year for music, and a particularly fine year for James Brown, who finally made good on his early promise with a string of chart-topping pop hits. I Got You (I Feel Good) was one of them. An instantly recognizable, enduringly popular nugget of R&B gold, it’s still as fresh and vital now as it was when it was released. Widely regarded as one of his best-known and best-loved recordings, it’s his highest-charting song of all time, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the R&B chart.