`Godfather of soul' was a showman, visionary

James Brown 1933-2006

December 26, 2006|By Greg Kot | Greg Kot,Chicago Tribune

James Brown was more than a soul-music giant. He was a visionary. The world dances today to the sound of his drum, and in James Brown's universe every instrument was a drum.

Mr. Brown died yesterday at 73 of heart failure in Atlanta after being taken to Emory Crawford Long Hospital with pneumonia.

Whereas legendary peers such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley and even Bob Dylan have been transformed from counterculture rebels into cuddly icons, Mr. Brown leaves a pricklier legacy.

"Said to be singularly `raw,' `uninhibited,' `possessed,' he became the mysterious, exotic black Other of colonialist fantasy," wrote Bruce Tucker in his introduction to the singer's autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.

If there is a lingering popular image of who James Brown was, it is of that exotic, possessed entertainer. He was the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," with sweat soaking through his suit, makeup and pompadour. There were the hot-foot dance steps, the flying splits in polished boots, finales with a cape draped across his shoulders. On stage, he didn't so much sing as scream, grunt and growl.

But that image is a cliche. Mr. Brown was a great showman, but he was no cartoon. That he was demonized by legal troubles didn't help, but he was no circus act. He was a brilliant singer, musician, band leader and conceptualist. From the mid-1950s to the mid-'70s, he had a run of innovation, creativity and popularity that rivals any recording artist of the last half-century. In 1986, he was among the first artists, including Presley and Chuck Berry, to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"You gotta dance to release that pressure," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "But you need to set an example, too."

Throughout his career, Mr. Brown tried to have it both ways, mixing high-powered grooves with messages that would define his community.

At the same time, he struggled with alcohol and drug abuse and a run-in with police that landed him in prison. But without him, popular music would not be the same. The artists in his debt are legion, including Michael Jackson, Prince, Mick Jagger, George Clinton, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys.

"He was an innovator, he was an emancipator, he was an originator," said Little Richard. "Rap music, all that stuff, came from James Brown."

The singer was born poor in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933. He was abandoned by his parents when he was 4 and grew up on the streets of Augusta, Ga., under the care of relatives and friends. Breaking into cars later got him sent to reform school, where he met gospel singer Bobby Byrd. The two became friends, and young Brown joined Byrd's group, the Gospel Starlighters, which evolved into an R&B group, the Famous Flames.

The group was signed by Cincinnati's King Records label in 1956, and "Please, Please, Please" hit the top 10 a few months later. Mr. Brown might not have invented soul music - Ray Charles has that honor - but he embodied it on "Please, Please, Please" and follow-ups "Try Me" and "I'll Go Crazy."

In 1963, Mr. Brown capped the soul era with a landmark concert recording, James Brown Live at the Apollo. For those wondering what soul music is, here's your primer. With its call-and-response vocals, pleading voices, braying horns and dramatic tempo and mood swings, this was the ultimate bridge between the spiritual and the erotic, gospel and blues, rhythm and rhyme. By that time, James Brown was a star, but he was just getting started.

In 1965, he began remaking popular music from the ground up. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" continued his string of hit singles, but this one sounded like nothing else in Mr. Brown's canon - or anyone else's, for that matter.

With "Brand New Bag" and the ebullient "I Got You (I Feel Good)," Mr. Brown began stripping down his sound, until every instrument - horns, voices, guitars - sounded like a drum. He transformed his 13-piece band into a giant rhythm section that echoed and updated the centuries-old polyrhythmic music of Africa. Guitarist Jimmy Nolan dispensed with solos for a terse chicken-scratch stroke that overlapped the drums and bass. Horns blasted staccato responses instead of long, languid jazz-inspired lines.

In 1967, "Cold Sweat" took this rhythmic style even further, and Mr. Brown punctuated his innovation with a single command: "Give the drummer some!" The song is Ground Zero for what would soon become known as funk, which flourished throughout the next decade and also gave rise to disco and hip-hop.

Mr. Brown hired brilliant musicians, many of them steeped in jazz, and arranged songs on the fly around their abilities. His bands became finishing schools for generations of think-on-their-feet improvisers.

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