Remembering James Brown
As I sat down to write this, I pulled down my four-CD James Brown: Star Time anthology. Big mistake. It’s difficult to write when you’re shouting, grunting, stomping your foot, and occasionally getting up to spin around in place and yelp, ”Yes! Yes!” in a very pale but enthusiastic emulation of one of the greatest music-makers of the 20th century.
Brown, who died early this morning at age 73, was an elemental force, not merely an innovator but an inventor of certain rhythms and vocal styles most of us assume always existed. He was called ”the godfather of soul,” but ”soul” limits his range and places him in competition for the title with, among others, Ray Charles. Brown fused rhythm & blues, jazz, funk, gospel, certain strains of country, and New Orleans music, and applied them to Americanized African time signatures and vocal embellishments. But Brown wasn’t merely a synthesizer of influences; as I said, he created something new: The title of one of his first pop hits (he’d been on the R&B charts for years before this), 1965’s ”Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” was no idle boast. Because what he created has become so intrinsic a part of R&B and now hip-hop, and because he was imitated so deftly and affectionately by comedians including Eddie Murphy, it’s easy to think of Brown as a vintage soul act, frozen in time. For years, David Letterman’s bandleader, Paul Shaffer, has done a parody of Brown’s long-time concert-finale stunt: feigning exhaustion and collapse onstage. An assistant comes out and covers his shoulders with a cape and helps him offstage, but just before he leaves our sight, he breaks away and runs back, his energy renewed, to sing again.
This always-amusing playlet also now makes a serious point: Brown was an inexhaustible source of music and ideas. In his last years, his voice became ragged, but in his 1960s and 1970s prime, Brown was a vocalist of extraordinary range, able to lift that gruff tenor into a falsetto that could pierce with impeccable control. He was a brilliant improviser, with an array of grunts, moans, shrieks, and croons that as pure sounds were as expressive as any lyrics he ever enunciated. Brown, overseeing bands that at various times included guitarist Jimmy Nolan, Pee Wee Ellis on keyboards and saxophone, trombonist Fred Wesley, saxophonist Maceo Parker, and future George Clinton bassist Bootsy Collins, placed the beat in front of the melody, devised intricate beats that shifted in intensity and rapidity within a single composition. Ignorant listeners thought many of his songs ”sounded the same”; in fact, one reason his album cuts (as opposed to songs pared down for radio airplay) could last for nine or ten minutes or more was because every verse, every chorus, contained tiny, constant changes in rhythm and emphasis.
I want to emphasize what a great musician Brown was, because so much of what will be written about him will talk about what one obit I’ve already read referred to as ”’Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ a landmark 1968 statement of racial pride”; there’ll be some token head-scratching over his support for Richard Nixon, and commentators will barely suppress smug smiles reciting titles like ”Get On the Good Foot” and ”(Get Up I Feel Like a) Sex Machine.” There’ll be talk of his numerous arrests for various bad behaviors. We’ll hear the old stories about how he used to levy fines on band members who didn’t play precisely enough for him on any given night. But this South Carolina native was a great artist before he was anything else; it will be a disgrace if he is remembered for his latter-day excesses or as a figure of fun. As I write, I’m listening to ”Funky President (People It’s Bad).” Can you hum the tune? Didn’t think so. That just means you have a lifetime of pleasure awaiting you: ”Funky President,” with its chicken-scratch guitar riff, its polyrhythmic beat, and its undulating, switchback melody, is merely average James Brown, and yet it is great, witty, irresistible music, capable not merely of endless enjoyment but of endless contemplation. James Brown embodied one of the fundamental precepts of modern art, one similar to Andy Warhol’s aesthetic, but he created it before Warhol — the idea that simple things can carry multiple, even contradictory, meanings, can convey complex emotions and thoughts.
So while you should indeed heed Brown when he sings ”Get Up Offa That Thing,” and dance to his music, also take a little time to sit down and listen to what he was doing as a singer, a songwriter, a bandleader, and a producer. Put on the first single James Brown and Famous Flames released, 1956’s ”Please, Please, Please.” The torrent of emotion, the glorious paradox of singing about agony with such boundless joy — well, genius doesn’t begin to cover it.