If He Didn’t, We Wouldn’t Be in Here

bobby_byrd.jpgBobby Byrd, potent soul singer, patron of the young James Brown, co-founder of the Flames, and hard-working plug 2 to the Godfather of Soul, passed away yesterday in his Loganville, Georgia home. He was 73. His passing, and that of his long-time musical collaborator last year, are landmarks towards the end of an era of soul music that is all but gone, but lives on in the modern music it gave birth to.

Like so many of my generation, my first encounter with Byrd was second-hand, through the music he helped bring into the world by his example, namely Eric B and Rakim’s appropriation of his signature tune, “I Know You Got Soul” (1971), for their own cut of the same name (1987). It was an instant head-nodder back then, and remains so today – Fred Thomas’ bouncy bassline is of the kind that embeds itself in your mind immediately. Finding my way to the original, years later, was in no way a letdown – Byrd’s commanding vocals were an apt “replacement” for Rakim’s intense delivery, and brought the tune to completion for me. Added to that, the horns, especially Fred Wesley’s sweeping trombone, were simply icing on the cake. The power of soul distilled.

There are many other songs, of course, like the bountifully energetic “Hot Pants )I’m Coming, I’m Coming, I’m Coming)” (1971) and the tightly rhetorical “Sayin’ It and Doin’ It Are Two Different Things” (1972), but some of Byrd’s best performances remain, to my mind, those on which he acts the hype man for James Brown. “LIcking Stick” (1968), “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (1970), “Soul Power” (1971), the list of classics is long, but my personal favourite is perhaps the manifesto-like “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” (1971) — a rousing tune of rare force, supremely exemplifying the call to seizing the moment so essential to James Brown’s music. Byrd here delivers the central call to action with terse bravura. In this, as in most of these songs, he is not given much to do, but what he does is crucial. He provides the perfect, stolid backbone to the Godfather’s firestarting vigour.

His voice will stay with us, as will his unforgettable injunction: “Don’t let nobody stop you, from having yourself some fun!”

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