50 Years Ago: James Brown Starts Up His ‘Sex Machine’
In July 1970, James Brown unleashed a song that would go on to become one of his signature tunes: “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.”
The single caught the singer at a successful but tumultuous time. Hits throughout the ‘60s - including “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Feel Good” and “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” - had made Brown one of the biggest names in music. Still, in March 1970, he was band-less, his former group the Flames having walked out due to a dispute over wages.
Bandleader Bobby Byrd, one of the few musicians to stay on with Brown, helped the singer search for a new ensemble. Together, they’d assemble the J.B.’s, a backing band that featured Catfish and Bootsy Collins, two musicians who'd go on to leave their own indelible marks on the worlds of soul and funk
Although the fledgling musicians were still learning their crafts, Brown quickly whipped them into shape. The notoriously demanding singer held extensive rehearsals, the band pouring over music for hours on end. Bootsy later admitted he played until his fingers bled. It was exhausting, but it worked: The J.B.’s quickly became a tight unit.
Being in Brown’s orbit brought other distractions too, such as drinking, drugs and women. “When James Brown came along, suddenly we were living the big life. We got all the girls, and we would get loaded,” Bootsy explained to The Guardian. “What else could a kid want?”
Aware of his band’s willingness to pursue such distractions, Brown installed rules to curtail partying. “I never had a father and he took that role on. He did a good job,” Collins admitted. “I needed that discipline. I would do any kind of wild thing otherwise.”
Brown and the group would regularly head directly to the studio after their shows. This routine would keep the musicians out of trouble, while also enabling the creative juices to flow. It was during one of these post-concert bus rides that “Sex Machine” began taking shape.
Watch James Brown Perform 'Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine'
“We were on our way to the studio, and we were riding a bus from the gig,” recalled Collins during a conversation with Redbull Music Academy. “[Brown] got a brown paper bag, tore the paper bag in half and he started writing.”
The singer quickly called Catfish and Bootsy to his seat, relaying the idea that was in his head. “We went up in the bus, sat right behind him and Bobby Byrd, and he wrote the lyrics. He said, ‘This is what I mean. Get on up, get on up … .’ That was our thing, so we had to read his body language. So, it was like being in Japan and you don’t know the language. You have to interpret what he’s doing, what he’s feeling, what he’s saying.”
The musicians quickly picked up on Brown’s groove, mapping out their parts while sitting on the bus. “So, we started right there, and we’d take that to the studio," said Collins. "Once we got to the studio, we had a good vibe of where we were going. That’s pretty much the way we would start it up.”
The band recorded the original version of of “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” on April 25, 1970, at Starday King Studio in Cincinnati. “Someone said, ‘It sounds great, Mr Brown. When are you going to mix it? [Brown] said, ‘Mix it? It’s already mixed, son!’" Collins recalled to Uncut. “He was teaching us how to be dynamic, with the ups, the breakdowns, the hard and soft parts. He felt that everything he did with the band was already mixed. He was a hard man, but I felt privileged to be in his presence.”
While the lyrics weren’t overtly explicit, simply having the word sex in the song’s title was controversial for the time. Still, the track managed to climb the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 15.
“Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” has since gone on to become one of Brown's most recognizable tracks. The Godfather of Soul released a revamped version of the tune in 1975, its style altered to suit a disco audience. That version peaked at No. 61.