James Brown: May 3, 1933 to December 25, 2006
“You haven’t seen nothing yet
Until you see me do…the JAMES BROWN!”
— James Brown, “There Was A Time”
James Brown was a great artist. I don’t mean only that he was a great pop artist, or that he was a great singer or bandleader or rhythmic innovator. I don’t mean he was simply a great rags-to-riches American or a great black-and-proud American. Nor do I mean just that he was the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, a claim proved indisputably by Love Power Peace: Live At The Olympia, Paris, 1971, one of a half-dozen Brown concert sets that vie for the title of Best Live Album Ever.
No, I mean he was a for-the-ages artist. Like Shakespeare or Picasso, Brown got down to the sublime, existential, tragic essence of being human. Soul Brother #1 should be recognized as a peer not only to Louis Armstrong but also to, say, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s Mass in B Minor may be, as is often said, a link with the eternal. Better, Brown’s “Soul Power” is hotwired to the here and now, to brains and sweat, and to what we might make of them, dancing together.
“A little Soul Power’s what we need here,” Brown declares. “So EVERY-body can do their thing.”
Since his death on Christmas Day, Brown hasn’t gotten his due. He gets the cover of Rolling Stone but not of this magazine, let alone of Time and Newsweek where he belongs. The omission is partly due to the sort of bias that will never see a born-poor southern black soul singer as a capital-A artist, but it was also bad timing. Just as the loss of Ray Charles was overshadowed by remembrances of Ronald Reagan, Brown’s passing at age 73 was chased from the headlines by the death of Gerald Ford.
Doubly distressing was that Brown had already written Ford’s epitaph in 1975: “Funky President”. “Every time he gave a speech,” Brown wrote in his autobiography The Godfather Of Soul, “it gave people the blues.”
James Brown helped people face the blues, and get over them, in ways unimaginable while recording “Funky President”. For instance, Salt-N-Pepa used that groove to fashion the irresistible bottom to their “Shake Your Thang”.
You could fill a book with all the beats, breaks, squeals, and blasts of brass sampled from James Brown records. “Think (About It)”, a James Brown-produced hit for Lyn Collins in 1972, morphed into Rob Base and DJ Easy Rock’s rap classic “It Takes Two”. Drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s break on Brown’s 1970 single “Funky Drummer” grounded N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police”, Public Enemy’s “Bring Tha Noise”, and Sinead O’Connor’s “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”, among dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others.
Someday, the best of them will make an amazing box set. Still, it’ll be no Star Time. That four-disc box is so essential it belongs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
One thing Star Time proves is that even if Brown had never made it to “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat”, he’d still be in the rock ‘n’ soul pantheon. He was there shoulder-to-shoulder with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, forcing the transition from R&B to soul, with his first hit, “Please, Please, Please”, in 1956. Then, after two long, dry years, he established himself as a first-rate singer and hitmaker with his own “Try Me”, and with covers of Billy Ward & the Dominoes (“Bewildered”) and the “5” Royales (“Think”). Soon, he even proved himself a distinctive pop interpreter, most dramatically on the Perry Como favorite “Prisoner Of Love”.
Brown was a pleading soul singer, with a voice that was sharp and hoarse, untamed and unmistakably country next to the mostly sweet-voiced competition, and he sang with an ecstatic churchy fervor still rare, even on the R&B charts, well into his career. Indeed, Brown uh’s, grunts, and screams (often, as on “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”, surprisingly tender) helped broaden the possibilities of what constituted a “good” voice in the first place.
And, always, there was not just the voice but the show — the introduction of “Star Time” by friend and foil Bobby Byrd, the dancing, the donning and dramatic throwing off of the cape, the whole spectacle of his frenetic concerts. Thankfully, something of what it was like to be there dancing along with Brown and his Famous Flames is preserved on Live At The Apollo and his legendary performance in The T.A.M.I Show.
For an encore, he changed the world.
