In Augusta, Georgia, in May 2005, they put up a bronze statue of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in the middle of Broad Street. During a visit to meet James Brown and observe him recording parts of his new album in an Augusta studio, I went and had a look at it. The James Brown statue is an odd one in several ways. For one, it is odd to see a statue standing not on a pedestal, flat on its feet on the ground. This was done at James Brown’s request, reportedly. The premise being: man of the people. The result, however: somewhat fake-looking statue. Another difficulty is that the statue is grinning. Members of James Brown’s band, present while he was photographed for reference by the statue’s sculptor, told me or their attempts to get James Brown to quit smiling for the photographs. A statue shouldn’t grin, they told him. Yet James Brown refused to do other than grin. It is the grin of a man who has succeeded, and as the proposed statue struck him as a measure of his success, he determined that it would measure him grinning. Otherwise, the statue is admirable: flowing bronze cape, helmetlike bronze hair perhaps not so much harder than the actual hair it depicts, and vintage bronze microphone with its base tipped, as if to make a kind of dance partner with James Brown, who is not shown in a dancing pose but nonetheless appears lithe, pert, ready.
Still, as with postage stamps, statues of the living seem somehow disconcerting. And very few statues are located at quite such weighty symbolic crossroads as this one. The statue’s back is to what was in 1993 renamed James Brown Boulevard, which cuts from Broad Street for a mile, deep into the neighborhood where James Brown was raised from age six, by his aunts, in a Twiggs Street house that was a den of what James Brown himself calls “gambling, moonshine liquor and prostitution.” The neighborhood around Twiggs is still devastatingly sunk in poverty’s ruin. The shocking depths of deprivation from which James Brown excavated himself are still intact, frozen in time, almost like a statue. A photographer would be hard-pressed to snap a view in this neighborhood that couldn’t, apart from the make of the cars, slip neatly into Walker Evans’ portfolio of Appalachian scenes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Except, of course, that everyone in Augusta’s Appalachia is black.
So, the James Brown statue may seem to have walked on its flat bronze feet the mile from Twiggs to Broad, to which it keeps its back, reserving its grin for the gentlefolk on and across Broad Street, the side that gives way to the river — the white neighborhoods to which James Brown, as a shoeshine boy, hustler, juvenile delinquent, possibly even as a teenage pimp, directed his ambition and guile. Policemen regularly chased James Brown the length of that mile, back toward Twiggs — he tells stories of diving into a watery gutter, barely more than a trench, and hiding underwater with an upraised reed for breathing while the policemen rumbled past — and, once the chase was over, he’d creep again toward Broad, where the lights and music were, where the action was, where Augusta’s stationed soldiers with their monthly paycheck binges were to be found. Eventually, the city of Augusta jailed the teenager, sentenced him to eight-to-sixteen for four counts of breaking and entering. When he attained an early release, with the support of the family of his friend and future bandmate Bobby Byrd, it was on the condition that he never return to Augusta. Deep into the Sixties, years past “Papa’s Brand New Bag,” James Brown had to apply for spu permits to bring his band to perform in Augusta; he esentially had been exiled from the city for having the dacity to transverse that mile from Twiggs to Broad. Now his statue stands at the end of the mile, facing away. Grinning. Resolving nothing. James Brown, you see, may in fact be less a statue than any human being who ever lived. James Brown is kinetic; an idea, a problem, a genre, a concept, a method — anything, really, but a statue.
This we know: the James Brown Show begins without James Brown. James Brown, a man who is also an idea, a problem, a method, etc., will have to be invoked, summoned from some other place. The rendezvous between James Brown and his audience — you — is not a simple thing. When the opening acts are done and the waiting is over, you will first be in the hands of James Brown’s band. It is the band that begins the Show. The band is there to help, to negotiate a space for you to encounter James Brown; it is there, if you will, to take you to the bridge. The band is itself the medium within which James Brown will be summoned, the terms under which he might be enticed into view.
The James Brown Band takes the form, onstage, of an animated frieze or hieroglyphic, timeless in a very slightly seedy, showbiz way but happily so, rows of men in red tuxedos, jitterbugging in lock step even as they miraculously conjure from instruments a perfect hurricane of music: a rumbling, undulating-insinuating (underneath), shimmery-peppery (up on top) braided waveform of groove. The players seem jolly and amazed witnesses to their own virtuosity. They resemble humble, gracious ushers or porters, welcoming you to the enthrallingly physical, jubilant, encompassing groove that pours out of their instruments. It’s as if they were merely widening for you a portal offering entry into some new world, a world as much visual and emotional as aural — for, in truth, a first encounter with the James Brown Show can feel like a bodily passage, a deal your mind wasn’t sure it was ready for your body to strike with these men and their instruments and the ludicrous, almost cruelly anticipatory drama of their attempt to beckon the star of the show into view. Yes, it’s made unmistakable, in case you forgot, that this is merely a prelude, a throat-clearing, though the band has already rollicked through three or four recognizable numbers in succession; we’re waiting for something. The name of the something is James Brown. You indeed fear, despite all sense, that something is somehow wrong: Perhaps he’s sick or reluctant, or perhaps there’s been a mistake. There is no James Brown, it was merely a rumor. Thankfully, someone has told you what to do — you chant, gladly: “James Brown! James Brown!” A natty little man with a pompadour comes onstage and with a booming, familiar voice asks you if you Are Ready for Star Time, and you find yourself confessing that you Are.
