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"