A Very Brief History of Funk Music (from a Bassist’s viewpoint)

Posted: April 28, 2014 in Livin' in the USA, Music
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Cover of "The Bassist's Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco

(Yesterday we published the funk style history from The Drummer’s BibleToday, we’re publishing the corresponding style history from The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, by Tim Boomer. The information in both books is accurate, but they cover different aspects of the style.)


Like Jazz, Be Bop, and Rock n’ Roll, Funk acquired its name from a slang expression with sexual connotations. In musical terms, it originally meant anything that was off the traditional path or something that was “funky,” especially in the sense of being syncopated. Some of the earliest forms of Funk began in the city that gave birth to Jazz, New Orleans. Along with New Orleans native Fats Domino, one of the most influential musicians to contribute to the genre is piano player Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, popularly known as “Professor Longhair.” His style combines the sounds of early Rock n’ Roll and Blues with Afro-Cuban-influenced New Orleans Second Line.

In the 1950s, another primary precursor of Funk arose—Soul Music. It combined elements of Rock n’ Roll and Rhythm & Blues, with Ray Charles being among the first prominent Soul performers.

Near the end of the decade, another artist appeared who would become the driving force of Soul/Funk music for over 40 years: James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul.” Brown created driving dance music which combined advanced musicianship with the syncopated and displaced rhythms which have come to characterize Funk. (This refers to “displacing” one of the snare drum strokes on beats 2 and 4 to the “and” of one of those beats.) Brown’s prominent bass players include Bernard Odum, William “Bootsy” Collins, Fred Thomas, and Ray Brundridge.

In 1960 in Detroit, Motown Records, founded and run by Berry Gordy, composer of “Money,” helped create what is now called “the Motown sound.” Prominent bassists who recorded on the Motown label included James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt. They and other session musicians, informally known as the Funk Brothers, played on hundreds of recordings by different artists, without credit and with scanty financial compensation. Jamison, Babbitt and other Motown session musicians performed on more number one hits than the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Elvis combined, yet they benefited little from their string of hits.

The other prominent Soul label at the time was Stax, whose recordings often featured bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. By the mid-1960s, through the influence of James Brown, Stax, and Motown Records, the Soul style had become firmly established. Straight time, syncopated rhythms, conspicuous bass lines (utilizing offbeat eighth and/or sixteenth notes, often made prominent through staccato playing), displaced snare drum notes, percussive horn arrangements, and reliance on the blues scale all emerged as defining sounds of Funk—characteristics that remain to this day.
As the sixties came to a close, several bands latched on to the infectious energy of Funk, with Sly and the Family Stone taking it into the pop mainstream. In addition to Sly Stone’s song writing, the group relied on bass lines devised by one of the most important musicians of the Funk style, Larry Graham. Graham almost single handedly changed the way electric bass guitar was played, as his slap and pop technique propelled the bass to the front of Funk ensembles.

By the early 1970s, Funk had become popular around the globe. Along with Graham and Sly and the Family Stone, Dr. John, the Meters, and later the Neville Brothers (with the latter three bands featuring bassist George Porter, Jr.) helped mature the sounds of Funk as it became ever more popular. During the rest of the decade, Funk continued to blossom through the success of artists/groups such as War, Tower of Power, Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton and Funkadelic, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores, The Ohio Players, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, The Brothers Johnson, and The Average White Band.

By the 1980s, Funk’s popularity had begun to diminish, even though the grooves of the Funk rhythm section had made their way into pop music through artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Kool and the Gang. Even Rock bands of the past three decades have relied on Funk concepts, Dave Matthews, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Primus being prominent examples. Hip Hop and modern R&B have also borrowed heavily from the rhythms and grooves of traditional Funk. Today, the sounds and ideas of Funk pervade all popular music to such an extent that it has become an essential style for the working bassist.

