From The One: “All these black people were standing around the door waiting to get a seat on the ‘white only’ side. Most of ’em looked like they might be college kids, and there were a few whites with them,” Brown wrote in his autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.
That was May 14, 1961, when the first “Freedom Ride” pulled into Birmingham. The Supreme Court had decided in 1946 that segregated seating and facilities on interstate bus lines violated federal law. The South had not complied with this ruling, and now civil rights organizations were testing the legality of their refusal by doing what had been unheard-of in the past—sitting down next to whites and requesting service.” (James and his band got the hell out of there but it was a harbinger of things to come not only for him but for the Sixties.)
The Famous Flames got their first national exposure on American Bandstand, the first time they could really reach a largely white audience. That was great as a way to build his audience but on top of that what he really wanted to do was go back to the Apollo and record a kick-ass live album.
James was a ruthless taskmaster with his bands. If you fucked up a note or a rhythm or pretty much anything, he’d turn and flash fingers at you for how much it was to cost you in fines. For the Apollo gig, it was jacked up from 5 or 10 bucks to 50 or 100. And your fucking shoes damn well better have a spit shine.
Wikipedia: “Live at the Apollo was released the following June (1963) and became an immediate hit, eventually reaching number two on the Top LPs chart and selling over a million copies, staying on the charts for 14 months.” In 2016, Rolling Stone declared it the Greatest Live Album of All Time.*
In 1963, Brown scored his first top 20 pop hit with his rendition of the standard “Prisoner of Love.” He also launched his first label, Try Me Records, which included recordings by the likes of Tammy Montgomery (later to be famous as Tammi Terrell). (Try Me, a subsidiary, lasted about a year till James had a dispute with the label owner. As great a musician as James was and as entrepreneurial as he turned out to be, his businesses pretty much either went nowhere or eventually crashed and burned.)
In one of the earlier posts, I mentioned The T.A.M.I (Teen Age Music International) Show. This show was not really a “show” at all but really a movie of sorts filmed in Santa Monica that included The Famous Flames, The Stones, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Chuck Berry, and just about everybody who mattered (minus the Beatles) in 1964.
James gave the performance of his life. “Here was white America, blond, blue-eyed surfing girls screaming their brains out,” said the director. “One of my camera guys said to me, ‘I can’t be right but I think I’m hearing “fuck me fuck me fuck me” from the audience.’ We couldn’t edit it out.”
The rap on Mick Jagger was that he was afraid to follow James. But in the Brown documentary, Mick said that was basically bullshit. Since it was a film, they set up and broke down like a film. The Stones’ set was hours later in front of a completely different audience.
Here’s James and the Flames doing “Out of Sight,” from T.A.M.I. preceded by some cornball schtick:
James, now having crossed over from the Black market to the White market, (50/50 Black/White audience per one of his guys) now started making some big inroads into the Top 40. In 1965, he released one of ME’s favorites, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” The song won a Grammy for best R&B tune and is on Rolling Stone’s list at #71. All I know is that every time Jimmy Nolen hits that lick on the guitar, ME gets a thrill in his naughty bits:
Now, the thing you need to know is that James’ consciousness had been raised. Consider all the bullshit times he and his band couldn’t even take a piss somewhere, eat in a restaurant or even stay at a hotel in the segregated South. So when James Meredith, practically single-handedly tried to integrate the University of Mississippi, he got shot down (but lived) for his troubles,
As a result, Martin Luther King led a march (this is in 1966) to “demonstrate that white supremacists could not impede the registration of black voters.” (We could use such a march in this country right now – ME). They also invited some superstars down to perform. According to The One, during discussions about who would speak, MLK left saying, “I’m sorry, y’all,” he explained as he made his exit. “James Brown is on. I’m gone.”
I mention all this not only to show James’ commitment to the cause but because the expression ‘black power’ grew out of this event. Until this time, Black folk were referred to as ‘colored.’ James later came up with a song called “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” (Space prevented me digging in more deeply on this but Reverend Al Sharpton was a fan, then tour manager and then life-long friend of James.’ He is featured prominently in the documentary).
James’ other big hit from this era was “I Got You (I Feel Good.” Here’s James on some TV show pretty much lip-synching it. But who gives a shit? It’s a great song and watch this dude dance:
Wikipedia: “Funk is a music genre that originated in African American communities in the mid-1960s when musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues. It de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions and focuses on a strong rhythmic bass and drum groove.
Funk originated in the mid-1960s, with James Brown’s development of a signature groove that emphasized the downbeat—with heavy emphasis on the first beat of every measure (“The One”), and the application of swung 16th notes and syncopation on all basslines, drum patterns, and guitar riffs.”
“Cold Sweat” is thought to be one of the first – if not THE first – funk songs. Producer Jerry Wexler recalled that “[it] deeply affected the musicians I knew. It just freaked them out. No one could get a handle on what to do next.” Music journalist Cliff White described it as “divorced from all other forms of popular music.”
James continued in this vein and one of his late Sixties tunes, “Funky Drummer,” has become one of the most sampled tunes of all time. James has had a significant impact on rappers as you probably already know. There are at least 22 songs that sample this tune. Drummer Clyde Stubblefield laid it down. (On Spotify list).
In this late Sixties period, James released numerous singles, did a couple more live albums, had a TV special, participated in protests. And interestingly, he bought the radio station in Augusta where he shined shoes as a boy.
In April of 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. This led, understandably, to riots all over the country. Brown and his band were on their way to my adopted hometown of Boston to play the Boston Garden. The mayor, Kevin White, wanted to postpone the show, fearing a riot would break out. He was told it was more likely that would happen if they DID cancel the show.
