12.26.2006

James Brown 1933 - 2006: An American Genius




James Brown 1933 - 2006

Back when I was a wee punker, it was pretty much a rule that you had to have a James Brown Greatest Hits or Best Of... in your record collection. Punks considered him THEE Black Man (THEE Black Woman singer? Billie Holiday because of the sadness in her voice and the junkie mystique). Of course, I followed custom and got a greatest hits collection, as well as Live at the Apollo and Sex Machine. Those were the first albums by a Black person that I actually went out and bought. Sounds stupid but I grew up in an all White suburb and, even though this is the "Left Coast" and my parents had raised me and my brother to be accepting of all races, the vibe in my neighborhood was very racist.


Sure, I listened to Jimi Hendrix and Thin Lizzy, but those artists weren't thought of as Black or playing "Black music." They played rock & roll, which, in our twisted minds, was White. Today I shake my head at the mindboggling absurdity of such thoughts. Back then, rock & roll = White music was conventional wisdom. And how were we to know any better? The music that was presented to us as rock & roll was Ted Nugent, Styx, Led Zeppelin, and Lynnard Skynnard. Rock & roll "was started" by Bill Haley with Rock Around the Clock and the King of Rock & Roll was Elvis. We learned about rock & roll from Happy Days and Sha-Na-Na, two television programs in which rock & roll was a centerpiece, yet where Blacks were nowhere to be seen. Earlier still, American Bandstand was all about Whiteness, so much so that Blacks had their own show, Soul Train. Take all those inputs and stir them up with the racist undertones of the anti-disco movement of the late 70s and you had a 14 year old Scott Soriano thinking about music in racial terms: White music = rock & roll = good and Black music = nigger music = bad. Yup, that is about as deep as my racial analysis of music went.

I've written here before about how much punk rock was my personal music savior. Like many other "weird" kids trapped in the suburbs, punk made me cherish my individualism while at the same time giving me a sense of belonging. It gave me pride that many of my innerthoughts were not those held by those around me or, better still, that the act of thinking about something, anything with a bit of depth wasn't freakish. And it gave me people to be around who were also excited about thinking. With the freedom to explore my own thoughts came the shattering of received wisdom - such as rock & roll is White and that you are a nigger lover if you own a record made by a Black person (other than Jimi Hendrix and Phil Lynott). Restrictions gone, freedom acted upon, and, ironically, the punk "rule" to own some records by the Black originators and pioneers of rock & roll, I went out and bought Can Your Heart Stand It, a best of collection that I had seen in the record collections of older punks (always leaning next to the stereo, beat to shit from constant party play).

It would be lie to claim that teenage me knew of James Brown's huge importance culturally or of the genius that he brought to music. However, I did know that James Brown was an icon and that I loved what I heard on record. Can Your Heart Stand it lead me to acquire Live at the Apollo and Sex Machine. Over the years, I picked up all of his pre-1980s albums and most of his 45s. I read about James Brown, the fascinating life, and how he invented funk. I came to realize that he was the first person in the history music to take the African notion of everything is a percussion instrument and adopt it to popular music, the result of that experiment is what we now call funk. The more I listened to his music and how each instrument has its own beat, one that did not sap the importance or intensity of the other instruments/beats but instead creates a much stronger, much more intoxicating rhythm, the more I realized that James Brown was more than the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, more than the Godfather of Soul: He was a musical genius.

Since JB died, one of the clips that has been aired a lot is the one of LL Cool J saying that the Three B's of music are Bach, Beethoven, and Brown. LL isn't stretching things. The invention of funk revolutionized music. It gave musicians more freedom to experiment not only with rhythm but with the application of their instrument. Guitars could be as important as drums in establishing a beat. Horns could hold down a rhythm. Keyboards could be used once again as percussion instruments not just as melodic ones. Sure, Western musicians and composers had stretched the use of instruments before, having guitars, horns, etc. accent and created the beat; but never with the intensity, purpose, or success that James Brown did. And the way that James Brown pushed the boundaries of polyrhythm did more than add flavor to music, it crushed walls and created a new foundation for people to build on. Bach, Beethoven, and Brown, sure; but there is one thing James Brown has over Johann and Ludwig and that is you can't but help but move your ass when James Brown is on the turntable.

For a few years in the early '00s, I played junior dejay to Larry "The Flower Vato" Rodriguez at his weekly Dance Party. I had dejayed on the radio, played music between bands at shows, and spun records at a few parties but, until then, I had never club dejayed. You might know everything in the world about music, you might have the best record collection around, and you might think you can make a crowd dance their asses off, but you really do not know the limitations of your knowledge and all the vinyl that you own until you stand behind two turntables and watch a dance floor empty. For a music freak, clearing a dance floor is as crushing a defeat as there is. When it happens you have only two recourses: Turn the tables over to Larry or very quickly find James Brown's Release the Pressure and spin it. James Brown is the dejay's lifesaver. His records are what Larry and I call "cheaters" - that is, when you have James Brown records you don't need to do any work to make people dance. You can slap James Brown after James Brown (or Maceo & the Mack, Fred Wesley, JBs, Lynn Collins, Marva Whitney, Dee Felice Trio, Last Word, or any of the many James Brown productions) on the turntable and people will dance. It doesn't matter if the crowd is young, old, Black, White, Latino, hip, square, etc.: Everyone dances to James Brown.

