Spotlight on James Brown, y’all. He’s the king of ’em all, y’all. He’s the king of ’em all. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. – Arthur Conley, “Sweet Soul Music”
“Sweet Soul Music” is undeniably one of the greatest songs of the late Sixties. But for some reason, it’s now turned into a curse. Over the last year and a half, people mentioned in that song have been dying at a frenetic pace. Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Conley himself. And now we’ve lost James Brown. If I’m Sam Moore, I’m very scared (in fact, he’s the last person mentioned in that song that’s still with us).
There are going to be some out there who are going to consider this piece incongruous. It’s almost audacious if you think about it. A forty-two-year-old white guy from the North, who grew up in a city that’s still an example of segregation in action, who lives in the suburbs, for God’s sake, writing about James Brown? Don’t we have anyone less melanin-challenged, someone who could readily explain the social context with more credibility than Lord Eric of Ofay?
Of course we do. But that’s not the point. The point is, by the simple fact that I wanted to do this piece the moment I saw the news, the fact that I needed to do this piece and told the guys in the Super-Secret Writers’ Forum about this need, displays the influence and popularity that James Brown created around himself over five decades of recording and performing.
Here’s a news flash: white guys love music made by people of darker complexion. I’m not just talking about the young’uns wearing their pants halfway down their asses who can quote Tupac like scripture and who have given 50 Cent more money than he’ll ever need. I’m talking about guys like me, who heard Aretha or the O’Jays or the Stylistics or (God love ’em) the Chi-Lites on the car radio coming home from first grade, and who had seeds planted in their minds that day that would come to bloom years later when they heard Donna Summer or Chic and decided to go all Alan Lomax on the world in a quest for where that smooth, funky beat came from.
That was my quest as a teen and young adult. I started off locally, of course. Thank God I grew up in Chicago. I discovered and fell in love with people like Muddy Waters, Etta James, and Buddy Guy, and a horde of lesser artists who all knew how to sing the blues, and who taught me that it wasn’t restricted to blacks (courtesy of the sidelines from this thread that led across the Atlantic to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and John Mayall). The quest led me to Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and the Iceman himself, Jerry Butler (frankly, I’d make a deal with any kind of supernatural power to be able to sing like Jerry). Then the search led to artists with Chicago connections, and thus to Chess Records and the titanic discovery of Chuck Berry. Then the net was cast wider and wider. To New York, where doo-wop became an art form and where Phil Spector gave black singers regal settings to express chansons of love and longing. To Philadelphia and the torrent of beauty coming out of Philly International, conceptualized and actualized in an Aristotelian act of soul by the godlings Gamble and Huff. To Detroit and Motown, to Smokey, Marvin, the Temps, the Tops, the Supremes, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and the rest of the denizens of Hitsville USA, to me cranking up “Do You Love Me” to full volume every time it’s on the oldies station (which it is, at least once a night) and still getting faked out by the false ending. Then to Memphis and the controlled nuclear explosion that was Otis Redding and the secular preaching of Al Green, to the discovery of smooth voices of impeccable elegance like William Bell, all backed up by the ferocity of Booker T and the MGs, who made it seem so easy (and thanking God the road there led back home, not only with the blues artists but with the MGs pulling a stint as Belushi’s and Ackroyd’s back-up band on screen). Then further south to Muscle Shoals, where Jerry Wexler used Ahmet Ertegun’s money so well. Then to New Orleans, where Dave Bartholemew pulled off miracles with Fats Domino (who naturally led me to Little Richard and making me thank God every day for the existence of Macon, Georgia) and then handed the torch to Allen Toussaint, who spread the Crescent City Gospel to the world even more effectively than the Fat Man. Then west to Los Angeles, where a thriving culture had developed in near isolation, producing acts like the Olympics and the king of the LA studio singers, Barry White, and the discovery that the White Man’s Anthem, “Louie Louie”, had been written and first performed by a black man.
And then, when the picture was established firmly and looked over with a fish-eye, it became clear. It was like discovering the Unified Field Theory in its impact. It was unmistakable. There was no doubt. There was no disproof. There was one locus, one central place where “the Negro’s sound” that Sam Phillips had wanted Elvis to capture came from.
All roads led back to James Brown.
He even sang about those roads. In his lyrical interjection into the previously-instrumental “Night Train”, he rattled off the stops of the Night Train where he had planted his own seeds, seeds that grew and grew as time went on. Night after night, he kept performing in front of any crowd that would see him, crowds that would only grow as time went on.
In each crowd, there would be someone who’d want to do what Brown and the Famous Flames were doing on stage, and they’d form their own groups. It was the greatest job of growing the music by anyone in pop music history with the possible exception of the Sex Pistols. Of course, no one could replicate what Brown did. His moves, his patter, his vocal intonations, and his signature moment, ending every concert with his first hit, “Please Please Please” and getting his sweat-soaked, exhausted body draped over with his signature cape by his handlers at the end; they were all uniquely his, and they were uniquely accepted by his acolytes. No one would purposely try to out-show James Brown. Even the greatest showmen in music, from Michael Jackson to Elton John (both of whom were obviously influenced musically by Brown as well), wouldn’t do it. They’d leave that to the Hardest Working Man In Show Business. The crown was his, period.
