James Brown defining ‘soul’ – “It’s the word ‘can’t’ makes you a soul singer. ‘Can’t. That one thing that’s made the Black man more heavier for soul coming from the States is because of the fact that he’s had extra-hard knocks and he lived with the word ‘can’t’ for so long. So every time he can sing about it, it kind of comes out a little bit stronger.”
As we saw in Part One, James had managed to work his way into Bobby Byrd’s group, the Gospel Starlighters. The Starlighters had evolved from a gospel group to an R&B unit called the Avons. Bobby Byrd let him take over the band. He knew they had something when they’d play on the porch and people would gather.
And the people who are always horrified by things they can’t control were now horrified by religious music being applied to secular ‘devil’s music.’ James was doing this and so was Ray Charles more or less around the same time.
“Influenced by R&B groups such as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Orioles and Billy Ward and his Dominoes, the group changed its name, first to the Toccoa Band and then to the Flames. (“Because we thought we were hot!”) They got booked at parties in and near college campuses in Georgia and neighboring South Carolina. (As we saw in my writeup on Stax, this whole R&B Southern college circuit was a well-established thing.)
James was not doing music full-time but was working at a car dealership and as a school janitor. And in June of 1953, at the ripe old age of 20, James married a classmate of Bobby Byrd’s named Velma Warren. They had three sons over the next five years. And while James was, of course a singer, he played drums in the Flames and a lot of people thought that was his main job.
According to the bio The One, “The group by now could play country songs and light pop to white audiences as well as R&B. Black Toccoans like Scott had grown up with country and western, which they considered their own music. “That was what we was raised upon—Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, stuff like that was all we knew,”
They played the usual combination of nice venues and shitholes and were habitues of what came to be known as the “chitlin circuit.” The chitlin*’ circuit was “was a collection of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper Midwest areas of the United States that provided commercial and cultural acceptance for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers during the era of racial segregation in the United States through the 1960s.”
One fateful night in 1955, the Flames played a club called Bill’s Rendezvous. There they encountered an unknown piano player named Richard Penniman who they really dug. The feeling was mutual and so Little Richard advised them to call his manager down in Macon.
They auditioned for Richard’s manager and pulled out all the stops. The manager, Clint Brantley, wasn’t in the mood for R&B but wanted to hear them sing spirituals. James Brown could sing pretty much anything and would have sung the fucking phone book if he thought it would get them anywhere.
If there are any spirituals or gospel numbers out there with James on them, I’m hard-pressed to find one. But the Flames were big fans of the Swanee Quintet so here’s a taste of gospel for ya. I’m telling you, this shit is great:
For the audition, James sang a tune called “Looking for My Mother,” with him “acting out the story of a poor orphan boy finding his long-gone mama in heaven—Brown bawled and crawled around Brantley’s joint, under tables and chairs on his hands and knees, he wasn’t going to leave until he’d found her. When he was done, he’d found a manager. A couple weeks after that, the Flames relocated to Macon.”
In October of ’55, Little Richard finally hit paydirt with a tune called “Tutti Frutti” whose breathless lyrics I will here repeat:
Tutti frutti, oh rutti
Tutti frutti, woo!
Tutti frutti, oh rutti
Tutti frutti, oh rutti
Tutti frutti, oh rutti
What more need be said? Richard had to head out to LA to become a beautiful star leaving his band, the Upsetters, with a bunch of gigs and no singer. And so since no one really knew what Richard looked like, James “became” Little Richard for a while.
“Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the hardest working man in show business: LITTLE RICHARD!” And out jumped James Brown, hair way up high, doing his very best imitation of the wild one. Brown held nothing back as he raved through the set, doing backflips, leaps, climbing on top of the piano, and landing in splits.” Some people knew James was an impostor. But he was so damn good that after a while they did not give a shit.
Drummers are crucial to James’ story as he was all about the rhythm. And Richard’s drummer was a guy named Charles Connor** from New Orleans. Connor was expert in NOLA’s second-line drumming.
