Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Mr. Soul

So we limp into Christmas morning fairly sure that, with less than a week left in the year, things can’t get no worse. We think we’ve heard from every sad and tragic situation from everywhere on earth and we’re mentally ready, at least, to hunker down, burrow in, hibernate in winter’s fog until the new year. And then we turn on the TV first thing to find out what went down while we were sleeping. And we find out what went down while we were sleeping.

Early that morning at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, James Brown, JB, Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the Original Disco Man and the King of Funk, gave up the ghost, passing from this world to the next, dying of congestive heart failure complicated by pneumonia, at the age of 73.

When we lose any portion of the double helix of the American songbook – George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles – whatever’s left is diminished, less powerful, less passionate. It goes without saying that we’re poorer this Christmas than we were before.

It might go without saying, but some people – those who knew him as friend and confidant – found ways to say it. “He was an innovator, he was an emancipator, he was an originator. Rap music, all that stuff came from James Brown,” Little Richard, a longtime friend, told MSNBC.

“James Brown changed music,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, another longtime friend and one who toured with him in the 1970s. “He made soul music a world music,” said Sharpton, one of the few black men in America with nerve enough to pull off wearing a pompadour today. “What James Brown was to music in terms of soul and hip-hop, rap, all of that, is what Bach was to classical music. This is a guy who literally changed the music industry. He put everybody on a different beat, a different style of music. He pioneered it.”

Generations were inspired by him; legions of rock & soul’s best talents copped his moves and attitude. JB was the template, the wellspring of funk from which everything flowed. From Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson, from Prince to the rappers and hiphop artists who sampled his signature shouts and shrieks – everyone stole from James Brown whether they knew it or not.

Want proof? Get a copy of the 1964 TAMI Show. In that concert, James Brown and the Famous Flames were the evening’s penultimate act; the embryonic version of the Rolling Stones were to close the show. But James & crew quite simply tore the stage up, JB doing his best dance moves as he fronted a furiously tight band, the perpetual motion machine bringing the crowd to near frenzy, ankles and hips swiveling at angles we had thought were anatomically impossible.

When Jagger and the Stones took the stage, Mick aped James’ best dance moves, doing his 22-year-old best but showing in his British white-boy style why imitation is the most sincere form of flattery (and that night the most hilarious, too).

Some of James Brown’s music dovetailed perfectly with a rising sense of black consciousness. The 1968 song “(Say It Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud” was embraced by young black America in a time when outwardly assertive black pride was still a nascent phenomenon. James never shied away from his role as a race man, one of the major brothers on the scene no matter when the scene was.

“I clearly remember we were calling ourselves colored, and after the song, we were calling ourselves black,” Brown told The Associated Press in 2003. “The song showed even people to that day that lyrics and music and a song can change society.”

JB may have been a bit hyperbolic about all that. The move away from “Negro” and “colored” toward “black” was already well underway – had been for almost a year. In 1967 Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and others on the activist left had started the Black Power movement, coining a phrase that galvanized, though some will say divided, the civil rights movement. But James’ song became an anthem, taking the notion of forthright black pride from the college campuses and the grip of the intellectuals and putting it where it needed to be to really resonate: on the radio. This was social change you could dance to.

From the beginning, James Brown was a brother we could understand. James was folks, he was one of us from jump street. Born poor in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933, he was abandoned at the age of four to the care of relatives and friends. James grew up on the streets of Augusta, Ga., getting by every way he could: picking cotton, shining shoes, dancing for dimes in the streets of Augusta, doing the odd armed robbery when the need be.

That’s what got him sent up for three years in a juvy camp. After that he tried sports for a while, first as a boxer, then as a baseball pitcher. When injuries kept that from happening, Brown considered music. It was the desperation of the times for a young black man that made trying on so many guises, so many identities, necessary.

“I wanted to be somebody,” Brown said years later.

James grew up with Bobby Byrd, a friend whose family took him in. They started a group, the Famous Flames, a distillation of a gospel group they already belonged to. In 1956 some record label – the Associated Press says it was King Records, the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll says it was Federal Records -- signed the group, and four months later “Please, Please, Please” was in the R&B Top Ten.