New Orleans Funk

New Orleans Funk bass playing stresses rhythmic accuracy. Although the bassist’s notes are sparse, the painstaking accuracy of the notes’ placement creates an infectious and conspicuous bottom.  The pioneers in this style include bassists Billy Diamond, Frank Fields, and later Will Harvey, Jr. The current most prominent New Orleans Funk bassist is George Porter, Jr., who is the bassist for the Neville Brothers and The Meters, and who has appeared on recordings with Dr. John, Jimmy Buffet, David Byrne, Robbie Robertson, and Paul McCartney. Other notable musicians in this genre include Professor Longhair and Dr. John.

Legba Beat

The most common rhythm found in New Orleans Funk bass lines is the “Legba beat.” (Legba is a spirit in Haitian/Creole culture.) It consists of beat 1, the “and” of beat 2, and beat 4. The Legba beat is identical to the Cuban Tumbao rhythm, except that the “one” is played in Legba, while it is held over from the fourth beat of the previous measure in Tumbao.  However this primary rhythm is not strictly maintained. While it appears as the main groove in songs such as “Brother John,” “Fire on the Bayou,” and “Hey Pocky A-Way,” permutations appear in such classics as “Big Chief” and “Meet the Boys on the Battlefront.”

Motown / Stax

Motown, a sub-genre of Funk and Soul music, is associated with Motown Records, (founded by Berry Gordy in 1960 in Detroit). It was the first label owned by an African-American, and featured artists who crossed over to the pop charts. Artists such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Jr. Walker and the All Stars, and many more all played and recorded with one bassist: James Jamerson.

As a core member of a group of studio musicians informally called The Funk Brothers, and playing on reportedly 95 percent of Motown recordings between 1962 and 1968, Jamerson was one of the most influential bassists in modern music. His playing expanded the role of the bassist in dance music from playing repetitive patterns to playing melodic, syncopated, and improvisational lines. Jamerson influenced countless bassists not only by the licks he played, but also in the imaginative ways he modified his licks as a song progressed, changing just a few notes or the phrasing to keep the groove interesting yet solid and infectious. (The history of the Funk Brothers is detailed in a 1989 book by Allan Slutsky, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was turned into a documentary film in 2002.) After Jamerson left Motown, Bob Babbitt succeeded him in the Funk Brothers. Babbitt’s playing tended more toward regular syncopated patterns than Jamerson’s. (Motown Example 1 on p. 120 is similar to Babbitt’s lines, while Example 2 on page 121 is similar to Jamerson’s.)

Motown’s main competitors, Stax, Volt, and Atco records, and their distributor Atlantic Records, produced hits from 1959 through 1968 using their own studio house band, Booker T and the MG’s, with bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. Dunn’s lines were somewhat similar to Babbitt’s, with perhaps a bit less syncopation than Babbitt employed.
Artists in the Stax roster included Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Issac Hayes, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, and The Staple Singers. Overall sonically and rhythmically similar to the bass lines in Motown, the bass lines in the Atlantic recordings were derived from R&B.

Since Stax and Motown bass lines are quite similar, they are both included in this section. The primary distinction is that Stax lines are more repetitive than those in Motown, and are built predominantly from the Blues Scale, whereas Motown lines include non-Blues Scale notes and wander further afield harmonically.

Early Funk

“The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, for all intents and purposes was Funk for most of the 1960s. He was largely responsible for both the name Funk and its popularity in that decade. (Some attribute the name to drummer Earl Palmer.) Although Brown was already developing his unique style in the late 1950s, while moving away from straight R&B, it wasn’t until 1963 that the first arguably Funk hit album landed on the charts: “James Brown Live at the Apollo.”

The hallmarks of Brown’s new style were use of Blues and R&B progressions, extensive syncopation, especially “displaced” drum beats which strayed from the snare drum’s traditional backbeats on “2” and “4,” and extensive use of horns in a percussive manner (“horn punches”). All of this lent itself to the descriptive term, “funky.”
Early Funk basically covers the period between its origination by James Brown in the late 1950s and early 1960s and his stylistic shift away from progression-oriented songs and into one-and-two-chord vamp-oriented songs (Later Funk) in the late 1960s. “Cold Sweat” (1967) and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), are landmarks in Brown’s shift in styles.

