I’ve been reading “The One”, RJ Smith’s fine new biography of James Brown. I haven’t gotten too far yet, only about 100 pages in, but I’ve read far enough to learn how the first JB single, “Please, Please, Please” came about.
In 1955, the Flames were living in Macon, GA. They had a song called “Please, Please, Please” which they had been singing since their early days in Toccoa, SC. The song was derived from a song called “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which was a hit for blues singer Big Joe Williams in 1935.
A 1951 version of the song by Billy Wright, recast as “Turn Your Light Down Low,” and a 1953 version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” by the Orioles inspired the Flames, but when the group went to August, GA to catch a show by Bill Johnson and the Four Steps of Rhythm, they were knocked out by that group’s grittier take on the song.
The Flames wrote new words to the song, and renamed it “Please, Please, Please.” It became an emotional centerpiece of their live show. At one point during that year, James Brown and a couple of the Flames went down to radio station WIBB in Macon to record a demo of the song.
The group took the demo, which they had recorded in one take, over to radio station WBML, where DJ Hamp Swain began to play it in late 1955. Swain didn’t like the song much at first, but the listeners did. Requests began to pile up in the mail, and on the telephone.
Clint Brantley had been Little Richard’s agent. When Richard moved from Macon to LA, Brantley took the Flames under his wing. He got them to add “Famous” to their name, and he sent out the demo of “Please, Please, Please” to some of the biggest independent labels in the country, including Peacock in Houston, Specialty in Los Angeles, Chess in Chicago, and King in Cincinnati.
All of the labels, with the exception of Specialty, were interested. Leonard Chess even mailed a contract and told Brantley that he was going to fly down to Macon. But King Records was owned by a legendary character named Sid Nathan, and Nathan knew about the Famous Flames earlier than Chess because Hank Ballard and the Midnighters recorded for King, and they had been singing the group’s praises to Nathan.
King had a subsidiary called DeLuxe that was based in Miami, and run by a guy named Henry Stone. Nathan called Stone and told him to drive up to Macon and sign the group. What Stone didn’t know was that a talent scout from King’s Atlanta office, Ralph Bass, had heard the song and wanted it for the King subsidiary that he ran, Federal.
The race was on, and Bass won it. The Famous Flames drove to the King studio in Cincinnati, and on February 4, 1956 they recorded the song for Federal Records. Not only did the musicians who played on the date not think much of it, Sid Nathan hated it. He threatened to fire Bass, but the talent scout pleaded with him to try out the record in a southern city like Atlanta to see how it would do.
“Fuck it. I’m putting it out cross-country just to prove what a piece of shit it is,” Nathan said. He released the record on March 3, 1956.
The record didn’t get much airplay at first, but soon things began to roll. In the first week of April, Billboard listed “Please, Please, Please” as “Buy of the Week,” and by the end of the month the record had peaked at #5 on the R&B chart. It remained on the chart through September, and even longer in some places.
The other Famous Flames were not happy when they got their first look at the record. No one had told them that the name on the label would read “James Brown with the Famous Flames.”
The song of course became the dramatic high point of James Brown shows for many years to come. It was the vehicle for the tableau that found Brown’s assistant coming out to throw a cape over the pleading singer and lead him off stage, only to have Brown throw the cape off and return to the stage time and time again. It was one of the most iconic moments in the history of live performance.