To be in the audience when James Brown commences the James Brown Show is to have felt oneself engulfed in a kind of feast of adoration and astonishment, a ritual invocation, one comparable, I’d imagine, to certain ceremonies known to the Mayan peoples, wherein a human person is radiantly costumed and then beheld in lieu of the appearance of a Sun God upon the Earth. For to see James Brown dance and sing, to see him lead his mighty band with the merest glances and tiny flickers of signal from his hands; to see him offer himself to his audience to be adored and enraptured and ravished; to watch him tremble and suffer as he tears his screams and moans of lust, glory and regret from his sweat-drenched body — and is, thereupon, in an act of seeming mercy, draped in the cape of his infirmity; to then see him recover and thrive — shrugging free of the cape — as he basks in the healing regard of an audience now melded into a single passionate body by the stroking and thrumming of his ceaseless cavalcade of impossibly danceable smash Number One hits, is not to see: It is to behold.
The James Brown Show is both an enactment — an unlikely conjuration in the present moment of an alternate reality, one that dissipates into the air and can never be recovered — and at the same time a re-enactment: the ritual celebration of an enshrined historical victory, a battle won long ago, against forces difficult to name — funklessness? — yet whose vanquishing seems to have been so utterly crucial that it requires incessant restaging in a triumphalist ceremony. The show exists on a continuum, the link between ebullient big-band “clown” jazz showmen like Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan and the pornographic parade of a full-bore Prince concert. It is a glimpse of another world, even if only one being routinely dwells there, and his name is James Brown. To have glimpsed him there, dwelling in his world, is a privilege. James Brown is not a statue, no. But the James Brown Show is a monument, one unveiled at select intervals.
James Brown lives just outside of Augusta, so while he is recording an album, he sleeps at home. He frequently exhorts the members of his band to buy homes in Augusta, which they mostly refuse to do. Instead, they stay at the Ramada Inn. James Brown, when he is at home, routinely stays up all night watching the news, and watching old western movies — nothing but westerns. He gets up late. For this reason, a day in the recording studio with James Brown, like the James Brown Show, begins without James Brown.
Instead, I find myself in the company of James Brown’s band and his longtime personal manager, Charles Bobbit, approximately fourteen people whom I will soon in varying degrees get to know quite well but whom for now treat me genially, skeptically, shyly but mostly obliviously. They’ve got work to do. They’re working on the new James Brown record. At the moment they’re laying down a track without him, because James Brown asked them to, and because since they’re waiting around, they might as well do something — though they do this with a degree of helpless certainty that they are wasting their time. It is nearly always a useless occupation, if you are James Brown’s band, to lay down a track while he is not present. Yet the band members do it a lot, wasting time in this way, because their time is not their own. So they record. Today’s effort is a version of “Hold On, I’m A-Comin’,” the classic Sam and Dave song.
The setting is a pleasant modern recording studio in a bland corner of Augusta’s suburbs, far from where the statue resides. The band occupies a large room, high-ceilinged, padded in black, with a soundproof-windowed booth for the drummer’s kit and folding chairs in a loose circle for the band, plus innumerable microphones and cables and amplifiers and pickups running across the floor. On the other side of a large window from this large chamber is a room full of control panels, operated by an incredibly patient man named Howard. It is into this room that James Brown and the band will intermittently retreat in order to listen to playback, to consider what they’ve recorded. Down the hall from these two rooms is a tiny suite with a kitchen (unused) and a dining room with a table that seats seven or eight at a time (used constantly, for eating takeout).
The band is three guitarists and one bassist and three horn players and two percussionists — a drummer in the soundproof booth and a conga player in the central room. They’re led by Hollie Farris, a trim, fiftyish, white trumpeter with a blond mustache and the gentle, acutely Mid-western demeanor of an accountant or middle manager, yet with the enduring humor of a lifelong sideman; a hipster’s tolerance. Hollie now pushes the younger guitarists as they hone the changes in “Hold On, I’m A-Comin’.” Howard is recording the whole band simultaneously; this method of recording “live in the studio” is no longer how things are generally done. Hollie also sings to mark the vocal line, in a faint but endearing voice.
One of the young guitarists, cheating slightly on the “live in the studio” ethos, asks to be allowed to punch in his guitar solo. This is Damon Wood: thirtysomething, also blond, with long hair and a neat goatee. Damon, explaining why he screwed up the solo, teases Hollie for his singing: “I can’t hear myself with Engelbert Humperdinck over there.” Howard rewinds the tape and Damon reworks the solo, then endears himself to me with a fannish quiz for the other guitarists — Keith Jenkins, another white guy, but clean-cut, and Daryl Brown, a light-skinned, roly-poly black man who turns out to be James Brown’s son. “What classic funk song am I quoting in this solo?” Damon asks. Nobody can name it, not that they seem to be trying too hard. ” ‘Lady Marmalade,’ ” Damon says.
“Well,” says Hollie, speaking of the track, “we got one for him to come in and say, ‘That’s terrible.’ “
Keith, a young man with a trace of disobedience in his eyes, asks if they’re going to put the horns on the track. Hollie shakes his head. “He might be less inclined to throw it out,” Keith suggests. “Give it that big sound. If all he hears are those guitars, he’ll start picking it apart.”
Hollie offers a wry smile. He doesn’t want to add the horns. Hollie, I’ll learn, has been James Brown’s bandleader and arranger on and off since the early Eighties.
