Vol. 1, Issue #25 Jan. 5th - Jan. 18th, 2007

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

The Strange Case of James Brown

The death of James Brown truly hurt. That leaves us with only a handful of the original masters who defined rock’n’roll, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Wanda Jackson. The Godfather of Soul might have taken a couple of extra months to bring about his part of the revolution, but it was just as profound as everyone else’s contribution, and with hip hop, it can still be felt even after his death. This week has given us an onslaught of stories about the death of President Gerald R. Ford, but we all know that Ford will be a footnote in history as the man who pardoned Richard Nixon while people will still be building statues to Soul Brother Number One for years to come.

The beauty of James Brown is that he was ragged and rough. At the age of sixteen he was imprisoned for armed robbery. In 1988, at the age of fifty-five, he took the Georgia police on a PCP fueled high-speed car chase that didn’t end until they shot out his tires – and I have no doubt that the inside of Brown’s pick-up cab during that chase was probably the most intense place you could have been during the 20th century. After that we were all convinced the man was indestructible.

Yet between all of the negativity and demons of his life, Brown was the man credited with keeping the lid on possible riots after the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King. If you can get your hands on a copy, the bootleg video of JB Live at the Boston Garden 4/5/68, recorded the day after King’s assassination, is one of the most intense concerts ever performed. At first there was a suggestion that the show should be canceled, but due to fears that the cancellation would start a riot, the show went on. Brown was at the height of his powers as a performer and coming into his own not only as a master or American music, but also as a voice of Black America. He opened the show with a double speed version of “Get it Together” with segues into “There was a Time,” where The Godfather’s feet do things than most of us mere mortals could never even conceive of doing. It even has the famous scene where he catches one of his men by surprise during a song change and points at him singing “I got you, you know it,” meaning the band member would probably have his pay docked for missing one of Brown’s directions.

The concert ended in disaster when people started coming up on stage to shake Brown’s hand and the white police force started shoving them back off the stage. Brown stops the show and invites people to come on stage, but too many join him and stop the show completely. Brown looses his temper and stars chiding them, saying, “That ain’t right, you’re all making me look bad.” They finally clear the stage enough for Brown to do his signature closing song “Please, Please, Please,” and the show ends rather abruptly.

Of course by 1968 Brown was already musical royalty; he had striped down R&B to a beat, one chord change, and a bucket-load of sweat and attitude, which is to say that he invented “funk.” By that point he was already a heavy influence of the new masters of soul who took their queue from him; Sly & The Family Stone, the Chamber Brothers, The Temptations, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, and many more. He had worked his way up from the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” (where the real talent in America was playing) and playing the head of the ski patrol in the beach-movie-on-ice “Ski Party” (1969) where he exists his cameo role dancing on one foot out the front door.

The career highlights are numerous. “Please, Please, Please” hit in 1956. The next year he had his first number one hit with the soulful “Try me.” In 1962 he recorded his famous “Live at the Apollo” album, which is generally still considered the greatest live performance ever caught on tape. In 1963 he released his epic masterpiece “Prisoner of Love,” where sweet strings were mixed with his yelps of soul. In 1965 alone he release “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good,)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” The man was knocking out classics like it was nothing.

In the early 1970s Bootsy Collins dropped acid and found himself standing outside of Brown’s recording studio. Brown walked out, asked him if he played an instrument, and hired him on the spot for his new band that would replace The Famous Flames. Bootsy was fired soon afterwards for having hallucinations on stage, but found work developing P-Funk with the great George Clinton (who had no problem with people hallucinating on his stage.)

Over the last quarter of a century Brown had less and less top singles. The 1980s saw the last of his masterpieces, which were actually collaborations, such as “Living in America” for “Rocky IV,” which was co-written and co-produced by Dan Hartman of The Edgar Winter Group, and “Unity” with Afrika Bambaataa.

Brown’s biggest problems in his later years came with fighting against people who sampled his beats, which led KLF to state on their record that Brown could keep his beat (as The Timelords on the single “Doctorin’ The Tardis”) and L.A. Style’s rave classic “James Brown is Dead.”

At the same time Brown was becoming a satire of himself, not only through Eddie Murphy’s famous “SNL” sketch “James Brown’s Hot Tub Party,” but Brown’s own appearances in films like “The Blues Brothers,” “The Tuxedo,” and “Undercover Brother.”

For all the jokes, grunting, exaggerations, and stylized performances it’s sometimes hard to remember what a profound influence Brown was on soul, R&B, jazz, rock, rap, disco, and nearly every other genre, but after all the hoopla, I highly recommend to anyone vaguely interested to investigate the catalogue of James Brown. He was the man that upstaged The Rolling tones on “The T.A.M.I. Show,” the bad mutha who created funk, and the go-to-man if you wanted to learn how to be a rock star. He was a true American original that will never be duplicated.


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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.