James Brown, who died in 2006, enjoys membership in a very exclusive club of musicians, a group of men and women who created the current landscape of pop music.
A driven singer who labored furiously at his art, Brown pushed soul, invented funk and laid the groundwork for the subsequent musical juggernauts disco and hip-hop. He created his own myth, following a practically monomaniacal obsession to be the best, the most powerful, the most explosive, the funkiest, the equal of presidents and dictators, a man above and beyond the law.
For a period, he managed to be most of these things. In The One: The Life And Music Of James Brown, Brown’s biographer RJ Smith, who has written and edited for LA Magazine, Spin and the Village Voice, presents the myth of James Brown in all its contradictory power. He also allows us to see the man and the music inside the myth.
James Brown funk blew open the sound of pop in the second half of the ‘60s (Smith looks into the origin of the word funk; it might relate to sex, the broke-musician lifestyle, or some term in Flemish). One of Brown’s biggest innovations, also linking to the title of Smith’s book, involved moving the rhythm’s emphasis from the second and fourth beats of a measure—the standard established by blues—to the first beat. The tremendous spring Brown then launched on the initial beat caught listeners off-guard and compelled movement. It also gave Brown flexibility in his live performances to change the band’s direction on that first beat, and it provided the musicians with an anchor for sensing their positions as they whipped up a furious storm of funk. Smith notes that the big One allowed Brown’s “audience to stay with him. . . it is the cash upfront he pays for all the rhythm it buys.”
And Brown bought a ton of rhythm, stripping almost every instrument down to its rhythmic bare bones, minimizing melodic elements. Smith quotes the musicologist Robert Palmer (this exact quote also comes up in author Peter Guralnick’s chapter on Brown from the famous book Sweet Soul Music): “The rhythmic elements became the song. There were few chord changes, or none at all, but there were plenty of trick rhythmic interludes and suspensions. . . Brown and his musicians began to treat every instrument and voice in the group as if it were a drum.” Brown thus dispensed with tradition, caution and “… dazzling display of technique … he wanted a mass of people dancing.”
He took an unconventional approach towards songwriting. As Smith puts it, “Brown was something rarer than a great musician: He knew when the bad note was the right one.” In an interview with the magazine DownBeat, Fred Wesley, who played trombone with Brown, described the creative process similarly—“‘James didn’t understand how to do it musically, so we had to do it his way. And his way was just hit and quit it. . . Forced music. We just forced it to work. It got to be easy to force it to work after a while because you knew that it was unorthodox, unheard of, so you just made it work.’”
Brown ultimately forced his music to something edgier, more syncopated and thrilling, the type of thing embodied in songs like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” “You Got To Have A Mother For Me,” and “Superbad.” The guitars delivered precise doses of needle-sharp riffing, as if hammering through a wall, or issued quick, explosive bursts of notes that cracked off as soon as they seemed to start. The bass lines came big and brutal but short, chained down, circling over the same territory again and again like they were trying to figure out a way to escape their own rigidity. The brass landed with a thick, unconstrained power, a model of tactical efficiency and synchronization, battering the same location again and again, splitting off for splintered, staccato attacks, occasionally whirling off into complete madness. Brown perfected this style, and between 1969 and 1971, 17 of his songs cracked the top 10 on the R&B charts. Those years brought him worldwide fame.
Brown’s commercial success also stemmed in part from his ability to manipulate the musical marketplace. He famously gave DJs money to promote his records. (Brown might refer to this as “payin’ the cost to be the boss,” a lyric from his Black Caesar album.) He pumped up ticket sales for his shows by leaking rumors that he planned to retire, or that he suffered from health problems. Later he bought radio stations of his own to cut out the middleman. In 1966, Brown signed a new record contract that took complete control of the rights to his music and also gave him the ability to sign singers to his label … a stunning success for a black artist.
But art—and the artist—do not exist in a vacuum. Brown got caught up in the whirlwind of ‘60s politics, buffeted by non-violence, war, black power and racism. Even artists like Brown, who appeared more interested in commercial success than in politics, found themselves subject to political opinion and judgment for their responses to political events. The popularity of Brown’s music transformed him into one of the most visible African-Americans in the nation, intensifying scrutiny of his music and actions.
