When some senior celebrities die, it’s a surprise because … well honestly, we thought they were already dead. Then there’s the “Godfather of Soul.” “Mr. Dynamite.” “Soul Brother Number One.” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” James Brown was both an artist and a man so iconic and full of, well, life, he seemed beyond its inevitable end. And so news of his passing at age 73, on Christmas Day no less, is as great a shock as it is a loss.
The inspiration for the 1982 Tom Tom Club hit, “Genius of Love,” Brown experimented with rhythm & blues, gospel and jazz to become the defining voice of soul and funk. Indelible hits such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like A) Sex Machine” and “Hot Pants,” cement Brown’s signature shouts and percussive vocal style in the pop culture lexicon. Most modern music echoes Brown’s unmistakable influence, including disco, rock, jazz, reggae, house music and hip-hop. There would be no Justin Timberlake, it can be argued, if not for James Brown.
As gifted and influential as he was, perhaps one of Brown’s most amazing feats is how he rose from poverty to success largely by sheer force of will. Brown remains one of the few performers on the 1950s black musician “Chitlin Circuit” who is lavishly recognized for his talent and accomplishments. Among the first inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Brown’s numerous awards also include Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Grammy and Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards. There’s also a seven-foot bronze James Brown statue in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia — the same city from which he was banished decades earlier after serving several years in a juvenile detention center.
Consummate performer, stern taskmaster
Ironically perhaps, it was Brown’s first major brush with the law that led to his music career. It was in detention that Brown met longtime partner Bobby Byrd, eventually joining Byrd’s R&B band, the Famous Flames. Ceaselessly touring the South, the band achieved notoriety with minor hits such as “Please Please Please” and “Try Me.” But it was Brown’s electric performance style, which he maintained throughout his career, that skyrocketed the band to fame.
By this time, Brown also took control of the band. As well as leading musical direction, Brown notoriously imposed strict rules, including monetary fines for musicians who made even the slightest mistake during a performance. (Perhaps influencing Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen who also imposed similar penalties on the E Street Band.) Many of Brown’s band members predictably walked out, only to return later, eventually forming Brown’s most well known band, the J.B.s. Perhaps they decided that Brown’s talent and drive were worth his draconian nonsense.
It was during the ’60s and early ’70s that Brown created his most influential work, including “I Got the Feelin,’” “Licking Stick-Licking Stick” and “Funky Drummer.” Brown also scored the 1973 blaxploitation film “Black Caesar.” His solid horn and guitar arrangements were copied by Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament. Jazz great Miles Davis even cited Brown as an influence. And according to pop music legend, Brown’s 1969 song “Funky Drummer” is said to be the most sampled tune ever, featured in songs by dozens of artists from hip-hop to rock, including NWA, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, TLC , Mobb Deep and Sinead O’Conner.
Brown was also a social activist, and as his awareness expanded, so did his lyrics in “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself)” (1970). Such songs delivered during the civil rights movement decreased Brown’s white audience at the time, and limited play on many radio stations, but obviously didn’t damage his fan base in the long run.
Template for stardom
Beyond his far-reaching musical influence, Brown led an often-tumultuous life that also became a template for what it means to be a rock star. He continued to have trouble with the law well into his senior years, including arrests for drug possession as well as domestic abuse. His 1988 arrest following a high-speed car chase in Augusta, Georgia was ripe for satire, even though he ended up serving three years of a six-year sentence for using PCP and threatening bystanders with a gun.
For an artist with a career as long as Brown’s, but with no blockbuster bio pick like contemporary Ray Charles, it’s easy to forget how important that career has been, especially when it’s someone as quirky and as easy to caricature as Brown. Comedians from Eddie Murphy to Aries Spears have well-worn impersonations of Brown’s effusive singing, smooth dance moves and often-unintelligible speech. These spot-on depictions were only upstaged by Brown himself — his frequent appearances on “The Howard Stern” show often required his wife or assistant to act as translator.
And for the younger and/or musically ignorant, it’s easy to never know. Case in point: Back in the ’80s, a James Brown concert review, seemingly written by neophyte music journalist, raved about the performer’s resistance to leave the stage. The review described how at the end of the show, an assistant repeatedly attempted to place a gold lame cape around the exhausted singer, who was drenched in sweat. Each time, it seemed, Brown was too exhausted to sing another note, and was ready to be escorted from the stage. But then he would leap to his feet, tossing the cape away and re-launching into the number as if suddenly renewed.
Anyone lucky enough to see Mr. James Brown in concert, or attentive enough to watch him every time he came on TV, knows that this was his shtick. He’d been doing the cape act for decades. He remained, after all, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”
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