Soul Serenade: James Brown, “The Payback”

James BrownBy the end of 1974, James Brown’s long and illustrious career was about to head into a fallow period. But the downswing came at the end of one of Brown’s best years ever as he ran three singles to the top of the R&B chart. It was the end of an era in which Brown came to be known as the Godfather of Soul.

The first of the three 1974 hit singles was “The Payback” and it had a story all its own. The lyrics, originally written by JB Fred Wesley but extensively revised by Brown, are a dark tale of betrayal but they could easily tell the story of the song’s history. Brown wrote the song for a film called Hell Up in Harlem which was released in 1973. But the film’s producer’s rejected the song because they thought it sounded like “the same old James Brown stuff,” as if that was a bad thing. The film’s director, Larry Cohen, allegedly found “The Payback” not funky enough. Right.

“The Payback” is as funky as could be but the record’s arrangement was sparse and airy as opposed to some of the hard-driving funk that had preceded it. And a wah-wah pedal was very much present, something else relatively rare on previous Brown records. Whatever the reasons were for the rejection, Brown was pissed off and he decided to release the single and its namesake album the following year.

James Brown - "The Payback"

The basic tracks for the two-part single were recorded in Augusta, GA in August 1973. The following month brass and backing vocals were overdubbed in New York City. In February 1974, Polydor Records released the single. It not only topped the R&B chart, it reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100. Payback indeed. Brown’s next single, “My Thang,” was released two months later and also topped the R&B chart and crossed over to #29 on the pop chart. Brown’s final R&B #1 hit of the year was “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” which was released in August and reached #31 on the pop chart.

1974 was a very good year indeed for James Brown. But disco was in its ascendency and Brown was slow to respond. The records he released in the late ’70s failed to reach the Top 10 on the R&B chart. It’s not like Brown disappeared from the public eye during those years though. He appeared in films like The Blues Brothers and Doctor Detroit, and on tv shows like Miami Vice. And then in 1985, he came all the way back with the release of “Living in America,” which was featured prominently in the film Rocky IV. “Living in America” was written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight. The single was released in December 1985 and raced all the way to the #4 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. It was Brown’s first Top 40 pop hit in ten years and the last one he would ever have.

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