It is at that moment that everything changes. Mr. Bobbit explains: “Mr. Brown is here.”
When James Brown enters the recording studio, the recording studio becomes a stage. It is not merely that attention quickens in any room this human being inhabits. The phenomenon is more akin to a kind of grade-school physics experiment: Lines of force are suddenly visible in the air, rearranged, oriented. The band, the hangers-on, the very oxygen, every trace particle is charged in its relation to the gravitational field of James Brown. We’re all waiting for something to happen, and that waiting is itself a kind of story, an emotional dynamic: We need something from this man, and he is likely to demand something of us, something we’re uncertain we can fully deliver. The drama here is not, as in the James Brown Show, enacted in musical terms. Now it is a psychodrama, a theater of human behavior, one full of Beckett or Pinter pauses.
James Brown is dressed as if for a show, in a purple three-piece suit and red shirt, highly polished shoes, cuff links and his impeccably coiffed helmet of hair. When we’re introduced, I spend a long moment trying to conjugate the reality of James Brown’s face, one I’ve contemplated as an album-cover totem since I was thirteen or fourteen: that impossible slant of jaw and cheekbone, that Pop Art slash of teeth, the unmistakable rage of impatience lurking in the eyes. It’s a face drawn by Jack Kirby or Milton Caniff, that’s for sure, a visage engineered for maximum impact at great distances, from back rows of auditoriums. I find it, truthfully, terrifying to have that face examining mine in return, though fear is alleviated by the rapidity of the process: James Brown seems to have finished devouring the whole prospect of me by the time our brief handshake is concluded.
I’m also struck by the almost extraterrestrial quality of otherness incarnated in this human being. James Brown is, by his own count, seventy-two years old. Biographers have suggested that three or four years ought to be added to that total. It’s also possible that given the circumstances of his birth, in a shack in the woods outside Barn-well, South Carolina, in an environment of poverty and exile so profound as to be almost unimaginable, James Brown has no idea how old he is. No matter: He’s in his midseventies, yet, encountering him now in person, it occurs to me that James Brown is kept under wraps for so long at the outset of his own show, and is viewed primarily at a distance, or mediated through recordings or films, in order to buffer the unprepared spectator from the awesome strangeness and intensity of his person. He simply has more energy, is vibrating at a different rate, than anyone I’ve ever met, young or old. With every preparation I’ve made, he’s still terrifying.
James Brown sits, gesturing with his hand: It’s time for playback. Mr. Brown and Mr. Bobbit sit in the two comfortable leather chairs, while the band members are bunched around the room, either seated in folding metal chairs or on their feet.
We listen, twice, to the take of “Hold On, I’m A-Comin’.” James Brown lowers his head and closes his eyes. We’re all completely silent. At last he mumbles faint praise: “Pretty good. Pretty good.” Then, into the recording room. James Brown takes his place behind the mike, facing the band. We dwell now in an atmosphere of immanence, of ceremony, so tangible it’s almost oppressive. James Brown is still contained within himself, muttering inaudibly, scratching his chin, barely coming out of himself. Abruptly, he turns to me.
“You’re very lucky, Mr. Rolling Stone. I don’t ordinarily let anyone sit in on a session.”
“I feel lucky,” I say.
Fussing his way into place, James Brown decides he doesn’t like the microphone. “I want one with no felt on it. Get me a cheap mike. I made all those hits on a cheap mike.” The mike is swapped. He’s still irked, turgid, turned inward. “Are we recording this?” he asks. The answer comes back: Yes. “The one we throw out will be the best one,” he admonishes, vaguely.
Now he explains to the band that it’s not going to bother with the track it recorded before he arrived. Go figure: Hollie was right. “Sounds good,” James Brown says, “but it sounds canned. We got to get some James Brown in there.” Here it is, the crux of the matter: He wasn’t in the room; ipso facto, it isn’t James Brown music. The problem is fundamentally one of ontology: In order for James Brown to occur, you need to be James Brown.
He begins reminiscing about a rehearsal they enjoyed the day before, in the practice space at the Ramada. The Ramada’s room provided a sound James Brown liked, and he encourages his band to believe they’ll recapture it today: “Gonna bring that room in here.”
Now that the gears are oiled, a constant stream of remarks and asides flows from James Brown’s mouth. Many of these consist of basic statements of policy in regard to the matter of being James Brown, particularly in relationship to his band: “Be mean, but be the best.” These statements mingle exhortations to excellence with justifications for his own treatment of the men he calls, alternately, “the cats” and “my family.” Though discipline is his law, strife is not only likely but essential: “Any time a cat becomes a nuisance, that’s the cat I’m gonna want.” The matter of the rejected track is still on his mind: “Don’t mean to degrade nobody. People do something they think is good. But you’re gonna hear the difference. Get that hard sound.” Frequently he dwells on the nature of the sound of which he is forever in pursuit: “Hard. Flat. Flat.” One feels James Brown is forever chasing something, a pure hard-flat-jazz-funk he heard once in his dreams, and toward which all subsequent efforts have been pointed. This in turn leads to a reminiscence about Grover Washington Jr., who, apparently, recently presented James Brown with a track James Brown didn’t wish to sing on. “He should go play smooth jazz. We got something else going. James Brown jazz. Nothing smooth about it. If it gets smooth, we gonna make it not smooth.” Still musing on Grover Washington Jr.’s failings, he blurts, “Just jive.” Then corrects himself, looking at me: “Just things. Instead of people. Understand?”
