Sunday, December 31, 2006

"Good Gawd," James Brown.

photo by Randy

James Brown nearly got me out of Vietnam. As an aspiring, teenage garage rocker who had seen James Brown for the first time, I understood that I needed to do more than just stand there and play the guitar. So, once a performance, I put down the guitar and attempted my white boy song and dance, and at a point in the song, I would tip the microphone stand, drop to my knees, and catch it in emulation of Brown. I did this each night until I developed a condition know as Osgood-Schlatter's disease where I had crushed the cartilage in both knees badly enough to cause a leg to give way in mid-walk. I entered high school and college with a doctor's note forbidding me to march with the ROTC. When I was called for a physical by the Knoxville Draft Board, I was armed with my bulletproof doctor's note. But there was a war on and they were pretty much accepting anyone with a pulse, even if you checked the "gay" box on the personal questionnaire. Disregarding the severity of my limp, the draft board ignored what, in essence, was James Brown Syndrome and marked me fit for military duty. I was forced to fight the draft in ways other than with my knees, but such was my devotion.

Like millions of fans, I went James Brown crazy for keeps after I heard the album "Live At the Apollo," in 1963. I was familiar with his hits, particularly "Lost Someone," where he wrote the lyric, "Ten thousand people/underneath my Father's sun, who need someone," and "Night Train," which was his biggest hit before the Apollo LP. But this new live album was something different, raw, and exciting, and the response from the audience becomes a part of the show. I always wondered why he said in his recitation of "Night Train" cities, "New York City, take me home." Now I know. The spontaneous outpouring of love from the people in Harlem when the white, horse-drawn carriage passed was something not seen since the funeral of Princess Diana. President Ford may have gotten a catafalque in the Capitol, but James Brown got center stage at The Apollo while a hundred thousand people stood in the street in lines that reached five blocks long.

My first James brown show was memorable for many reasons. After listening to the Apollo album a thousand times, (a must-have album for any fan of Soul music), I had to see what the audience on the record was screaming about. I snapped up a ticket for his show in the North Hall at Ellis Auditorium in late 1963 and took my seat. Every white kid in Memphis will tell you that he or she was one of only ten white faces in the place, as if they were venturing into the enemy camp. But everyone will also say that they were warmly welcomed by the black audience and even made to feel a little bit hip just by being in attendance. When the announcer finally shouted, "James Brown and the Famous Flames," a woman sitting behind me that weighed at least 250 pounds leaped up from her seat and landed on my back, knocking me to the floor. So while James Brown was sliding to center stage on one leg, I was on all fours, fumbling on the sticky floor for my glasses. It was my good fortune, however, to see him perform the entire "Live at the Apollo" show, with the cape and additional flourishes to boot. It was the most memorable concert of my life. By show's end, I was dancing in the aisle with the woman who had flattened me.

Of all James Brown's nicknames; "Mister Dynamite," "The Amazing Mr. Please, Please, Himself," "Soul Brother #1," my least favorite was "Godfather of Soul," because it was the most contrived. Only after "The Godfather" was the biggest movie hit of 1972 did James Brown appropriate the moniker for himself, a nickname more rightly descriptive of Ray Charles. James Brown was the Father of Funk. But in reality, the nickname that most accurately described him was "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." On my old radio program, I used to enjoy contrasting the live performance styles of Ray Charles and James Brown. Ray would take a song like "Drown In My Own Tears," which he recorded in the studio with a waltz-time, mid-tempo gospel feel, and play it in concert so slowly and laid-back that it nearly falls off the bed. Thus, part of the enjoyment of hearing Ray Charles was the anticipation and suspense of his slower tempos. Before Ray delivered the goods, he made you wait for it, and you left his concerts, on a good night, feeling warm and satisfied. In contrast, James Brown played his songs at three times the tempo of his studio recordings, and the intensely tight band never stopped charging until the audience surrendered to the dynamism and unflagging energy of the performer. When a James Brown show was over, he was reputed to have lost up to five pounds per show and sweat straight through the soles of his shoes. The audience left stunned, exhausted, and exhilarated.

And though others preceded him, James Brown was undeniably of the South. His music wasn't smooth or jazz based like Ray's, but gritty and greasy and wild. And he never made the concessions to a white audience like Jackie Wilson or Sam Cooke, with bland arrangements and whitebread back-up singers. James had the Famous Flames, who's very name spoke of Brown's ambition. I wish I could properly credit the writer who said that "James Brown exuded Negritude." He was a black performer for a black audience, and the white fans had to come over to him; and they did in droves, especially in the South. When James' fame was already reaching a boiling point, he released the song "Out of Sight" in 1964 and started a revolution in popular music. He so noticeably changed the groove that at any dance in the mid-sixties, there was all the other music, and there was James Brown's. His songs immediately packed the dance floors and the dance that the people did was called, "The James Brown." Suddenly every white frat-boy from the Universities of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, were hooking their thumbs in their belts and shuffling their feet across the floor. If you had the misfortune of wearing rubber soles, you had to kick them off to continue. Imagine the personal musical courage it took to change a successful formula into something untried and untested. But James Brown started as a shoe- shiner, a tap-dancer, and a prizefighter. It was his competitiveness and unschooled genius that propelled him. If he were a grammarian, he might have named his song "I Feel Well," but James had a language all his own. Even his ballads like "It's a Man's(4)World," and "Prisoner of Love" turned into screaming, sweat-drenched passion plays. As he grew older, the screaming grew more frenzied and sometimes over the top. It seemed as if James were reaching for a note that he was never going to hit.

The night that Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, James Brown was credited with keeping violence muted in many cities including Knoxville, where his radio station WJBE (for James Brown Enterprises) broadcast regular calls for calm. His public activism and appeals for racial understanding earned him accolades from President Johnson and rewards from Hubert Humphrey. His record company told him that if he released 1968's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," it would cost him over half of his white audience. James Brown released the song and contributed to an unprecedented era of black pride. Stay In School campaigns followed and Life Magazine asked on it's cover if James Brown "was the most influential black man in America." This later added to the irony of his incarceration. The Memphis and Shelby County police always protected Elvis, and especially Jerry Lee Lewis and his entourage, from their most blatant transgressions. When Jerry Lee smashed his car into the gates of Graceland waving a pistol, the police took him home. Why then, would the South Carolina police fire twenty shots at James Brown in a high speed chase resulting from a domestic dispute and put him in prison for two and a half years if not for the continuing racial component? Perhaps James Brown wasn't a model citizen regarding his personal life, but I couldn't help thinking that they wouldn't have done that to Tony Bennett.

The crowds in the streets and the magnificent packed-house homegoing service in Augusta demonstrated the significance of this one determined man. The moving tributes by Reverends Sharpton and Jackson illustrated James Brown's appeal to the common man, and the presence and reception for Michael Jackson should erase the suggestions that Michael was ever insufficiently black. There are still huge gaps in Brown's digital discography that will now hopefully be filled. The box set "Star Time" on Polydor is a worthy attempt that was created in England. This is usually good news, since the British are among the most knowledgeable and loyal R&B fans in the world. But the James Brown phenomenon was a "you needed to be there" experience that could have benefited from a Southern perspective and not omitted regional classics like "Oh, Baby Don't You Weep," and "Three Hearts in a Tangle." However, it's a good place to start to hear how the music of this man with the humble name evolved from primitive R&B to rhythmic innovation and a place where it reached critical mass before exploding into the popular culture. The concert film, "The T.A.M.I. Show," 1964, has electrifying footage of James' performance in his prime. Finally, a word about these Republicans. Ray Charles died June 10, 2004, and Ronald Reagan died the next day. James Brown died on Christmas and Gerald Ford the following day. Not even a president can steal the thunder from a king. So, hey fellows, stop trying and "Let A Man Stand Up and Do the Popcorn."

Who's left of the Soul pioneers? We still have great voices like Jerry Butler, Mel Carter, and Bobby Womack, but the death of James Brown leaves an unfillable void. The greatest voice in Soul music with a live performance approximating James Brown's in excitement is Ronald "Ronnie" Isley, of the Isley Brothers. Unfortunately, like James in the past, he is incarcerated for income tax evasion and isn't singing for anyone. Doesn't the I.R.S. know that musicians get paid in cash? And isn't it pathetic to go after the entertainers who rose from nothing while corporate criminals like Ken Lay take the easy way out? For the sake of James Brown's activism on behalf of equal justice, Free Ronnie Isley! Meanwhile, God bless you and rest well, James Brown. You deserve it.
"Spotlight on James Brown ya'll/He's the king of 'em all ya'll/ Yeah yeah, oh yeah."...Arthur Conley; "Sweet Soul Music"

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

great comments. James Brown was one of the most dynamic personalities of our era. Thanks
d n tn

Anonymous said...

A beautifully written article, Senor Sputnik. A wonderful 2007 to you and Mudgirl!

js PV

tennesseelinn said...

you have grown from a great writer to a brilliant writer. when will you let the rest of the world know of your genius and your insight? you have captured the spirit of james brown with your words. happy 2007 to you and your bride. love.

randy said...

Thank you. That is most kind. Maybe someone could assist a semi-literate computer user to spread the thing around some.

Anonymous said...

You are right in everything that you said about James. He was the greatest showman ever. In order to understand that statement, you would have to have seen him live in the 60's. I was fortunate enough to have seen him about 6 times from 1964 to 1969. One of those shows was at Ole Miss in '67 (I think). That was the wildest, most uninhibited James Brown show of the 6 that I saw. I was at the show in '68 (maybe '69) when he came out with 'I'm Black and I'm Proud'. Everyone was on their feet and screaming and I couldn't understand the words at first. I asked my date what they were saying and when she told me I was a little alarmed, hoping that we would be safe with all of the unbridled emotion going on. Like you said the audience was maybe 10% white, but nothing could keep me away from a James Brown concert. He went a long way in dissipating racial animosity, at least from whites toward blacks, because you couldn't help but love the guy and his music. In a way, it made a white man more culturally black. Parenthetically, at the Ole Miss concert toward the end the students stormed the stage in a frenzy of affection for the man. At first his security people were alarmed, but when they saw the adulation, they relaxed somewhat. Rumor had it that he was so pleased with the reaction from the student body that he refused to accept payment for the concert. Bottom line we were all enriched by the life of this man. Too bad the music scene of today sucks so badly. Blacks have contributed so much from Dowop, to Blues, to R&B, to Soul, to Jazz, to Reggae, ( not to mention Jimi Hendrix, Nat King Cole, Sade, et al.) etc. I hate to see hip-hop dominate everything and over-shadow all of the great music that blacks have contributed over the years. I'll be glad when that fad passes so that black musical acumen can once again be more creative.

Scott Relf said...

Excellent article. I only saw JB once in 2002. Even then he was dynamic...I can only imagine a 60's concert (I wasn't born yet). Last night I watched The TAMI Show for the millionth time. I never get tired of watching his electrifying performance. That set should have been all over TV this week. He was a true original who changed music much more than most people will ever know. I'm going to miss him.
R.I.P. J.B.

Scott Relf
The Soul Shack

davethedog said...

I had a similar experience with an early James Brown experience. I was about 13 years old and went with some older guys in my AZA chapter. It was at the old Nashville Sulphur Dell ballpark. The stage was set up at home plate and we were seated behind the screen. JB came out early and only played organ behind the opening act. This was a true unselfish act and a gift to the other singers. Also on the bill was a woman singer named T.V. Momma. She must have weighed 300 pounds. She was dressed in a long sequined evening dress. She sang the torch song "Take all of me" and in the middle of the song, she ripped off her gown and did the hoochie coochie dance in a sequined two piece bikini outfit. Needless to say, the crowd went wild. The show was the classic model with the cape/breakdown and JB throwing out cheap sets of cufflinks to the crowd. This is why I like Van Morrison so much, he is a genius, but also learned to watch the master. His "rythym and soul revue", during the 90's, was patterned after the soul revues of JB and others. Respect for your fellow musicians goes a long way in this business.

Because this is Haspel's blog, I must close by saying that JB's death is the fault of Bush and Cheney.

Let's hear it for davethedog, davethedog!

Anonymous said...

I agree. JB's death is undoubtably linked in some inscrutable way to the 'Great Right-Wing Conspiracy'. Probably due to some sort of death ray that is focussed on dark-skinned people who sing and dance.

Gregg said...

Can only say that I agree with the comment about your writing, Randy. You are an honest hard working virtuoso. Your words come out like the hoots from Miles or Dizzy or Wynton, and pierce with the same scalpel. I can see the smile you must have on your face when one of those literary riffs just bubbles out. Oh, yeah! You bet. Live long, old man.

HwdHughes said...

Tony Bennett probably wouldn't have run from the police.

Anonymous said...

Ah!...a Greggism. I love it. Rave on, man. May you too live long and share your poetic babbles with us. On a more serious note, who cares if James drank some, drugged some, and had some frisky escapades with the ladies. So what if he had a little fun in his life...and screw the cops. They probably shouldn't have been snooping around in his personal life.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Randy is a gifted journalist. In fact, he is good enough to be a syndicated newspaper columnist. We read lesser talents every day. Too bad he can't take Wendy Thomas' place. I think that he would write about a more interesting range of subjects than she does. Here's another point that I would like to make in Randy's behalf. I think that he should have a musical note memorial (they probably have a name for them) in his name on Beale St. He certainly has been a major influence on the Memphis music scene for many years as a musician, as a musicologist, and as a deejay. Maybe we can start a movement to get this done...what say the rest of you?

jimbob said...

I agree with davethedog. James Brown was a "Uniter, not a Divider."

Anonymous said...

And yet Randy you find a way to inject division into your blog about JB.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article - you said it all. Regarding life, talent and making us aware of the extraordianry man James Brown was and will be remembered for all time.
Thank you

Sputnik57 said...

This ain't no disco...