Caught by the River

Caught By The Reaper – Bobby Byrd

4th January 2008

Wasn’t gonna run anymore of these but I came across this rememberance of Bobby Byrd today and I didn’t even know that he had passed away. It’s a heartfelt and knowledgeable tribute by a guy called Red Kelly. It’s taken from his blog, “the B side”. It’s a great site, dedicated to the flip sides of old Soul and R & B 45’s and backed up with incredible, in depth information. There’s a link to it below. Also thanks to Chris Salmon for bringing it to my attention (check his piece in the “film & music” section of The Guardian today for more music sites);

Bobby Byrd, Musician, August 15, 1934 – September 12, 2007

So here we are saying goodbye to yet another giant of this music, Bobby Byrd, an absolutely pivotal figure in the history of Soul.

I don’t know if you’d be right to say that without Bobby Byrd, there would never have been a James Brown, but you’d be close. It was Bobby who took James under his wing, and welcomed him as a member of his own family after he helped get him paroled from a Georgia juvenile prison in 1952. It was Bobby who welcomed him into his Gospel quartet, The Avons, a group which would soon ‘cross-over’ and rename themselves The Famous Flames.

While Brown soon asserted himself as the leader, Bobby didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve never seen a man work so hard in my whole life,” he said, “…it was hard to keep up. He was all the time driving, driving, driving.” That fire inside soon translated into a record deal with Syd Nathan in 1956. Whether it was early vocal group sides like Please, Please, Please and Try Me, or groundbreaking classics like Out Of Sight and Cold Sweat, It’s important to remember that all of Godfather’s King and Federal sides were credited to ‘James Brown And The Famous Flames’, right up until late 1968.

Their incredible run of over 45 R&B chart hits (placing over 20 in the top ten, including five #1’s) during that 12 year period just boggles the mind. The Flames’ soulful moan, along with their precision dance steps, helped define the James Brown experience, and have become an indelible part of our culture. After original Flames Bobby Bennett and ‘Baby Lloyd’ Stallworth walked (in a squabble over money soon after #2 R&B smash Licking Stick-Licking Stick), Bobby Byrd stepped into his role as ‘Soul Brother Number One and a Half’ (as Fred Wesley would come to call him).

It’s hard to imagine what songs like Soul Power, Make It Funky, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, and I’m A Greedy Man might have sounded like without Bobby’s equally important (yet uncredited) vocals. As I’ve mentioned before, the banter between Bobby and James (saying things like, “Don’t get so funky!” “I can’t help it, Byrd”) just does me in. Soul personified, y’all. His keyboard skills and songwriting abilities would prove equally essential in those days as the James Brown Band evolved into The J.B.’s.

Byrd’s solo records are just as important, as he took James Brown productions like I Need Help (I Can’t Do It Alone) and the mighty, mighty I Know You Got Soul onto the charts in the early seventies. He and his wife Vicki Anderson would become an integral part of JB’s People label, and produce some of the funkiest music this planet has ever heard. This high energy mover we have here today, issued for some reason on Brownstone (another Polydor subsidiary) would crack the R&B top 40 in early 1972. Get out da way! This is just as tight as it gets, man. Shortly after the release of this monster, Byrd would leave all of it behind, finally tired of ‘not getting paid’.

Although he charted twice more on his own, by 1975, he was basically off the map.

He and Vicki continued to perform overseas, and a whole new generation of fans was waiting as Polydor began it’s ambitious CD reissue campaign in the mid eighties. Despite their differences with him over the years, both Bobby and Vicki were there last December in Augusta as James Brown lie in state. I’ll never forget watching him perform I Know You Got Soul that one last time with the solid gold casket of his fellow Flame there at his feet…

Fred Wesley won’t you blow one time.

Red Kelly

  • the “B” side