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Arts and Culture

Ain’t It Funky

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Posted on Jun 7, 2012
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By Tim Riley

(Page 2)

Brown’s rough 1956 debut for King records was nothing but a sprawling, naked cry of lust, scornful of any decency or acceptability. It had a tantalizing effect on listeners, and King’s owner, Syd Nathan, seemed both repelled and enchanted by it. Smith sees Nathan as a complicated creative genius and civil rights trailblazer, the kind of businessman who ran an interracial company “with chili stains on his tie.” On his recording debut, Nathan cemented Brown’s indomitability: The label reframed the act as “James Brown with the Famous Flames.”

Brown’s life bounces atop the wildest showbiz stories imaginable. For long stretches, there’s a honker on every page. When Howlin’ Wolf saw the Flames do “Please Please Please,” he advised Brown that “if he wanted to keep on living in these clubs, he better stop crawling around looking up women’s dresses while he sang his song.”

One of his many wives, Betty Jean Newsome, reflected on how Brown abused both musicians and women:

“The Flames covered their eyes when he looked like he was gonna hit me. I told them don’t bother closing your eyes because HE the one that’s gonna be getting hit. I said, ‘What kind of men are you that you be so afraid of him?’ They were scared stiff. He used to hit them grown men? It was crazy, it was pitiful the way that he treated them. He was something, boy.”

And all through the many road stories, contract disputes, girlfriends, tyrannical punishments and sexual metaphors he handed out to his players over the years, Brown honed his sound. It was constantly changing yet increasingly personal and innovative, and it led to the enormous eruptions of soul into funk and funk into rap. Smith identifies key players in this story, drummers such as Clayton Fillyau (“Biggun”), John “Jabo” Starks and Clyde Stubblefield, and bassists such as Hubert Perry and Bootsy Collins.

Collins famously defected from Brown’s band in the early 1970s to join the eccentric George Clinton’s Parliament, and took the secrets of Brown’s rhythms to ignite the new glory: funk. Smith gives us this transition from Brown’s point of view: “That is how it worked. You could not copyright a beat, a smell, the One. You made it and then a younger man in an ass-length blond wig marked it up and made it new.”

Part of Brown’s genius lay in his bandleader role. As frontman, he was vocalist, dancer, arranger and orchestrator of everything he beheld, including his audience. Brown sang each individual part to every band member, and then counted down to see what would happen. He was as much a control freak as he was a free-jazz chance artist. On records like 1964’s “Out of Sight” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Brown nailed the new stylistic synthesis. On such tracks, Smith writes, Brown

“seemed to pull apart the elements of the band and scatter them around, making their relationships visible, like an exploded-view diagram. The bass was doing things it hadn’t done before in pop music, and was perhaps the most active part of either song. It was mobile and so low you had to move in to hear it—a sound carrying information you could only partly absorb. ... Stark and cinematic, the music created a new kind of space. It was survival rhapsodized as style—and as style it took off.”

book cover

 

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

 

RJ Smith

 

Gotham, 464 pages

 

Buy the book

Brown “imploded the air around him with a nod, as dominant at rest as he was with his marathon exertions,” Smith writes.

This power eventually consumed him. His final decades were a long, slow decline: a gnarly, erratic tour through angel dust, IRS disputes, domestic abuse charges and scary mug shots. And even this period features megalomaniac letters to presidents demanding tax forgiveness.

Brown never quite embraced Martin Luther King Jr., but he seemed to sense that his music’s symbolic power paralleled King’s agenda. “White folks, some young white folks, run AWAY from America,” Brown once said. “They ashamed. Black folks, they run all over, up North, everywhere, tryin’ to get INTO America.” Brown famously prevented Boston from dissolving into riots the night after King’s killing in 1968, when he performed live on television there at the mayor’s bidding.

Two years earlier, Brown had appeared at the King march that pulled into Jackson, Miss., on June 24, 1966. King noted the celebrities on the bill, which included Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr. and Marlon Brando. But when King saw James Brown’s name, he said simply, “I’m sorry, y’all. James Brown is on, I’m gone.”


NPR critic Tim Riley’s most recent book is “Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music—The Definitive Life.” He teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston and runs Rileyrockindex.com.


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