August 25, 1965
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (Part 1)” by James Brown
#1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart, August 14 – October 8, 1965
James Brown — Soul Brother No. 1, the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business — is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in American popular music. It took nearly a decade of recording and performing, however, before he unleashed his signature sound on the world. The result, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” was as instrumental in revolutionizing popular music as its class of ’65 peers “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” In just over two minutes (in the single version, dubbed “Part 1”), Brown invented a sound that dramatically changed R&B, and pop music as a whole, for decades to come.
Brown got his first taste of stardom as a member of the Famous Flames, whose ballad “Please, Please, Please” (with Brown on lead vocals) made the R&B Top 10 in 1956. After struggling for years to follow up that hit, Brown and the Flames earned an R&B #1 with “Try Me” in 1959, kicking off a string of successful singles. While the group only occasionally scraped the bottom reaches of the pop Top 40, Brown’s celebrated live act, defined by his hard-edged, raspy vocals and astoundingly slick dance moves, propelled him to stardom.
While Brown’s showmanship and voracious performance style set him apart, however, his material was still relatively straightforward soul music. That began to change with 1964’s groove-focused “Out of Sight,” which played multiple rhythms off each other. The song became one of Brown’s biggest hits, reaching #24 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, contractual disputes prevented Brown from releasing another single for over a year. The time out of the spotlight proved fruitful, however, allowing the seeds planted on “Out of Sight” to grow not only into a new sound for Brown, but a whole new genre: funk.
The title “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” ostensibly refers to the lyrics’ tongue-in-cheek story of an older man getting hip to the new dance trends. The phrase, however, also signals Brown’s departure from the soul norm. Brown rattles out the names of popular dances — the monkey, the mashed potato, the jerk, the twist, the fly — all over a beat that’s entirely unconducive to doing any of those. Unlike most R&B songs, which accent the second and fourth beats of each measure, “Papa” emphasizes the first and third beats. This syncopation gives the song an element of surprise that propels the song forward, rather than just shuffling along on a familiar groove.
Accenting “on the one” (the first beat of the measure) is just part of Brown’s overall focus on groove over melody. Every instrument on “Papa” is used as percussion. The horn section blows staccato bursts, while the chanking guitar plays a repetitive, tuneless riff rather than a melodic lead. Even Brown’s voice is a rhythmic instrument, interjecting the lyrics in fragmented shards that deemphasize the melody. (The space between his vocal lines also gives him time to inject some quick dance moves.)
There’s room for debate about whether “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” can be considered the “first” funk song. One argument points to the fact that Brown didn’t invent playing “on the one”; it was already a standard technique in New Orleans jazz and R&B. Another argument claims that “Papa,” like its follow-up megahit “I Got You (I Feel Good),” is too rooted in 12-bar blues structure to be considered true funk, and that Brown wouldn’t fully launch the genre until later in the decade, with more abstract singles like 1967’s “Cold Sweat” and 1969’s “Mother Popcorn.”
Regardless, there’s no disputing that “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” had little in common with anything in pop or R&B that came before it. It quickly became by far Brown’s biggest hit to that point, climbing to #8 on the pop charts and reigning atop the R&B charts for eight weeks straight. The liner notes to the compilation Foundations of Funk – A Brand New Bag: 1964-1969 quote Brown trying to explain the song’s success: “I can’t really understand it. It’s the only thing on the market that sounds like it. It’s different. It’s a new bag, just like I sang.”
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.