had figured out a way to orchestrate a drum set, and make everything
in the band work around a groove, rather than a melody.'
Vincent in Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the
Godfather of Soul's good timing extended to the era he was born
in. He came of age when the isolated South was integrating with
America through massive migration and through the struggle against
segregation. In 1977, Brown told Cliff White that his mid-'60s
masterpieces depended upon being exposed to the North: "My eyes
started opening... my brain started to intercept the new ideas
and thoughts. I became a big city thinker. And I started tying
that in." His epochal record "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" was
recorded in February 1965, the same month Malcolm X was assassinated,
and was released in July 1965, three weeks before the Watts Rebellion.
also saw that for most blacks the poverty he'd experienced in
the South was also rampant in the North. And James knew poverty
intimately - he was often dismissed from school for "insufficient
clothes" and was sent to prison at 15 for stealing a coat. He
was essentially homeless from the age of four until future sideman
Bobby Byrd's mother took him in at age 18.
Brown didn't cross over like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and the Motown
artists, his core audience - North and South - remained poor.
He continued to speak for them and to them. This was so much true
that in 1975 a white man in New York City took hostages at a New
York City restaurant to protest the plight of blacks in America
an audience with James Brown. According to Jet Magazine,
the gunman felt "that no one could speak more authoritatively
for blacks than James Brown." The hostage taker was captured after
he fell asleep. Rickey Vincent wrote: "Absurd as the event was,
the idea that James Brown carried more weight than any black politician,
and still carried the moral authority of the Black nation, was
right on target."
Brown knew poverty intimately -
he was often dismissed from school for
"insufficient clothes" and was sent
to prison at 15 for stealing a coat.
Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 Presidential election and Richard
Nixon in 1972. Both times he was damned as a sellout. But Brown's
social and political agenda went far beyond the politics of Humphrey
or Nixon. After James Meredith was shot in Mississippi in 1966,
James flew to his side and he did benefits for both SNCC and the
NAACP. James Brown was anti-nuke. His early tours featured an
implicit critique of a criminal justice system he knew all too
in America: The Soul Saga of James Brown, Cynthia Rose describes
the suitcase prop used by George Haines, the prosecutor who sent
a teenaged JB to prison in 1949 ("Your honor, here's my suitcase!
If you let this man go free, I'll pack up and flee this town!").
"That suitcase became a signature in the paroled entertainer's
late 1950s show," Rose writes, "a red prop emblazoned on one side
with Please Please Please and on the other with Baby Take My Hand.
Brown would use it to close a set."
Later, when he was doing six years in prison for traffic violations,
more time than William Calley did for the My Lai massacre, James
told the New York Times: "I think there's a lot of money
spent on housing people away from home that should be spent on
building them a home so they won't ever have to leave." On 1972's
"Funky President," Brown was an early proponent of reparations
("Let's get together, get some land") and even called for people
to own their own factories.
Brown didn't cross over
like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and the
Motown artists, his core audience -
North and South - remained poor.
to road manager Alan Leeds, James held court on this agenda in
his dressing room every night. He did the same in rib joints,
hair salons, and private homes (RRC staffer Black Rose was at
one such session in Oklahoma City in the 1970s). A meeting that
Brown described as "cordial but direct" took place with SNCC's
H. Rap Brown to discuss strategies for black liberation. They
disagreed over the use of violence and, when Rap Brown accused
him of being a big star who was out of touch with the masses,
James took exception, pointing out: "I probably come from a much
poorer background than you do."
James was working from personal memory when he produced a 1973
Maceo Parker track, "The Soul of a Black Man," and added lyrics
such as "It's so hard! It's so baaaaaaaad When you got three
meals a day: oatmeal, no meal, and missed meal!"
