Welcome to this Funked Up! blog post: The Funk Boundary. During the 60s, elements of soul, r&b, rock and gospel were fused by a number of groundbreaking musicians into the musical genre of funk which would flower in scope and popularity during the 70s. But the question of exactly how, when, and by who funk formed is a contentious one. Today we’ll be examining early funk and checking out some pivotal artists and tracks that crossed “The Funk Boundary.”
The well-known soul singer Ray Charles might sound a surprising candidate for a father of early funk. But the sound and feel of funk is present on some of his most popular songs. Ray’s big hit “What I’d Say” from way back in 1959 delivers some incredibly funky drums and layered rhythmic instrumentation, and its lyrics, particularly Ray’s controversially sensual grunts and groans are delivered with funky gusto. This kind of outwardly sexual vibe would become an ideological characteristic of funk. Ray just might have been “the original funky man” as funk icon George Clinton once called him.
The renowned “godfather of funk” James Brown and his band were critical proponents of early funk. The group’s first hits in the mid 50s and early 60s were essentially soul but the band pushed funk into many of his biggest 60s hits, perhaps an omen of funk’s impending success in the 70s. Brown’s 1962 rendition of “Night Train”, for example differs from slower soul interpretations of the song with thumping, chugging rhythm. These sorts of rhythms would’ve sounded especially distinctive to listeners compared to the popular soul and doo-wop of the time. Brown’s Grammy Award-winning 1965 single “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” features catchy riffs, prominent horns, and an “On the One” sound. “On the One” refers to Brown’s frequent emphasis on the first beat of the measure, considered a cornerstone of the funk he pioneered. And this record found huge commercial success on its release- the One was a hit. Some describe James Brown’s 1967 hit “Cold Sweat” as being the first track to really exemplify the funk sound as a departure from previous conventions, owing to its extreme emphasis on rhythm over melody. The song is centered around a single chord, deriving its sound from rhythm rather than from the complex chord progressions of the time- the new sound was revolutionary. From there Brown and his band made these powerful rhythms faster and rougher with such flat-out funky songs as “I Got the Feelin“ (1968) and “Superbad“ (1970) These guys were crucial in establishing the funk sound, and they would continue to build on and substantiate funk in its 70s heyday.
While artists like Ray Charles and James Brown brought funk from soul, Sly & the Family Stone and others brought rock and psychedelia into the mix, taking the funk in a new direction that would have lasting implications. Sly’s 1967 breakout pop hit “Dance to the Music” surprised listeners with a powerful rhythm that builds as Sly himself calls his bandmates by name for them to add their sounds to the mix. The band emphasized the importance of unity in early funk, unity both of sound and of the band’s members itself. Sly’s group was among the first integrated bands in popular music, containing blacks, whites, and women all playing together with a lucid sense of musical and emotional unity. And unity was an important ideological cornerstone of the entire funk movement. Musically, the band’s bassist Larry Graham was of particularly importance in the development of funk, pioneering the “slap bass” technique that lent a thumping, powerful sound to the electric bass and brought its rhythms to the forefront of funk. Sly’s unified, groovy funk rock sound and huge basswork greatly influenced many 70s funk bands.
Most know The Temptations as a smooth Motown soul act, spawning such hits as My Girl and Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. But their 1969 album Cloud Nine, greatly influenced by the work of Sly, was an important and successful work of early funk. Featuring a number of searing, hard edged tracks like the title track “Cloud Nine“ with extended instrumental breaks and heavy syncopation, the album expanded upon the rhythmic vibes of James and Sly. They followed this sound even further on the album Psychedelic Shack in 1970, kicking off with the relentlessly psyched up “Psychedelic Shack“. This genre is often called psychedelic soul, an influential precursor to the funk of the 70s.
Next up is The Parliaments, who engaged themselves in an incredible creative shift from barbershop doo-wop to vicious, viscous funk rock around 1970. This group would become Parliament-Funkadelic, among the greatest and most influential funk groups of the 70s. The Parliaments, lead by George Clinton, formed around a New Jersey barbershop in the 60s. Their only significant hit was “I Wanna Testify“, which hit #3 r&b in 1967. But listen to the song closely- notice its trippy lyrics, rising chord-progression chorus, and funky rhythms- and it becomes a little teaser for what the band would become. Twisting the funk movement in their own crazy direction, the group released two albums in 1970, Osmium under the name Parliament and Funkadelic under the name Funkadelic. The weird, wild, crazy sounds on these early records would come to fruition on some of the best funk albums of the 70s, both on the band’s records like the legendary Mothership Connection (probably my personal favorite album of all time) and on the countless great funk records influenced by their sound.
The creation of funk is a complicated topic, encompassing a large number of regional styles and an even larger number of musicians. Musical styles are by nature collaborative efforts, with countless musicians building on one another’s sounds. I have doubtless neglected many of the talented musicians that built up the funk foundation (quick shout out to The Meters, Tower of Power, and Dyke and the Blazers) but I hope this show gave you an overview of a few of the bands that crossed the “funk boundary” and paved the way to the golden age of funk in the 70s. Maybe it also helped you understand just what the heck funk is. Thanks for checking this out, and I encourage you to explore the links to the songs and albums I pointed out, as listening for yourself is always gonna be better than reading. See ya next time!