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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

James Brown "Cold Sweat" Song Analysis

Today's song analysis is a classic - James Brown's "Cold Sweat," which is considered by many to be the song that originated the modern funk genre. Although "Cold Sweat" was supposedly done in one take, I found a different version where you can hear the engineer slating "Take 2" that also had a different horn mix. For this analysis, we'll be looking at the first version that everyone knows.

An edited version of "Cold Sweat" was released as a single on King Records and immediately became a #1 R&B hit, and later reached number seven on the Billboard Pop chart. The complete 7 minute version was later included on the album Cold Sweat. Like all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
The song form is unique in two ways. First of all, it's based around a bass and horn riff (which became the signature of all of Brown's funk songs), and the form is somewhat random, as James shouts orders to the band when to change and when to hold the form. On the full 7:26 version of the song, the form looks like this:

Intro (4 bars), Verse (16 bars), B Section (10 bars), Chorus (4 bars), Intro, Verse, B Section, Chorus

That's where the single version ends. On the album version it really gets interesting as this is what follows:

Intro, sax solo, drum solo, drum and bass, Intro, Verse, B Section

This is where James directs traffic, calling for tenor sax player Maceo Parker to play a solo, letting him go for a random length, then asking the band to "Give the drummer some" which turns into a short drum solo (played by the great Clyde Stubblefield), then James calls the bass in. He then counts the band back into the verse, but tells them to hold on the B section, and that's where the song ends. Only James Brown could do this and have a hit, thanks to his legendary band discipline.

The Arrangement
The James Brown Orchestra was a gigging machine in those days (1967), so every arrangement was created to play live, which is why they could do the song with no overdubs (according to James' band leader and co-writer Pee-Wee Ellis), but I think that they probably only recorded on a mono or two track machine anyway. The arrangement elements look like this:

  * The Foundation: Bass and drums, with an electric guitar doubling the bass

  * The Rhythm: The 2nd guitar playing "funk chunks" along with a baritone sax answering the sax riff.

  * The Pad: None

  * The Lead: James Brown's vocal, Maceo Parker tenor solo

  * The Fills: The horns playing the riff line in the verse, and again answering during the B section and chorus.

The Sound
"Cold Sweat" was recorded in May 1967 at King Studios in Cincinnati. Recording wasn't that sophisticated at that time, especially in a non-media center in the middle of the country. That said, a number of things stand out. First of all, the balance between all the instruments is great, especially the horn section. Second, there's a very long reverb on the vocal, and later on the sax solo (who was probably using the same mic, just like during their show). Everything else is dry. The you have the drums, which sound okay until the solo when he begins to play the toms. They sound separated from the rest of the kit, which makes me think they were miked separately. Finally, the song is very light in the low end, which was a trait of most music until about the late 70s.

The Production
The production of "Cold Sweat" is all in the arrangement and the direction of James Brown during the song. There are no overdubs, so there was no layering, and either the band got it or they didn't. It's obvious they captured something that still works 45 years later.

Anonymous suggested the following video of the song, which is the long album version that we know followed by the 2nd take. I also included this short clip from a concert James gave in Zaire in 1974, which shows him at his glorious peak. The arrangement is different from the original though, which is often the case with all James Brown songs. He changed them a lot the more the band played them.

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Anonymous said...

I think this can be used as ref:

Bobby Owsinski said...

Yes, it can, and I've added it to the post. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Drums are a bit too dry IMO, and a bit too click-clunky. Bas sounds like it has some reverb on it?

Great performance! I wish my singer had that growl!

Fred Decker said...

A great song improved by great analysis!

Thanks Bobby and whoever suggested this song.

It's interesting that the tenor solo and James Brown could have been recorded on the same microphone since JB never stops singing (or talking).

Also, listen to JB scream on the bridge. How does he get his voice to sound like that?

This is a masterful performance and a really good suggestion. I don't really have anything else to add, so I'll just say...

Excuse me while I do the boogaloo!

Bobby Owsinski said...

You may be right about that, Fred, although there's some evidence that the entire horn section played around a single mic.

Henrik said...

There are some interesting interviews about this song in a documentary whose name I can't remember right now... It might be one of those great BBC productions from a few years ago ("history of soul music"... something like that).

They talk about "Cold Sweat" being the best example of Brown's idea of "The One" (landing heavily on the first beat, then syncopating stuff, then landing on the first beat again).

There's also some interesting talk about the horn section arrangement "singing" the words "cold sweat". As in: I don't care [cold sweat, cold sweat] about your past [cold sweat, cold sweat]. And how this is similar to the piano/horn riff in Miles Davis' "So What", which also sounds like the bass is actually answered by the piano/horns "singing" the words "so what".

Great analysis, as always, mr Owsinski!


Unknown said...

Thanks for the breakdown, Bobby, nice insight.

In the Ike Dyson remix, Maceo is playing alto, not tenor. But if you look at the film of the Boston Garden '68 performance (, he DOES play tenor. It's clear in the studio mix that Maceo is playing on the horn mike while JB keeps calling out on his own mike.

In the '68 Boston Garden performance Maceo comes up to JB's mike. Notice how JB takes the solo away and gives it back again. He's just building energy in the audience with ploys like that. Maceo knows, too. See how he bows his head in deference? All staged, rehearsed or talked through ahead of time. JB's not showing who's boss, he's building even more star power in his top soloist and milking it for the sake of the show.

The bari is so great in the early versions. Later JB goes to other horn orchestrations, like trumpet, flugelhorn, and alto, or trumpet, bone, alto, and tenor, etc. You can't hear the bari in the '68 Boston Garden, but he's there blowing. Much more forward in the studio cut that you have here.

Both mikes have 'verb on them. Listen to the "So What" chorus from the horns ... definitely reverb.


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