Throughout these ruminations, the members of James Brown’s band stand at readiness, their fingers on strings or mouths a few short inches from reeds and mouthpieces, in complete silence, only sometimes nodding to acknowledge a remark of particular emphasis. A given monologue may persist for an hour, no matter: At the slightest drop of a hand signal, these players are expected to be ready. There’s nothing new in this. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business is one of the legendary hard-asses: His bands have always been the Hardest-Worked Men in Show Business, the longest-rehearsed, the most fiercely disciplined, the most worn-out and abused. Fuck-ups, I’ll learn, will be cold-shouldered, possibly punished with small monetary fines, occasionally humiliated by a tirade. These men have been systematically indoctrinated into what begins to seem to me less even a military- or cult-style obedience than it is a purely Pavlovian situation, one of reaction and survival, of instincts groomed and curtailed. Their motives for remaining in such a situation? That, I’ll need more time to study.
“I’m an old man,” James Brown says. “All I can do is love everybody. But I’m still going to be a tough boss. I’m still going to give them hell. I got a family here. I tried to meet everybody’s parents.” At this, he suddenly squints at Damon, the guitarist, and says, “I don’t know your people.” Permission has apparently been granted to reply, and Damon corrects him. “Yes, you met them in Las Vegas. Just briefly.” Then James Brown points to his son, saying cryptically, “I don’t know where this cat’s coming from.” Daryl dares a joke (which it dimly occurs to me was perhaps the point): “But you do know my people.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” says James Brown, irritably. “Love.” He poses a question, then answers it: “You go to the blood bank, what do you want? Human blood. Not baboon.”
Throughout the afternoon, even as the band begins to record, these ruminations will continue, as though James Brown’s mind is on permanent shuffle. Sometimes the subject is the nature of his art. “Jazz,” he states simply at one point. Or he’ll segue into a discourse on his relationship to hip-hop: “I’m the most sampled and stolen. What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine, too.” At this, the band laughs. “I got a song about that,” he tells me. “But I’m never gonna release it. Don’t want a war with the rappers. If it wasn’t good, they wouldn’t steal it.” Thinking of his influence on contemporary music, he mentions a song by Alicia Keys with a suspicious riff: “Sometimes you find yourself meeting yourself.” Yet he’s eager to make me know he’s not slagging Keys: “I don’t want to scrape nobody.” Later, in a moment of seeming insecurity, dissatisfied with something in his own performance, he blurts, “The minute they put up that statue I was in trouble.”
Much of the afternoon is spent working on an arrangement of a medley comprising another Sam and Dave song, “Soul Man,” and one of James Brown’s own most irresistible and enduring classics of the early Seventies, “Soul Power.” James Brown tinkers with the guitars, indicating the desired tones by wailing in imitation of a guitar, as well as by issuing what sound like expert commands: “Diminish. Raise nine. Flatten it.” Of Damon’s solo, he requests, “Go psychedelic.” It seems to be the nature of the guitarists — Keith, Damon and Daryl — that they are the center of the band’s sound but also the source of considerable problems.
A horn player — a large, slightly hound-doggy saxophonist named Jeff Watkins — interjects. Raising his hand like a schoolboy, he suggests, “They might have it right, sir. They just didn’t play it with conviction.” To the guitarists, Jeff says, ever so gently, “Play it like you mean it.”
They do, and James Brown listens, and is persuaded.
“I’m wrong,” the Godfather says, marveling. “Play it like you mean — I like that, Jeff.” James Brown’s deadpan is perfect: It is as if he’s never heard that particular phrase before.
Now he coaches his bass player, an aging, willowy, enigmatically silent black man named Fred Thomas, on the bass line: “Ding-dong, ding-dong.” Again, he emphasizes: “Flat. Flat. Hard.” Fred Thomas does his best to comply, though I can’t hear any difference. James Brown turns to me, urgently, and introduces me to Thomas. “It’s all about ‘Sex Machine,’ ” he says. “This man’s on more hits than any other bass player in history.” I nod. Of course, it will later occur to me that one of the most celebrated partnerships in James Brown’s career was with the future Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins — and anybody who cares at all about such things can tell you that Bootsy was the bass player on “Sex Machine.” Fred Thomas was, in fact, Bootsy’s replacement, which is to say he’s been in the band since sometime in 1971. Good enough. But in this matter we’ve at least briefly entered what I will come to call the James Brown Zone of Confusion: James Brown now puts his arm around Fred Thomas. “We’re both cancer survivors,” he tells me gravely.
Suddenly, James Brown is possessed by an instant of Kabuki insecurity: “I’m recording myself out of a group.” This brings a spontaneous response from several players, a collective murmur of sympathy and allegiance, most audibly saxophonist Jeff’s “We’re not going anywhere, sir.” Reassured, James Brown paradoxically regales the band with another example of his imperious command, telling the story of a drummer, a man named Nat Kendrick, who left the room to go to the bathroom during the recording of “Night Train.” James Brown, too impatient to wait, played the drum part himself, and the recording was completed by the time Nat Kendrick returned. “Go to the bathroom, you might not have a job.”
