- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

James Brown is hopping off a plane in Newark, N.J. He’s about to hustle to a connecting flight bound for South Carolina, where he keeps a home.

Not so fast. His longtime manager, Charles A. Bobbit, has just stuck a cell phone in his face. One more phone interview.

Mr. Brown reports with glee how he’s returning from a string of sold-out shows in places such as Amsterdam, Cologne and London.

Before he left for Europe he played a knockout gig — “a record-breaker, the best we’ve ever done” — at the Apollo Theater, a show he’ll soon package as his fourth live album from the legendary Harlem venue. Two of those earlier Apollo live albums rank with the most electrifying soul concerts ever recorded.

He and his wife, Tomi Rae Brown, are planning on building the James Brown Children’s Community Center for the Arts in Augusta, Ga. for underprivileged youngsters.

The couple has a 2-year-old son, Joseph Brown II.

James Brown is 70. Yep, there’s a reason they call him the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

Mr. Brown is among this year’s class of Kennedy Center Honorees.

The annual Kennedy Center class is an elite one, but the Godfather of Soul himself is taking it in stride.

“It feels good to be honored by anyone anytime,” he says.

He sounds just as proud of a small civic accolade in Augusta, about 40 miles from his South Carolina birthplace.

“I’m the only black man to have a street named after me in Augusta,” Mr. Brown says of the Georgia town, most famous for its all-male golf club and the storied tournament it hosts.

Forget those masters. James Brown is the Master.

Where there was rhythm and blues, James Brown made soul. He didn’t stop there: Where there wasn’t funk music, James Brown invented it.

It’s quite a trifecta: two sets of fingerprints and an outright patent on three of the most important forms of American music.

And we haven’t even mentioned that he was one of the greatest live performers in the history of post-World War II American popular music. He was one of the first free-standing, dancing frontmen in pop music. Where do you think that strutting English teenager, Michael Jagger, copped his moves from?

Proof of Mr. Brown’s durable influence in pop music today is the perpetual recycling of drum grooves from songs such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Pt. I” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” as sampled by hip-hop artists ranging from Public Enemy to Wu Tang Clan.

“It’s nice to know they know where the soul is at. They know where the good riffs are,” Mr. Brown says.

The notoriously undemocratic band leader gives credit where credit is due. “I take a bow; there were a lot of people involved,” he says.

His stable of backup musicians is indeed an illustrious one: alto reedman Maceo Parker, keyboardist Bobby Byrd, trombonist Fred Wesley, to name a few. For a brief time, James Brown even had the mind-bendingly innovative bassist Bootsy Collins in his midst.

Nevertheless, he’s proprietary about the sounds he created. “I just instructed them what to do. All the arrangements were mine,” he says.

Mr. Brown grew up poor in Georgia, listening to jazz and blues records from the likes of Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan and Charles Brown. In that period — the mid-‘50s — there were other sounds in the air: the gospel of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, the proto-soul of Ray Charles, the R&B; of Hank Ballard, the vocal acrobatics of Jackie Wilson.

It was these influences that colored Mr. Brown’s earliest efforts with Mr. Byrd and a group called the Flames. There were worthy, expressive R&B; ballads like “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me,” but James Brown as we know him didn’t emerge until a few years later.

By the ‘60s, a more rambunctious Mr. Brown shimmied his way out of the pack with songs such as “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Night Train,” “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’.” You know his oldies well and have probably sweated to them more than once.

Thus was funk music — the twisty and staccato horn charts, the incantatory chants, the rhythmic syncopation — born. Everyone from Herbie Hancock to Eminem is now in his debt.

The template was available to anyone, but it was Mr. Brown who poured the foundation of the style, which took on a more hard-core, improvisatory style in the blaxploitation era of the ‘70s.

Where did James Brown Funk come from?

Certainly not from technical proficiency. Mr. Brown plays piano and drums, “a little bit of everything,” he explains. And what he can’t play he says he can intuitively hear and then explain to someone who can.

But that’s about as far as his theoretical skills carried him.

The Godfather says: “It came from my head — but somebody had to put it there.”

Not just anybody. “No school could’ve taught me that, ‘cause they don’t teach that in school.

“It came from God,” he says.

Mr. Brown, for all the feisty egotism that often rubbed his collaborators the wrong way, is full of effusive praise and thanks for the one he says is the true inventor of funk music.

“I thank God, I thank God, I thank God.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide