James Brown - Doing it to Death

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In life James Brown was a consummate entertainer whose live performances were the stuff of legend. It seems almost typical of the old showman that he finally bowed out on 25 December 2006.

Indeed one half expected the solemn Christmas morning newscaster to announce that the self styled Godfather had not died at all; that in melodramatic fashion, he had been led back onto the stage of life wearing his trademark robes and crown. It was not to be.

In many ways James Brown's life is a classic rags to riches story. He was born "dirt poor" in the Deep South in 1933 and, in his own words, "had no real mother [and] a father only on occasion". As a child he raised a little cash by shining shoes, picking cotton and peanuts, and cutting cane. By the age of 20 he had served a three-year prison sentence for armed robbery.

Like so many great black artists Brown found his voice in the church, at that time the only place where black people could gather and express themselves. From there he earned his reputation as "the hardest working man in showbiz" playing to black audiences on the "Chitlin' Circuit" of black clubs.

His first chart success came with "Please, Please, Please" in 1956, but it was the 1963 Live at the Apollo album that really catapulted his extraordinary talents into the mainstream and launched a rollercoaster career that lasted until his dying breath.

Music critic Rickey Vincent suggests that funk, the genre with which Brown is most closely associated, is "impossible to completely describe in words". He's right - funk is earthy, physical music, and nobody knew better than Brown how to persuade a crowd to "get up offa that thang".

At its basest level the music he pioneered has provided generations of clubbers with an exhilarating, if temporary, release from the drudgery of daily life. Funk music is also undeniably about sex, not necessarily love and romance, but hot, sweaty, athletic sex. Arguably Brown's most famous single release is "Sex Machine", an 11-minute classic which brilliantly captures the exciting liberated attitudes towards sex and sexuality that characterised the late 1960s.

This was also the era that witnessed a great upsurge in the struggle for Black Power. Brown's music, notably the great "Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud", helped to provide the soundtrack to that movement. Like the movement, though, he was shot through with contradictions.

Musician historian Peter Guralnick suggests that Brown briefly "declared himself not just for equal opportunity but for revolution". By 1969 his mind was made up and he was publishing statements declaring himself "totally committed to black power, the kind that is achieved not through the muzzle of a rifle, but through education and economic leverage". He went on to perform at the inauguration of Republican president Richard Nixon and became a supporter of Ronald Reagan.

In the mid-1980s his life was in something of a mess. He suffered financial problems and served another prison term for threatening a police officer with a gun. Shortly afterwards he was arrested and charged with attacking his wife at their home. In his last years he managed to recover his dignity and popularity.

It would be unacceptable, especially in a socialist publication, to conclude without acknowledging the contribution of great musicians such as Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins. While Brown was undeniably the bandleader, they played a crucial role in creating that distinctive sound. It is a sound that remains the sample of choice for the R&B and hip hop artists whose music dominates the studios, airwaves and iPods of today. In a very real sense, therefore, James Brown's music has stood the test of time and lives on into the 21st century.

Brian Richardson
London