The two-inch tape is now in place, and James Brown and his band attack “Soul Man/Soul Power” once again. “It’s about to be as good as it was yesterday,” he says, reminding them again of the Ramada rehearsal. “We’re not recording, we’re just having fun.” Indeed, everything suddenly seems to come together. “Soul Power” is an unbearably funky groove when taken up, as it is now, by a James Brown who sings it as though he’s never heard it before, with crazy urgency and rhythmic guile, his voice hopped up on the crest of the music like a surfer riding a curl. In a vocal improvisation, James Brown shouts in Gatling-gun time with the drums: “Food stamps! Welfare!”
This take sounds better by far than anything that’s gone before it, and James Brown, seated on his stool at the microphone, looks half a century younger now. At the finish, he rushes from his stool directly to where I sit and slaps me on my knee. “That was deep, Mr. Rolling Stone!” he exclaims, then dashes from the room. The band exhales a burst of withheld laughter the moment he’s through the door. “Food stamps!” several of them cry out. “Never heard that before.” His son Daryl says, “Damn, I almost dropped my guitar when he said that.” They seem genuinely thrilled and delighted now to have me here as a witness and go rollicking out the door, into the room where James Brown, ever impatient, is already preparing to listen to playback. They’ve done it, cut a classic James Brown funk jam! Never mind that it is a classic that James Brown already cut in 1971!
The laughter and conversation cease, as Howard is commanded to roll the tape. Midway through the first time he’s heard the tape, James Brown’s head sinks in weary dissatisfaction: Something’s not right. When it ends, after a single beat of total silence, James Brown says soberly, “Let’s do it again, a little slower.” And so the band trudges back in, in dour, obedient silence.
During the playback session, guitarist Keith leans in and whispers to me, “You’ve got to tell the truth about what goes on here. Nobody has any idea.” I widen my eyes, sympathetic to his request. But what exactly does he mean?
Someday, someone will write a great biography of James Brown. It will, by necessity, though, be more than a biography. It will be a history of a half-century of the contradictions and tragedies embodied in the fate of African-Americans in the New World; it will be a parable, even, of the contradictions of the individual in the capitalist society, portentous as that may sound. For James Brown is both a willing and conscious embodiment of his race, of its strivings toward self-respect in a racist world, and a consummate self-made man, an entrepreneur of the impossible. This is a man who, out of that shack in the woods of South Carolina and that whorehouse on Twiggs, mined for himself a career and a fortune and a legacy and a statue; who owned an airplane; who has employed hundreds; whose band begat many famous and lucrative careers; whose samples provided, truly, the foundation for hip-hop; who had his photograph taken with presidents and whose endorsement was eagerly boasted of, first by Hubert Humphrey, then Richard Nixon; who was credited with singlehandedly keeping the city of Boston calm in the twenty-four hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; a man who owned radio stations, controlling the very means of control in his industry; and who did all of this despite the fact that no likelihood except desolation, poverty and incarceration may seem to have existed.
He’s also a martyr to those contradictions. That James Brown should succeed so absolutely and fail so utterly is the mystery. For no matter his accomplishment and the will that drove it, he has no fortune. No plane. No radio stations. The ranch home that he so proudly bought for himself in a mostly white suburb of Augusta was claimed by the IRS in lieu of back taxes. Unlike those whose fame and money insulate them from scandal, James Brown has been beset: divorces, 911 calls, high-speed road chases ending in ludicrous arrests and jail sentences. This great exponent of black pride, of never dropping out of school, of making something of yourself, found his way, relatively late in life, to the illegal drugs not of glamour and decadence but those of dereliction and street life, like PCP. With their help, he nearly destroyed his reputation.
The shadow of his abuse of musicians and wives, disturbing as it may be, is covered in the larger shadow of his self-abuse, his torment and unrest, little as James Brown would ever admit to anything but the brash and single-minded confidence and pride he wishes to display. It is as though the cape act is a rehearsal onstage of the succor James Brown could never accept in his real life. It is as though, having come from being dressed in potato sacks for grade school and in the drab uniform of a prisoner to being the most spectacularly garbed individual this side of Beau Brummell or Liberace, James Brown found himself compelled also to be the Emperor With No Clothes. What his peculiar nakedness reveals is the full range of the torment of African-American identity. Oblivious to racism, he was also its utter victim; contemptuous of drugs, he was at their mercy. And the exposure of his bullying abuse of women might seem to have made squalid hypocrisy of his calls for universal love and self-respect.
For my part as a witness, if I could convey only one thing about James Brown it would be this: James Brown is, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a man unstuck in time. He’s a time traveler, but unlike the HG Wells-ian variety, he lacks any control over his migrations in time, which also seem to be circumscribed to the period of his own allotted lifespan. Indeed, it may be the case that James Brown is often confused as to what moment in time he occupies at any given moment.
Practically, this means two things. It means that sometime around 1958 — approximately the year he began voyaging in time, if my theory is correct — James Brown began browsing through the decades ahead — Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and perhaps even into the Nineties — and saw, or, more correctly, heard, the future of music. This, if my theory is correct, explains the stubbornly revolutionary cast or his musical efforts from that time on, the way he single-handedly seemed to be trying to impart an epiphany to which only he had easy access, an epiphany to do with rhythm, and with the kinetic possibilities inherent but to that point barely noticed in the R&B and soul music around him. From the moment of “Night Train” — the track, oddly enough, during which Nat Kendrick went to the bathroom and James Brown had to play drums himself — onward, through one radically innovative track after another — “Out of Sight,” “I Got You,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat,” etc. — James Brown seemed less a musician with an imperative either to entertain or to express his own emotional reality than one driven to push his musicians and listeners to the verge of a sonic idea, and then past that verge, until the moment when he became, more or less officially, the inventor of an entire genre of music called funk: “Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” “Hot Pants,” etc. That sonic idea has never been better expressed than by critic Robert Palmer: “The rhythmic elements became the song…. Brown and his musicians began to treat every instrument and voice in the group as if it were a drum. The horns played single-note bursts that were often sprung against the downbeats. The bass lines were broken into choppy two- or three-note patterns… Brown’s rhythm guitarist choked his guitar strings against the instrument’s neck so hard that his playing began to sound like a jagged tin can being scraped with a pocket knife.” Another way of thinking about this: James Brown seemed to hear in the interstices of soul and rhythm & blues — in the barked or howled vocal asides, in the brief single-chord jamming on the outros, in the drum breaks and guitar vamps — a potential for discarding the whole of the remainder of the music in favor of a radical expansion of these interstitial moments, these transitional glimpses of rhythm and fervor. James Brown was like a filmmaker who gets interested in the background scenery and fires the screenwriter and actors, except that instead of ending up with experimental films nobody wanted to watch, he forged a style of music so beguilingly futuristic that it made everything else — melody, lyrics, verse-chorus-verse — sound antique.
This time-traveler theory would best explain what is hardest to explain about James Brown, especially to younger listeners who live so entirely in a sonic world of James Brown’s creation: that he made it all sound this way. That it sounded different before him. This time-traveler theory would explain, too, how in 1973, right at the moment when it might have seemed that the times had caught up, at last, with James Brown’s sonic idea, that the torch of funk had been taken up and his precognitive capacities therefore exhausted, James Brown recorded a song, called “The Payback,” that abruptly predicts the aural and social ambience of late-1980s gangsta rap.
My theory also explains the opposite phenomenon, the one I so frequently witnessed in Augusta. If the man was able to see today from the distance of 1958, he’s also prone to reliving 1958 — and 1967, and 1971, and 1985 — now that 2006 has finally come around. We all dwell in the world James Brown saw so completely before we came along into it; James Brown, in turn, hasn’t totally joined us here in the future he made. That’s why it all remains so startlingly new to him; why, during one playback session, he turned to Mr. Bobbit and said, “Can I scream and moan? I sound so good, I want to kiss myself!” He spoke the phrase as if for the first time, and that may be because for him it was essentially occurring to him for the first time, or, rather, that there is no first time: All his moments are one. James Brown, in this view, is always conceiving the idea of being James Brown, as if nobody, including himself, had thought of it until just now. At any given moment James Brown is presently reinventing funk.
This theory also neatly explains what I call the James Brown Zone of Confusion: Fred Thomas as the bass player on “Sex Machine,” and so on. It’s hard, for a man of James Brown’s helplessly visionary tendencies, to know what happened today, yesterday or, indeed, tomorrow. All accounts are, therefore, highly suspect. Nat Kendrick may in fact have gone to the bathroom during the recording of “Think” or “I’ll Go Crazy.” Nat Kendrick may not, indeed, have gone to the bathroom yet.
The faster James Brown thinks, the more fiercely his hipster’s vernacular impacts upon itself, and the faster he talks, the more his dentures slip. So, though transcribing James Brown’s monologues as they occur is my goal, much of what he says is, to my ears, total gibberish. As today’s session begins, James Brown is recalling members of his band who’ve passed. “Jimmy Nolen gone. What about the tall cat?” Hollie, apparently, knows who he means by “the tall cat,” and replies, “Coleman? He’s alive.” This leads James Brown into the subject of health, primarily digestive health. He speaks of dysentery while on tour in third-world countries: “Doing number one and number two at the same time” and exhorts the band: “Maintain yourself.” To me: “Olive oil. I always tell them, ‘Bring olive oil on the road.’ ” I don’t ask what the olive oil is for. This reminds James Brown of the dangers of the road, generally, especially of exotic locations, which he begins to reel off: “Jakarta. Cameroon. Peru.” He recalls, “We were in communist Africa…. At the end of the show there were baskets of money… protected by machine guns, though. Got confiscated for the government.” He recalls the Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko attempting to keep him and his band from departing when George Foreman’s injury delayed the Foreman-Ali boxing match: “We got out. We got paid. One hundred grand.” James Brown seems torn between bragging of munificence — painting himself an “ambassador to the world” who paid his own way to Vietnam to entertain the troops — and bragging of his shrewdness in always getting paid in cash, even in circumstances of maximum corruption and intrigue: promoters dying mysteriously, funds shifted through Brussels.
Shrewdness wins, for the moment, as he switches to tales of his gambling prowess, though he seems initially most keen on Mr. Bobbit’s confirming a time when he came within a digit of winning a million-dollar lottery. “Yes, sir, you almost hit that pot,” agrees Bobbit. James Brown then tells of playing craps on the road. “I won enough from the Moonglows to buy myself a Cadillac. Them cats was so mad they stole my shoes. Wilson Pickett, all these guys, I look so clean, they don’t think I can play. I was a street man even though I had a suit on.” But his stake in being thought of as the luckiest man alive is compromised by an eagerness to divulge his secret: “shaved dice,” which always came up the way he wanted them to. Later this day, I ask several members of the band whether James Brown is babbling for my benefit. Not at all, they explain. “He’s making us ready for the road,” Damon tells me, reminding me that on Monday, James Brown and his band are heading to Europe for a month of shows. “He knows it’s going to be hard. He wants us to remember we’re a family.”
