Tuesday, January 27, 2009


When most people hear the word "popcorn," they probably think of Orville Redenbacher. When record collectors, DJ's, and fans of the backbeat hear that same word, it takes on an entirely new context: it's a sound, a movement, a dance--a FEELING. In much the same way that hundreds of bands cashed in on Chubby Checker's "Twist" phenomenon, popcorn-themed songs quickly became ubiquitous among dancefloors and radio stations in the late 60's. Legions of funk bands--some well-known, most not so much so--who had been inspired by the popcorn craze began to experiment with their own variations on the theme. So where did the popcorn come from?

Popularized by James Brown in the late sixties, the "popcorn" craze is thought to have evolved from Boogaloo music. "Boogaloo" was the sound of Latin teenagers in and around New York during the mid- to late-'60s; It was an Anglicized form of Latin music incorporating R&B, mambo, and rock & roll, among other forms. Often known as "popcorn" music or shing-a-ling, the style is also quite similar to Latin soul.

As for the popcorn dance, James Brown had been doing the "Mashed Potatoes Popcorn" dance as early as 1966, but the first hint of Popcornitude turned up in January of 1968, with the release of an inconspicuous instrumental single called "Bringing Up The Guitar," credited to the Dapps featuring Alfred Ellis. The Dapps were the all-white funk band Brown had fronted on his gigantic hit "I Can't Stand Myself When You Touch Me," though it's not terribly clear if they were the Dapps on this particular record. (Brown tended to throw that name around a lot. The classic 1970 band including Bootsy Collins that recorded "Sex Machine" and "Soul Power," for instance, recorded an unreleased single, "More Mess On My Thing," under the name The New Dapps.) Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis played sax on most of JB's mid-'60s hits; "Bringing Up The Guitar" itself was basically just an extension of the "Cold Sweat" beat, featuring a decent sax solo, a guitar playing octaves on a pentatonic scale, a little walking-upward bass figure, and the band chanting "c'mon! yeah!" Not much to it but the groove.

Brown started doing a little dance to "Bringing Up The Guitar" on stage, and it caught on. He called the dance the Popcorn, and in late August, 1968, the band re-recorded the instrumental as "The Popcorn" (credited to James Brown Plays & Directs). In fact, he wasn't playing, though he can be heard yelping a little; this time, Ellis switched to organ, and Maceo Parker contributed a smoking, curlicuing tenor sax part. It's not quite as crisp or funky as the first version, but when it was released in May 1969, it clicked, going to #11 on the R&B chart.

When "The Popcorn" clicked, though, the Godfather moved-fast. (This, please note, was in a year when he released 13 singles and 4 albums, and that's just counting the ones under his own name.) On May 13, he hybridized the words of "You Got To Have A Mother For Me" with the basic groove of "The Popcorn," and came up with "Mother Popcorn," one of the most monstrously funky records ever made. Released in June, "Mother Popcorn," despite its weird title, became a humongous hit: #1 on the R&B charts, #11 pop.

Now, James Brown was not a man to linger on his successes; he'd record the same song over and over, a few years apart, but he was too busy making his groove evolve to stick with a formula. But something about the Popcorn was different. A month to the day after he recorded "Mother Popcorn," he was back in the studio, recording the instrumental "Lowdown Popcorn." It frankly didn't bear much relation to the Popcorn groove, other than its cyclical walking bass part, but that didn't matter: you could do the dance to it, after all. (Well, you could do the dance to anything, actually.) It wasn't one of Brown's best instrumentals, but it still went to #16 on the R&B charts when it came out in August.

After that, all bets were off. Brown had a huge revue he traveled with; there was always a woman singer, whose job was to sing backup, warm up the crowd (usually with a short set that ended with "People"), and generally do the diva thing. In the fall of 1969, that was Vicki Anderson (the wife of Brown's longtime right-hand-man Bobby Byrd). In an attempt to cover the potentially lucrative answer-song market, he assigned her "Answer To Mother Popcorn (I Got a Mother For You)," and she co-wrote and sang the living hell out of it. It came out in September, and it wasn't a hit, but it's become a collectors' favorite, with an amazing screaming-diva vocal and a magnificently tense groove.

