At a time when most popular music seems to come from something we’ve heard before, it’s important to note that James Brown’s music was always defining in some way. From the beginning, Brown’s sound laid out territory that no one else could claim.
When Brown later began weaving social messages into his funk jams, he owned that turf as well. In the later part of his career his live performances may have been more compelling than his recorded product, but his electrifying presence and groove-intensive arrangements made the phrase “Live, in Concert” an understatement. You didn’t need a dynamometer to determine that he was “the hardest working man in show business”; you could see it with your own eyes.
While they were nearly the same age and spoke to the same generations, Brown’s passing hits harder than that of Ray Charles. Charles had long settled into a comfortable albeit masterful elder statesman presentation of his wares, while Brown continued to hit the stage and rip it up. It wasn’t simply Brown’s physicality and seemingly endless supply of energy, although that mattered. His music was unapologetically wild, funky and primal. At about the same time Charles began structuring his legacy with mellow gold such as “Georgia on My Mind,” Brown, nearing age 40, was laying down new dance hits and busting moves to recordings with titles like “Sex Machine” and “Hot Pants.”
With talent and sweat, James Brown rightfully bought his own tier in the popular music pantheon. But he finessed a much larger role that I believe we will miss even more: James Brown was an All-American. Right down to his substance problems and jail time, Brown was that rarest of American icons, the real human being.
History will likely continue to waffle on how “black” performers like Sammy Davis, Jr. and even jazz god Louis Armstrong were. James Brown will never have that problem. Brown contributed to shaping a changing consciousness of African Americans as “black” in such a profound way that social music projects such as “We Are the World” wither in comparison. While Dylan’s message was alleging that an answer might be blowing in the wind, Brown’s message was already on the streets. It was pouring out of jukeboxes and auto dashboards and transistor radios, demanding that young people “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”
Yet as Brown preached racial pride, his music was a weapon for peace and unity. It brought millions of white listeners to what was then called soul music. And it was a laser opening the split between pop music and something new that was pulling in young Americans. In Milwaukee where I grew up, there would be high school parties where the spinning 45’s were all the usual vanilla pop hits. Then a group of surly looking white dudes in Ban Lon shirts would show up, begin playing James Brown records and steal all the girls. The sexual energy of Brown’s music was undeniable, unlike my own sexual energy at that time.
To this day few musicians dare to try and replicate Brown’s sound, knowing that in this particular case imitation can only aspire to be imitation. Brown’s horn players were never anything less than assertive, so that even the ballads were dynamic. I don’t know if anyone can fully describe the structure of Brown’s music, but if you’d like to try let me recommend the most necessary boxed set of CD’s in the universe, James Brown: Star Time on Polydor. The photos in the accompanying booklet are alone well worth the purchase price, but the four discs have been mastered for maximum impact and will carry you through Brown’s tracks from 1956 to 1984. Be sure you’ve got the house to yourself, because you must play these loud.
There’s that word “loud” again, in reference to James Brown. In interviews, Brown’s voice would reduce itself to a papery thin rasp. Then he’d get up and charge into a song, and his singing was so muscular the horns had to fight to be heard. A lot of people were fighting to be heard then, and Brown knew it and made it part of the show. Except that it wasn’t just a “show,” ever. It was an American man pouring himself one hundred percent into the idea that, somewhere in all that funk, there was truth. And James Brown would bring it up.