1968, Brown had a massive hit with "Say It Loud (I'm Black and
I'm Proud") featuring the key line: "We'd rather die on our
feet than be livin' on our knees." "Say It Loud" is actually
an even more powerful statement today, now that the more or less
automatic unity of 1968 has been replaced with the hatred of poor
blacks expressed by Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, and many others.
it was clear from the shrinking number of white faces at his shows
that "Say It Loud" cost him much of the crossover audience his
mid-'60s hits had built. Yet the overwhelming power of Brown's
music and message kept leaping racial boundaries (even on "Say
It Loud" the children's chorus was made up entirely of whites
and Asians). Later, country stars such as Barbara Mandrell and
Porter Wagoner waged a lengthy and ultimately successful campaign
to bring James Brown to the Grand Ol Opry.
so hard! It's so baaaaaaaad
When you got three meals a day:
oatmeal, no meal, and missed meal!"
up on that hallowed stage and did a couple of country songs and
spoke about the impact of the Grand Ol Opry on his work. He was
greeted warmly by most Opry fans who, in addition to enjoying
the music, may have felt a kinship with Brown based on a common
background of Southern poverty.
his will upon the world, James Brown constructed a byzantine business
empire and rehearsed and punished his band members to the point
of mutiny. "If I had to fight James Brown, right away I would
have a gun," Brown's former bandleader Fred Wesley said. "Because
his determination to win is just more powerful than anyone else's
I've ever seen."
record contracts when they got in his way. For instance, in 1959
he went to Dade Records when his label, King Records, wouldn't
allow him to record instrumentals. The result was "Do The Mashed
Potatoes, Parts 1 and 2," a Top 10 R&B hit issued under the
name of Nat Kendrick and the Swans. Brown did it again later when
he recorded a brilliant jazz organ album for Smash. He built a
business empire of radio stations and real estate in pursuit of
not just wealth but his own vision of freedom.
he put it: "You need power to get freedom. You need freedom to
create." And create he did. Not just his own monumental catalog
(including the number one 1962 pop album Live at the Apollo,
which James had to pay for himself because his record company
said it wouldn't sell), but a torrent of albums by sidemen and
we are once again sliding
into the abyss that James Brown
described in the liner notes
to his 1974 album, Hell.
"It's hell down here and we've got
to make a change. It's hell when you
don't have a job and you can't eat."
own People Records issued message records by some of his female
vocalists, such as Vicki Anderson's "Message From the Soul Sisters"
and Lyn Collins' "Take Me Just as I Am."
we are once again sliding into the abyss that James Brown described
in the liner notes to his 1974 album, Hell. "It's hell
down here and we've got to make a change. It's hell when you don't
have a job and you can't eat. Drugs are hell. War is hell. Prison
is hell." And, most important of all: "It's hell tryin' to do
it by yourself." James Brown had a monumental ego but he spared
no effort to involve other people in the realization of his personal
and artistic vision. He reached out relentlessly to find the hundreds
of musicians and singers who helped him to create his music. He
built a vast nationwide network of DJs, record stores, small businesses,
and fans. He made sure that he stayed connected to his core audience.
the epic version of "There Was a Time" from Live at the Apollo,
Volume 2 James Brown is leading the crowd through a chant.
He calls out how many "unh!"s to bellow out to follow the refrain
of "Hey, hey, I feel allright." The band is unbelievable - a thousand
subtleties coalescing into a mighty rhythmic river. But there's
a guy in the audience who's messing up the ritual by following
a separate count. James chides him gently, speculating that the
man is in a hurry to take the power of the show back home to the
bedroom ("He's got something else on his mind!"). It continues
and James pleads with him: "Come on brother, don't take all this
laughing because he knows that a nuclear warhead couldn't take
that groove away. But he's also dead serious, because he knows
what it took to create the James Brown groove and bring it to
the people. He knows that the groove contains more than music,
that it's a train with a destination of the greatest importance.
James Brown died before his groove got to the end of its journey.
He left it for us to do with what we will, what we can, what we
should. We'll know we've completed that mission when every man,
woman, and child on earth can survey their lives and loudly proclaim:
"Hey, hey, I feel allright - unh! unh! unh!"
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