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Remembering James Brown

We look at the life of the Godfather of Soul

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James Brown died on Christmas Day of congestive heart failure at age 73. We thought it appropriate to salute this ceaselessly creative innovator, who left behind hundreds of songs, by tracing his life through some of his best recordings.

The young Georgia native had been listening to gospel, blues, R&B, and proto-rock & rollers like Sam Cooke, Hank Ballard, Clyde McPhatter, and Ray Charles. He took all he was learning and poured it into this impassioned single, a blues vamp built around a two-note piano hook. The fundamentals were in place from the start of this, his first hit single: the repetition of simple words — not merely the three pleases of the title but also ”I, I, I, I,” as Brown almost stutters out the phrase ”I just wanna hear you say.” Even if the woman in the song didn’t love him, the public did — a Southern hit, it went national, and his reputation was made. A

Recorded in Harlem with what was now his crack touring band, the Famous Flames, it sold over a million — a rare feat at the time for a hardcore R&B album. More crucially, it showcased all he’d been learning as an artist, as a bandleader, and as an entertainer. By this time he was already billed as ”Mr. Dynamite” and ”The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.” Augmenting any lyric with screams, yells, and emphatic grunts, he would spin in place, thrust his hips, execute splits to the floor. And during this period he instituted what would become a longtime concert-finale stunt: He feigns exhaustion and collapses on stage. An assistant comes out and covers his shoulders with a cape and helps him off stage, but just before he leaves our sight, he breaks away and runs back, his energy renewed, to sing again. It’s a beautiful metaphor: the Resurrection of the Soul. A-

Released within four months of each other, the singles that brought Brown to the top 10 on the pop charts — his crossover into the white world of the Beatles era. As always, everything is stripped down to the basics, even the songs’ themes: the first, about dancing; the second, about a successful romance. Brown had found a way to pare down the compositions’ lengths to make them playable on then-dominant AM radio, while their open-ended structures tantalizingly suggest that these riffs could go on forever. Both: A

The civil rights and black-power movements were in full gear, and so was Brown. He responded with vigorous directness, daring his white audience to come along on his musical freedom ride. You can call his politics expedient — he supported both Martin Luther King’s nonviolence and H. Rap Brown’s black nationalism, was a Hubert Humphrey Democrat and a Richard Nixon Republican — but you can’t deny the exhilaration of his distillation: The title phrase was exactly what an oppressed minority as well as a mass pop audience wanted to chant along to. To be followed by ”Get Up, Get Into It and Get Involved” and ”I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself).” B+

Around this time, key Flames members such as saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley rankled at Brown’s autocratic ways and walked. Among their replacements in a reconstructed, increasingly funk-oriented band dubbed the J.B.’s were brothers William ”Bootsy” Collins and Phelps ”Catfish” Collins on bass and lead guitar, respectively (they would later go on to help George Clinton consolidate the Parliafunkadelicment thang). This transitional album, cut before Parker and Wesley’s mutiny, stands as one of Brown’s most consistent, which means it’s pretty close to a masterpiece, with ”Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” possessing a riff and a message that hip-hop artists today are still trying to match for precision and braggadocio. A

Parker and Wesley were already back to help form a kind of supergroup for this double album. (Avoid, by the way, the two movie soundtrack albums, Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, both released the same year — Brown’s gifts were not meant for narrative storytelling or blaxploitation instrumental fills.) B+

As the ’70s wound down, Brown’s hits were confined to the R&B charts, and with disco on the rise, he took to billing himself as ”The Original Disco Man.” In the sense that he was always a dancer, the boast is accurate. His cameo in the Blues Brothers movie that same year amounted to a pop comeback, but ”Rapp Payback” had nothing to do with nostalgia — it looked ahead to the future of rap and hip-hop, demanding by implication that he be acknowledged as the originator of riffs and licks that would be sampled over and over in others’ hits. B+

His last pop hit, ground out as patriotic piffle for Rocky IV, but even when he was coasting on now-decades-long fame, he put enough oomph in the call-and-response chorus (”I’m — I’m! — living in America”) to turn the public’s long-standing fondness for him into fresh enjoyment of the ebullient pugnaciousness of ”Soul Brother Number One.” B

The bedrock, the Rosetta stone, the Brown bible: four CDs including every song mentioned here except the Rocky number, but so much more, from ”Prisoner of Love” to ”Funky Drummer” to ”Unity, Pt. 1,” his collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa. If you have the dough for an anthology, this is the one to get. A

WILL.I.AM: 5 Examples of JB’s Influence
Who owes their career to James Brown? Just about everybody, says the famed producer and Black Eyed Pea:

1 Michael Jackson He told me he would practice dancing and imitate James Brown; the guy inspired him to want to dance and do music.

2 Prince You can see the influence.

3 Public Enemy Chuck D would say, ”I got so much trouble on my mind, I refuse to lose!” You could see James Brown saying that. And Flavor Flav also adopted the ”Hit me!”

4 Every single funk group that was ever to come out Bootsy Collins, Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton. ‘Cause without James Brown, funk probably never would have come to life. Without funk, there would be no disco or hip-hop.

5 Every single person who does music Everybody on every single record company. Without James Brown, there would be no Michael Jackson, no Prince. And without Michael Jackson and Prince, who are all the new pop acts gonna dance like?

Godfather of Sampling
Snippets of JB classics have been used by everyone from George Michael to Vanilla Ice. See our faves below, and the-breaks.com for more.

”Mama Said Knock You Out,” LL Cool J from ”Funky Drummer”

”Fallin’,” Alicia Keys from ”It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”

”Rebel Without a Pause,” Public Enemy from ”The Grunt” by side project the J.B.’s

”Better Things,” Massive Attack from ”Never Can Say Goodbye”

”Eric B. Is President,” Eric B. & Rakim from ”Funky President”
-Michael Endelman