Long live the Godfather of Soul

James Brown died on Christmas day, a typically dramatic move for the 73-year-old, self-described “Godfather of Soul,” who was known for dramatic endings in concert.

The news of his death caught me off guard, because I hadn’t heard much about the performer in years. Although Brown’s music career was in its sunset years, he was still touring and singing regularly. He was hospitalized with pneumonia just a couple days before, and died of heart failure not long after telling a friend he would perform in Times Square for New Year’s Eve.

The man earned another of his many nicknames, “The hardest working man in show business,” to the very end.

Brown may have had a low profile in recent years, but his legacy is undeniable, and his stamp on popular music and pop culture is downright gigantic. It’s hard to imagine the evolution of rhythm and blues into soul music, and soul into disco and disco into rap and hip-hop without the burning passion of his singing, his pioneering poly-rhythms precision band-leading as cornerstones.
Michael Jackson began his career as a pre-pubescent James Brown copycat. Brown was already old-school when he performed with rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa in the early-‘80s; Snoop Dog called Brown his “soul inspiration.”

As Harry Weber of the Associated Press wrote, James Brown was to dance music like Bob Dylan has been to songwriting.

Besides practically inventing – if not inspiring – entire genres, Brown influenced countless rock musicians from Mick Jagger to David Byrne of Talking Heads. His frenetic minimalism was arguably model for punk rockers; his funky breakdowns a template for every white rocker who played black dance music, whether it was David Bowie or Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, who howled, “somebody take me to the bridge,” in “The Crunge,” a tribute to Brown from the 1974 Zep album “House of the Holy.”

James Joseph Brown was born into abject poverty in South Carolina during the Great Depression, and found himself in prison as a teen. That’s where he met musician Bobby Byrd, who became a staple of Brown’s bands. Byrd helped Brown get an early release from prison, and Brown joined Brown’s gospel group in the mid-195s. When the group switched from gospel music to secular R&B, the name was changed to the Famous Flames and Brown changed his raspy, vocals from a sound that owed much to his heroes Little Richard and Ray Charles, to his own emotionally charged style.

His first hit was “Please Please Please,” in 1956, a forlorn entreaty that still screams need and want and loss, 50 years later. He followed up in 1959 with a mid-tempo songs, “Try Me,” which was still rooted in early soul. But he soon made way for his many experiments in irresistible rhythms and the invention of funk.

Many people would recognize “Night Train,” a 1962 toe-tapper that introduced a cacophony of rhythms, with contrasting instruments in the band keeping different time.

Brown never looked back.

He followed with a frenetic string of hits during his mid- to late-‘60s peak, such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Cold Sweat,” “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (a remarkable statement of racial identity that served as a soundtrack for the waning civil rights movement’s move to “Black Power” and radical activism), “”Mother Popcorn,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like a) Sex Machine,” “Hot Pants (She Got To Use What She Got To Get What She Wants)” and “Make It Funky,” just to mention some of the titles.

All this time, Brown honed his live act to razor-sharp precision, whether fronting the Famous Flames or the JBs. You can hear the raw electricity of his onstage skills as far back as “Live at the Apollo” in 1963, a groundbreaking live recording that showcased his mastery of both the band and the audience; his stop-on-a-dime sense of timing, and his fabulous screaming singing. He was already a high priest of the church of rock and soul, and he proved it on this landmark album.

Hearing James Brown on record is one thing, though. Seeing him in action was something else altogether. He gave 200% of himself in performances, and over the years worked out incredible moves with his jittery feet and hip-shaking legs. He’d twirl like a dervish and drop to his knees to punctuate his emotive vocals. He’d suddenly slide into an impossible split, the bounce right back up.
At the end of every show, he stage a series of mock exits, where he’d collapse on stage in a heap, until a bandmember came out to drape him in his cape and help him off stage. The he’d come flying back out for another chorus, until he collapse again, completely spent. The guy would come out again with the cape and lead Brown off stage again… and then it would happe all over again.

I was lucky enough to see Brown live a couple of times, although long past his prime years. He was still awesome.
I caught him the first time in the early ‘80s with what must have been a small band or maybe even pickup musicians, in a tiny Larimer Square nightclub, now long-gone, in downtown Denver where I sat at a table near the stage and had the man sweat on me (Brown sweat a lot during his shows). The second time a few years later was at a south Denver suburban show club, also now gone, where he was able to perform with a full R&B orchestra but had to forego his splits (he made a crack about getting old). He pulled the cape routine at the end, though.

Later in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s Brown was dogged by drugs and alcohol problems, and was more likely to be in the press for shooting up his car, domestic abuse or taking the Georgia cops for a high-speed chase. He also spent some time in jail again.
But pop memory is short, and fans of Brown forgiving. His death is certain to shoot his star back up to the skies. Just tonight I‘ve seen tributes to Brown on the national news and that bastion of mainstream American consciousness, “Entertainment Tonight.”
There’s going to be a public sendoff for James at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem on Thursday, a fitting location for the man whose landmark live recording was recorded at the same venue, and a memorial service in Georgia, his home state for decades, at the end of the week.

As a fan, I almost want to imagine that his death is just another one of his fake endings, and that someone will come from offstage to hand him his cape again, and then he’d toss them off and begin twirling and singing again.
I guess I’ll just have to satisfy myself by blasting the James Brown playlist on my iPod.

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