When, what seems hours later, work at last begins for the day, it will be on two different fronts. First, James Brown records a ballad that trumpeter and arranger Hollie has written and arranged in his off-hours. The ballad, it turns out, has been lurking in the background for a while, with Mr. Bobbit and several band members gently inducing James Brown to give it a chance to be heard. Today, James Brown has — impetuously, suddenly — decided to make use of it. Hollie, given this chance, hurriedly transposes the changes for the guitarists and hands out sheet music. The simple ballad is swiftly recorded.
James Brown then goes into a small booth, dons a pair of headphones and, in the space of about fifteen minutes, bashes his way through a vocal track on the second take. Audibly, James Brown is inventing the melody and arriving at decisions about deviations from that melody (syllables to emphasize, words to whisper or moan or shout, vowel sounds to repeat or stretch) simultaneously, as he goes along. With uncanny instincts married to outlandish impatience, he is able to produce a result not wholly unlistenable. Understand: This is a matter of genius but an utterly wasteful sort of genius, and after we listen to the playback, and James Brown is out of range of the band’s talk, Hollie and Keith agree that if James Brown were to regard the track he just recorded as a beginning — as a guide vocal to study and refine in some later vocal take — they might really have something. But they also seem resigned to the fact that James Brown considers his work on the track complete.
Next, James Brown writes a lyric, to record over a long, rambling blues-funk track titled “Message to the World.” For anyone who has ever wondered how James Brown writes a song, I have a sort of answer for you. First: He borrows Mr. Bobbit’s bifocals. James Brown doesn’t have glasses of his own, or left them at home, or something. Second: He borrows a pencil. Third: He sits, and writes, for about fifteen minutes. Then he puts himself behind the microphone. The result is a cascading rant not completely unlike his spoken monologues. Impossible to paraphrase, it meanders over subjects as disparate as his four marriages, Charles Barkley, Al Jarreau, a mixture of Georgia and Carolina identities he calls “Georgia-lina,” the fact that he still knows Maceo Parker and that Fred Wesley doesn’t live very far away, either, Mr. Bobbit’s superiority to him as a checkers player, the fact that he believes himself to have both Asian and Native American ancestry, and, most crucially, his appetite for corn on the cob and its role in his health: “I like corn, that’s a regular thing with me. Gonna live a long time, live a little longer.”
Afterward, we gather in our usual places, for playback. Late in the eleven-minute song, James Brown issues a universal religious salute: “Salaam-aleikum-may-peace-be-unto-you, brother…. Believe in the Supreme Being!” As these words resound, James Brown glances at me and then abruptly commands Howard to roll the tape back to that point: There’s something he wishes to punch in on the vocal. Hustling into the booth, when the tape arrives at the brief pause between “brother” and “believe,” James Brown now wedges in a brief but hearty “shalom!” Re-emerging, he points at me and winks. “Shalom, Mr. Rolling Stone!” James Brown has pegged me as Jewish. So much for being invisible in this place. He has apparently tampered with the spontaneity of his own vocal, merely in order to appease what he imagines are my religious urgencies.
Indeed, he now fixates on me, for a short while. During this same playback session, while deeply engaged in transcribing what I’ve heard around me, my head ducked to the screen of my Powerbook, I notice that James Brown has begun singing, a cappella, a portion of the song “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” I continue typing, even transcribing the lyrics of the song as he sings them: “Papa was a rolling stone/Wherever he laid his hat was his home….” Odd, I think: This isn’t a James Brown song. Then I hear the band’s laughter and look up. James Brown is singing it directly at me, trying to gain my attention.
“Oh,” I say, red-faced, as I look up at him. “Sorry. I forgot my new name.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Rolling Stone,” says James Brown. “I was just missing you.”
Roosevelt Johnson, known always as R.J., sits with me and explains his role, a role he’s occupied since he was nine, forty-two years ago: “Hold the coat.” Excuse me? “Hold the coat, hold the coat.” R.J. expands, then, on the basic principle of life in the James Brown entourage: You do one thing, you do it right and you do it forever. It is the nature of traveling with James Brown that everyone treats him like a god: “The people that show up in every city, they all fall back into their old jobs, like they never stopped. The doormen stand by the door, the hairdressers start dressing his hair.” R.J. is being modest, since his responsibilities have grown to a performing role, as the second voice in a variety of James Brown’s call-and-response numbers (“Soul Power,” “Make It Funky,” “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved”), replacing the legendary founding member of the Famous Flames — James Brown’s first band — Bobby Byrd. R.J. sounds uncannily like Byrd when he sings — or “raps” — Byrd’s parts in the classic songs, and in concert R.J.’s ebullient turns often draw some of the mightiest cheers from the crowd, who nonetheless can have no idea who he is. Yet for him, his life is defined by his offstage work: “Someday I’m going to write a book about my life, called Holding the Coat.“
(Hearing this, Cynthia Moore, one member of James Brown’s backing singers, the Bitter Sweets, interrupts: “My book’s gonna be called “Take Me to the Bridge, I Want to Jump Off.“)
The greatest exemplar of the Entourage phenomenon is, of course, Danny Ray, the little man with the pompadour and the voice familiar from so many decades of live introductions. Danny, from Birmingham, Alabama, joined James Brown in the Fifties, when they met at the Apollo Theater. He joined as a valet. And, though he has become nearly as recognizable a voice as James Brown himself, he is still a valet; indeed, his concern for the band’s clothes obsesses Danny: He is the human incarnation of James Brown’s lifelong concern with being immaculately dressed. Valet, and master of ceremonies, Danny Ray is also the proprietor of “the cape routine” — i.e., he comes onstage to settle the cape over James Brown’s shoulders when he collapses onstage, and he receives the cape and takes it away when James Brown has shrugged free of it.
