Feeling as Form and Feet: James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin”

By the late 1960s James Brown was well into his most innovative and influential period as the pioneer of funk. His recording of “Cold Sweat” in 1967 hit number one on the R&B chart, and was to be followed up by, amongst other landmark recordings, “I Got the Feelin” in 1968.

The feeling that James Brown might be referring to is audibly and visually manifested in the studio recording, as well as live footage captured at the Apollo theatre in March and the Boston Garden[1] on April 5th. In particular, Brown’s irrepressible dancing is both a manifestation of the structure of the groove, as well as the traditions of the blues that influenced all of Brown’s output.

The Apollo performance begins with Brown asking his congregation if they have the feeling’, singling out each area of the theatre before asking the question of the band. Suddenly the band pops into the signature groove. The footage from Boston here is illuminating, featuring a long shot that makes most of the band and all of Brown’s body clearly visible.

The first phrase, featuring the first line “I Got the Feelin” ( about 10:10 in on the video below) features a driving rhythm section and horn riff. Brown’s feet alternate, close to the ground, alternating in quick succession. The second phrase, where the band moves to the IV chord, features a unison hit by the band that Brown chooses to acknowledge with a sudden twist of his head down and to his left. The largest accent of the tune is left without a vocal, instead maximized with Brown’s exaggerated gesture. A few measures later, upon returning to the I chord, Brown returns to a variation of his earlier moves.

When the band hits the V chord and the “Baby baby baby…” break, Brown turns his back to the audience, accenting his right foot.

This template is expanded, with wilder variations of the IV chord hit showing Brown creating wilder moves, mimicking the growing intensity of the band, and eventually Brown showing it off at 12:45 during the saxophone solo,. The performance continues to build into the last chorus with Brown manipulating the mic stand, catching it along with his continuously intensifying performance. The last break, Brown sings “Baby Baby Baby…” facing the audience before turning it all loose at 14:00.

The story of this tune is in as much of Brown’s physicality as his vocal. And while It builds throughout the 4-minutes shown in the video, it uses the ebb and flow of a modified blues form to create peaks and valleys where he can build and fall from each successively higher plateau.

The otherwise tune is a blues form, using a 12-bar first phrase, and a 6-bar turnaround and break. The piece foreshadowed other Brown classics such as “Sex Machine” where an audible cue to “take it to the bridge” sees the groove leave the I chord to move to a second section built on the IV chord. This second section ends with short hits on the V chord before starting the next chorus.

These tunes show how the flexibility of phrasing often noted with early blues pioneers such as Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker that resulted in a malleable number of bars re-exerts itself at in the foundations of funk, with Brown often audibly conducting his band as to when he believes the next phrase should be played.

“I Got The Feelin” (1968)

|           I           |                       |                       |                       |

|                       |                       |                       |                       |

|                       |                       |                       |                       |

|           IV        |                       |                       |                       |

|           I           |                       |                       |                       |

|           V         |                       | break ………|………………|

|………………|…………     :||

 

“Sex Machine” (1971)

||:          I           |                       |                       |                       :||

on cue

||:          IV        |                       |                       |                       :||          V         ||   D.C.

 

[1] This April 5th performance is outlined for its significance to the civil rights movement and to the city of Boston in the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston.”

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