by Jack Hayford, Editor
A musician friend of mine stopped by my house recently while I was fooling around with a clav (clavinet) sound on my keyboard. I awkwardly pecked through the notes of the classic riff played by Stevie Wonder on his song “Superstition.”
My friend said, “man that was the whitest Stevie Wonder I’ve ever heard….” We both laughed. He was right. It was horribly “white” sounding, i.e. lacking soul.
I was reminded of this chuckle by the announcement of a new posthumous album release from the American soul music icon, James Brown Live at the Apollo Vol IV.
This is great news for music fans, to have new music, new performances from “The Godfather of Soul.”
James Brown, his talent, his stage presence, his ENERGY had profound impact on virtually all who knew him, saw him perform, or even just listened to his records.
The great Mick Jagger, who has as much soul onstage as any white performer has ever mustered, saupon the death of Brown in 2006, “He was a whirlwind of energy and precision, and he was always very generous and supportive to me in the early days of the Stones. His passing is a huge loss to music.”
How white sounding. Sorry Mick.
President Bush said, “An American original, his fans came from all walks of life and backgrounds. James Brown’s family and friends are in our thoughts and prayers this Christmas.”
How scripted. How chalk white.
According to the multi-talented Dan Aykroyd, who along with fellow Blues Brother John Belushi helped revive the slumping J.B.’s career in the Eighties–thanks to his unforgettable role as the preacher in The Blues Brothers
“No one has ever integrated music, musicianship, dance and showmanship so effectively as did J.B. Every rap, hip-hop, house, soul, R&B, rock and pop artist practicing today has been influenced compositionally and choreographically by Mr. Brown. Fortunate were those of us who were able to engage his talents and witness his shows. The greatest on-stage revue of music in the history of our planet.”
Well, that said it all Dan…but honestly, doesn’t that sound awfully white?
Of course, these are all quotes from white people.
But then there’s Al Sharpton, tireless champion of the black, and a personal friend and former manager of J.B.’s: “What James Brown was to music in terms of soul and hip-hop, rap, all of that, is what Bach was to classical music. This is a guy who literally changed the music industry. He put everybody on a different beat, a different style of music. He pioneered it.”
A little contrived sounding, especially with that Bach reference thrown in. All true but still not quite in the groove.
It’s not their fault!
James Brown was a legend in his own lifetime. He was bigger than life. THE MAN SPOKE FOR HIMSELF. So, naturally, somehow everyone’s attempts to say what he was and what he accomplished seem to pale in comparison.
James Brown said it loud. He was black and he was proud. And he made his people proud. In a televised CNN report, a black woman in Harlem said, matter of factly, “I didn’t know how to define myself…[James Brown] made me feel good, made me feel proud.”
Now there’s a statement.
James Brown, despite (or more likely in spite of) his run-ins with the law, widely reported personal problems and drug abuse, was ROYALTY to blacks in America and beyond. He stood up, he danced, he strutted, he was inexhaustible, he was indefatigable…for himself and for them. For half a century he kept coming back for his audience, his people.
He celebrated himself. “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” “The Godfather of Soul.” “Soul Brother Number One.” He gave himself the monikers. He was PROUD. And his self-assertion spoke volumes to blacks everywhere. And his very authenticity allowed him to create some of the most powerful music ever made.
James Brown was among the first inducted in 1968 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in an initial group that also included none other than Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. All legends in their own right.
I think for now the Hall of Fame has said it most succinctly: “This much is certain: what became known as ‘soul music’ in the Sixties, funk music in the Seventies and rap music in the Eighties is directly attributable to James Brown.”
But J.B. had already said it better, years ago: “Disco is James Brown, hip-hop is James Brown, rap is James Brown; you know what I’m saying?” he told the Associated Press in 2003.
We do know what he’s saying, even if we can’t say it for ourselves. Wherever he is, man he’s gotta feel good about that.
James Brown died of congestive heart failure early Christmas morning 2006, in Atlanta. He was 73 years old.
Oh yeah, and he taught more white folks to dance than Budweiser could ever imagine.
SIDEBAR: Rolling Stone magazine ranked James Brown’s Live at the Apollo #24 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, saying, “Live at the Apollo is pure, uncut soul. And it almost didn’t happen. Brown defied King Records label boss Syd Nathan’s opposition to a live album by arranging to record a show himself — on October 24th, 1962, the last date in a run at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. His intuition proved correct; Live at the Apollo — the first of four albums Brown recorded there — charted for sixty-six weeks.”