James Brown unleashed some feral energy on this track, which wasn't all that unusual except for the title, which was shocking at the time. Most artists couldn't get away with it, but Brown knew his audience could handle it. He also knew that radio stations that supported him would continue to do so.
It was a good move: "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" became the first Hot 100 hit with the word "sex" in the title. The next was another James Brown song, "Sexy, Sexy, Sexy," which hit #50 in 1973. The first act other than Brown to do the deed was the Moments, who reached #17 with "Sexy Mama" in 1974. A few years later, sexy songs were commonplace, led by Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing."
Much of this song is interplay between Brown and his right-hand man, Bobby Byrd, who does the "get up... get on up" vocals. The intro is also a call-and-response, with Brown saying, "I'm ready to get up and do my thing," and his band providing affirmations. This back-and-forth made the song one of Brown's live favorites.
Despite the title, the song isn't all that carnal, as "sex machine" is used as a simile for staying on the scene. The lyric is mostly vague affirmations like, "You got to have the feeling sure as you're born."
In the 2014 film Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, Bobby Byrd said,
"The lyric wasn't saying all that much, but the fact that we were saying 'sex machine,' that wasn't supposed to be said."
"Sex Machine" was the first song that James Brown recorded with his new band, which was led by the brothers Bootsy and Catfish Collins. Brown's previous band was filled with seasoned pros like sax player Maceo Parker and drummer Clyde Stubblefield. In March 1970, they rebelled against Brown's harsh treatment and stingy pay, telling him that a change was in order. Brown made that change himself, replacing them with a young Cincinnati band led by the Collins brothers - only drummer Jabo Starks stayed on.
It was rough going the first few weeks, but Brown eventually whipped his new group into shape. With this song, he proved that he could make hits with them as well.
The song was written on the back of a paper bag. Bootsy Collins recalled to Uncut: "'Sex Machine' started life right after a show. James didn't usually ride the bus - it was a plane or limo - but he got on a bus and said, 'I've got this song, lemme sing it to you.' He started messing with, 'Get up ah, get on up...' and all that. He wanted to write it down. Someone had a paper sandwich bag, and that's how that song started."
The original single version of this funk monument was recorded, like many of Brown's hits, in just two takes. Bootsy Collins recalled:
"Once we got to the studio it was pretty much what it sounds like (on the record). Someone said, 'It sounds great, Mr. Brown. When are you going to mix it? He said, 'Mix it? It's already mixed, son!' He was teaching us how to be dynamic, with the ups, the breakdowns, the hard and soft parts. He felt that everything he did with a band was already mixed."
"Sex Machine" remained a staple of the Godfather of Soul's concert repertoire until the end of his career. It inspired the title of the 2014 James Brown biographical film Get On Up, starring Chadwick Boseman as the singer.
Films this song has featured in include City of God, Twisted, Legally Blonde, Friday and The Tuxedo.
Two of Brown's famous musical maneuvers are found in this song. Before going into the bridge, he asks Bobby Byrd for permission ("Should I take 'em to the bridge?"), which was never denied. At the end of the song, he asks if they can "hit it and quit," before the cold ending.
Near the end of this song, Brown repeats, "Shake Your Moneymaker," which comes from the 1961 Elmore James song of that name. Elmore isn't credited on "Sex Machine," and it's not likely he was ever compensated.
Running 10:48, this opens the Sex Machine album. The single was split into two parts, with Part 1 (running 2:49) on the A-side and Part 2 (2:33) on the B-side.
Part 1 is what most radio stations played. This edit retains a short version of the spoken intro and keeps the first two verses, but after James takes them to the bridge, the song fades out.
The line, "You give me the fever and a cold sweat" is a reference to Brown's 1967 hit "Cold Sweat