James Brown was of a generation of black men—mythological in many ways—who helped define the contours of freedom and possibility for black folk in the 20th century. They were the generation of “Soul Brothers”. Born shortly before and during the decade of the Great Depression, these men came to adulthood after World War II and had little choice than to be swept up in the whirlwinds of anticommunism and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. There was little question that these men were patriots—and in the best sense of the word—as they held American Democracy to the same standard at home and that it championed abroad. If Sam Cooke, shot dead before his prime, was the metaphor of possibility for this generation of black men, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), shot dead in their prime, were the very emblem of those possibilities fully realized, than James Brown was the bittersweet reminder that the men behind the mythologies rarely age with the grace that their iconography affords them.
As Soul Brother #1, the secular power of James Brown was palpable in every way to that of the King who was assassinated in Memphis and emboldened even more so after the King’s demise. It was Brown, remember, who was called to duty, as rioters were poised to tear the city of Boston to shreds in the days after Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s murder. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”—equally ripe for the discourses of Black Power and marketplace integration—resonated more powerfully than “We Shall Overcame” ever would for the watchful eyes of that soon to be post-Civil Rights Generation. But the humanity of the man—with its funky and messy flaws and frailties—could never sustain the myth, so much so that the image of the man who gave Black Power its soundtrack became a harsh reminder of its fractured legacy. And perhaps that’s the way it should be.
Born in Barnwell, South Carolina, in 1933 and raised in Augusta, Georgia, Brown epitomized the financial and political struggles of poor southern blacks in between the two World Wars. Brown’s arrest for armed robbery in 1948 turned fortuitous, as it led him to a lifelong friendship with Bobby Byrd. Their relationship would eventually lead to the founding of the Famous Flames, the band that would be the springboard for Brown’s early success. What made Brown appealing to so many was that he never forgot those youthful days in Augusta or those early struggles on the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, even as he ascended to the status of the “Godfather of Soul” in the mid-‘60s. James Brown was the “every man” counterpart to Aretha Franklin’s “round-the way-girl”—both as real as the wife beater, alcoholic, drug addict, unwed mother, and musical genius who was bound to live in any neighborhood in a still hyper-segregated Black America.
What also endeared Brown to his fans was his tremendous work ethic. Brown wasn’t called the “hardest working man” in show business for nothing, but that description extended far beyond the buckets of sweat that he produced after another one of his three-hour concerts. Like Duke Ellington did for the music in the decades before him, Brown was a torchbearer, taking the music directly to the people, sometimes 300 nights out of the year. In this regard, for nearly two-decades from the mid-‘50s until the mid-‘70s, Brown was the very epitome of the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, that legendary network of often black-owned clubs, dancehalls, bars, theaters, restaurants, and hotels that helped sustain black musicians, entertainers, and vendors during Jim Crow segregation. Indeed, the “Chitlin Circuit” helped Brown refine his own business model, seeing the value of a “Chitlin Circuit” gem like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, when he self-financed the live recording that jettisoned him to national visibility in 1962. Brown’s business successes aside, what was obviously at stake was the music itself, and Brown’s commitment to staying on the road was as much about economic self-preservation as it was about keeping the music in touch with the folk who needed it most—those everyday black folk for which a good party and some good food on a Saturday night were vital to their spirits as they prepared to hit the grind again on Monday morning, or, in some cases, hours after they left the club.
That musical innovation could occur during studio sessions betwixt those sweaty nights on the dancefloor was simply a marvelous by-product. When Brown’s 1967 classic “Cold Sweat” laid the groundwork for a new rhythmic paradigm in black popular music (creating “Funk” in the process), it was the consequence of all of those nights on the road. One could argue that with “Cold Sweat” and later tracks like “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” and “Sex Machine” that a black artist had never been as in sync with the black public as James Brown was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In his book Funk: The Music, The People and the Rhythm of the One (St. Martin’s, 1995), Rickey Vincent makes the point that Brown “figured out how to orchestrate a drum set, and make everything in the band work around a groove, rather than a melody.” (73) Scholar and musician Guthrie Ramsey, Jr. agrees, adding in his book Race Music: Black Cultures from Be-Bop to Hip-Hop (University of California Press, 2003), that “Funk or the ‘in the pocket groove’ rivals in importance the conventions of bebop’s complex and perhaps more open-ended rhythmic approaches. Each imperative—the calculated freedom of modern-jazz rhythm sections and the spontaneity-within-the-pocket funk approach—represents one of the most influential musical designs to appear in 20th century American culture.” (154)
The kind of musical spontaneity that Ramsey describes was demanded by black audiences of the era; the music was expected to reflect the very improvisational instincts that they employed in their everyday lives. Though a track like “Say it Loud” may have been composed by Brown and longtime band member Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, one could credibly argue that it was a song written “by the people”, because it was so much “for the people”. While no one should mistake the powerful cultural politics of James Brown with real political action, Brown was able to translate his visibility in the late ‘60s into some semblance of access to the power elite in the United States. Much has been made of Brown’s relationship to and political support of Richard Nixon (the man who created the political climate in which black political organizations of the era could be dismantled and ultimately destroyed), but in Brown’s defense, he was swayed less by political ideology as he was the realities of opportunity. Brown’s politics throughout his adulthood are best represented by the track “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)”. For Brown, Nixon’s lip-service to “Black Capitalism” was simply more useful than the promise of a fortified welfare state or the threat of revolutionary violence. Ironically, Brown’s sharpest critique during the Black Power Era was aimed at soap-box revolutionaries in his song “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing”.
And once again, Brown’s political beliefs extended to his vision for the music. By the ‘70s, Brown used his considerable influence to create artistic opportunities for other artists including Hank Ballard (an early influence on Brown) and members of his own musical camp, such as Bobby Byrd, Lyn Collins, his backing band the JBs, which included Fred Wesley, Jr., Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker among others, and Vicki Anderson, whose “The Message from the Soul Sisters” is arguably funk’s first feminist track. Like Brown’s recordings, many of these James Brown productions would be recovered a generation later by hip-hop artists. “The Message from the Soul Sisters”, for example, later formed the foundation of Lil Kim’s breakthrough track “No Time” (1997). Many in the Hip-Hop Generation were introduced to Bobby Byrd when Eric B and Rakim remade his “I Know You Got Soul” in 1986. And, of course, Lyn Collin’s “Think (About It)”, with the refrain “it takes two”, was the inspiration for Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s early hip-hop anthem “It Takes Two” (“Think” is also liberally sampled on Janet Jackson’s “Alright” from 1989’s Rhythm Nation).
In the mid-‘70s, as the denizens of the burgeoning R&B Nation of black middle class tastemakers began to distance themselves from the decidedly down-home flavor of Brown’s music, it was the embryonic Hip-Hop Nation that would provide a lasting legacy for Brown’s music. With hip-hop’s early emphasis on extended break-beats, Brown’s rhythmic innovations appealed to hip-hop DJs in the ‘70s. In his tribute to Brown, longtime journalist Davey D recalls that “back in the days when Hip Hop was first evolving in the ‘70s, Hip Hop’s pioneering figures routinely paid tribute to the musical offerings of [Brown]. While Black radio stations moved in a direction that embraced formalized disco, the musical landscape of the early Hip Hop Park Jams was juxtaposed. Classic songs like ‘Soul Power’, ‘Pass the Peas’, ‘Funky Drummer’ and ‘Get Up, Get Into It’, and ‘Get Involved’ would blare through the sound systems of Hip Hop’s early deejays and drive the early b-boys and b-girls to the edge.” Brown’s relationship with the hip-hop industry was mixed—for every “Unity” recording with Afrika Bambaataa, there were legitimate complaints about the unauthorized use of his music.
In the early days of the 21st century, hip-hop is simply the most visible example of James Brown’s influence. Sadly, the image of a torn and tattered Brown, taken shortly after a recent arrest for domestic violence, seems more in line with the sexist and misogynistic imagery that circulates in so much of commercial hip-hop. But James Brown’s real legacy can be found in the standard bearers of ‘80s black celebrity pop—figures like Michael Jackson, Prince, Eddie Murphy (“hot tub!”), Bobby Brown, and Tina Turner, who helped define the very notion of black crossover success two decades after Freedom Summer. James Brown never made it to that promised land, but as Soul Brother #1 goes, he can rest assured that as his tribe steps forward into the future, they will continue to do so on “the good foot.”
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998) and Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002). He is also a professor of African-American at Duke University.
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