James Brown was a giant, and in my opinion one of the four of five pillars of modern sound. One cannot imagine contemporary popular music without the influence of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He created funk and was the concrete foundation for Hip-Hop. Brown and his band pushed rock and roll into the churches, brought it back out, crafted R&B into disco and then turned around and made it funky again. When he took leave of us this Christmas, his legacy remained present in virtually every Billboard chart topper.
In the summer of 2003 James Brown left behind the high priced Casino’s and European tours and decided to play a few festivals, to a fan base that (for the majority) would have never seen him otherwise. Yet these fans were passionate about music and while most weren’t born when Soulbrother #1 was topping the charts, they grew up with his sound woven into the musical world around them. While his Bonnaroo performance was not up to the Sex Machine’s standards, his outing a few months later at the Gathering of the Vibes in Mariaville, NY was dynamite. It was this opportunity to catch the aging master that I will remember forever.
Throughout all of my phases with music while growing up, James Brown was there. From my father listening to soul on his eight track, during the Purple One’s early eighties dominance, then discovering what songs Public Enemy were distorting to fuel the hip-hop revolution, James was there. The popping bass lines that defined my youth of Les and Flea flowed back to Bootsy, who spaced bass for Brown. The man was always there.
Great artists transcend their craft and Brown was no exception, evolving into a persona beyond his music. I can’t even fathom his importance when in 1968 James Brown spoke from the Boston Garden stage, for and to a community still in shock over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. less than 24 hours before, calming a volatile city and providing a release for raw emotion. This man was bigger than music, but music is where his complex nature achieved genius stature.
His life had it’s down moments, such as his domestic abuse and tax evasion, both of which landed him in jail, along with his sporadic drug use and his notorious mug shot which is perhaps how some of the myspace generation know him best; however, when it came to the pure music he never half-stepped, cause poppa don’t take no mess. Which brings me back to the rainy night in July 2003.
Under the night sky the rain couldn’t dampen my mood, as James was carted to the stage so his break-dancing-blue shoes wouldn’t touch the mud. He was special all right, he topped my personal list of musicians who I needed to see live before one of us passed on, and now while his band worked up the crowd, the moment I so waited for was arriving, Ladies and Gentleman, it was Star-Time! Let the dancing being…not his, mine. From the moment he came out I was a frenzy, the man could make paraplegic jump up and kiss himself, he is funky and he is superbad. When his obscenely tight band broke the funk for God Bless America it fit…when he brought out his current girlfriend to sing for a spell it worked…the man was on, and the Soul Power was flowing. I danced till I almost cried. His power was in his songs, in his band, in his music, in the air, everywhere.
After the show I heard some people complain that James’s set was “Too Showy”, and I had to refrain from a physical assault. THIS IS THE GODFATHER OF SOUL!!! Nothing could be too over the top. By all rights, James should arrive on stage via a diamond boat floating on a river of Dom Perignon with a harem brushing his hair while a choir of angels comprise a melody of “Hot Pants/Say It Loud/I Got You/Get Up Offa of That Thang” on harps and golden voices, and seeing how this planet just got much less funky …I imagine that that is exactly how James Brown made his entrance to St. Peter this Christmas morning.