As a compromise solution, they decided to broadcast the show free on TV to keep people from coming. People still did come but by and large, they stayed home. And Boston, not frankly at that time (or even now) a bastion of racial equality, was spared the riots. “I was able,” James later said,” to speak to the country during the crisis after the assassination of Doctor King and they followed my advice, and that was one of the things that meant most to me…”
“In March 1970, most of Brown’s mid-to-late 1960s road band walked out on him due to money disputes, a development augured by the prior disbandment of The Famous Flames singing group for the same reason in 1968.” James’s random violent acts such as beating up his girlfriends and threatening the band didn’t help.
Now one thing you need to know about James is that his life of hurt and being in prison made him mistrustful of people, even – and especially – members of his band. He’d travel separately from them. And one night he got word that the cats were making fun of him on the bus. Now the story about what happened next goes like – well, I’ll let Melvin Parker tell it:
But when James lost his band, he just keep right on going. He recruited members of a Cincinnati band including rhythm guitarist Catfish Collins and his younger bassist brother, William Earl “Bootsy” Collins.** “When Collins arrived, said former drummer Melvin Parker, “that’s when the funk moved from the drums to the bass. The bass became the funk piece and the drums became the backbone or the stationary part.”
Here’s the new crew laying down “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (ME’s life story.). They are hitting The One hard:
James managed to lose some serious credibility with the Black community when he supported Richard Nixon for President, a guy who practically invented the race-baiting that Donald Trump perfected. His take on it was that the Republicans stood for entrepreneurialism and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” Their take on it was you can’t cozy up to the guy holding you down.
“By 1977, he was no longer a dominant force in R&B. After “Get Up Offa That Thing,” thirteen of Brown’s late 1970s recordings for Polydor failed to reach the Top 10 of the R&B chart, with only “Bodyheat” in 1976 and the disco-oriented “It’s Too Funky in Here” in 1979 reaching the R&B Top 15 and the ballad “Kiss in ’77” reaching the Top 20.
After 1976’s “Bodyheat,” he also failed to appear on the Billboard Hot 100. As a result, Brown’s concert attendance began dropping and his reported disputes with the IRS caused his business empire to collapse.”
James had a bit of a resurgence in 1980 when he appeared as a reverend in the first Blues Brothers movie and then later in 1985 when he did “Living in America” as part of the Rocky IV soundtrack. That one won him a Grammy. Here’s the movie clip:
Things got rough in the late 80s for the then fifty-something Mr. Brown. He had some definite substance abuse problems. His wife Adrienne said that he beat her and threatened to kill her. James pulled (but didn’t use) a shotgun at some insurance seminar. He led the police on a chase between Georgia and South Carolina, the end result being sentenced to six years in prison. He served 2 years and 2 months and was paroled.
James went right back to performing at more or less the same hard-working, grueling pace he always had. But he was way under the radar at that point. Arguably the biggest moment of his later performing years was his appearance at the 31st Superbowl halftime show with – you guessed it – the Blues Brothers. (James needs these guys in some way? – ME).
James shows up at about 3:32. Shitty video quality:
The One: “At the Black Entertainment Television awards in 2003, Brown was presented a lifetime achievement prize. Just as he was wrapping up “Sex Machine,” a figure came over to drape the cape on him as he expectantly bent over, and when Brown looked up he saw Michael Jackson as a surprise guest-star valet. He smiled broadly and the two danced a bit.” (Where did Michael learn his moves one wonders!)
In 2004, a growth was found on James’ prostate. This slowed him down but did not stop him. “In May 2005, three days after Brown’s seventy-second birthday, Reverend Sharpton made a benediction not far from where Brown had shined shoes six decades before. After they unwrapped the statue, invited guests went around the corner to the Old Governor’s Mansion for a reception. “
We got out and walked together,” remembered Sharpton. “He said, ‘Reverend, I appreciate that you came.’ I said, ‘You know I was coming. Man, it’s a huge debt they repaid.’ “‘Yeah.’ “‘I never thought they’d have a statue of you in Augusta—and facing a confederate marker!’” He touched Sharpton on the arm. “And don’t forget what I told you—I did it on my own terms,” he said. “I never conformed to Augusta; they had to conform to me.”
In 2006, in his Seventies, James played a remarkable eighty-one shows all over the world. His band said they were some of the best shows over. The Godfather of Soul – Mr. Dynamite – was still the Hardest-working Man In Show Business.
On Christmas Day 2006, Brown died at age 73, from congestive heart failure, resulting from complications of pneumonia. Brown reportedly said, “I’m going away tonight,” then took three long, quiet breaths and fell asleep before dying.
In 1983 he was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Brown was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural induction dinner in New York on January 23, 1986. On February 25, 1992, Brown was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 34th annual Grammy Awards.
Exactly a year later, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 4th annual Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards. A ceremony was held for Brown on January 10, 1997, to honor him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
On June 15, 2000, Brown was honored as an inductee to the New York Songwriters Hall of Fame. On August 6, 2002, he was honored as the first BMI Urban Icon at the BMI Urban Awards. His BMI accolades include an impressive ten R&B Awards and six Pop Awards.
On November 14, 2006, Brown was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, and he was one of several inductees to perform at the ceremony. In recognition of his accomplishments as an entertainer, Brown was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors on December 7, 2003.
In 2004 Rolling Stone magazine ranked James Brown as No. 7 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2004, he received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement presented by Awards Council member Aretha Franklin.
Oh, and lastly, this happened maybe a week ago. “In a piece of good news for James Brown’s estate, his assets, which include music rights, real estate, and the control over Brown’s name and likeness, have finally sold for an estimated $90 million after being mired in disputes for nearly 15 years, according to The New York Times.”