James Brown

The Payback

Composed by James Brown / John Starks / Fred Wesley

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
Rhino 0:00
Star Time 1991 Polydor 7:28
20 All-Time Greatest Hits! 1991 Polydor 7:38
Red Shoe Diaries 1992
Original Soundtrack
Mercury 3:58
In Yo' Face!: The History of Funk, Vol. 4 1993
Various Artists
Rhino 7:35
Lowrider Oldies, Vol. 3 1994
Various Artists
7:31
Art Laboe's Dedicated to You, Vol. 4 1994
Various Artists
Original Sound Entertainment 3:20
No Image 1995
Various Artists
Priority Records
From Hip to Hop, Vol. 1: Funkbots 1995
Various Artists
Orchard Lane 7:39
Dead Presidents 1995
Original Soundtrack
Capitol / EMI Records 7:41
Make It Funky - The Big Payback: 1971-1975 1996 Chronicles / Polydor 7:39
40th Anniversary Collection 1996 Polydor 7:38
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 [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] 1999
Original Soundtrack
Maverick / Warner Bros. 7:27
Pure Funk, Vol. 2 1999
Various Artists
Mercury / Polygram 5:25
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: The Best of James Brown 1999 Mercury / Polydor 0:00
The Fatboy Slim/Norman Cook Collection 2000 Hip-O 5:54
DJ Masters: Funk Classics 2000
Various Artists
Universal Special Products 3:30
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 0:00
Lowrider Oldies, Vols. 1-9: Cruisin' Chrome Series 2001
Various Artists
Thump Records 7:31
A Year in Your Life: 1974, Vol. 1 2001
Various Artists
Definitive 3:29
No Image 2001
Various Artists
Rebound Records
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best of James Brown, Vol. 2 2002 Polydor / Uptown / Universal 0:00
Out of Sight: Greatest Hits 2002 Universal International 7:38
Soul Spectrum: Radio Sessions 2002 Obsessive 6:55
Superbad!: The Soul of the City 2002
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 3:22
Lowrider Oldies, Vol. 1-3: Cruisin' Chrome Series 2003
Various Artists
Thump Records 7:31
Ultimate Funk [Madacy] 2004
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 7:29
Greatest Breakbeats 2004 Polydor 7:42
70's Funk Classics 2004 Universal Special Products / PSM 3:33
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
Universal Masters, Vol. 2 2006 Universal International 7:30
Number 1's 2007 Polydor 0:00
Gold 2007 Polydor 0:00
The 50 Greatest Songs 2007 Universal / Universal Distribution 7:30
Playlist Plus 2008 Polydor 0:00
Best of James Brown [Universal 2018] 2010 Universal 3:30
Get on Up: The James Brown Story [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] 2014 Polydor / Universal 3:35
20 #1's: Classic R&B Hits
Various Artists
Universal 3:31
No Image
Various Artists
Capitol 7:39