When the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, was growing up as an impoverished youth in Barnwell, S.C. in the 1930s, few expected this young man to emerge from such meager beginnings as one of the most important musicians ever to grace the stage.
Certainly not the people who paid him change to dance or shine their shoes in Carolina. And probably not even his music instructor who taught him to play piano, drums and guitar.
The passing of Brown on Christmas day was the closing of a chapter in music history in a book that will from now on be rendered out-of-print.
It’s not just that James Brown redefined soul music as polyrythmic funk juggernaut rather than by-the-numbers orchestrated balladry of his most recent predecessors. It’s that Brown, whether sporting the processed ‘do or the mini-Afro, knew that it was musical dynamics and the manipulation of the end-groove that filled the stadiums and made the audience nod in recognition.
By “musical dynamics,” I’m referring to the way both the rhythms created by the horn and drum sections and those created by Brown’s swiveling hips forged a harmonic whole. Brown always seemed completely driven physically by the rhythm of the music, although those who played for him knew this was hardly the case. Few if any of his musical performances throughout his career were ever improvised.
He was a control freak of the highest order. Every move was precise, every guitar note was pre-planed, and every stage slide was directly in rhythm with the base.
Looking back on his career, it’s easy to see why he influenced so many different musicians and genres. His music embodied the danger and social freedom that Rock ‘n’ Roll aspired to, the connection between the beat and physical expression that Disco hoped to embody, the honesty and commitment to authenticity that Hip-Hop hoped for, and the opening up of new vistas of experimentation that Funk idealized.
His influence can be seen throughout most of the contemporary music that followed him, ever since he begged the girl to “Please, Please, Please” not go.
His famous “ugh!” grunt (later borrowed by the likes of Iggy Pop and The Fall’s Mark E. Smith) was about a moment in time, creating a mood of spontaneous joyous ecstasy, even if it was as pre-planned as his guitar lines.
There was the choreographed moment where a band member would drape him with a cape and pretend to carry him away, only to see Brown toss the cloak aside and continue with his performance, setting the stage for more elaborate theatrics involving “motherships” and light shows. There was Bootsy Collins’ grinding, strutting, throbbing bass in “Sex Machine,” arguably the song that inspired Hip-Hop the most.
However, while each of the aforementioned genres would gain in stature and eventually eclipse the man who inspired them, none managed to reach the same level of musical inventiveness that Brown did.
Disco would take Brown’s grooves and streamline them, creating an irritatingly repetitious Cliff Notes effect with rhythm, which Funkedelic’s George Clinton famously likened to “making love with only one stroke.”
Funk copied the spastic bass lines, the experimentation, and in, for example, Cameo’s multi-colored cod-pieces and Gap Band’s cowboy fantasies, expanded the perimeters of what “blackness” could and should represent before it eventually turned into self-parody.
Hip-Hop took that attitude and the gangsta-lean style grooves but missed the essence, missed the importance, missed the political savvy to express being “black and proud,” instead choosing to eventually repudiate Brown’s famous assertion in the name of a commercial market wanting more tales from the urban jungle.
So Brown will always be remembered for his contributions to the musical spectrum; but one wonders if all the lessons he taught two generations of students were readily adhered to. Or did they just read the chapter summaries?
These musicians can play the notes, but never learned to play the music. James Brown’s legacy was knowing both the power and the impact of these lessons.