One night, a couple years ago, Larry and I did an all JB Dance Party. We held it on the week of the day that Papa's Got a Brand New Bag was released and called it "The 40th Birthday of Funk." A notice about it appeared in the local weekly. Though the Dance Party's starting time was advertised as 9 pm, most nights we start spinning (to the bar staff and a few barflies) at about 9:30 or 10. The crowd arrives at 11 pm and peaks at 1 am. Not that night. We got there at 8:30 to set things up and there were people waiting outside for us to start. At 9:30, the place was packed. The dance floor was stuffed. The crowd was as diverse as you can imagine. Black couples in their 50s and 60s, dressed to the T, were mingling with White hipsters in their early 20s. Lowriders partied with state workers. Two Black ladies in their 50s came to the dejay booth in tears, to tell Larry and I that they hadn't had this much fun since they were in their 20s. They spent all night on the dance floor and were among the last to leave. For six solid hours the dance floor was full. It was the easiest night of dejaying I ever did. The "work" was having the idea of doing an all JB night, putting up some flyers, and dropping needle on JB records. It was James Brown who did the heavy lifting.

My brain loves James Brown's music. I can think about how it is structured and the impact it has had both musically and culturally (another essay could be written on James Brown and Black pride). My body love James Brown's music. It makes me move and gets me excited. James Brown's music is nourishing as well as exciting. It is as important of a legacy as any man has created. James Brown's music is the kind of thing that makes America great. It is the flipside of our wars, ignorance, arrogance, and greed. It is our country's Good Foot. Thank you, James Brown for a lifetime of genius.

Comments:
Excellent article Scott. James Brown was the first black musician to make an impact on me as well, and it was an impact that opened me up to a larger world of soul/rnb (which I had always dismissed as boring based of the examples I had heard on oldies radio as a kid) not to mention funk. His public persona may have gone from laudable to laughable over the years, but the effect of his music remains beyond reproach. "Immortal" is a term that gets thrown around lightly at times, but when describing James Brown's musical legacy it's hardly sufficient. There's a certain stodginess the term carries with it, and the feeling one gets when the needle drops on a JB record is anything but - it's the feeling of being carried away by a beat that transforms even the dullest evening into an instant party. In a world brimming with sorrow, it's great to know that a good time is only one James Brown record away.

Once again, you did a great job eulogizing the man.
 
Very nice. Thanks.
 
Great read. In about 1986 I bought a JB cassette with the 10 minute version of "Doing it to death" on it. I played that thing all the damn time but wasn't really sure why. On the surface it seemed like such a boring song. Nothing "much" happened to my way of thinking then. But I never seemed to get sick of it. Still don't.

"Now Fred, you know, I believe a, a Fred Thomas, brother, I'm getting ready to wave you all in, you know what, I feel so down, I need to get down, in order for me to get down I need to get in D..."

"Wait a minute, Maceo. Jerome (?) you give me a little bit of Wes and then I want Maceo to give me a little bit of flute, lay it on me brother, you got it."
 
One of the best post-mortems I've seen on Brother James. Thoroughly enjoyed reading that. -wnc
 
"Cheaters" records for deejays : definitely true !!
Only one letter difference between funk & punk..
 
Excellent essay, but American Bandastand always had a little black flavor to it.

When the show moved to Cali, there was at least one mixed race dancing couple--we're talking '60s here--and plenty of black acts appeared on the show.

In fact, The Sugarhill Gang--in 81--is widely believed to be the first network tv appearance of a rap song.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_acts_who_appeared_on_American_Bandstand
 
