Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Appreciation: James Brown
James Brown's Musical Impact Is Everlasting
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; Page C01
This time James Brown is gone. No more faux faints to the floor, no more hasty cape-covering or furious cool-down fanning by concerned band members trying to get the inevitably, and dramatically, exhausted Godfather of Soul to leave the stage. Death chose Christmas Day to declare that 73 years was enough for one rhythm revolutionary who danced and sang America though cultural changes in the '60s and '70s.
Last Christmas, Brown and Washington's Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go, shared a bill at the 9:30 club -- a Godfather Summit, as it were -- marking James Brown's return to the stage following a short retirement after prostate cancer in 2004. Just a few days earlier, he had called from Augusta, Ga., and asked me to "tell Chocolate City I'm on my way! And I'm ready! We're goin' to take care of business. I feel great."
On Thursday, NPR.org will offer the full performance of last December's concert by James Brown and Chuck Brown at the 9:30 club. It was originally webcast as part of NPR Music's live concert series from "All Songs Considered"; an MP3 version is also available for download.
While that gig clearly wasn't the Apollo or the Howard Theater in the '60s, the fact that James Brown could still command a stage in his 70s was astonishing.
The first time we'd talked was in 1986, when Brown was a charter inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was also enjoying an increasingly rare visit to the pop charts with "Living in America" from "Rocky IV."
"It seems like I've been around a long time," Brown conceded then. "Hey, I'm here and I thank God I'm here. Thank God the people still want me. Thank you for having me in your life so long."
He said it personally but meant it universally.
Awaiting the ceremony, the Godfather seemed larger than life: stocky, sweaty in his form-fitting suit and silk shirt, sturdy in the manner of someone who knows what he's done and what it's meant. Almost 20 years later, Augusta's city fathers unveiled a 6-foot, 600-pound bronze likeness of Brown on James Brown Boulevard near the park he once danced in for spare change. Even with a cape and microphone, the statue was nowhere near as imposing as its inspiration, and even a million watts could not have matched his natural smile.
At the 9:30 a year ago, Brown understandably was not up to the pure, relentless physicality of past performances. He let the band carry much of the show, but he still projected more raw power than performers a third his age as he tapped into his sometimes-overlooked roots as a soul singer and balladeer extraordinaire on "Please, Please, Please" and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."
But Brown understood that folks were there to experience firsthand the funk he pretty much invented in the same way Ray Charles invented soul. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "The Payback," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," "Cold Sweat" -- there were lyrics, but Brown's guttural growl was mostly given to a symphony of shouts, grunts and slogans. As usual, he kicked off the show with a jubilant invitation to "Get Up Offa That Thing," but, really, was there a choice? As for Brown's frequent query, "Do you wanna get funky?" -- it ranks as one of the most rhetorical questions of our time.
Only James Brown could turn a simple Huh ! into something with multiple meanings -- all of them thoroughly convincing.
Thankfully, whether 40 years ago or 40 years from now, you never just hear James Brown. Whether on the radio or whatever big playback machine you choose, you'll feel his sweat as any of several dozen songs conjure images as timeless as the music: J.B. gliding on a cushion of air, moonwalking decades before Michael Jackson or Neil Armstrong; J.B. slamming to the floor in seemingly painful acrobatic splits, yet popping up immediately in full spin; J.B. falling to a knee, microphone in hand, a beggar man for love or attention. There will still be nonstop flash in the feet, fire in his soul.
Generations of musicians listened to James Brown, looked at him and took what they could, regardless of the kind of music they played. Much imitated, he was ultimately inimitable.
Someone once suggested Brown was to rhythm what Bob Dylan was to lyrics, and there's no arguing that when it comes to foundations of American popular music, Brown is right there with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Dylan -- creators whose innovations changed everything around them.
But first Brown had to find his own sound, which would come out of the ongoing collision of gospel and rhythm and blues in the mid-'50s. Tellingly, his first group, the Gospel Starlighters, would evolve into the Famous Flames, though with Brown writing or co-writing most of the group's material and proving from the start to be a superb showman, it was inevitable that he would become a solo act, albeit always closely tied to one superb backing band or another.
The early years are populated by classy but not quite classic R&B songs like "Please, Please, Please" and 1958's "Try Me," which sounded equal parts early career frustration and invitation. The first hint of the future -- pressure-cooked grooves, skintight arrangements and brain-melting horn blasts -- was 1962's "Night Train." Three years later, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" articulated a new musical and cultural soundscape. Along the way, Brown earned the titles: Soul Brother No. 1, the Sex Machine, Mr. Dynamite, the Heavyweight Champion of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the Funky President-- that fitted him as well as any of his body-hugging suits.
By the late '70s, Brown's hitmaking had pretty much ground to a halt, superseded by genres that were essentially his progeny: funk, disco and, later, hip-hop. Disco was more palatable to the mainstream, while funk's freakiness seemed more appealing to new generations. As for hip-hop, it would have happened even without James Brown, but it would never have sounded so compelling or rhythmically taut had not rappers in the late '70s and early '80s made him the world's most sampled artist -- although Brown seldom got paid for his "contributions," an ongoing source of irritation, along with unhappiness over some of rap's message.
"I didn't really mind rappers," he told me in 1993. "I didn't like what they were saying, and I have very strong feelings about the lyrics. I wanted to see some conscience in our lyrics, to prepare a future for our kids and not tear it down in lyrics. Vulgarity got too far gone, and we've got to withdraw from that." That was particularly important to a man who in the '60s had crafted messages of black pride and self-sufficiency with "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing" and "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)."
In the afternoon hours before the 9:30 club show, Brown was still rigorously putting the band through its paces, sharpening the dynamics, tightening the focus, deepening the groove. It was as if that night's show was a debut, not the career celebration everybody in the audience clearly envisioned.
When his statue was dedicated, Brown had told the crowd, "God bless you and God is good, and please, please, please don't forget me."
Never going to happen.