Second-line was (is) a “traditional New Orleans funeral ceremony which involved a band comprised of brass instruments and drums. They would play somber dirges on the way to the cemetery with the mourners following just behind. The group of mourners became known as the “Second Line.” On the way back from the cemetery, the drums (snare & bass) would increase the tempo, playing an open, slightly syncopated march that was MUCH happier than the music heard on the way to the cemetery.”.
James always said it was Connor who first put the funk in the music. “Funk is imagination,” Connor said. “You can see a big fat woman walking down the way, she’s got a big booty sliding side to side, doing the jellyroll. You look at their behinds, that’s where I got my rhythm style. I would look at the dance floor, at some woman shaking her butt, and I would boom—do three or four measures of my stuff—then I’d watch her body language.”
The Flames made their way to a local radio station in hopes of recording a demo. The song they recorded was called “Please, Please, Please,” co-written by Brown. They brought it to a local DJ who started playing it and getting requests for it. The song was released in 1956 by the band who were now called the Famous Flames.
Now I could play you the original record. But even though it’s some years later, you just have to see the T.A.M.I show, a 1964 revue. James and the guys put on quite a show and “Please, Please” not only became a signature tune but also the one where James – exhausted and drenched with sweat – would be led offstage with a cape around his shoulders only to …
… come back one more time and bounce back to life and like Mick Jagger – who stole all his moves at the Apollo said – you just felt bad for him and wanted to help him. Ow! James always said he got the idea for the cape from wrestler Gorgeous George. As much as James was about the music, he was equally about the show.
The song became the group’s first R&B hit, selling over a million copies. It’s on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Oh, and did I say Famous Flames? Well, the record label somehow magically said, “James Brown and the Famous Flames” which really made the other guys happy. Not. But that’s show biz.
The band struggled for another year trying for a hit touring here and there, staying in places that would allow black folk, eating and peeing wherever they could. But reality hit in 1957.
The One – “As Brown hovered silently, record label owner Ben Bart offered the Famous Flames a new arrangement: They would get a set rate of thirty-five dollars per show and a straight salary; Brown would take the record royalties. That was the deal, if they didn’t like it they could be replaced. Early in March the rest of the Famous Flames said they didn’t like it at all. They’d play a string of dates that would send them back to the South and then quit.”
James picked up a pianist and a guitarist and found summers and bassists wherever he could. But not much was really happening. Nine songs in a row went nowhere. But somehow the label stuck with him and to his credit, James never gave up.
And once again, Little Richard (sort of) to the rescue. He found…
God! And so he gave up all his gigs and once again James was fronting Richard’s band, the Upsetters. And after a two-year dry spell, in late 1958 they came up with a ballad called “Try Me” which hit Number One on the R&B chart in 1959. (The R&B chart had been referred to as “race records” until Billboard honcho Jerry Wexler renamed it.) “Try Me” – according to Wikipedia – was the first of seventeen chart-topping hits.
James went out looking for members of his first band including a forgiving Bobby Byrd. They debuted at the holy grail, the Apollo Theater in April of 1959. You want a demanding audience? You got it at the Apollo. Little Willie John – who was not only shorter than James but also hot as a pistol – was appearing there with his drummer, none other than Charles Connor.
A favorite tune was “Night Train,” here again from the T.A.M.I show. You gotta see the dancing. It makes me smile:
By late 1959, James was finally finding his groove. He could do no wrong. The Sixties approached. And while James had a good thing going, it would soon become time to find a brand new bag.
But before we go, I leave you in this installment with a song James came up with when he saw everybody in the audience doing a dance called the mashed potato, more or less a forerunner to the Twist. The song is, of course, called “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes.”
*Chitlins is short for chitterlings, a uniquely Southern dish “usually made from the large intestines of a hog, although the intestines of cattle and other animals are sometimes used.”
**Connor played the intro to Richard’s “Keep A-Knocking’ which John Bonham later borrowed as the intro to “Rock and Roll.”
Sources: Wikipedia, Smith, RJ. The One (p. 13). Penguin Publishing Group; Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown documentary.