How James Brown Discovered Funk on ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’
By 1965, James Brown had enjoyed the highs of R&B success, the lows of grappling with his record label and the struggles in searching for a distinctive sound. He was ready for a change, ready for a brand new bag.
Even though white audiences were only just discovering the hardest working man in show business, black fans were keenly aware of his prodigious talent. The singer originally rose to fame as the leader of the Famous Flames, scoring hits with ballads like “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me.”
As Brown became the group’s headlining frontman, he looked to deviate from the formulaic, gospel-style R&B that was common among artists at the time. A contract dispute slowed the singer for more than a year, but once settled, he immediately returned to the studio with a fresh idea.
Brown, who was notorious for switching up his musical delivery in concert, had previously come across a new method while performing the song “Out of Sight.” Musical structure is mathematical at its core. In a traditional measure of four beats, R&B emphasized the second and fourth. In an effort to shake things up, Brown emphasized the first and third, a delivery that musicians later referred to as “on the one.” Excited by his discovery, Brown applied this method to the recording of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” giving the track a distinctive energy. The fledgling sound would earn a new name: funk.
“Funk is the root of the blues,” Brown explained to Spin in 1988. “It’s soul, jazz and gospel. Funk is coming down on the one. If it’s on the one, then it’s funky. But it’s hard for me to get people to understand that.”
Watch James Brown Perform 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag'
"I just thought he was a little bit more raw or a little bit more urban or a little bit more street,” saxophonist Maceo Parker explained in an interview with NPR. “It was a little bit more simple. And the simpler the music is, the rhythms are the changes; the more people can hear it, the more people can understand it and the more people can like it, because it's not difficult. It's not intricate. Da, da, da-da-da-da. Da din na, da, da, da-da-da-da. I mean, it's simple, but it's groovy.”
Parker, who played with Brown on the track, said the singer’s guiding principal was to get people moving: “James Brown [formula] was ... first, [the] bass got dancing, and if it felt funky and good enough and comfortable enough for him to dance, to dance and fly, then, you know, I think that was rule number one."
Still, author and music critic Nelson George noted the structure of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was revolutionary. "The way [Brown] orchestrated the breaks, the stops in time, the guitar signature strums and the horn interjections were very different," he wrote. "It wasn't totally a smooth-flowing melody like you might find at Motown Records. It wasn't Southern, per se, the way that the Stacks records sounded. It had its own kind of universe that it existed in."
Watch James Brown's 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' Video
The original version of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was roughly seven minutes long, filled with instrumental solos. The track was edited down, then cut into two parts - part one became the popular A-side single, while part two, made up of a sublime funk groove, served as the B-side.
Released in June 1965, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was Brown's first crossover hit, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 while also reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart. It also scored Brown the first Grammy of his career, taking home the award for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording.