May 20th, 2013
Review: “The James Brown Reader: Fifty Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul“, edited by Nelson George and Alan Leeds
I bought this in search of interviews that could be illuminating on James Brown, but I really got a biography. This is a collection of articles, essays and interviews that were written on James Brown, Mr. Dynamite, The Hardest Working Man In Showbusiness, The Godfather of Soul (also abuser, tyrant and one of the most influential people ever, in popular music), ranging from the 1960s to the 2000s, displaying James Brown as the crooked, self-righteous, brilliant, crazy and very intelligent man that he was.
While James Brown is often described as a power-monger who controlled his bands with an iron fist, it’s a double-edged sword. Take, for instance, the incredibly important song named “Cold Sweat”. That syncopated rhythm paired with the horns, Brown’s way of singing and the fact that your ass won’t be able to stay still as you’re digesting it… Brown actually wrote all of that. And used musicians like Clyde Stubblefield to do it.
From the throat of Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, one of Brown’s former band leaders:
“James called me in his dressing room after a gig, said we were going to record soon and for me to have the band ready” [...] “He grunted the rhythm, a bass line, to me. I wrote the rhythm down on a piece of paper. There were no notes. I had to translate it.
James gave us a lot to go by. You got a musical palette from hearing him, from seeing his body movement and facial expression, seeing him dance and from being up there with the band, seeing the audience. So you get a picture of that, and you write it.”
“To be in the audience when James Brown commences the James Brown Show is to have felt oneself engulfed in a kind of feast of adoration and astonishment, a ritual invocation, one comparable, I’d imagine, to certain ceremonies known to the Mayan people, wherein a human person is radiantly costumed and then beheld in lieu of the appearence of a Sun God upon the Earth. For to see James Brown dance and sing, to see him lead his mighty band with the merest of glances and tiny flickers of signals from his hands; to see him offer himself to his audience to be adored and enraptured and ravished; to watch him tremble and suffer as he tears his screams and moans of lust, glory and regret from his sweat-drenched body — and is, thereupon, in the act of seeming mercy, draped in the cape of his infirmity; to see him recover and thrive — shrugging free of the cape — as he basks in the healing regard of an audience now melded into a single passionate body by the stroking and thrumming of his ceaseless cavalcade of impossibly danceable smash Number One hits, is not to see: It is to behold.”
And Brown wasn’t only a self-proclaimed sex machine, but a quotation machine, throwing off stuff all the time. For example:
“Soul is when a man do everything he can and come up second. Soul is when a man make a hundred dollars a week and it cost him a hundred and ten to live. Soul is when a man got to bear other people’s burdens. Soul is when a man is nothin’ because he’s black.”
“Don’t terrorize. Organize. Don’t burn. Give kids a chance to learn … The real answer to race problems in this country is education. Not burning and killing. Be ready. Be qualified. Own something. Be somebody. That’s Black Power.”
“I’m not hung up just on black, I’m hung up on right. There’s a lot of white kids out there that are really together. It’s tradition that we are fighting. We’re not fighting white, we are fighting tradition.”
The later is a quote from a statement made on national TV during the 1968 riots in Washington, DC, after the Martin Luther King assassination. Brown is often single-handedly credited for stopping the riots in Boston by delivering a broadcast concert and speaking out to people.
Another thing on freedom from the book:
He walked over and put an arm around a chubby white chick deejay. She, being emotional, started to blubber.
“We got to free up people until she and I have a chance. The man has the white woman and the black man uptight. She’s trapped in the home and I’m trapped in the field. We’re going to break loose. Until a black man and a white girl can walk in here and nobody thinks about it, we’re in trouble.”
As Brown’s empire grew – e.g. he bought the house that he once was shining shoes in front of, a restaurant and three radio stations – he made larger and more boastful claims by the minute. Those claims often rang true, but towards the end of his life he was seen more and more as a weird man, which often was a correct assumption. For instance:
Brown rates his work with the greatest American musical innovations of the 20th century. He maintains that his music has been so far ahead of its time that he had no choice but to restrict the complexity of the compositions and arrangements. Otherwise, James says, we never could have understood it.
And he made songs like “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” at a time where there was nothing like it.
In the radiant article named “Papa Takes Some Mess” by Pat Kelly, written in 1975, it’s obvious what a tyrant Brown is, and how little he is revered by his musicians, who follow his every single move and were fined by Brown for things, like missing one of Brown’s signals during a show, or showing up late.
The highly personal essay named “James Brown Meets the Nine Nobles” by Ron Courtney, written in 1986, is one of the best pieces in this anthology, describing how Ron’s life was changed by hearing James Brown.
King Records released the “James Brown Live At The Apollo” LP and our lives suddenly acquired purpose and meaning!
Heading into the 1980s, the articles turn more into the weird, from the incident where Brown reportedly threatened an entire company with a shotgun while accusing them of using his private bathroom to his troubles with the IRS and his conviction of abuse against several of his wives.
“Havin’ that IRS problem kept me from having other problems. Because if they see you owe money, other people don’t sue you.”
“He scoffed at allogations that he was high on PCP at the time of his arrest–”Not in my life,” he said of hard drugs in general–but then he added, “Well, I wouldn’t say as I did buy PCP. It might’ve been in the marijuana. And, if it was, I sure wish I had some more.”
There are no computers in the offices of James Brown Enterprises. “He’s got this strange notion that they can see back at you,” Maria Moon, one of his staffers, explained.” [...] Mr. Brown put it slightly differently: “I don’t want computers coming feeding direct off of me, ’cause I know what I got to tell a computer that it ain’t got in there, and I don’t want to. If the government would want me to be heading up the computer people, I would give ‘em a basic idea what we should put in a computer — not just basic things, you know, but things that will be helpful in the future. We don’t have that, but I could tell ‘em a lot of things.” He didn’t elaborate, but he told me that on several occasions, while watching television news, he had foreseen the deaths of people on the screen.
The article where Fred Daviss, Brown’s business manager for 16 years, recalls Brown’s visit to Graceland a day following the death of Elvis Presley and how Brown told Daviss to touch Elvis’ corpse because “then it won’t bother you no more”, and how Daviss saw Brown touch Elvis’ dead body and said “Elvis, you rat. You rat.” – Later, Davis was the one touching Brown’s corpse, saying a similar thing.
Alan Leeds’ finishing essay on the death of James Brown, including his legacy and a few final words is quite beautiful, summarising most of what people have prior said about Brown.
All in all, this book is definitely one of the best anthologies based on interview articles that I have read, and it goes to show Brown as a human being, an exceptional one at that, in a variety of fields. His legacy goes on and on, as Brown’s accomplishments will forever enthrall and amaze.