For three decades after that, Brown toured almost nonstop, doing cross-country tours, trying out new songs at concerts and earning the title he gave himself, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

Part of that hard work was what he did onstage: raw, spontaneous energy punctuated with over-the-top stagecraft. If you went to a James Brown show in the 60’s, you got the full James Brown Experience: the dance moves that others would try at and fail for years, the precise 360-degree spins that found the microphone inches from where James left it when he started the pivot; the heroic splits; the energy of a beat channeled through the funky metronome at the front of the stage.

It went on until James, spent, knelt in exhaustion – and out came the brothers carrying the gold lame cape, covering the weary James and escorting him off the stage.

But then – no: James stops a moment, seemingly shivering under the cape, then he spins, shrugs off the cape and sprints back to the microphone … there was something he forgot to tell y’all. Thus a legend of long and furious encores was born. You can believe it when James said he lost five pounds or more during a show.

His group became a training ground for musicians who went on to their own acclaim: Hendrix played briefly with the Flames; so did members of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic hybrid; so did bassist Jack Casady before getting his boarding pass for the Jefferson Airplane.

His “Live at The Apollo, Volume 2” in 1962 is widely considered one of the greatest concert records ever and sold more than a million copies in an era when black records never did that well.

James won a Grammy in 1965 for “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and for “Living In America” in 1987. He was one of the first artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.

Throughout his career, and despite the accolades, James burnished his cred as a brother’s brother. Songs like “King Heroin” and “Don’t Be a Dropout” held undeniable messages for young and restive black America. He sponsored empowerment programs for black kids when it wasn’t fashionable; in the flashpoint time after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, about the time “Say It Loud” was on the charts, James went on television to calm things down, probably preventing a bad situation from getting worse.

The man’s life had no end of drama. In September 1988, ripped to the tits on PCP and brandishing a shotgun, Brown walked into an insurance seminar next to his Augusta office and asked the people there if they were using his private bathroom. After he left the building, police chased Brown for a half-hour from Augusta into South Carolina and back into Georgia in some wild, “Dukes of Hazzard” shit that ended when police shot out the tires of his truck. He did two years for that, for aggravated assault and failing to stop for a police officer.

For any other star at the age of 58, that might have been enough to bring on retirement. But James kept working, tweaking his show to pull in a younger generation while bearing true faith and allegiance to the funk, and the audience, that got him where he was. Not long after his release, James hit the stage again at a show you needed to pack a lunch to see: a three-hour, pay-per-view concert at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles with an audience that included millions who watched on cable.


It’s sad that, toward the end, James became a parody of himself. In recent years a booking photo from one arrest became part of the pop-cultural photo gallery of stars behaving badly and looking worse (others so honored include Nick Nolte, Wynona Judd, Glenn Campbell and George Clinton).

But that was the minor bullshit, the asterisks and footnotes to a career that, for all practical purposes, continued to the day he checked out. The AP reported that, three days before his death, James joined volunteers at his annual toy giveaway in Augusta, and he planned to perform on New Year’s Eve at B.B. King’s Times Square blues club in New York.

James was consistent. The flamboyance of forty-some years of entrances and exits on stage was mirrored in his big exit on Christmas at 1:45 in the morning. “Almost a dramatic, poetic moment,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the AP. “He’ll be all over the news all over the world today. He would have it no other way.”

In any theoretical Mount Rushmore of musical culture, James, pompadour and all, would have to be chiseled high and large and in stark relief from everyone else.

In all the meaningful ways -- both in his message to a young black America desperate for self-worth and potential, and in his music, which bridged the racial divide like no speech or policy ever could -- the man who wanted to be somebody became The Somebody. And hot damn it, if you’re a musician working in rock, hiphop, funk or R&B, no matter how original you think you are, you need to hit at least one knee and thank your personal God for James Brown. One way or another, he made what you do possible.

And don’t feel bad if you never reach his level of Somebody.

Nobody ever will.
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Image credits: The cape walk: © 2006 thetigerduck, London. Image used by fair use provisions under United States law. Apollo Memorial: Benjamen Walker (Flickr), licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License > Wikipedia. The statue: Sir Mildred Pierce (Flickr), licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License > Wikipedia.

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