Quick: Look at the cover of James Brown's In the Jungle Groove (Polydor) and tell me when it came out. The Godfather of Soul is sporting a 'fro and soul patch, reclining in an all-denim suit on the concrete bench of what appears to be a holding cell. I'd place it in the early '70s, a guess supported by the sound of the tracks on the album (which turn out to have been cut from 1969 to 1972).
But Jungle Groove was released for the first time in 1986, while JB was enjoying two disparate sorts of popularity: he had just charted with the very mainstream, Rocky IV-showcased "Living in America"; meanwhile, club DJs and hip-hop artists were scouring second-hand shops looking for decent vinyl copies of his old records, which were becoming increasingly scarce as more and more hipsters got wise to the heavy perfection of his grooves.
Now, close to two decades later, Polydor has re-juiced the already archaeological album, making it even friendlier to sampling artists (here, for instance, "Funky Drummer" gets a "bonus beat reprise" that is stripped down to just what the DJ wants). Where earlier appearances of these songs were truncated or edited, Jungle opens them up to their original length, remixes them, and even grafts bits of other recordings onto one of them. The result is a funk epic featuring endless jams that are decidedly not for the four-minute-single set. James may be in a jail cell on the cover, but the record is anything but claustrophobic; the songs are now way too huge for solitary experience - this is a party record, a record that might just make its own party if you put it on and open your door.
All the tweaking Jungle Groove does to the originally issued recordings might sound like a liberty some record company fella is taking with Mr. Brown - but only until you consider the way the legend worked in his prolific prime. During a certain period of his career, he was forever morphing one song into another, Frankensteining chunks of tunes into new hits, and so on. "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose," for instance, might not be a familiar title - but spin the track, and you'll hear a little ditty called "Sex Machine" waiting to be born.
Cliff White's liner notes go a long way to explaining the complicated parentage of this album, including the many personnel changes that took place in the JB's during the period. Those of you who don't bother with liner essays might enjoy this account, from Bootsy Collins, of the way LSD ended his short tenure with the band: "One night with James I thought the neck of my bass guitar turned into a snake. I didn't want no part of it and went back into the dressing room in the middle of the show. That pretty much cooled my deal with the Godfather."
Bootsy may have learned to cope with the chemicals; sadly, Sly Stone wasn't so lucky. For over 20 years, one of rock's most brilliant bandleaders has been a cocaine casualty, hiding from public view even as his direct artistic descendents (Prince, Lenny Kravitz, et al) have shown how welcome his brand of funk and soul still is.
Few of the friends' houses I visit have an original Sly & the Family Stone album on the shelves. Instead most of the CD shelves feature Greatest Hits, a comp with the virtue of containing three absolutely wonderful songs - "Hot Fun In The Summertime," "Everybody Is A Star," and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" - that were released only as singles. But Hits only covers the first couple of albums, and even the more expansive Anthology is a mere 20 tracks. Enter The Essential Sly & The Family Stone (Legacy), a two-disc collection that does a much better job of charting the group's evolution.
Disc one highlights the exuberant, hopeful vibe of Dance to the Music and Stand!, where rock's first aggressively multi-ethnic, co-ed band made social justice sound like something worth dancing about. After exhortations like "You Can Make It If You Try," the disillusionment of 1971's There's A Riot Goin' On must have been heartbreaking for fans - but with most of that record included here on disc two, Stone's increasing fear and paranoia prove to be as musically compelling as his earlier work. And even when his lyrics weren't completely upbeat, he never forgot how to seduce; see the 1973 cut "If You Want Me To Stay" for proof.
The set closes with a couple of nice selections from albums that currently are only available as imports. It'd be nice to see all these records in print - and nicer still to see Sly re-enter the music world clean and sober - but Essential is just that for the time being. •