JB on the One
A convincing argument could be made for James Brown as the greatest musical artist of my lifetime. (I was born the year after "Please, Please, Please.") Sure, his records declined in quality during my teen years, but how many times do you have to change the world? For that's what he did, starting out in the doo-wop era and making his major impact during the soul years, before inventing funk out of whole cloth in the mid-'60s.
The progression from "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" in 1965 to "Cold Sweat," "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)," I Got the Feelin'," and "Licking Stick - Licking Stick" in 1967, to "Say It Loud" and "Mother Popcorn (You Got To Have a Mother For Me)" in 1968 represents nothing less than the birth of a new musical style, and JB put the icing on the cake in 1970 with "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" and "Super Bad."
He continued making good records after that, a couple of which have funny associations for me: the cat I was stationed with in Korea who could recite "King Heroin" from memory, f'rinstance, or the time we had to move a Hammond B-3 over the bar at an Albany shit-dump called the Showbar (the stage was _behind the bar_) so some guys I knew could play "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing."
Hear the original hits (there are loads of good compilations, from the Star Time box set to my favorite, the early-adopter's delight The CD of JB, which now sells for a penny on Amazon) or the plethora of good JB live albums -- the three from Harlem's Apollo Theater (vintage 1962, 1968, and 1970), the epochal half-live/half-pseudo-live Sex Machine from 1970, the '90s vault discoveries Love, Power, Peace: Live At the Olympia, Paris 1971 (a showcase for Bootsy and Catfish Collins that was originally intended as a triple LP release before most of the band quit to join George Clinton's P-Funk Mob) and Say It Live & Loud: Live In Dallas 08.26.68. Anyway you choose, you'll get your money's worth.
Simply put, JB made rhythm king. Who needs chord changes, when you can orchestrate the syncopation of simple, interlocking parts -- drums, bass, guitar, organ, horns, and lest we forget, voice -- to create a groove as undeniable as it's insistent, with a formal complexity to rival Bach's? (If you find that claim extravagant, listen to "Untitled Instrumental," a track cut in 1970 that didn't see the light of day until the 1988 outtakes compilation Motherlode.) Without JB, no Sly Stone, no Michael Jackson, no Fela, no '70s Miles, no George Clinton, no Prince, no hip-hop.
That he had to wait until after he'd done the heavy lifting of creating his masterwork to get the props he deserved is probably reflective of the fact that he operated in the fickle and disposable realm of black street music, and had a reputation as a flamboyant performer, not to mention a willful and egotistical man. (Thwarted by his record label, he'd recorded the original '62 Live At the Apollo on his own dime and even then King Records didn't want to release it, the fools.)
I first saw him on some TV show with my mom when I was 11. It was surprising to see a rotund man move so gracefully, and his leather-lunged scream about scared me to death. His 1968 hit "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" started fights at my junior high school, when the black kids would play it on their portable record players in the cafeteria. (It seems odd now that kids would carry these machines to school along with stacks of scratchy 45s, but that's what they did, back in those pre-iPod days, when they didn't feel like relying on the radio to satisfy their music jones.)
Perhaps its provocative nature led JB -- who'd helped avert a riot in Boston the night Martin Luther King was killed by allowing the local PBS affiliate to record his performance at the Boston Garden (now DVD available and a worthy document) and rebroadcast it all night, and wound up campaigning for Hubert Humphrey -- to drop the song from his live repertoire not long after its success. For all his latter-day drug-fueled eccentricities, this man who'd grown up poorer than poor in South Carolina embodied old-fashioned values: respect, hard work, a notion of interracial brotherhood that only seems quaint in retrospect. (In the mid-'60s, he even employed a white bass player, future Neil Young sideman Tim Drummond, in his band.)
It's easy to forget, in light of his later unraveling, that back at the moment when the youth of black America were looking for someone to stand up and represent them as a figurehead, role model and exemplar, JB was willing to do just that (fuck the Charles Barkley dumb shit), in the same manner as Muhammad Ali at his draft board and Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith at the '68 Olympics. (He actually had a #4 R&B hit with "Don't Be a Drop-Out" in 1966.) And in the same way as Joe Nick Patoski opines (and I agree) that Jimmy Reed kicked open the door for MLK by making white Southerners think it was cool to be black, so JB planted in the heads of cats like the ones in the German-Irish-Italian Catholic 'hood where I grew up, who were _afraid_ of black people (sorry, fellas, but no other word applies), the idea that black folks just might be human after all.
In 1967, when I was ten, New York State education commissioner James E. Allen (after whom the university center I briefly attended in '74 was named) vowed to send in the National Guard to enforce the integration of public schools on Long Island. White parents marched in protest. When it was decided that fourth and fifth graders from my neighborhood were going to be bussed to the elementary school in the predominantly black neighborhood in our town, older kids told us that "The niggers are going to stab you through the seats on the bus." I remember some of those same kids singing the "Baby baby baby" chorus from "I Got the Feelin'." How's that for irony? But I digress.
One of the most distinctive sounds of the '60s was the choked, syncopated ninth chords that JB's guitarist Jimmy Nolen used to play -- derided by the white rock guitarists I knew, but then, none of them could play 'em, either, the way Nolen did. (Back then, the state of race relations clouded people's perceptions. I remember a white drummer I knew telling me "how fucked up it is that the niggers are stealing our music." When I asked him what he meant, he said, "You know, ma-a-an: Hendrix." True story.) No matter; Nolen's was one of the archetypal guitar noises of the era, as distinctive a signature as Chuck Berry's, Bo Diddley's, and Elmore James'. The sounds of drummers Clyde Stubblefield (who played the most sampled drum break in history on "Funky Drummer") and Jabbo Starks, trombonist Fred Wesley, and saxophonists Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis similarly worked their way into the music's DNA.
When I listen to this music now, I'm reminded of the first band I ever played in, back when I was 15. Bruce Monroe and Johnny Cobb were two black guys I knew from school. Both of them played guitar and drums, and they had a band with another guy named Curtis Byrams, who was just odd. Curtis liked to sit with his girlfriend in a car on blocks in his front yard with his girlfriend, or he'd strap on his bass and thump on it while we were walking around the neighborhood, looking for pieces of the drum kit. As fortune would have it, Bruce and Johnny's lead guitarist quit the very week I managed to arm-twist my parents into buying me an electric guitar and amp for my birthday, and since I'd been bullshitting them for two years that I knew how to play, I was the likely candidate.
Somehow, I managed to fake my way through, in spite of the fact that all of my solos started the same way (with me running my finger up the neck, searching for "the note"), and I only knew four cowboy chords my sister had taught me, which were of no use whatsoever in the funky R&B we were playing. I cribbed a little bit of Nolen style from the scratchy 45s they gave me to learn, even though I had absolutely no clue regarding musical structure, which made the no-chord-changes JB formula perfect for my illiterate ass. (Same thing was true of stupid Cream jams when I started playing in white rock bands.) They gifted me a Univox wah, and I used it and my sister's violin bow to add some first-Led-Zep-album psych shit to the mix.
We spent as much time hanging out as we did playing, and I developed a taste for black coffee, cheap wine, and monster movies. Eventually, I drifted out of the band, but the first week I was away at college, my mother called to say that Bruce and Johnny had come by the house looking for me. Apparently Bruce's brother Waverly, who used to park cars at a rock club called Rum Bottoms, was managing the band and planned to put them on tour of chitlin' circuit-type clubs upstate. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I'd been there when they came to see me.