R&B organist Bill Doggett had had a great big hit in the '50s with "Honky Tonk," which Brown covered a few times in various guises; in September 68, Doggett released a new, Brown-produced version of "Honky Tonk," backed with "Honky Tonk Popcorn"-the latter with a composition credit reading James Brown.

Once the Godfather opened the popcorn floodgates, funk outfits from all over the country (and Globe) began to record their own interpretations of the popcorn. Some were fiery covers of Brown's originals; others were lo-fi funk vamps that simply gave shout-outs to the dance. And yet there were other obscure little gems, cobbled together by obscure funk bands and released by even more obscure regional labels on rare, if not impossible to find, 45's. That's where this set comes in.

The RDM Band's "Butter Your Popcorn" provides the opening track and title for the set. Deep funk legends Billy Ball & The Upsetters turn in a scorching track called "Popcorn 69", while, from the same year, German composer Franz Auffray brings a dark psychedelic number called "Son of Popcorn." (Admittedly, Auffray's track bears little resemblance to other "popcorn"-themed relatives on this comp--perhaps only referencing "popcorn" in irony-- but it remains a highly sought-after LP by beat junkies, with the original pressing often fetching up to $400 on eBay.) Fellow Germans the Poets of Rhythm bring the heat with "Hotpie's Popcorn," while Eldridge Holmes' "Pop Popcorn Children" also remains highly sought after by funk 45 collectors for its hard-hitting groove, featuring the Meters as a potent backup band.

Dillard Crume, the long-time guitarist and songwriter for the legendary gospel group the Soul Stirrers (once featuring a young Sam Cooke), delivers a wicked take on Brown's "Mother Popcorn", along with his backup band, the Soul Rockets. Indiana's Big Daddy Graham Trio checks in with "Tightening Your Popcorn," while fellow midwesterner Andre Williams from Chicago's Chess Records appreciatively tells us about how to "Do the Popcorn." Finland's Calypso King and the Soul Investigators drop the heavy, deep organ funk with "Micro Popcorn," and Brazil's Waltel Branco covers Brown's "Popcorn With a Feeling." The Soul Generals, thought to be from Alabama, (and later the name of Brown's backing band for the last 20 years of his life), bring some greasy goodness with "Granma's Funky Popcorn (Part One)." Brother Jack McDuff's "Butter (For Yo' Popcorn)" comes from his 1969 record, "Down Home Style," while East of Underground (recorded in 1971 by a group of US Army serviceman at the Armed Forces Network studios in Frankfurt, Germany) mix Latin and Funk on "Popcorn/Santana." The second version of "Honky Tonk Popcorn," the last track in the set, comes courtesy of an Australian band called the Pacific Rhythm Combo, and takes Bill Doggett's original track to funky new heights. And of course, the set wouldn't be complete without a contribution from Brown himself, whose band is at the peak of their powers in "Lowdown Popcorn."

Needless to say, the "popcorn" was more than merely a sound, a dance, a movement, or even a feeling. It was a code word amongst singers, musicians, and bands (and, eventually, record collectors) alike that evidenced a seismic shift in Western rhythm and redefined what we thought of as "dance music." In turn, the "popcorn" produced some of the most incendiary and sought-after records in all of record lore. The height of the popcorn craze, from 1968-1970, not only liberated people's bodies, but inspired countless other bands from around the world to (rightly) think with their hips instead of their heads. It cut away the fat and gristle, leaving meaty bass lines, vicious horn stabs, mighty gutbucket drums, tons of sweat, and hours of rhythmic ecstasy. Like legendary DJ the Mojoman used to say, the Popcorn put "cheer in you ear, dip in your Hip, move in your Groove, glide in your Slide, and the swing in your thing."

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1 comment:

ziondave said...

Lovely piece on the popcorn groove! Nice one! It's a shame the download has disappeared but what can you do. Thanks!