James Brown

There Was a Time

Song Review by

By late 1967, James Brown's music was reaching a point where it was abandoning most pretenses of conventional pop melody and lyrics, in favor of improvisational jazz-influenced funk vamping and stream-of-consciousness lyrics and vocals. Whether in spite of or because of that, actually his music was getting more exciting and innovative than ever. "There Was a Time" was one of the most outstanding performances in which this approach flowered, and was embraced by the listening public as well, reaching #3 in the R&B charts. (Its flipside, "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)," was a comparably big chart hit in its own right.) "There Was a Time" was built upon one of Brown's greatest backing tracks, with a hypnotic repetitious scratch-chopping rhythm guitar; a curling, bluesy guitar line; and a dramatic horn riff that slyly combined the ominous and the jubilant. If you were to sit down and study Brown's lyrics, well, who really knows what he's jabbering on about. He sing-chants, in an apparent nostalgic remembrance, about how he used to dance in the old days. He reminisces about his hometown, Augusta GA, and how he and his home crowd get together to do the camel walk. He finishes with the boast that you ain't seen nothing yet until you see him do the James Brown -- in this particular case, most likely not an idle boast. The lyrics are pretty nonsensical, actually, but that doesn't matter, because the message is in how Brown's singing, not what he's saying. He grunts, wails, peels off into screams, and steps aside to let the horns strut. One can almost visualize Brown sweating and dancing around in front of the band as the track plays, so immediate, taut, and exciting are the grooves, and so fervent are the vocals. At four-and-a-half minutes, "There Was a Time" was pretty long for a 1967 single. Yet it was actually an excerpt from a much longer recording, a medley of "Let Yourself Go"/"There Was a Time"/"I Feel All Right"/"Cold Sweat" that took up an entire LP side on Live at the Apollo Vol. 2. This track, as expected, gets into some pretty extensive and amazing drawn-out passages, particularly the point at which Brown plays call-response with the band and the audience, repeating "hey hey, I feel alright" for minutes. It's arguably the finest recording of Brown's distinguished career, though one that isn't as well known as his singles as it was far too long to fit into most radio formats of the time.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
I Can't Stand Myself When You Touch Me 1968 Polydor / Universal Music 3:35
Gettin' Down to It 1969 Verve 3:01
No Image 1977 Polydor 0:00
Star Time 1991 Polydor 4:59
Funk Power 1970: A Brand New Thang 1996 Polydor 0:00
Essential Mix 2000 London 4:47
Bains Douches, Vol. 2 2000
Various Artists
Universal International 4:18
Out of Sight: Greatest Hits 2002 Universal International 0:00
Soul Classics, Vol. 8 [Collectables] 2002
Various Artists
Collectables 4:27
The 50th Anniversary Collection 2003 UTV / Polydor / Universal 3:35
5 Classic Albums 2014 Polydor 4:04
Not Fade Away [Music From the Motion Picture]
Original Soundtrack
ABKCO Records 3:37