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The 1962-63 world heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston often trained to the sound of saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train”, a huge rhythm and blues hit in 1952. But for the most part the instrumental blues is more bump-and-grind than jab-and-hook. It chugs along at a tempo just up from a smooch, and Forrest’s already raw sax is distorted with echo.
Forrest conceived his three-verse blues during a stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The first verse’s riff is a roughed-up reading of the elegant 1940 recording by Johnny Hodges, “That’s the Blues, Old Man”. But the second verse borrows heavily from “Happy Go Lucky Local”, the fourth movement of Ellington’s Deep South Suite, recorded in 1946. Only the stop-time break that opens the third verse was entirely of Forrest’s invention.
After the song spent 20 weeks in the charts, cover versions came thick and fast. Saxophonist Earl Bostic added a train whistle and better sound; the Buddy Morrow Orchestra scored a minor 1952 big band hit featuring the leader’s trombone. In 1957, jump-and-jive bandleader Louis Prima widened the song’s appeal with a televised comedy routine featuring stony-faced singer Keely Smith and wailing saxophonist Sam Butera. In 1960 guitar band The Ventures gave it a country-and-western tinge. Then James Brown got hold of the song.
Brown recorded “Night Train” in 1961 — while his drummer took a bathroom break during a studio session. Brown told Gerri Hershey, author of Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music: “When he come [sic] back, I had created a million seller playin’ the drums myself.”
Brown’s cover, released in 1962, beefs up the bass with guitar, sits the melody on the choppy rhythms of a boogaloo and moves the tempo up a notch. The track opens with Brown half-shouting “All aboard the night train” and calling out a list of nationwide destinations. Brown’s reinvention of “Night Train” was an R&B smash, and crossed over to the pop charts.
He liked to use the song as a show-closer, but he never deployed it more devastatingly than in the early pop concert film The TAMI Show. Brown was furious that The Rolling Stones — to him mere imitators of R&B — topped the bill over him. Brown chose “Night Train” to end a legendary, whirlwind four-number performance. In his 1987 autobiography The Godfather of Soul, Brown wrote: “I don’t think I’d ever danced so hard in my life, and I don’t think [the audience] had ever seen a man move that fast.” By the time he was done, Brown added: “I don’t think Mick [Jagger] wanted to go on stage.”
Around the time that Brown found the tune, pianist Oscar Peterson also recorded it, for the 1962 album Night Train. Jimmy Forrest himself made a new arrangement with the Count Basie Orchestra, captured in 1979 in Last of the Blue Devils.
Covers of “Night Train” veered from ska, including Byron Lee’s 1964 version, to the sedate country swing of Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer in 1967. But most ignored Brown’s rhythmic daring. Indeed the song became a staple on the function band circuit, and was performed as such in the high school hop scene in the 1985 film Back to the Future.
Brown’s serious intent, however, was never entirely cast aside. The glides, spins and splits of his stage routine inspired Michael Jackson’s dance moves. Brown’s version became a mod classic, propelling it on to the soundtrack of The Who’s 1979 film Quadrophenia. The World Saxophone Quartet used Brown’s rhythms as a platform for phonics and growls on their 1989 cover. Among those sampling and remixing Brown’s “Night Train”, rap group Public Enemy’s version on the album Apocalypse 91 captures both venom and bite: the raw side of the song had won out.
For more in this series, as well as podcasts with song clips, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song
Main photograph: Getty Images