During the ‘60s, many artists played roles in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Singers like Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger and Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded songs supporting their positions. Brown walked a strange line between selfish altruism—he loved being a powerful figure, and he would use his power for political causes if he got the proper credit (and payment)—and blatant self-promotion, sometimes accompanied by disregard for the ramifications of his actions.
Unlike many artists firmly in the anti-establishment camp, Brown frequently supported “the man.” He recorded a patriotic tune, “America Is My Home,” that Smith describes as sounding like “a putdown of critics of the war [in Vietnam], and of black power.” Brown, in fact, had been sitting on this tune for a while, and he chose to release it when anti-war protests and race riots troubled the country a daily basis. According to Smith, “This was an immense argument to pick with his listeners. He [Brown] knew that.” (If Brown hoped that white listeners would embrace his song, they didn’t—it failed to crack the pop charts.)
Brown’s famous performance in Boston after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King earned the anger of those who felt he enforced the status quo by urging peace (though others thanked him for preventing violence). As race riots enveloped the nation’s urban areas following Dr. King’s death, Boston’s white mayor decided it would be a bad idea to cancel Brown’s show and have angry African-Americans wandering downtown with nothing to do. After some haggling over the price, Brown agreed to perform and have the performance broadcast on television for people in homes. Brown played the show and paid his respects to Dr. King. For whatever reason, Boston didn’t go up in flames.
Brown decided to be one of the only black entertainers to entertain the troops in Vietnam. Smith writes, “Brown suggested to the press that anti-war sentiment might be simple cowardice. . . ‘I’m as much opposed to the war in Vietnam as anyone who loves peace. But I can’t turn my back on my own black brothers’. . .” (Brown’s personal life, also detailed by Smith, frequently contained violent episodes, especially against his lovers, and does not provide much evidence to indicate that the man loved peace.) Brown may have seen himself as providing for minority soldiers unjustly drafted to fight in Vietnam. Still, his hawkish dismissal of the anti-war movement and his refusal to understand his actions might be interpreted as tacit approval of the war seemed to align him with the pro-war camp.
Brown also engaged in a series of right-wing political endorsements in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He endorsed President Nixon, who said on tape “‘I’ve done the blacks. . . I don’t want to continue to do them,’” right before he met with Brown, and Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president. (Agnew famously noted, “‘If you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all. . . There are people in our society who should be separated and discarded.’”) Later in his life, Brown considered President Reagan and Lee Atwater to be his friends, even though, as Smith notes, Atwater worked to help the Republican party hone “the ‘Southern Strategy,’ which vilified African-Americans in order to scare white voters into the Republican fold.”
When Brown released “America Is My Home,” furious black activists placed a fake bomb in his hotel room following a show, accompanied by a letter (sadly, Smith doesn’t know what it said). Soon Brown released “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud,” which he put together quickly, delaying the release date for other records to get it out. Did Brown experience a big change of heart, submit to (violent) pressure from the Black Panthers, or jump on a commercial opportunity? It’s hard to know … but according to Smith’s sources, Brown “… only did the song live maybe three or four times.”
Brown’s experience shows that a singer doesn’t have to be political to contribute to politics—“Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” quickly became an anthem for black power. Also, the hit shows a singer may not be really dedicated to a cause, but may still be viewed as a sincere, committed ally by listeners. To some extent, listeners become complicit in a deception, accepting music at face value … so long as it’s good music and tells them what they want to hear.
Smith writes a compelling, nuanced and exciting book about a man whose music remains some of the most electric ever made. While later in life Brown slipped into patterns of increasingly erratic, violent, and drug-dependent behavior, he continued to perform until his death. The stage remained his place of power, a space where the One, his band, and the crowd worked in screaming, funky unison.
Elias Leight is getting a Ph.D. at Princeton in politics. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and writes about music at signothetimesblog.