Tuesday, July 18, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 027: James Brown: Star Time

James Brown changed the sound of American music. He revived dance as the defining premise of American black music. His band served as an essential “post-graduate” education for at least two generations of innovative black musicians. In the 1960s, he exemplified black entrepreneurship. Without him, P-Funk, Michael Jackson, and Prince would not exist as we know them. I would submit that JB is probably the most influential black musician between Duke Ellington and George Clinton—with both of whom he shares key traits. All three understood that black music was about dancing rather than sitting, about tone rather than technique, about groove rather than complexity, about the collective sound rather than the individual voice, and that it was all about expanding the parameters of black identity.

James grew up in the South at a time when there were not many opportunities available to poor blacks; when, to quote the old saw, music (and sports and crime) was one of the only ways out of the ghetto. By the age of 5 he was dancing for tips in the streets of Augusta Georgia, forging a dance/music interplay that would be essential throughout his career (even more than Thelonious Monk or Charles Mingus, both of whom danced parts for their sidemen, James made his body his instrument). He tried crime and served time in a youth farm, he was a Golden Gloves boxer, but by the age of sixteen, he had met up with Bobby Byrd and formed the gospel group that would become the Famous Flames (for which he was originally drummer as well as vocalist).

In the mid-1950s, one part of the seismic explosion in American popular music was the importation or transformation of black sacred into black popular/secular styles. Many musicians came out of the church and brought gospel’s intensity with them—Sam Cooke, Al Green, the Five Royales, and many others—and Brown and Byrd did the same thing. By 1956 they’d recorded their first R&B hit (“Please Please Please”), despite the fact that King Records president Syd Nathan said “he sounds like an idiot—he ain’t singin’ but one word!”

This 4-disc set charts the development of James’s sound and the astonishing speed at which it evolved. From the down-home doo-wop of Please Please and Try Me to the blues shuffle of I’ll Go Crazy the Flames moved very quickly (within a couple of years and over the course of a single disc) toward a more rhythmic, improvisation, dance-oriented, and “visual” style. It seems a non sequitor to refer to an audio document as “visual,” but more than just about any other black artist, James’s records preeminently conveyed a sense of the danced visual spectacle for which they were the soundtrack, and a sense, to the listener, of being there (this would reach its apotheosis in 1962’s Live at the Apollo, the first LP-length live record, where James blows the roof off the temple of black pop music in Harlem). Night Train, a personal favorite, chants the names of crucial towns on the black chitlin’ circuit, and by I Got You and Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (1965), the band has moved on—they’re no longer playing R&B, doo-wop, blues, or gospel. Something else is happening, and that something has to do with the interaction between the astonishing rhythm sections, whose parts were as fine-tuned rhythmically as a Swiss watch or a West African percussion ensemble, and had about as much to do with Western music, the percussive horn parts of Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, St Clair Pickney, and the other horn players who, James’s own dancing and verbal exhortations, and the incredible, stop-on-a-dime-or-you’re-fined-five-dollars cuing discipline to which he subjected them. No other band was as tight as James’s; no other band toured as much (sometimes as much as 300 one-nighters a year) with as complete control (carrying their own crew, sound-system, hair- and wardrobe-staff). Nearly a decade before the Black Panthers’ experiments, James was already proving out the merits of black capitalism.

There’s too much to discuss in its entirety here. Throughout the late ’60, James would continue to speak up for black identity (though he was accused of Tomming by younger activists who came late to the party, and he did suck up to Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon), and the music would continue, not so much to evolve as to refine, becoming tighter and tighter, more and more precise, more and more telegraphic and telepathic. Just a few places to touch down, outside of the hits (Papa’s, I Got You, Cold Sweat, Say It Loud):

  • I Got the Feeling, where James virtually wills a new song into existence in the studio;
  • Give It Up or Turn It a-Loose, where James and Byrd anticipate the call-and-response of rappers like Chuck D/Flaver Flav 15 years before Public Enemy;
  • Mother Popcorn and Funky Drummer, without which hip-hop DJ’s wouldn’t have any samples to loop;
  • Soul Power, a virtual street manifesto which could have been chanted on the barricades of the revolution the Panthers sought but lost;
  • Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses), which proved that, even late in his career, the Godfather was still the baddest rapper on the block.

Back in the ‘90s, I played in an 8-piece horn band which was substantially too hip for the “college rock” crowds we played for—Juluka, the Neville Brothers, Weather Report, and David Lindley tunes jostling for space with the Beatles and Creedence covers. But at one stage we did put together an entire JB “mini-concert,” with about 12 of the classic tunes segued in a row from one to the next. Transcribing and re-arranging the horn and rhythm charts for that set was like a post-graduate education in how to play black music, and I wasn’t the only one: everyone from his sidemen (“Maceo!” Parker, Bootsy and Catfish Collins, Bernie Worrell, and many others) to MJ, Prince, Sly, and George Clinton went to the same university, which you can hear in their music and see in their stage shows.

Also in the ‘90s, James very sadly became mostly a caricature of himself, busted repeatedly for drugs, domestic violence, driving violations, or various cartoonish run-ins with the law. But this set (a fantastic value and an astonishingly good example of programming, selection, and sequencing), reminds us that, without James, American music would be a very different, much poorer world.

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