If you haven’t got soul you wouldn’t be here. So please fill your glasses and let’s hear it one more time for Mr. James Brown. All the way from Georgia, boy, the boy with the bucket (you know he did, but he shouldn’t oughta took it) to the world renowned Godfather Of Soul. Mr. Dynamite, Mister Please, Please, Please himself, as of this writing, 70 years young, 50 years on from his show business debut, still out there like a tornado in your garden party.
James Brown is not the only African-American entertainer of estimable vintage still able to wreck the house. There’s B.B. King, Ray Charles, Little Richard; and groups of amazing longevity like The Dells, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight & The Pips. But none has such a profound and prolonged influence as James Brown. Nor, at their peak, such persistent firepower: he was on the U.S. Billboard R&B charts for 20 years running. None exploded from the stage into national focus the way he did. And lest we forget, there have been countless examples to remind us that the self-proclaimed “Hardest Working Man In Show Business” became the Hardest Worked Sample.
James Brown didn’t set out to be a maverick. All he ever wanted was to be accepted on equal terms in the land of milk and honey. Truth be known, he’d have probably liked to be Frank Sinatra in an alternate universe (and maybe he is). In the real world he worked himself and everyone him to unprecedented cathartic intensity in his quest to be Somebody. What repercussions that had. Music the like of which had never been heard before and reverberates to the present day. A career that took him from a whorehouse to The White House and put him on the frontline of U.S. social upheaval. A career that later went awry for awhile but is now recognized worldwide for what it is truly worth: A formidable body of work from a formidable man.
James Brown’s biography has been told many times. But it’s worth restating that he was born –actually stillborn, until he was whacked into life – in a shack in the woods outside Barnwell, South Carolina, on May 3, 1933. Brown grew up to call nearby Augusta, Georgia, his hometown without enjoying a parental home. He was an underprivileged waif in a segregated society with sporadic formal education, but plenty of street smarts. Though enthralled by music, he devoted time to hustling; sports, which was curtailed by an injury; and petty theft, nipped in the bud by teenage arrest and imprisonment.
Paroled upstate in Toccoa, GA, in June 1952, Brown focused on music with sponsors, the locally respected Byrd family. He sang gospel with Sarah Byrd before hitting the R&B trail with her brother, Bobby Byrd’s group. Thus began a 30-year musical partnership. After many local adventures under various aliases and personnel changes, their first professional recording, “Please, Please, Please,” on Cincinnati, Ohio-based King Records, was credited to JAMES BROWN with The Famous Flames.
Persistent sales throughout the southern U.S.A. and other territories made “Please, Please, Please” a bona fide million-seller. But two years and nine flop follow-ups later, James Brown was still playing the boondocks, the original Flames had left him and King was about to let him go. A last chance session in late 1958, his first in New York, proved to be his salvation. “Try Me” hit U.S. R&B No. 1, Pop Top 50, and went gold in short order.
Until then, James Brown had relied on session musicians for recording. The success of “Try Me” gave him priority with Universal Attractions, a national booking agency, a mentor with its owner, Ben Bart, much broader exposure, and, crucially, his first cohesive band, at first a quintet led by tenor saxman J.C. Davis. He now faced a wider world with fuel to go.
This was not just the emergence of an extraordinary entertainer with whirling showmanship and increasing social relevance. Brown’s expanding vision and unrelenting ego made him one of the great, autocratic bandleaders of the 20th century. In essence, he became the lead instrument – the astounding focus and motivator of evolving ensembles that blew everybody else away as they blasted into uncharted musical territory. With few notable exceptions, including “Prisoner Of Love” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” the vast majority of Brown’s blockbusters erupted live in the studio with his own musicians, extemporized in the heat of the moment, off the back of a groove, from the barest of performed ideas. This was the complete antithesis of the way groups like The Beatles and the Beach Boys began to take pop-rock into multi-layered musical fantasies. This was raw soul, as it happened.
By the time of his historic Live At The Apollo recording in October 1962, Brown’s original feisty little band had expanded to a dozen or so tightly synchronized players led by trumpeter Lewis Hamlin. In 1964, under his own Fair Deal Production Company umbrella, Brown then revamped his music makers into a big band, taking on board young wannabe jazzers like arranger/director Nat Jones (sax, keyboards) and the Parker Brothers, Maceo (sax) and Melvin (drums), in tandem with more experienced blues and R&B players Jimmy Nolen and Alphonso Kellum (guitars) and John “Jabo” Starks (drums).
This was now a mightily swinging outfit. But when Jones quit in January 1967, and Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis (sax, keyboards) moved up the ranks to supersede him, ooowee! “Cold Sweat” introduced a funk future that made them like no other band in the land. As drummer Clyde Stubberfield expressed it, “Man we used to cut, like Sherman tanks coming down the aisles.”
James Brown faced a crisis in early 1970: most of his tanks left him. Enter The Pacemakers, a wide-eyed group of young bloods featuring the Collins brothers, Phelps (guitar) and Bootsy (bass). Dubbed the J.B.’s, this original line-up didn’t run the course too long (“Sex Machine” through “Soul Power”) but during their year’s duty they re-energized an already astonishing career.
As old hands came back in the seventies, The J.B.’s became another of the Godfather’s powerhouse units, for several years under the direction of “Friendly Fred” Wesley (trombone), and prominently featuring Maceo Parker again. His return was celebrated in Fred Wesley & The J.B.’s own “Doing It To Death,” a lively, million-selling jam now known ’round the world as “Gonna Have A Funky Good Time” and still a part of Brown’s stage show. “Get Up Offa That Thing” and “It’s Too Funky In Here” re-energized his late seventies songbook, while periodic chart comebacks, like “Static,” his smash with disciples Full Force cut in the midst of the sampling madness, reminded the next generation who was still the Boss.
Polydor released a 40th Anniversary compilation tribute to Mister James Brown in 1996. The Man himself requested a re-calculation: he started singing professionally in 1953, after all; a record deal is merely one step on a long, tough road that starts with step one. “Hard work, living, breathing and cooking with the music, is what it takes,” says The Godfather.
Mr. Brown, we are forever grateful for it. Your music today is as vital as it was then.
— Cliff White, 2003
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