When it comes to emotionally intense vocal performances, you don’t need to look much further than James Brown singing The Bells.
“Ashes to ashes,” he sings, sounding as heartbroken and grief-stricken as a priest at the graveside. “Dust to dust.”
He’s almost sobbing as he sings, though he’s nowhere near the level of overwrought near-hysteria as Clyde McPhatter on the original 1952 version, by Billy Ward And His Dominoes.
Brown’s version, released in 1960, played an important part in his early career. When performing on the Chitlin Circuit, his vocal backing group The Famous Flames would act out the lyrics’ story of bereavement by pushing a doll across the stage in a pram.
As they passed Brown, he would fall to his knees sobbing and wailing, before segueing into his debut single from 1956, the equally histrionic Please, Please, Please.
It was a guaranteed showstopper; so much so that audiences were known to turn violent if he performed the song without the theatrical routine that accompanied it.
The Bells was Brown’s first single for King Records, his earlier efforts having been released on the label’s subsidiary, Federal. It reached number 68 on the US pop chart.