Great piece Scott. I should have read parts of it for my tribute to him on KDVS. Here's a link to the show: Tribute to James, KDVS
Living in south Stockton when I was four or five my dad had an eight track with "Doin it to Death". I figured out how to listen to it over and over by hitting the program track at a certain time on another song. I was especially enchanted with Jame's loose banter and the flute solo.
My uncle Steve was a James Brown fanatic. When he was in high school we heard an announcement on the radio that James was coming to Stockton. He asked my grandma if he could go, and she wouldn't let him. There were still race riots going on at the time. I saw him crying around the corner of the house. He was that crushed. He could dance just like him and also would practice drums for hours by playing along to the records. He said that he could never figure out the beats to some of the songs. Then he saw the live show in the mid-70's and was shocked to find out he had two drummers and a conga player.
His music is one of the big reasons why the Dance Party ever got started. Through the 90's, many people were really getting into rave culture. An ex-homie from the nieghborhood who was dealing big chunks of crystal-meth, played me this techno song called "James Brown Is Dead". It sounded like a cheap piece of shit anthem for rave culture, fast, cold and mechanical, totally devoid of any soul or warmth. This is the wave of the future? People like to dance to this shit? Right then and there I decided that: 1.meth must be a fucked up drug and 2.I hate rave music of any kind. This is around the same time that I would crash parties and slowly glom over the stereo and pop in J.B.'s "Jungle Groove" cassette. Sometimes the host of the party would object, then chill the fuck out when they saw people dancing.
Seven years later my brother Mike called me from a New Years party that some punks were having in a basement near 26th & G st. He said they were playing cheesy eighties 45's like Billy Idol & Duran Duran, he wanted me to bring some funk records over. I show up, play "Jungle Groove" and the place went wild. One of the Kanelos sisters was there and gave me a Sunday gig at Old Ironsides and I've been dj'ing full time ever since.
Larry Rodriguez (flower vato)
 
Larry- Of course meth is fucked up and of course "Jungle Groove" beats "cheesy eighties" at a party, but listen to yourself, saying the same things about rave music as was said at the time about punk and about funk before that. For what it's worth, L.A. Style's "James Brown Is Dead" was a novelty song, a joke within its time and place. At the time, the new Detroit soul, techno, was undergoing a bleak but necessary transformation, bastardized and some would say ruined by drug-addled Europeans who wanted it harder, rawer, noisier, darker, and stripped of all but the most basic trappings of "acceptable" dance music. Sound familiar? It was the punk of its day, of sorts. It was supposed to suck and be offensive. It was supposed to have not the slightest bit of nuance. You, and all who had grown complacent with what dance music "should" sound like, were supposed to hate it. Yet it was the freshest thing going, and people just had to dance to it during its 5 minutes in the sun. There were reactions to this sound within the scene, of course: a roots movement harkened back to a golden age, a progressive movement reintroduced musicality and sophistication, a pop movement latched onto the cheese factor and took it to new heights, and an underground black movement combined the hard edge with ever more creatively arranged funk and soul percussion samples to spawn a dozen new genres... and there were those who still wanted it harder, faster, even more aggressive and deplorable, as well. Pop music, dance music, rock'n'roll ... it goes in cycles. When it's getting too fast, it slows down. When it's getting too musical, it gets rough around the edges. When it gets too complex, the fresh sound is what's stripped down. The next big thing is always either a 90 or 180 degree turn from where you just were, and sometimes it's not what you want to hear at all; c'est la vie.
 
"You, and all who had grown complacent with what dance music "should" sound like, were supposed to hate it."

I may have hated the genre, but I didn't "have a complacent view on what dance music should sound like".
10 years prior to the "J.B.I.D." song, I was blasting shit out the boombox like: "Numbers" by Kraftwerk, Hip Hop Be-Bop (don't stop) by Man Parrish, "Scorpio" by Grandmaster Flash, "Clear" by Cybotron, "Body Mechanic" by the Quadrant Six, "Rockit" by Hebie Hancock, etc. These tunes were very fresh and new to us and indeed we embraced these songs and literally danced in the streets to them. They were mostly good for popping and breaking but not for regular dancing.

Also around '82 I found KDVS, which exposed me to music by Throbbing Gristle, Eric Random, Cabaret Voltaire, S.P.K., Severed Heads, Neu!, Section 25, early Human League and A Certain Ratio. These bands were doing things I've never heard before, some danceable, some entirely not, but each band had their own distinctive voice. Listening to one of their records was like exploring a brand new world.

Techno was not new when the J.B.I.D. song came out and I just didn't find the song all that impressive. The few people that I knew who embraced it (rave music), I considered to have shitty musical taste prior to the rave movement, as they did me.
Also funk was not considered cool or hip at the time, especially James Brown. People were having parties featuring disco or house music, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack being the cliche'd favorite. That was the case at a lot of parties that I crashed. As a matter of fact, when I first started the Dance Party, that's all people wanted to hear (now it's hip-hop).

Working at strip clubs for eight years, I've grown to like some house, trance & drum bass. Some of it is very psychedelic and actually pleasant to listen to, though I would never listen to it on my own.

Who am I speaking to? Is that you Mike Grosse?

Larry
 
Total Hippie Bullshit.
 
This is a big mess and I think everyone should just back off and think "What Would James Brown Want"? A lot has been said and shown
like the great coverage of the Funerals like http://JamesBrowns.com where you can download a personal version and print from the PDF file a copy of the Services program both family and public and links to site like Tomi Rae personal blog site.

Now if the fight for Money would slow down and the lawyers be pushed back from the table a bit..everyone will do what James wanted. That was to take care of his family ALL OF IT.

Posted by: TomiBrown | January 20, 2007 at 10:09 PM
 
you rock you always speak the truth.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11
 
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