Acoustic Sounds

James Brown

Soul On Top



Label: Verve By Request

Produced By: Bud Hobgood

Engineered By: Eddie Brackett

Mixed By: Christian McBride and Harry Weinger

Lacquers Cut By: Ryan K. Smith at Sterling Sound

By: Michael Fremer

January 27th, 2023


Funk Vocal Jazz



Inept Remix and Dynamic Smashing Takes "Soul On Top" to the Bottom of the Reissue Heap

take the remixers to squash court

What's unusual here is not the big band. James Brown toured and recorded with one throughout his career. "Soul On Top" is an outlier in the Brown catalog because he's backed by a jazz band— Louie Bellson's 18 piece orchestra—with arrangements by Oliver Nelson, who tried to conduct. Only saxophonist Maceo Parker, Jr. from Brown's band The J.B.s came along for the ride.

Brown's 28th album, released in 1970 on King Records (KS1100) was an unusual departure for Brown, for the jazz setting as well as the selected tunes—a mix of standards—everything from Hank Williams' "Your Cheating Heart" to Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's melancholic "September Song" to Anthony Newley's "What Kind of Fool Am I?" plus two reinvented Brown classics "lt's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag".

If you're expecting Brown to suddenly croon and give up the manic screams, the guttural grunts and exclamatory asides, you'd be mistaken. The idea surely was to spotlight the incongruity of the combo and make it work. It does, which doesn't mean you'll like or appreciate it. When originally released, Brown's soul fans didn't bite, nor did many jazz fans, despite Nelson, Bellson and band members that included Ray Brown on bass and many familiar west coast horn players. Nor did Leonard Feather's erudite annotation entice.

I spotted an original copy in a Nashville record store thirty years ago and seeing Bellson and Nelson on the cover let out a pretty loud "WTF?" James Brown fronting a big jazz band arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson and propelled by Louie Bellson was difficult to turn down. Opening the Unipak jacket and seeing the engineer was Eddie Brackett and a picture of Bellson's brass section at United Western Recorders, it was a $15 easy call.

The sultry opener contrasted Nelson's smooth arrangement (punctuated with peppery horn accents) with Brown's chop to produce a winning opener. This is working! Toward the end of the song Brown lets loose with one of his banshee squeals as Bellson pounds the skins sounding as if he's seated directly behind the singer.

I'm not sure Ray Brown ever played funky bass as he does on "Your Cheating Heart" before or after this session! At the end of the Williams classic Brown cuts loose with a long, extended scream while the horns squeal their strong support. It's a volcano! It's mayhem! It works.

Brown takes "What Kind of Fool I am?" as straight as he can, which it turns out is very well tamed, even to the finale, which even torch singers take to the limit. Hearing "This Is a Man's, Man's, Man's World" done with a jazzy, syncopated arrangement, horns blaring accented by a tambourine in the foreground, makes for a perfect reimagining of a Brown classic. This is a fun listen, reminiscent of hearing for the first time Ray Charles's Genius+ Soul= Jazz. The orchestra, seemingly swept away by Brown's exuberance, can barely control itself, which only intensifies the fun and the musical mayhem.

Eddie Brackett's sonic presentation adds to the pleasures. Yes, it's a typical "wide stance" 60's spread with the orchestra seemingly divided left (horns)/right(reeds) with Brown taking center stage and Bellson propelling the whole thing directly behind. Thoughout all of this you can hear the sections and the individual instruments within them. You can recognize the instruments. You can hear the room, especially behind Bellson's kit, which has plenty of honest mid bass. It sounds like a drum kit. You are hearing and are witness to an event. Because you can hear the room, despite the left/right spread there's coherent whole.

Instrumentals sound natural, with air around the sections and even when the horns are blaring they hold together and appear in a space. The room is as much on fire as are the musicians and you are there. Of course this is a good recording. After all, Eddie Brackett engineered, among other great records Dream With Dean. The studio later became Ocean Way.

If there was anything to criticize about the original record it was a lack of bottom end drive. The bass was okay, but a bit more punch and extension would've been nice and maybe the raucous top could have used a bit of tamping down—but not too much!

When I opened the gatefold of this reissue, which is a faithful reproduction of the original, I noticed it was a remix by Christian McBride the bass great—probably the best today—and Harry Weinger whose name I could not forget because his credit appeared as a co-producer on the awful Birth of the Cool. There was something seriously wrong with that reissue, other than the package, which was exquisitely done. The sound was a joke. Something you'd know if you had the Classic Records reissue cut by Bernie Grundman. Someone there wasn't listening.

With Christian McBride getting remix credit I was expecting something good, though this record did not need a remix. If anything, it needed an equalization adjustment. Instead it got a complete remix. Maybe the original mix got got lost or burned or the tape wasn't useable.

The remix is a timbral and spatial mess. Even the bottom end has not been improved. The studio is gone, the space is gone. It's a flat bright, diffuse, timbrally confused mess. What was an orderly, widescreen mix, with spatial depth is now a center stage traffic jam that leaves little for the eyes to see, and even less for the ears to savor. When Brown screams and the horns blare, all on the same flat plane and with added, not lessened brightness, you'll want to say "Please make the cacophony stop!" I can't believe Christian McBride really had anything to do with this. His records mostly sound very good.

The amount of compression applied here, the instant attack and almost no decay that I could hear robs everything of naturalness but especially Brown's voice! He's got no body. It's all vocal cords. Bellson's drums are the same. It doesn't sound like a drum kit. There's an insistent tambourine on "It's Man's, Man's, Man's World". On the original you can hear the tambourine zills and the skin. On the reissue the zills have no decay. It's just attack. There's no skin to the instrument.

The whole thing sounds squashed. The mixers should be sent to squash court.

On the brighter side (no pun intended), Third Man presses a nice record! This is part of the "Verve by Request" series. I have a request. Don't fork with a good original mix unless it's the only option. And then try to make the remix sound at least something like the original—especially when someone like Eddie Brackett is involved.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: B0036053-01

Pressing Plant: Third Man Pressing


Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Presentation: Single LP


  • 2023-01-28 02:39:27 AM

    Nathan Ogan wrote:

    Thanks for the review. Just canceled my preorder. So disappointing.

  • 2023-01-28 04:07:58 AM

    Fred Morris wrote:

    A more conventional JB instrumental album I’ve always enjoyed is James Brown Plays James Brown Today and Yesterday on Smash (a Mercury label). In short supply and very expensive on Discogs. Worthy of reissue?

  • 2023-01-28 08:28:04 AM

    Martin Straub wrote:

    Order cancelled.

  • 2023-01-30 12:59:54 AM

    AnalogJ wrote:

    This was co-produced by Third Man Records, wasn't it? I'm not sure I trust them for great sound quality.

    • 2023-01-30 06:53:06 PM

      Michael Fremer wrote:

      Third Man only handled the pressing and as I wrote, the pressing was excellent--flawless. Ryan K. Smith cut what he was given. The problem started earlier in the chain.

  • 2023-02-18 03:51:48 PM

    David Thompson wrote:

    I was really looking forward to this release. Ugh, played it once, going to trade it.