Prince’s ‘The Work Pt. 1′ Is His Valentine to James Brown
"The Work Pt. 1" makes explicit Prince's life-long admiration for James Brown. Oh, Prince had made references to Brown before, and had even worked with some of his close collaborators before this song arrived via Napster in 2001. Still, from its tightly coiled horn signature and multi-part song title to its sensual guitar riffs and tough message about inequality – there's no bigger love letter to the Godfather of Soul.
In some ways, Prince's entire career led to this song, which ultimately got tucked away inside the often-overlooked Rainbow Children album. One of his most important early memories involved attending a James Brown concert with Heyward Baker, his mother's new husband, in the brief period when Prince lived with them before running away.
"James Brown played a big influence in my style," Prince told MTV in 1985. "When I was about 10 years old, my stepdad put me on stage with him, and I danced a little bit until the bodyguard took me off."
The young Prince reportedly spent the rest of the night trying to imitate Brown's legendary dance moves. But that wasn't all he took away from the experience. Prince also had an instant admiration for the way Brown handled things on stage, and became a similar kind of taskmaster. "He influenced me," Prince added, "by his control over his group."
Tour manager Alan Leeds was hired in 1983 "sight unseen, simply because he noticed James Brown Productions on my resume," Leeds says in the James Brown Reader. At that point, Prince had already gone through two. Finally, Prince told his trusted advisor Steve Fargnoli to "get that James Brown guy."
"I suppose his reasoning was that if I could handle JB, I might be up to the challenge," Leeds remembered. "Or maybe he just felt his organization could benefit from some of that old-school James Brown discipline."
Still, the famously diffident Prince took a while to warm up to Leeds. They eventually broke the ice by circling back to common musical ground: "After two weeks of awkward silence – I had been warned not to approach Prince until he signaled a comfort with me – our first conversation of any substance began with him asking, 'Tell me some James Brown stories.'"
Everything started falling into place. By the '90s, an era that included a specific mention of Brown's influence during the American Music Awards, Prince had established a sleek update of his hero's almost mechanized stage perfection – right down to developing a set of hand gestures in order to communicate wordlessly with his backing group. Brown noticed, and took a small measure of credit for himself: "He's got some of my old staff there – namely Alan Leeds," Brown told MTV.
All that was left to do was integrate a member of James Brown's inner musical circle. Maceo Parker ended up appearing on a string of Prince studio and live recordings, including 1999's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, 2002's One Nite Alone ... Live!, 2004's Musicology, 2006's 3121, 2007's Planet Earth and 2009's Lotusflow3r, among others. Along the way, he gained unique insight into how these two musical giants intersected, and how they differed.
"Nobody was as difficult as James," Parker told the Courier Times in 2016. "He wanted perfection. Prince does, too. He's not as tough as James, but he is brilliant. There is no question about that."
It was fitting, too, that one of the most James Brown-ish of Prince songs included the word "work" in the title. Recorded with Kip Blackshire and the girl group Milenia, and featuring overdubs by the Hornheadz, "The Work Pt. 1" was completed with a final workaholic flourish: Prince reportedly played both the guitar solo and the piano solo at the same time, in one take.
Brown, memorably referred to as the Hardest Working Man on Show Business, was probably somewhere beaming with pride.