It was a legendary introduction, utterly predictable yet invariably electrifying. "Are you really ready for some super-dynamite soul?" MC Danny Ray would ask. "Because now, it's Star Time!"
And as the band hummed behind him, Ray would run through the familiar incantation: "Introducing the World's Greatest Entertainer, Mr. Dynamite, the Amazing Mr. Please Please himself, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. . . . Ladies and gentlemen, the star of the show --
That's the way Brown used to be introduced in concert. But for many pop fans, particularly those unfamiliar with his sound, a different introduction is in order. Titled "Star Time" (Polydor SACD 331), this 71-song survey -- which arrives in record stores today -- covers most of the soul man's career, from "Please Please Please" (his first single) to "Unity" (a 1984 collaboration with rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa). And if it doesn't make a fan out of you, nothing will.
Like most boxed retrospectives, "Star Time" is quite an impressive package, replete with photos, critical essays, personal reminiscences, personnel listings and a complete discography -- not to mention four CDs' worth of hits and rarities. Surprisingly, though, its almost five-hour playing time doesn't seem like overkill; if anything, it leaves the listener hungry for more.
How so? Part of the answer is that few performers have ever managed the breadth Brown has achieved in his 34-year career, an expanse that stretches not just from gospel to the blues to jazz but also from funk to disco to rap. Mostly, though, it's because no artist has ever been able to match his musical vision.
Brown didn't start out a revolutionary -- indeed, the gospel-fueled pleas of "Please Please Please" were old-fashioned even in their day -- but by the early '60s he was breaking new ground on a regular basis. First there was "I've Got Money" in 1962, whose breakneck groove first introduced "fatback" drumming to the R&B vocabulary; a year later there was "James Brown Live at the Apollo," which not only captured his incendiary concert routine on vinyl but made it as high as No. 2 on the pop charts.
Then, in 1964, Brown came up with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and with that, R&B was never the same again. This was the beginning of funk-as-we-know-it. Naturally, "Star Time" includes the hit, but it also boasts the unreleased original version of the song. Longer, slower and prefaced by Brown confidently announcing, "This is a hit!," it is like hearing pop history in the making.
The collection is virtually non-stop excitement, from favorites like "Mother Popcorn" to the 1971 medley "Brother Rapp/Ain't It Funky Now." All told, the collection contains some of the most remarkable music ever made in this country.
Exaggeration? Not really. After all, "Star Time" simply proves what Danny Ray knew all along -- that it's impossible to overestimate James Brown.