Tuesday, December 26, 2006

James Brown

As nearly everybody knows by now, James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul" and more-or-less the inventor of rap and hip-hop, passed away Monday morning at age 73.

Brown's career story is well-known to most fans of 60's and 70's pop and soul music. There were the early R&B hits, many receiving little airplay outside of southern R&B stations, and the years on the soul circuit. That era climaxed with the incredible Live At The Apollo disc. This period led to his mid-60's pop breakthrough, when songs like "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Cold Sweat" sold millions while outlining new frontiers in R&B music. In the 70's, songs like "Get On The Good Foot" and "The Payback" wrote the vocabulary for a new type of music, and provided a wealth of material for the hip-hop and rap artists of the next generation to sample. He enjoyed a comeback in the mid-80's with "Living In America", and suffered embarrassment at the end of the decade when he was sentenced to two years in prison for domestic violence charges. He was the "Hardest Working Man In Show Business" to the end, concluding his last tour this past summer.

The revolution Brown headed is described well by Dave Marsh in his entry on "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" in Marsh's The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made:

Skirting the edges of intelligibility, his voice quavering and shaking like a man with cosmic palsy, Brown declared a new order of rhythm and himself as its avatar. Or at least it's the only way that his expostulations about digging the new breed thing and his recital of every dance craze of the previous five years fit together with the percussive frenzy of drums, bass, razor-edge guitar, and blaring horns. The result is a beat chopped up into an infinity of bright, hard shards.

Each pierces the formula that was beginning to dominate soul music as it was pulled, like any other pop genre, toward more blandness than was good for it. Brown had helped perfect that formula, but with "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", he declared his refusal to live within its restrictions.

With the possible exception of Little Richard, no one has ever made a rock or rhythm and blues record this extreme. At a time when Motown had made comparatively ornate records seem the wave of the future, Brown posited the most radical alternative: a record so totally immersed in rhythm that you barely noticed ornamentation at all. No record before "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" sounded anything like it. No record since - certainly no dance record - has been unmarked by it. James Brown is entitled to every bit of his vanity, because in 1965, he invented the rhythmic future in which we live today.

James Brown was always at least two steps ahead of his audience. He recorded 89 singles which made the Top 100, but only six made the pop Top 10, with "I Got You (I Feel Good)" placing the highest at #3. He had 15 singles top the R&B chart, but he far and away holds the record for most chart singles without a pop #1.

Nearly every soul, rap, and hip-hop artist to come along in Brown's wake owes a debt to him. Let the Godfather explain it to you himself:

Soul music is the music that with God's help I created. It never was before. See, soul music is not the blues. We may have some chords that might be used in the blues, but soul has a gospel overtone with jazz licks and no blues changes. Puttin' blues together has never been my thing, 'cause I thought blues was so limited, unless it was progressive blues, and progressive blues is jazz, see?

Also there are some things like "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World. That's something that could be done at the Metropolitan Opera. It's a classic, you know? Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Bach, Strauss, Mantovani, you know? And it's another type of music. Today, 80 percent of the music of the world has the licks of James Brown.


James Brown covered way too much ground to condense into one volume: his 20 All-Time Greatest Hits is a good starting point. His Live At The Apollo is also a must. Many critics consider it to be the greatest live rock and soul recording of all time.

BoingBoing (hat tip to Lambert) has links to several vintage Brown performances on video, including an interview recorded after he posted bail on the domestic assault charge in which he appears to be buzzed on something or other. It's either hilarious or pathetic, depending upon your perspective on such things. Unbelievably, his remarkable performance on The T.A.M.I. Show seems to be unavailable on DVD at this time. The T.A.M.I. Show was a 1965 concert film featuring many top acts of the day, from Chuck Berry to the Supremes to the Rolling Stones. If it's out there somewhere, or if you get a chance to see it, don't pass it up.