James Brown (1933–2006)
"But I'm a world of power and all know it's true
Use me once and you'll know it too.
I can make a mere schoolboy forget his books
I can make a world famous beauty neglect her looks.
I can make a good man forsake his wife
Send a greedy man to prison for the rest of his life.
I can make a man forsake his country and flag
Make a girl sell her body for a five-dollar bag.
Some think my adventures a joy and a thriller
But I'll put a gun in your hand and make you a killer."—"King Heroin"
There truly was no one like him. Say, see, or better yet, listen to James Brown, and a mass of indestructible images that have changed popular music forever wash over your mind.
Even the early facts of the extraordinary life that ended suddenly on Christmas Day 2006, are singular. Born in a shack in Barnwell, SC in 1933, he was abandoned by his mother at age four and raised in an Augusta, GA brothel by an aunt named Honey. Augusta would always be his hometown, and he lived nearby, on Beech Island, SC for most of his life. As a kid, school disappeared early and so he danced, shined shoes, and dabbled in petty crime. But when singer Bobby Byrd took him on in 1949—he played drums and harmonica—Brown never looked back.
From there until his death last week, the images of Brown and the musical mountain range he built a downbeat at a time become glittering and incomparable. A fan of the great R&B/jump-blues bandleader Louis Jordan, who was renowned for his outsized stage presence, Brown's stagemanship was simply eye-popping. At first it came out in the ballads, the stuff heard on his still-powerhouse 1963 Live at the Apollo album. It was the time of those unforgettable black and white photos of the man with the rising, shining pompadour, clutching the microphone overhand, twisting his body to physically express a song's desperate pleading or wrenching sadness. (A newly remastered and augmented version of the Apollo album, complete with a page-long history of its sound issues, was released in 2004.)
After 1965's "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," there was another James Brown. His great band of the '60s featured the brothers Parker, tenor player Maceo and drummer Melvin, as well as guitarist Jimmy Nolen. In 1969 they walked out, to be replaced by a bunch of young bucks from Cincinnati, the home of Brown's label, Syd Nathan's King Records. They were exactly the muscle his music needed to turn from soul to funk. Perhaps the most charming part of this mighty new outfit was that everyone had a nickname. Bassist William Collins was "Bootsy." His brother Phelps, who played guitar, was "Catfish." Best of all, guitarist Hearlon Martin was known as "Cheese."
It's a good music writer's job to wax rhapsodic about the role Brown's records played in creating soul, funk, and finally hip-hop music, as well as talk about his turbulent personal life. And many of the musical tributes that have appeared over the past several days have been understandably overwrought. I have to say I agree most with one I read, in of all places, People (hey, it's my landlord's subscription) in which Island Def Jam president L.A. Reid said, "James Brown has influenced black music more than any other entertainer dead or alive." The only thing I'd add, or rather subtract, is to take out the word "black." Brown's influence and appeal transcends race, creed, and color.
The first time I saw JB and his band was in the mid-'70s, when I was used to a steady diet of white guitar rock bands that hardly moved a muscle on stage. Most of the stalwarts of his '60s band had by then returned, and the Brown show was a revelation. "Entertainer" doesn't begin to get it. There wasn't a single dull moment. No one, ever, anywhere, anytime, in any genre, ever emitted the raw energy onstage that James Brown could generate. You couldn't help but move to the music. And "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" wasn't satisfied until you did. He always said that sweat equity caused him to routinely shed up to 10 pounds during a typical live show, and I believe it. Anyone who ever saw him live can close their eyes and see him spin several revolutions and go straight into a split and drop to the stage only to pop back up just as suddenly. The man had springs for legs and a body that could do most of what his mind could dream up.
And then there was his artistry with microphone cords. He could take the cord dangling from a microphone on a stand, let it out until it and the stand almost touched the ground, and then with one lightning whip, snap up cord, stand, and microphone into his hand and sing his next line without missing a beat. When it comes to questions of amplification and sound, it's important to note that for most of his years performing live, Brown only miked his voice and the horns. The rhythm section—always "Super Bad," to use one of the boss's favorite terms—was left to fend for itself. Needless to say, the adjustments they made were part of his success.
Finally, there were Brown's moves. For a relatively short man, he had feet that were large for his size yet absolute greased lightning when he so desired. His rapid-fire shuffle was imitated, badly in most cases, by everyone from Johnny Carson to Mick Jagger.
A pale imitation of his live show, Brown's records still have more feeling, grit, and sweat in the groves than those of almost anyone else, be it rock, soul or whatever. If I had a nickel for every bout of late night music arguments that finally, mercifully, devolved down to listening to the superlative Brown boxed set, Star Time, I'd own a sizeable chunk of New York City. When the conversation turned to, "What do we listen to after the Beatles?" the only answer that was real enough, heavier than John and Paul, was James Brown. Like them, he made his own rules and so occupies his own space, his own genre(s). As Nelson George said in his essay that's included in the liner notes to Star Time, "James Brown is the root and everybody else is just a branch from his tree."
Or better yet from the man himself:
"To the musicians I was saying, here's a new bag. Here's a new direction. Here's one that represents the people, not just Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Bach, Strauss or Mantovani....It was a revolution that became a universal sound, and it's still universal today."