The James Brown "Soul on Top" Reissue
Posted on 7/6/2004at 10:25 AM
(Names have been changed to protect the guilty)
In 1995, James Brown and I began a series of loose conversations about maybe collaborating on a project. Quite honestly, it didn't matter to me. What mattered most was that I was becoming friends with my boyhood hero. James Brown was quite flattered (then later perturbed) that the title track to my first CD, "Gettin' To It" was dedicated to and inspired by him. After hanging out with Mr. Brown in New York and Augusta on a number of occasions between 1995 and 1997, I actually thought that this collaboration just might happen. So did Verve.
Plans were set in motion for the James Brown/Christian McBride jazz album. To boost the hype even more, plans were also made to reissue the James Brown/Louie Bellson 1969 jazz project, "Soul on Top." Maybe the over-zealousness of all involved was what ultimately pushed James Brown away from doing the project, but like I said, it didn't matter - we were hanging out.
Once it became clear that the collaboration with Mr. Brown wouldn't happen, I then went to my plan B, which was "A Family Affair." But, it was also decided that "Soul on Top" would be reissued anyway.
If you've bought any James Brown reissue (or any great funk compilation, for that matter) within the last decade, you've undoubtedly seen the name of Harry Weinger. Harry Weinger is what I like to call a "Saint of Funk." He's almost single-handedly kept James Brown's back catalogue (along with Alan Leeds and Cliff White) in circulation. Along with the recent dynamite Motown compilations and other great funk compilations, Harry sees to it that these old funk and R&B gems get repackaged, reborn and relived.
When the date had been set to start production on the "Soul on Top" reissue, Harry Weinger picked me to be his co-pilot. I was deeply honored. I was also summoned to write new liner notes. This, to me, was almost as great as working with James Brown himself. Harry's only instructions during the mixing were "You work on the band, I'll work on James." We spent hours at the PolyGram vaults in Edison, NJ working away on "Soul on Top." We discovered new tracks and everything. Soon, new liner notes were written and the album had been remixed. The project was now ready. Then.....
In September of 1998, Verve/PolyGram went through its first debilitating wave of corporate downsizing. Positions were eliminated, people lost jobs. Thus, "Soul on Top" was quickly forgotten. I was disappointed, but it certainly didn't keep me from sleeping at night. I had my own project to worry about. Fortunately, Harry Weinger didn't lose his job. Very smart move on PolyGram's part. Harry, however, assured me that "Soul on Top" would be reissued. After all, money had been spent on the production.
Fast forward to April, 2004.......
Verve is back on top. They are now a part of the Universal Music Group. New Gucci glasses, scents of Paul Mitchell shampoo and power suits glitz around 1755 Broadway. There are many, many new faces. A few old and familiar ones are left, but not too many. Cars are waiting after work to take the new faces home to another car that's waiting to be driven to weekend homes in Southampton with not nary a jazz album in their collective car stereos except the ones they have to report the sales of to their boss. Maybe it is the boss? Instead of Nicholas Payton, Russell Malone, Stephen Scott, and Christian McBride on the roster, the roster now includes Natalie Cole, Kenny Rankin, Linda Ronstadt, and Jamie Cullum. "Princess Diana" is alive and well, thank you. She feeds the mouths of all at the Verve kingdom. "Princess Diana" of course, is Diana Krall. Harry Weinger is still somewhere inside 1755 Broadway, but no longer does he have free reign in producing all those great funk reissues. He's now srictly a Motown worker. Why? Not sure, but hey, he's still there.
The scene is Stockholm, Sweden on Diana Krall's "Girl In The Other Room" promotional tour in the lobby of the I-can't-remember hotel.
Company man "X": "Hey Christian, have you ever heard of a James Brown record called 'Soul on Top'?"
My true heart's silent answer: "Uh oh....Why is he asking me that?"
Answer I actually gave him: "Yeah...."
Company man "X" (very excited): "Well, Verve's going to reissue it this summer!"
My true heart's silent answer: "Oh they are, huh? I smell something fishy..."
Answer I actually gave him: "You don't say? Did you keep my liner notes and remixes?"
Company man "X": "Uh...Uh...What?"
My true heart's silent answer: "You heard me *!@#*!#$!!"
Answer I actually gave him: "You don't know that Harry Weinger and I worked on that 7 years ago?"
Company man "X" (completely befuddled and defensive): "Well...Well...uh, uh.., duh, duh..ummm"
My true heart's silent answer: "Boy, I got him good. I guess this means I was eliminated from the reissue"
Answer I actually gave him: (None)
Company man "X" (desperately trying to recover, albeit futile!): "I'm....I'm going to call company man "Y" about this!"
My true heart's silent answer: "What is "Y" going to do?? Why don't you just stop B*!@^ S_-# me, man. Just tell me that you got someone else to do the project!"
Answer I actually gave him: (becoming increasingly similar in tone with 'true heart'): "Yeah, ok, sure.."
What followed for the next several weeks was the saddest, most shameful display of "X" pointing at "Y" who pointed at "Z" who said he talked to "M", but "N" said that "W" was the one to talk to, but "S", his secretary, wasn't answering the phone. You know what I mean? Just SAD! So, I went to Harry Weinger who took a deep breath (via e-mail) and said "We should talk over dinner. It's a long story."
Well, I still haven't heard the story, but I'll tell you this - I just received my copy of the "new" Soul on Top reissue, and the names Harry Weinger or Christian McBride do not appear anywhere in the production credits, nor were my liner notes used. The "new" reissue was produced by Bryan Koniarz (never met him), and "mixed" by Bob Irwin (him, neither). Oh, by the way, "Y" told me that the reason they didn't use the mix Harry and I came up with was because, "Verve doesn't remix any of its reissues." OHHHH....EXCUSE ME!! I didn't realize that Harry and I were tampering with such a sacred tradition!! The new liner notes were written by Francis Davis which prove to be humorous, at best. He spends the entire first part of his liners talking about the new James Brown DANCING DOLL (!!!), and drawing parallels between James Brown and Elvis. (DUH! Like we don't know that already. And nobody's really told the truth about Elvis anyway! Hello!) What does the doll and Elvis have to do with "Soul on Top"? By the time he talks about the music, he's grossly overstayed his print welcome. (How's THAT for a critic? Maybe I could hook up a gig at the Village Voice!)
I thought about posting the liner notes I wrote, but that would be "Soul OVER the Top". So, I'll just leave you with this rant. I hope you enjoyed it. In the big picture, this doesn't mean much at all. There has been much, much worse that deserves WAY more mention than this. This "Soul on Top" situation really isn't worth a story, but because James Brown's music means so much to me - which ALL of you know (except company man "X", apparently), I thought I'd share with you my personal feelings on this matter. So, if you purchase this reissue, THINK OF ME!!
Life will go on, I'll see "X" and "Y" and "Z" again, and we'll slap hands like nothing happened, then the CMB will go out and KICK SOME BEHIND SOMEHWERE!!!! :-)