On “Brand New Bag”, he placed the rhythmic accent on “the one”; with “Cold Sweat”, he overthrew, in Dave Marsh’s memorable phrase, “the tyranny of the chord change.” The still-unfolding results were funk, disco, house (Brown’s “taste of piano” in “Sex Machine” sounds like the start of the genre), disco, New Jack Swing, and hip-hop, as well as in one way or another nearly all other popular music.
It’s not just that Brown had a great second act, the way Frank Sinatra did in the 1950s. Brown redrew the entire musical map with an ambition more typically associated with young men. Louis Armstrong was 25 when he recorded the first of his Hot 5’s. The Beatles weren’t even that far into their 20s when they invaded, and Elvis was just 19 when he cut “That’s All Right”. But Brown was a grown-ass man, 32, when, in 1965, he cut “Brand New Bag”. When he laid down the terrifying, minimalist funk of “The Payback” in 1974, he was 41.
The years from “New Bag” to “Payback” account for more than half of Star Time. They should. Yet Star Time, like most accounts of Brown’s career, barely hints at what he was up to during this unparalleled creative stretch.
For example, even while heralding the new day, Brown remained committed to the R&B, pop and jazz he’d grown up loving. On Say It Live And Loud: Live In Dallas 08.26.68, Brown sandwiches his latest state-of-the-art and state-of-the-union single, “Say It Loud — I’m Black And I’m Proud”, within a violin-cushioned “If I Ruled The World” and the old warhorse “Kansas City”. A few months earlier, he’d begun work on Gettin’ Down To It, a surprisingly strong set of mostly Sinatra-associated pop standards.
Also in these years: a tribute album to Little Willie John; two Christmas collections; nine instrumental albums; two soundtrack albums, including the epochal Black Caesar; and production work for Hank Ballard, female proteges Marva Whitney, Vicki Anderson and Lynn Collins, his band the JB’s, and myriad other acts. Plus, four live albums, including Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Vol. III. Actually, four and a half live albums, counting 1970’s half live, half Memorex Sex Machine.
Straight along, Brown not only saw himself as creating a new thing but as a link, to borrow from Ralph Ellison, in an ongoing chain of tradition. He cut “Mother Popcorn” in the summer of 1969 and “Funky Drummer” in the spring of 1970, each an exemplar of the new breed. In between, he cut Soul On Top with the Louie Bellson Orchestra, memorably imposing his will upon the extremely old-school likes of “For Once In My Life”, “What Kind Of Fool Am I”, even “Your Cheatin’ Heart”.
That the planet’s hippest human would tackle big-band jazz might seem nuts. But jazz was Brown’s secret ingredient. From his autobiography: “[I]f you’re going to talk about [my music] you have to remember the jazz in it. That’s what made my music so different…”
On many instrumental albums, Brown led the band on organ (“I don’t play [it] well,” he explained in 2005, “but I play it artistically.”) The results were close kin to the soul jazz of Jimmy Smith. The jazz connection also helps account for Brown’s persistent use of horns, and for his eagerness, especially in concert, to demand solos from peerless sidemen like saxophonists Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis (a Sonny Rollins disciple) and trombonist Fred Wesley.
Too, Brown’s funk increasingly became a purely musical experience, with Brown providing impassioned grunts and yowls but no real narrative. You’ll occasionally hear a beef, usually from white folks, about this tendency in Brown’s work: It’s just dance music; it’s polyrhythm and groove without melody; it hardly has any words so must hardly have any meaning.
Of course, such a logo-centric complaint is never leveled at, say, Miles Davis, whose electric fusion was deeply influenced by the Godfather’s jazzy funk, as he was impressed by Brown’s insistence upon doing his own thing.
“You can be like a tape deck, you know,” Brown warns amidst the indomitable funk of “Get Up, Get Into It And Get Involved”: “They can plug you in, make you say what they want you to say.”
Then: “Don’t let ’em do it!” He screams this several times. “Don’t let ’em do it!”
He means do your own thing. But more, too. I can’t really explain it. To understand, you’d have to hear the music, feel that soul power, and dance.