50 Years of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”

James Brown Cold Sweat Album Cover, 1967

Let loose on the public in the epochal July of 1967, James Brown‘s “Cold Sweat” has provided an exhilarating listening experience for fifty years. Dictated by Brown via grunt to saxophonist/bandleader Alfred Ellis, the song marked Brown’s greatest move toward what would eventually become accepted as funk. Eschewing the standard chord progressions of commonly-cited funk forerunners “Out of Sight” (1964) and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965), “Cold Sweat” undergoes only one chord change–on behalf of the bridge–throughout its seven-and-a-half minute running time. Consequently, the song digressed considerably from the existing rhythm and blues sound for which Brown had been largely responsible and ushered in the most successful phase of his career, which was typified by a mounting devotion to rhythm and space rather than melody or even (at a certain point) overall substance. This direction spanned the releases of “There Was a Time” “Mother Popcorn” (derived in part from “Cold Sweat”), “Licking Stick-Licking Stick”, and “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” and culminated in 1970 with “Sex Machine” and “Super Bad” before Brown transitioned again, this time into even heavier funk rhythms and occasionally darker tones (e.g. “King Heroin”, “The Payback”, and “Get Up Offa That Thing”). Propelled by the indelible groove of Clyde Stubblefield, whose contributions earn Brown’s “give the drummer some” and popularized the “break”, the record as released was (according to Ellis) recorded in one take with no overdubbing.

Despite its seemingly lessened commercial appeal, the single topped the R&B charts and managed to reach #7 on the overall U.S. Singles chart. Altering the course of soul, R&B, dance, and (as a result) popular music, the single enabled the static rhythm marathons that would populate the funk boom of the early 1970s and even the broader, rock-infused efforts of Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic. At the very least, “Cold Sweat” permanently dispelled any doubt as to Brown’s commercial endurance, relevance, and stylistic innovation.

An exceptionally well-preserved recording of an extended live rendition, incorporating “Ride the Pony”, from 1968 is included below:

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