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How James Brown Caught New Orleans' Rhythm and Called It Funk

A man who needs no introduction, James Brown.

As promised elsewhere, this week's music history post deals with, horror, black musicians. Specifically, I want to look at the origins of the Funk rhythm that ostensibly started with James Brown. Though he maintained the science of Funk was a trade secret and instituted heavy security on his band to ensure that it didn't get out, the rhythm of Funk did not start with James Brown, nor with his later drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, as some have claimed.

Funky drums began much earlier, in the south. Deeper than the downhome blues and with a longer legacy, New Orleans was the place where the drums shifted to an "open shuffle" and the jump blues leaped into Rock n' Roll and first among equals Little Richard and the Upsetters were "the first to put the funk in rhythm."

New Orleans is a unique American city. Originally Spanish, then French, not too long after its acceptance into the United States it became the largest entry point for slaves on the continent. And then the Haitians threw off their French chains and Creole refugees came to Louisiana and its crown jewel, New Orleans. It was the premier melting pot in a polyglot nation. And though it was home to the first symphony orchestra in America, it was also home to a large and innovative population of black musicians.

Whether the Caribbean influences brought the beat, or some other legacy of the slave trade which carried the percussion across the Atlantic enough to cause slaves to slap their thighs and chests to make up for the drums their masters confiscated, matters little. The important point is that New Orleans developed a distinctive rhythm, one that the drummers and musicians in Second Line orchestras played during Mardi Gras and funerals and whenever it struck their fancy. It wasn't quite a straight-ahead 8/8 meter, but it wasn't the 12/8 meter that Louis Armstrong and the swing craze made popular from the 1920s. It was a mixture. Sometimes the drums played 8/8 and sometimes the bass played 12/8. It was difficult to say and only the truly gifted could imitate the sound on a single instrument.

Drummer Earl Palmer at his drum set.

According to the prolific drummer Earl Palmer (who played with The Upsetters, that band which put the rhythm in Funk, if you'll recall):

the funk thing came about because it was a street thing that we all just inherently got. . . . It was a mixture of the bass drum beat that one guy was playing and the snare drum beat that another guy was playing. And not just the basic beat on the bass drum. They were playing syncopated things that were meshing with the snare drum. I tried to do that on a set of drums. And that's where that came from . . . I combined what the snare drum players were playing and what the bass drum players were playing with a little more up-to-date funky thing.

And it was Earl Palmer which also played for Professor Longhair, one of the jump blues artists who presaged Rock n' Roll, when he recorded the song "Tipitina" in what was one of the early, if not the earliest, uses of the "open shuffle" rhythm, a combination of the 8/8 and 12/8 meter, of which Palmer spoke.

Another active artist at the time, Dr. John--originally named Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., cited Professor Longhair as the one who started the funk.

. . .Fess put funk into music. I don't think . . . a Allen Toussaint or a Huey Smith or a lot of other piano players here would have the basics of style without Fess. . . .Longhair's thing had a direct bearing I'd say on a large portion of the funk music that evolved in New Orleans.

But it wasn't a direct line from Earl Palmer to Professor Longhair to Little Richard to James Brown. The drumming style that Earl Palmer developed from combining the rhythms of multiple instruments on a single drum set began to disseminate through the south. One of the New Orleans piano bands was led by Huey "Piano" Smith. On tour, he and his Clowns stopped in a small town in Florida. There the band's drummer inspired a young Clayton Fillyau and taught him the basics of the open shuffle rhythm.

It was Fillyau who, as James Brown's original drummer, used the style for the first time in the 1962 recording of "I've Got Money."

It was also Fillyau that taught the style to Clyde Stubblefield who is the more famous of Brown's drummers and who is largely credited with originating the rhythmic style in Brown's 1965 "Out of Sight." The next year saw "Pappa's Got a Brand New Bag" and Funk's umbilical cord was cut and its first cries heard in the world.

But for all the focus on James Brown as the primary Funk innovator, and not to deny the way he brought multiple instruments together to elaborate the theme, the Funk origin story goes farther back than 1964. If one is feeling grandiose, one could say that the origins of Funk stretch back to the Guinea Coast, but that is true of almost all of America's popular music. It is enough to say that Funk began in the Second Line in New Orleans and, with the efforts of Earl Palmer, found its way into the jump blues and Rock n' Roll. From there it stopped in Podunk, Florida, before alighting on James Brown's splendorously caped shoulders.

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