And you didn’t even need to see him do it in person, not after The T.A.M.I. Show. Today, you can kick back in your multimedia palace at your home, crank up the surround sound speakers, and watch James Brown over and over and over and dance around naked and try to replicate his moves at your heart’s content. Hopefully, you’ll be doing that alone, because even the funkiest person in the world will end up embarassing himself in front of the master. There’s just no way to do it. God knows I’ve tried.
The T.A.M.I. Show stands today, forty-one years after release, as a gigantic tribute to James Brown. Look at who’s on there. The Stones, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, the Miracles, Jan and Dean, Gerry and the Pacemakers…groups from such distant points as Los Angeles and Liverpool, all of whom took in James Brown as a fundamental influence on their music. And he blasted them all off stage that night.
Brown was such a titanic force as a live act that it almost obscures what he did in the studio. Considering that he was the driving force behind the creation of soul, funk, and disco, that’s really saying something. And it was such a logical progression with him. “Please Please Please” was nascent soul, and its success let Syd Nathan allow Brown to experiment a little more. By the time Sam Cooke left the Soul Stirrers, Brown had mixed the basic ingredients thoroughly enough that Cooke could take them and add his incomparable vocals to present the world with soul in its most well-known form.
By that time, Brown was moving on (as did Ray Charles, whose accomplishments in this area cannot be disregarded). He started to chop the instrumentation to near-staccato levels, then let his vocals follow in the same pattern. “I Got You” was a signal to the world that something was up (and this time the world listened; it turned out to be his biggest hit). It readied the world for what was to come on “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”, one of the two quantum moments of musical growth of 1965 (the other being Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”). Brown still wasn’t satisfied, though. He took the basic elements, tweaked them a little, and surprised the world with “Cold Sweat”. Then, he observed what he had wrought, and it was called “funk”. And he still wasn’t satisfied.
As the Sixties turned into the Seventies, James Brown was godhead, undiluted energy in human form. He still had another trick inside Papa’s bag, though. He hired a new bassist named Bootsy Collins. Together, they’d produce the titanic “Sex Machine”. Its live version set things in motion in two directions. One led to the splendid excesses of disco. The other was taken directly by Collins to Brown acolyte George Clinton, who would turn the James Brown stage show and musical philosophy into another splendid excess called Parliament/Funkadelic. The Mothership became the designated successor as Brown’s chart life began to expire and he put more of his effort into performing than recording.
Then a strange thing happened. As the Eighties rolled around (and the time was soon coming when I would discover James Brown), he was being forgotten. He started his descent into druggie hell. Modern technology couldn’t save his body from the ravages of the substances that he was putting into himself, but it saved his reputation and broadcast it to a new generation. The studio tricks pioneered by the Beatles had reached an apogee. A form of sonic collage had developed as a new musical art form. It was called sampling. Snippets of songs and beats were taken from their original context and formed into new pieces, usually with a new vocal (often simply spoken in the manner of Jamaican toasting). It was the beginning of what is now called hip-hop, and the most sampled artist, the one with the best beats and best bits of musical interjection, was James Brown. Enough people were alert to these snippets that they sought out the originals, and Brown was now back in the eye of the musical public. His concerts became better-attended, even as he spent more of that hard-earned money on drugs.
There was one thing that had always eluded him, though, and that was a Number One single on the pop charts. In spite of the dozens of records that he’d charted over the years, none went all the way. In 1985, he was given one final chance. He’d been asked to do the theme for Rocky IV. Considering the success of past Rocky theme songs on the charts, he had a chance to erase the one black mark from his permanent record. The first class of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had already been announced, and Brown was part of it, so how he was perceived by history was on his mind. So he went into the studio and created one final explosion to deliver to an audience, in a nuclear package delivered to him by another acolyte, Dan Hartman. Backed by a spectacular video and a performance in the film itself, “Living In America” gave Brown his final hit, three decades after “Please Please Please”. It was disappointing when it only went to #4, though, but that disappointment was relieved by the fact that a new generation of Americans had been able to witness James Brown doing what he did best. “Living In America” did something more important than simply going to #1: it had secured his legacy.
After that, Brown made headlines more for beating his then-wife and having various drug-fueled antics, one of them landing him in prison for a couple of years. Instead of popularizing funk, he was popularizing PCP. But no matter how much he ingested, it didn’t detract for what he’d already accomplished. Yes, put the drugs on the HoF plaque. Put the wife-beating on it. But put the fact that he scored dozens of R&B chart hits and a whole bunch of crossover hits on the pop chart. Put the two hundred or so shows a year that he did on there, thrilling audiences all over the world. Put on the creation of some of the most popular pop music genres ever. The positives far outweigh the negatives. They don’t justify the negatives, but they do help counter them.
You know what? It is appropriate that I’m doing this piece, despite the fact that I still believe that Arthur Conley said it best; “he’s the king of ’em all” pretty much covers it. The fact that my skin is a close match for Dutch Boy cream is totally irrelevant. Only the funk matters. And when it comes to the funk, my soul’s been shaded by the beats and sound of James Brown forever. It isn’t a taint, like some would have you believe (and shame on you, John Lydon, for actually believing this for a while). It’s a benefit. I only have one thing to say about this fact: I feel good.