James Brown

The Payback

Composed by Fred Wesley / James Brown / John Starks

Song Review by

Just like his mid-'70s contemporaries, James Brown infused his music with cinematic underpinnings that suggested the blaxploitation movie craze of the era. Some examples would include Curtis Mayfield's Superfly movie soundtrack and hit singles by First Choice ("The Player") and the Temptations ("Masterpiece"). Like Mayfield, Brown composed the soundtracks for two American International Pictures releases: Black Caesar and Slaughter's Big Rip Off (which included the Top Six R&B smash "Sexy, Sexy, Sexy"). The latter starred former pro-football star-turned-actor Fred Williamson and it would boast Brown's biggest soundtrack-related hit, the million-selling "The Payback," though it never was included on a soundtrack. The tension of the movie's action-packed story line wasn't the only reason for the track's brittle anxiety. Brown had plenty of anxiety in his life at the time: the over-300-dates-a-year concert schedule that earned the singer the title of the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business also contributed to his health problems. Add to that the fact that his then-recent releases didn't break into the Top Ten, and most troubling of all, Brown lost his son in a fatal automobile accident that past June. After Brown, trombonist/bandleader Fred Wesley, and drummer Jabo Starks had viewed scenes from the upcoming Black Caesar sequel, Hell up in Harlem, Brown tore up the lyrics to a song Wesley had been working on after he had completed recording the basic instrumental track at Augusta, GA's International Studios with Starks, guitarists Jimmy Nolan and Hearlon "Cheese" Martin, bassist Fred Thomas, and John Morgan on tambourine. Brown came up with new lyrics, with his anxiety causing him to dot his vocals with the word "damn" during the original unedited vocal sessions. Brown's turmoil comes through quite loud and clear, not only making for one of the singer's most revealing and listener-affecting vocals (due in part to the track's stark, sparse mix), but also some sense of empathy for the loss of his son. It's said that film producer Larry Cohen told Fred Wesley on first hearing that "The Big Payback" wasn't "funky enough." This was a big mistake that lead to AIP losing what would have been Brown's movie ticket-generating classic. Selling over a million copies, "The Payback" parked at two weeks and peaked at number 26 pop in spring 1974. Co-written by producer Brown, Wesley, and Starks, the cut became a steppers' favorite and a musical touchstone as well as a source for sampling opportunities for the hip-hop/rap acts of the '90s and beyond. The Payback LP went gold and included the popular, radio-aired "Mind Power" and the Top Four R&B smash "Stoned to the Bone."

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Payback 1973 Polydor 7:39
Billboard Top R&B Hits: 1974 1990
Various Artists
Star Time 1991 Universal 7:29
20 All-Time Greatest Hits! 1991 Polydor 7:36
Red Shoe Diaries 1992
Original Soundtrack
Mercury 4:00
In Yo' Face!: The History of Funk, Vol. 4 1993
Various Artists
Rhino 7:35
Lowrider Oldies, Vol. 3 1994
Various Artists
Art Laboe's Dedicated to You, Vol. 4 1994
Various Artists
Original Sound Entertainment 3:20
No Image 1995
Various Artists
From Hip to Hop, Vol. 1: Funkbots 1995
Various Artists
Orchard Lane 7:39
Live at the Apollo 1995 1995 Sbme Special Mkts. 0:36
Dead Presidents 1995
Original Soundtrack
Capitol/EMI Records / Capitol 7:41
Make It Funky - The Big Payback: 1971-1975 1996 Mercury / Universal Motown 7:37
40th Anniversary Collection 1996 Polydor / Universal Music 7:39
No Image 1996 Polydor 7:27
When We Were Kings 1997
Original Soundtrack
Mercury / PolyGram 3:42
Funk of the 70's 1997
Various Artists
Chronicles / Polygram 7:27
Funk Classics: The 70's, Vol. 2 1998
Various Artists
Rebound Records 5:04
Have a Nice Decade: The 70s Pop Culture Box 1998
Various Artists
Rhino 4:06
Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels 1999
Original Soundtrack
Island 7:27
Essential Soundtracks 1999
Various Artists
Telstar TV Records 7:28
Pure Funk, Vol. 2 1999
Various Artists
Mercury / Polygram 5:25
20th Century Masters -- The Millennium Collection 1999 Universal 7:30
DJ Masters: Funk Classics 2000
Various Artists
Universal Special Products 3:30
Late Night Mix 2000
Various Artists
Universal Distribution 4:22
Film 2000 2000
Various Artists
EMI Music Distribution 3:44
The Funk Box 2000
Various Artists
Hip-O 7:40
L.A. Lakers: NBA Championship 2001
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Alphabet City 3:27
Can You Dig It? The '70s Soul Experience 2001
Various Artists
Rhino 3:30
Lowrider Oldies, Vols. 1-9: Cruisin' Chrome Series 2001
Various Artists
Thump Records 7:31
No Image 2001
Various Artists
Rebound Records
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best of James Brown, Vol. 2 2002 Polydor / Universal 7:28
Out of Sight: Greatest Hits 2002 Universal 7:39
Superbad!: The Soul of the City 2002
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 3:22
Platinum Soul Legends 2002
Various Artists
Warner Strategic Marketing
The Ultimate Gangster Movie Soundtrack 2002
Various Artists
Lowrider Oldies, Vol. 1-3: Cruisin' Chrome Series 2003
Various Artists
Thump Records 7:31
Get on Up: Hip Hop Trax Sampling James Brown 2003
Various Artists
Universal Distribution
Ultimate Funk [Madacy] 2004
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 7:29
Greatest Breakbeats 2004 Polydor / Universal 7:41
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 2004
Original Game Soundtrack
Interscope 7:36
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas [Box Set] 2004
Original Game Soundtrack
Geffen 7:36
Funk Gold 2005
Various Artists
Hip-O 7:41
Mastercuts: Funk 2005
Various Artists
Mastercuts 1:03
Ultimate 16: Ultimate Funk 2005
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 7:29
Live at Montreux 1981 [Video] 2005 Eagle Vision
Universal Masters, Vol. 2 2006 Universal 7:28
Soul Legends 2006 Motown 3:31
Gold: Old School Jams 2007
Various Artists
Hip-O 7:40
Living in America [Delta] 2007 Delta / Delta Distribution
Pride [Soundtrack] 2007
Original Soundtrack
Lionsgate 7:41
Old School Jams, Vol. 7 2007
Various Artists
SPG 7:40
Gold 2007 Universal 7:39
No Image 2007 Polydor / Universal Music
Colour Collection, Vol. 2 2007 Spectrum Music 7:27
The 50 Greatest Songs 2007 Universal / Universal Distribution 7:30
Playlist Plus 2008 Polydor / Universal / Universal Music 7:27
Playlist Your Way 2008 Polydor 7:38
Five Classic Albums Plus 2013 Real Gone Music
Get on Up: The James Brown Story [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] 2014 Polydor
5 Classic Albums 2014 Polydor 3:33
Soul Train Live 2016 Air Cuts
20 #1's: Classic R&B Hits
Various Artists
UME Imports / Universal 3:31
Classic R&B Hits
Various Artists
Universal 3:31
Live at Montreux 1981 Eagle Rock 4:26
blue highlight denotes editor's pick