Published in The Brag, March 2004
James Brown, the man who brought us a whole new era of soul, redefining the very nature of modern music is…
A: Simply a musical genius – turn to story 1 ‘Sex Machine’
B: A man riddled with drug and assault related problems– turn to story 2 ‘It’s a man’s man’s world’.
story 1: Sex Machine
Fellas, I`m ready to
Get up and do my thing
I want to get into it Man,
you know Like a, like a
From a cotton picking, shoe shiner boy to the man who transformed popular music, James Brown is a musical legend. His journey has spanned over 50 years and earned him the status of The Godfather of Soul.
Bringing to music the funk that is in his bones, James Brown and his signature one three beat brought about an evolution in soul music. Back in 1965 Brown recorded ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, which displayed his unique blend of jazz, R&B and soul and gave rise to a whole new genre of music.
James Brown introduced funk into mainstream music and provided the foundation for the birth of disco in the 70s, and the rise of hip hop and rap in the 80s and 90s. It was James Brown, with his bouffant hair and stage hysteria, that gave us a funky beat.
Since 1958 and the release of the number 1 hit Try Me, James Brown has had a momentous recording career. In 1962 he recorded the self-funded Live at the Apollo, which did the seemingly impossible and climbed to number 2 on the R&B billboard charts. He has had over 119 charted singles and over 50 best selling albums.
But above and beyond his impressive musical resume, James Brown has been an important voice for making sure the struggle for black power has been heard. ‘Say it Loud, I’m black and I’m proud’ became a great anthem for black pride and empowerment. And ‘Unity’, recorded with Afrika Bambaata, expressed the sentiment of peace and harmony.
Although Brown feels that people should have listened closer to the message. “It (Unity) was a great move towards peace and better relationships and everybody should have taken heed,” says Brown. But at least, he tells me, the recording process was fun. “We had a great time! Afrika Bambaata and myself, we had a great time. He’s a fine young man and there’s a lot of love in his heart for people”.
And there’s a lot of love in Brown’s heart for dancing. As a performer he has been known to sweat off seven pounds in a night in a furious and funky state of gospel fervor. When he comes to Australia in April, Brown wants his audience to know that we too will sweat, sweat like we have never sweat under this ozone layer free sun before.
“What I want to see is them come so we can get funky and have a good time.” Brown tells me. “That’s what’s gonna happen. They’re not gonna perspire, they’re gonna sweat. Like cold sweat. Damn. Like souuuul power”.
Brown talks like he is on stage, grunting out a ‘dayum’ and giving some soul power down the phone line. It is a presence he has refined over 50 years as a musician and performer, in a career that has seen him awarded with more honors than most performers in music history.
And if there are any fears that at age 70 the sex machine is slowing down, Brown puts them at rest, by telling us that if we are coming to his shows, we better put our best foot forward.
“If your gonna have a good time then bring your dancin shoes cause we gonna get it on,” Brown says in a rolling voice. “I just know I’m on my way to Australia and I’m gonna have a good time”.
Before I hang up asks me to pass on one message. “Australia we love ya and we lookin forward. And tell all the people in Australia, I hope you live 200 years and I live 200 years and one day so I never have to know beautiful Australians have passed away”.
story 2: it’s a man’s man’s world
You see, man made the cars to take us over the road
Man made the trains to carry heavy loads
Man made electric light to take us out of the dark
Man made the boat for the water, like Noah made the ark
This is a man’s, a man’s, a man’s world
“I have guns and I’m going to keep having guns. Thank God it’s a free county,” James Brown told the Augusta Georgia Chronicle in 1998 after he had been charged for taking a few pot shots with his rifle while under the influence. He was then ordered into a rehab program for his apparent addiction to painkillers. Brown had reportedly become dependent on painkillers after injuring his back while attempting to do the splits on stage, age 64.
I can’t help but be reminded of this addiction when I interview Brown, a week after his latest arrest pushing his wife over into some broken glass. Another class act from Brown, which has cemented the ‘wife beater’ reputation he earned from his 10-year marriage to Adrienne Brown. James was arrested three times during this marriage for beating his wife.
When I talk to Brown on the phone I avoid wife-beating references and try and focus on music, but no matter what subject we are on, Brown’s voice sounds like he is on something else. From missed meanings to downright confusion, its not just the lead heavy shoe in his voice that makes me wonder what James Brown is on (about).
Me: Can you tell me about an intimate gig that you have played, a small show that has always been memorable?
James Brown: Leeds, England. We had 3 or 400 000 thousand people.
Me: I’m sorry, an intimate gig?
Me: Um, I meant a small gig
JB: That’s not a small gig. That’s a huge gig.
In 1962 James Brown performed another huge gig, seven shows at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. One of the shows was released as Live at the Apollo, funded by Brown himself because his record company refused to support him on it. Brown describes the Apollo venue as a place for everybody, “black, white, Chinese, Italian or Jew, it doesn’t matter. Its for us as people”.
Me: Did you intentionally choose to record and release the Apollo show because you saw that venue as a place for the people?
JB: I don’t understand you
Me: Well, when you choose the Apollo-
JB: (cutting in) They didn’t choose it, I chose it myself!
Me: Um, that’s right, but, did you choose it because everyone could go there not just the elite?
JB: Elite? Its not for the elite! It’s a place where everybody went, not the elite.
Me: Well, what about the music industry, do you think it has changed for the better or worse?
JB: Its changed for the worse because there’s no record companies. We gotta have some record companies.
Me: Are you talking about corporatisation…
JB: I just believe that corporations, stock markets and wars have made it a little complicated to finance albums …(mumbling)…..so I guess you got (mumbling)… music.
Well yes, we’ve got the music, not only of Mr. Brown, but also from the huge amount of artists that have sampled, sifted, reshaped and refashioned his work.
Me: You are one of the most highly sampled artists ever. All money issues aside, do you appreciate the work of sample based artists?
JB: I appreciate the work. I appreciate the fact that these are the people that give me my shot, and anytime I go around the world and do a great show and people show up, I love that, and Australia is one of the places I love.
Me: Um, OK, well, what about Hip-Hop. You have said that Hip Hop has to ‘go back to the instruments, they have to learn to play with feeling’-
JB: That’s right. They starting to do that now cause they realise that the computer stuff is not going to hold up.
Me: Do you think you could say that musicians making music with technology and computers are using a new kind of instrument?
JB: Is not an instrument at all
Me: Well, do you think that kind of music can be played with feeling?
JB: You don’t play it. You turn it on.
(I laugh, genuinely amused)
JB: Ah, I’m not gonna fight with ya…(mumbles)… ‘bout…system is doing…(mumbles)…just wanna come to see the show, and if you think computers are better, then umm, then, we gotta…(mumbles, trails off)
Fight? With a man that was arrested for drug abuse five times in a period of ten months, that has repeatedly assaulted women and was once involved in an interstate car chase with police after allegedly wielding around a shotgun? I don’t think so.