Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The J.B.'s: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part II

After James Brown died on Christmas Day of 2006, Robert Christgau wrote a tribute discography for Rolling Stone that opened with the following sentence: “James Brown was the greatest musician of the rock era, no contest. “ That took me aback, because I never think of James Brown playing an instrument at all, at least not onstage, although he played a lot of organ on his studio recordings.

Reading on, I came to understand what Bob was saying (I get to call him Bob because I met him once at a party): James Brown’s instrument was the band. “A bandleader on the order of Ellington,” Bob elaborates, “a master arranger who used Pee Wee Ellis and Dave Matthews the way the Beatles used George Martin,” and he knows way more about this stuff than I do. That band, for the funkiest part of Brown’s career, was the J.B.’s, who are the artist under consideration here.

In addition to backing up James Brown from 1970, when the name the J.B.’s was coined, through the mid-1980s, the band also released albums under its own name, most notably 1973’s Doing It to Death, which featured a Number One R&B hit of the same name. Officially credited to Fred Wesley and the J.B.'s, it also went to Number 22 on the Hot 100, and would be the group's only non-Brown pop hit.

Frankly, I don’t quite know what to make of the J.B.’s, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of their work. Most notably, it’s hard to know how much of their achievement was due to their own capabilities and how much was due to their mentor, James Brown. For one thing, every song on Doing It to Death was written by Brown himself, who also contributed vocals to the record – was it even really a J.B.’s “solo” record, or a James Brown album under another name? I bet plenty of people back in 1973 assumed "Doing It to Death" was a James Brown single, and they wouldn't have bene entirely wrong.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame issues a little booklet with thumbnail bios of each of the nominees, and the one for the J.B.’s claims they later formed the backbone for Parliament/Funkadelic, which I think is, as Mattie said in True Grit, stretching the blanket. Some people, like Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker were in both groups, but they weren’t billed as the J.B.’s in P-Funk, and not all of the J.B.’s made the switch. They don’t get credit for that any more than the Faces get credit for Ronnie Wood playing pedal steel on “Far Away Eyes.”

So we’re left with a group of musicians – incredible musicians, to be sure – who became famous working for one of the greatest bandleaders ever, but have little on the resume beyond that. They weren’t even on some of the most recognizable James Brown singles, like “I Got You” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

James Brown, of course, was inducted back in 1986 as one of the charter members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as he rightfully should have been. Inducting the J.B.'s would be quite a bit like inducting George Martin, to return to Christgau's analogy.

These guys were fantastic, and their work isn't as widely known as it ought to be. It's hard to listen to "Pass the Peas" without wanting to get up and camel-walk for your own self. Meaning no disrespect to these gentlemen, though, I can’t really get behind the idea that they should be summoned for this honor alongside their leader. I have to vote NO for the J.B.’s.


  1. I agree with you here.

    Let's not forget that George Martin also had a hand in "Sister Golden Hair," Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow, and the Sgt. Pepper's movie soundtrack. That's not a Hall of Fame career?

  2. But George Martin =is= in the RRHOF, inducted in 1999. And I think rightfully so.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I was referring to "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin.

  5. For a while, I referred to the Game of Thrones author as "Railroad."