James Brown didn’t ride on the bus; he flew on a private plane. So when Soul Brother Number One and his right-hand man, organist Bobby Byrd, suddenly appeared on his new backing band’s bus after a Nashville gig in the spring of 1970, everyone sobered up quick.
“It was like something from The Twilight Zone, because I mean, who does this kind of stuff?” bassist Bootsy Collins says, laughing. Just a few months earlier, Brown’s entire band had mutinied, so he brought in Collins and his brother, guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins, from the Cincinnati group the Pacemakers, to round out a band he dubbed the J.B.’s. “I mean, we just played a gig and it’s after the show. Everybody’s sweating profusely, we’re on there, acting a fool because we know he’s flying to the next gig, but he surprises us and jumps on the bus, so everybody has to straighten up.
“He tells us he got a new song and he wants us to check it out on the bus, as he’s riding to the next city,” Collins continues. “James and Bobby Byrd are sitting up in the seat right in front of me and Catfish. He pulls out this paper bag and he said, ‘Bobby, I got this song. I need you to write it down.’ He said, [adopting a James Brown voice], ‘Yeah, I feel like a sex machine. Get up.’ Bobby started writing his lines down for him. I had my bass and Cat had a guitar. We were messing around right in the back of him with some music. [James] was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. I like that. I’m glad I thought of it.’” Bootsy lets out a big laugh.
Although they had sketched out the basics of what would become “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” — which Brown later told Rolling Stone he’d written on the back of a 14-by-20–inch poster for the Nashville Municipal Auditorium show where he’d received some awards — it was a diamond in the rough. But Brown wanted to record it — fast. So he phoned up his go-to engineer at Cincinnati’s King Studios, Ron Lenhoff, and begged him to get to Music City’s Starday-King studio ASAP. Lenhoff couldn’t catch a flight, so he high-tailed it on a five-hour drive from Cincinnati to Nashville, according to RJ Smith’s book, The One, and they cut it on the fly.
“The next thing I know is, he said, ‘Can I count it off?’” Collins says, disbelief still in his voice. “We didn’t practice that part of it, so a lot of the stuff we were doing wasn’t practiced. A lot of times we didn’t even get a chance to practice on a song, like ‘Super Bad’ and ‘Soul Power’; it was like we got the basics of it, and then we hit the studio. With ‘Sex Machine,’ we had ‘bus time.’ We got a chance to kind of mess around with it, then we got in the studio, and he said, ‘Can I count it off?’ We started looking crazy. You can hear us in the back, ‘Yeah. Count it off.’ We didn’t even know that was going to be said. So he said, ‘Hit me,’ and then we hit it — we hit those notes. Then from there, it was history, man.”
For the recording, which made up a two-part single with each side running under three minutes, Collins played a wiggly bass line that emphasized the first beat of each measure — “The One,” as Brown called it — while Catfish did some Jimmy Nolen–style chicken scratching. Brown yelped about feeling like a sex machine. According to The One, Byrd had heard the word “sex” used on TV brazenly, and he and Brown just felt the word paired well with “machine” (though Sly and the Family Stone had a near-14-minute jam called “Sex Machine” on the previous year’s Stand! LP). Brown shouts, “Get up!” and Byrd coolly responds, “Get on up.” In between, Brown plays a bluesy piano riff (“Taste … piano,” he shouts). Midway through, Brown says, “Bobby, should I take ’em to the bridge?” “Go ahead!”
“I heard someone use that expression [‘Take me to the bridge’] maybe 45 years ago, referring to the middle part of the song,” Brown told Spin in 1988, “and I changed it to mean a release.”
The J.B.’s go through change after change, following Brown’s lead — sort of like a live version of the way hip-hop producers transition through samples — and it’s all the more impressive considering they didn’t really know what they were doing. Brown hollers, “Shake yo’ money maker,” and eventually asks, “Can I hit it and quit it?” and the band plays those four introductory notes again. You can practically hear the group exhale with relief when it’s done.
Collins remembers running through it two or three times, but that Brown felt the best take was the first take, the one where the J.B.’s just divined what to play from the funky heavens. The single came out on King Records in the middle of July 1970, and the songwriting credits went to Brown, Byrd, and, as a thank you for his hustle, Lenhoff. “The studio here is a gas,” Brown, referring to Starday-King, told Rolling Stone in September 1970. “I don’t want to cut any more in Cincinnati unless I just got to.” The tune wound up making it to Number 15 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Number Two on the R&B chart at the time. It ranks Number 334 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
On July 23rd, 1970 — just a few weeks after Billboard first started reporting that radio stations were playing the single — Brown and the J.B.’s went back into the studio and cut a nearly 11-minute version of the song. It’s looser and funkier, and more confident, since by that point the J.B.’s knew the song well enough to vamp while Brown rapped about all his favorite cities while squealing and shouting “Good Gawd!” Lenhoff added some fake crowd noise and they put the track on a live recording from before the Collinses’ time in the group, and called the LP Sex Machine. When it came out that fall, it did as well as the single, making it up to Number 29.
The song’s success kickstarted a funky, new era for Brown, and it became a live-show staple for him. By the time the group was playing it live in 1971, it was peppier and jammier. Catfish leaned into his wah-wah for a solo on a version recorded in Paris in 1971, foreshadowing the psychedelia he and Bootsy would explore with George Clinton in Funkadelic, starting later that year.
After the Collinses split (and Bootsy became a star in his own right, ranking high on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Bassists list), Brown futzed around with the song live until his death, speeding it up at the Apollo, glitzing up its disco sensibilities on 1975’s regrettable Sex Machine Today, and turning it into a gospel rave-up when he performed it at the Apollo in 1995. He even redid it for a Japanese miso soup commercial in the Nineties — it’s such a bizarre sight, it’s easy to forget how he forced the song together at the spur of the moment after surprising the band on the bus.
“It was a Twilight Zone–type thing,” says Collins, whose upcoming solo album, The Power of the One, pays tribute to Brown and the lessons he learned from working with him. “The music always came through from the universe, and we were just, I guess, what you would call instruments — we were instruments and we played our instruments — but we were instruments used to say what he wanted to say and feel what he wanted to feel. And that’s what we did. It was truly the Twilight Zone moment.”