“We have this idea in America that pedigree doesn’t matter. Never mind your ma and pa, set your own sights, and you are what you make of what God made you—that’s the idea. The ancestors held its truth to be self-evident, but we have come to call it our dream, and it follows that our inclination to be entertained by success, to be inspired by excellence and enterprise, and to heroize genius increases in direct proportion to the inauspiciousness of an achiever’s origins. So it should probably come as no surprise that the man who is very likely better known to more of the world by more fabulous titles than any other American was not only born dirt-poor and black (with a heavy dose of American Indian blood) at the height of the Great Depression, in the depths of the Jim Crow South, but also claims to have been born dead.”
-Philip Gourevitch (Author of Mr. Brown)
“What I like about Elvis is the same thing I like about James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince. These guys, back in the day, there was no smoke and mirrors. It was just raw talent. They would step out onstage and command an audience. Talk about awesome.”
“When I first played New York, it was with James Brown at the Apollo, and I was playing in a band under the name The Valentinos. I remember Sam Cooke saying, ‘I want you to go in there with James Brown. I couldn’t be as hard on you as James Brown would be.’ But we came out marching like soldiers.”
James Joe Brown Jr. came into this world on May 3, 1933, in a one-room shack in the woods of Barnwell, South Carolina, a few miles east of the Georgia border. His parents split when he was very young, and at the age of 4, Brown was sent to Augusta, Georgia, to live with his Aunt Honey, the madam of a brothel. Growing up in abject poverty, young Brown worked whatever odd jobs he could find, for literal pennies. He danced for the soldiers at nearby Fort Gordon, picked cotton, washed cars, and shined shoes.
As JB would recollect, “I started shining shoes at 3 cents, then went up to 5 cents, then 6 cents. I never did get up to a dime. I was 9 years old before I got a pair of underwear from a real store; all my clothes were made from sacks and things like that. But I knew I had to make it. I had the determination to go on, and my determination was to be somebody.”
Dismissed from school at the age of 12 for “insufficient clothing,” young James turned to the church for training and a more structured life. He sang in the church choir, where he developed his powerful and uniquely emotive voice. He would use that gift the world over.
The Legend Made Clear!
I never completly understood the legendary awe that James Brown inspired until I was seated in the (Jacksonville) Beaches Theatre back in the day to watch the newly released feature movie, The T.A.M.I. Show. The place, as expected for an unveiling of this magnitude, was packed. The show was the result of a planetary musical revolution that was beginning to take place, mostly in the western world. So, anyway, here we are seated in the dark theater watching the various acts doing their thing live on stage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Jan and Dean were the hosts and the talent was extraordinary: Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Leslie Gore, The Rolling Stones, and countless others. But the man who stole the show was the charged up shaman named James Brown.
Let me take it to the bridge. I’ve written about the T.A.M.I. Show in another blog. And, unless you’ve been living on an island in the South Seas sans communications, you’ve probably heard of The Hardest Working Man In Show Business. JB’s influence and impact has been chronicled and chronicled again. My point is, watching James Brown that afternoon changed my life. Before that afternoon I didn’t know a human being could move like that. The man continued to sing while doing splits. JB did a spot on impersonation of a Pentecostal preacher doing a vaudeville act. Oh yea, he drove the mostly white suburban audience of screaming teenage girls into a sure-fire frenzy that personified the times so well. Yes, thanks to James Brown, I now “get on the good foot” and eventually the floor wherever the spirit moves me.
Please, Please, Please See the Show
Now, it’s 2020, and the world is upside down. It’s Superman’s bizarro world come to real life. Given the events of this year, you’ve probably thought you’ve seen it all. Well, unless you’ve seen JB’s T.A.M.I. performance, which is 18 minutes of pure raw sexual energy, you haven’t, not by a long shot. So, if you want to experience a pure jolt of electricity, get your mitts on the T.AM.I Show and enjoy the entire damn thing. The Godfather of Soul will dazzle, mesmerize, and amaze you. This shouting, super-talented Bantam rooster cannot be contained. You see there’s passion, soul, and then there’s James Brown when he’s determined to bring the house down.
The First Father of Funk.
According to those who know, funk originated with James Brown’s development of a signature groove that emphasized the downbeat—with heavy emphasis on the first beat of every measure (“The One”), and the application of swung 16th notes and syncopation on all bass lines, drum patterns, and guitar riffs. Other musical groups, including Sly and the Family Stone, The Meters, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Rufus, soon began to adopt and develop Brown’s innovations.
So it came to be that Funk was born over 51 years ago, on 25 April 1970 at Starday King Studio, Cincinnati. The funky tune that changed the face of music forever, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, nowadays so familiar to teenagers, octogenarians, and everyone in between, has to be the most played dance record in history.
Having been sampled more than 5,200 times, James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time. Hell, “Funky Drummer” and its beat (created by Clyde Stubblefield) has been used some 1,584 times by, well, a whole lot of folks.
No Disco (We can debate that all through the years)
No Sly and the Family Stone,
No The Meters
No Michael Jackson as a dancer
No Talking Heads Stop Making Sense
No Hip-Hop as it’s known now.
Maybe no break dancing
I’ll close with two links. One is to a terrific video starring Clive Owen, Gary Oldman, Marylin Manson, and, of course, James Brown!
The other is to the T.A.M.I. show on YouTube