Later Funk

Later Funk came in on James Brown’s coattails in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In that period, as rhythm became an even more important component of Funk, songs often used only one chord. Eliminating chord changes enabled Funk musicians to use more syncopation, often in the familiar two-part pattern. In this period, syncopation expanded from eighth-note syncopation to sixteenth-note syncopation. In addition, the tempo was often slower than in Early Funk.

All of these factors contributed to bass lines emerging as the “hooks” of songs. Tunes such as “People Say” by the Meters, “Chameleon,” (written by bassist Paul Jackson, Bennie Maupin, Harvey Mason and Herbie Hancock), and “Cold Sweat” by James Brown, emphasize offbeat eighth and sixteenth notes. Generally, the faster the song, the more the bass groove relied on eighth notes, while the slower the song, the more the bass groove relied on sixteenth notes.

Funk Rock

Though not technically an established style, the term “Funk Rock” describes music that can be classified as Rock, but that incorporates elements from Funk, such as syncopated rhythms and percussive horn lines. Bands and artists such as Earth, Wind and Fire, the Commodores, Michael Jackson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Sly and the Family Stone fall into both the Funk and Rock genres. As opposed to those in the other Funk styles, Funk Rock bass lines usually have fewer syncopated notes and place more emphasis on the beat. What distinguishes Funk Rock from Rock is that is still maintains a certain amount of syncopation characteristic of Funk music.


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  1. […] A Very Brief History of Funk Music (from a Bassist's viewpoint) […]


  2. The bible of Funk Music is all from Ohio.

    During the 1970 and 80’s, southwest Ohio, and Dayton, in particular, was known for its stable of funk bands, including Bootsy’s Rubber Band, The Ohio Players, Lakeside, Slave, Aurra, Heatwave, Sun, Dayton, Faze-O, and Zapp featuring Roger Troutman.

    Walter “Junie” Morrison, is a musician and producer born in Dayton. Morrison was a producer, writer, keyboardist and vocalist for the funk band the Ohio Players in the early ’70s, where he wrote and produced their first major hits, “Pain”, “Pleasure”, “Ecstasy” and “Funky Worm” (1971-1972). He left the band in 1974 to release three solo albums on Westbound Records (When We Do, Freeze, and Suzie Supergroupie). In 1977 Morrison joined George Clinton’s P-Funk (Parliament-Funkadelic) where he became a musical director. He brought a unique sound to P-Funk and played a key role during the time of their greatest popularity from 1978 through 1980. In particular, he made prominent contributions to the platinum-selling Funkadelic album One Nation Under a Groove, the single “(Not Just) Knee Deep” (a #1 hit on the U.S. R&B charts in 1979) and the gold-selling Parliament albums Motor Booty Affair, and Gloryhallastoopid. Morrison also played on and produced some P-Funk material under the pseudonym J.S. Theracon, apparently to avoid contractual difficulties. Morrison is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 1997 with fifteen other members of Parliament-Funkadelic, including lead guitarist Michael “Kid Funkadelic” Hampton, from Cleveland, and Bootsy Collins, from Cincinnati.

    Originally raised in Cincinnati, The Isley Brothers /ˈaɪzliː/ are an R&B, soul music, and funk group. They have had a notably long-running success on the Billboard charts and are the only act to chart in the Top 40 in six separate decades.
    The Dazz Band is a funk music band that was most popular in the early 1980s. Emerging from Cleveland, the group’s biggest hit songs include the Grammy Award-winning “Let It Whip” (1982), “Joystick” (1983), and “Let It All Blow” (1984). The name of the band is a portmanteau of the description “danceable jazz”.

    The Deele (pronounced The Deal) was a 1980s R&B band from Cincinnati, originally consisting of Indianapolis native Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds along with Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Carlos “Satin” Greene, Darnell “Dee” Bristol, Stanley Burke, and Kevin “Kayo” Roberson.


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