He was ‘The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz’. He was ‘The Godfather Of Soul’, ‘Soul Brother No.1’, ‘The Minister Of The New Super Heavy Funk’. These sobriquets, applied to any other artist, would seem nothing more than a gargantuan, ego-driven case of self-aggrandisement. Applied to James Brown, on the other hand, and they merely hint at the protracted, convoluted legend that he most definitely was.
Born in 1933 to a dirt-poor family in South Carolina, and raised at his Aunt’s brothel (where he amused himself by picking up piano, drums and guitar) James Brown’s importance to the course of black popular music (and, by implication: popular music as a whole) simply cannot be underestimated. From his origins in the gospel bands of Bobby Byrd, to his status as a founding father of Hip-Hop, Brown’s influence is so ingrained, so ubiquitous, that one could be forgiven for overlooking his radical innovations; so obvious are his achievements that they scarcely seem worth mentioning at all. His death on Christmas day 2006 from heart failure, however, gives us a chance to take stock; to weigh up the achievements of this fiery, contradictory man.
After spells as an amateur boxer (from where he appropriated both the cloak-over-the-shoulder theatrics and his distinctly pugilistic approach to music), Brown ended up in reform school, doing time for robbery. There he was spotted by Bobby Bland, who appealed to the governor to release him so he could pursue his nascent singing career by joining Bland’s Gospel Starlighters as lead singer. Following the lead of a number of gospel bands from the time, they soon began to turn away from the church by singing secular R&B. They changed their name a couple of times before coming to fame as the Famous Flames, who quickly built up a reputation as the toughest, rawest soul review in town, capable of whipping their audiences up into a frenzied abandon.
Brown was from the streets. He was tough. He had to fight his way out of the ghetto. And he was not in a hurry to let anybody forget it.His music reflected this. The show-stopping ‘Please, Please, Please’, their first hit, while outwardly sounding much like your typical gospel-driven soul-scorcher from the period, inwardly contained a raw, propulsive rhythmic throb that’s as tough as a bull’s snort, a clear indication of the direction he was subsequently to take. Brown himself became such a crowd puller that they soon changed their name to James Brown and The Famous Flames.
In 1962 he self-financed a live album intending to capture his band at the peak of their powers. After the release of ‘James Brown Live At The Apollo Vol.1’ (which many still consider to be the finest live album ever recorded) his reputation was assured. Had he stopped there, we would still be using his name with the hushed reverence reserved for those other 60s soul giants whose influence transcends barriers of genre or race: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye. But, of course, he didn’t stop.
Instead Brown – a ruthless disciplinarian who already had a reputation as a demanding band-leader – commanded his musicians like a drill-sergeant, notoriously fining them on the spot at their shows if they missed a beat, or dropped a bum note. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) his band became a fertile recruiting ground for many of the most famous funk musicians of the 60s and 70s: Fred Wesley, Maceo and Melvin Parker, Bootsy Collins. Nurturing young talent to fruition in the same way as Miles Davis would. Not that he was any less strict on himself, those who witnessed spoke of a performer giving nothing less than 110% at all times. Anyone who has seen footage of his act during his 60s and 70s prime can attest to the fact this is a dancer whose feet could rival Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. Only Brown being intense where they were serene.
By the time of the groundbreaking ‘Cold Sweat’ in ’65, he and his band had all but turned soul music on its head. Let me explain: like most western music at the time, soul music was generally composed ‘top down’ that is, starting primarily from a melodic or harmonic idea, then fleshed out by building an arrangement around them. Brown’s innovation was to reverse this, literally ‘bottom up’ composition, that is, from a rhythmic base upwards. Nowadays almost all popular music is composed in this way, but in 1965 this was nothing short of revolutionary. His music took ‘the groove’ as its primary ingredient. He began ruthlessly stripping away all harmonic and melodic components of his bag, locking down the rhythm with fat cyclical drum patterns, pumping melodic bass lines, horns, organ, and chicken-scratch guitar that were all employed to accentuate the rhythm. From this base he galvanised the syncopated, polyrhythmic backbone of ‘funk’. Even his vocals evolved in this way, turning from a Solomon Burke-like guttural soul cry, to a series of yells, grunts, squeals and screams. Not only that, his favoured rhythmic devise was what funk aficionados refer to as ‘the one’. Whereas convention would have you stressing the second, up swing of the bar (as in one-TWO-three-four), Brown placed his good foot on the first, down beat of the bar (as in ONE-two-three-four). The results are spectacular, and still palpably intense even now.
Nothing if not prolific, Brown continued to innovate and refine his model throughout the 60s and 70s, boasting, “I’ve outdone anyone you could name – Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Strauss. Irvin Berlin, he wrote 1,001 tunes. I wrote 5000”. His high-profile and icon status also meant he reflected and mirrored the rise of both the civil rights movement and ‘black power’. Although not an overtly political musician, it was Brown who fearlessly took to the stage in Boston the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination, urging calm among his people when tensions were at boiling point; it was Brown who, in 1968, sang ‘Say It Loud: I’m Black And I’m Proud’. It was Brown too, who went to Vietnam to entertain black troops. By the end of the 60s inner cities were being systematically decimated by riots, drugs, assassination and the Vietnam war, and black consciousness was torn between the King’s peaceful integration, Malcolm X’s radical separatism and the Black Panthers’ militant agenda. Brown himself was content to preach what he termed ‘Green Power’, a kind of black capitalist emancipation, he himself starting several businesses and encouraging impoverished blacks to work hard, save hard and do the same.
During the 80s the hits dried up for Brown, and his personal life was damaged by drugs, scandal and financial doldrums, but he kept on touring right up until his death. His presence was strong in other senses: by being a fundamental influence on key pop stars like Prince and Michael Jackson, and by being one of the Godfathers of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop has come a long way from its humble origins as a couple of records spun on Kool Herc’s turntables: it has become a global phenomenon which has a hegemonic hold on popular music and youth culture. It’s early years, however, were dominated by certain key samples by certain key artists such as Chic, Kraftwerk, and, again and again, James Brown. It is no exaggeration to say that James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time. The break beat from his ‘Funky Drummer’ for instance, has been used by hundreds of songs by hip-hop artists; house, techno, and drum and bass producers; even rock bands and singer songwriters. His music filters through the last twenty years of popular music like a virus.
A totemic artist. Like the Beatles, in the sense that his work not only perfectly encapsulates what was vital and exciting about the tumultuous changes coursing through the music and culture of his time, but also because he played a large part in driving those times forward into the future we now call home. His influence will only grow. To these ears at least, it feels as if we have lost an irreplaceable giant.