R.J. and Danny Ray briefly allude to another responsibility that tends to devolve to valets: wrangling James Brown’s irate girlfriends. Danny Ray cites a few vivid episodes: “Candace. Lisa. Heather. The one from Las Vegas that came to his house carrying a .357. She said, ‘What is your intention?’ ” It is R.J. who finishes the story, laughing: “Brown said, ‘My intention is for you to get on the plane, go back to Las Vegas. Get out of here.’ “
Keith and Damon, the guitarists, ask me if I’d care to join them at a bar. We arrange to meet in Jeff the saxophonist’s room at the Ramada. It is here that I learn Jeff’s nickname: Sizzler. Sizzler is named for how there’s always something aromatic burning in his room — a candle, incense or “something else.” And, sure enough, Jeff’s room is a haze when I arrive to find Keith and Damon there, along with Hollie, drummer Robert “Mousey” Thompson and George “Spike” Nealy, the second percussionist. Here, safely distant from either James Brown’s or Mr. Bobbit’s ears, I’m regaled with the affectionate and mocking grievances of a lifer in James Brown’s band. I think I’m beginning to understand what story it is Keith feels has never been told: the glorious absurdity of the band’s servitude.
“We’re supposed to follow these hand signals,” Keith explains. “We’ve got to watch him every minute, you never know when he’s going to change something up. But his hand is like an eagle’s claw — he’ll point with a curved finger, and it’s like, ‘Do you mean me, or him? Because you’re looking at me but you’re pointing at him.’ “
They take turns imitating James Brown’s infuriating mimed commands to them during live shows. “It’s like rock-paper-scissors,” jokes Damon. Each of the band members, I gradually learn, has a spot-on James Brown impression available. Each has memorized favorite James Brown non sequiturs: “Sixteen of the American presidents were black,” or the time he asked an audience for thirty seconds of silence for a fallen celebrity he called “John F.K.” To these men, James Brown is both their idol and their jester, their tyrannical father and ludicrous child.
Jeff tells me of going on the David Letterman show for a three-minute spot. “We didn’t discuss what we were doing until we got out there. Sound-checked a totally different song. I didn’t know I was doing a solo on TV until he waved me out front.”
Hollie, the longest-enduring among them there, says, “I don’t think there’s another band on the planet that can do what we do.”
Damon adds, “I like to call it Masters of the Impossible.” Yet they hurry to make me understand their vast reverence and devotion — for you see, they’re also the luckiest musicians on earth. Keith tells me, “Brown told us, ‘You got it made. You cats are lucky, you’re made now.’ Eleven years later, I get it. The man hasn’t had a hit for twenty years, but we’ll work forever. We’re going to the Hollywood Bowl, Buckingham Palace, the Apollo Theater, it never stops. We could work for a hundred years. You play with someone else, you might have two good years, then sit for two years, wondering if anything’s ever going to happen again. With James Brown, you’re always working. Because he’s James Brown. It’s like we’re up there with Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse. There’s no other comparison.”
“Listen,” says Jeff. “There’s something we want you to hear.” I’ve been corralled into Jeff’s room for a purpose: the unveiling of the secret recordings of James Brown’s band. The frustration these musicians feel at having no voice in composition or arrangement has taken its toll, a certain despair about the prospects for the present recording sessions. James Brown, they complain, just won’t let his band help him. Yet these frustrations have, in turn, found an outlet.
Sizzler fires up his iTunes, connected to fair pair of desktop speakers, and there, seated on a Ramada bedspread, I’m treated to an audio sample of What Could Be, if only James Brown would allow it. The songs are original funk tunes, composed variously by Damon, Mousey, Jeff and Hollie, and recorded, under cover of darkness, in hotel rooms while the band travels, or while they assemble, as now, for official sessions. The songs are tight, catchy, propulsive numbers, each with one foot in Seventies funk and another in a more contemporary style. They have the added benefit of being something new.
No one has dared tell James Brown that this music exists. He might fire them if he knew. In this, the band’s wishful thinking tangles with its sense of protectiveness of the boss’s feelings. For James Brown, it seems, has had so many important musicians outgrow his band — Bootsy, Maceo, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley — that his passion for control has outstripped his curiosity about what his present roster might have to offer him. Anyone showing signs of a life of their own, musical or otherwise, tends to be the target of elaborate and vindictive humiliations. “It’s abandonment issues,” says Keith. “Has to do with being abandoned by his parents.” James Brown will deliberately schedule mandatory rehearsals to clash with weddings or funerals. Keith tells me, “At the Apollo, the first time my wife was going to see me play, he sat me down offstage, didn’t let me go on.”
The funniest of the secret recordings is a song called “Pimp Danny,” which, unlike the others, consists not only of live instruments played directly into laptop computers but of samples of old James Brown records. By pasting together various introductions to shows over the years, the band has created a track where Danny Ray takes the role of lead vocalist, saying things like, “I like to feel dynamite, I like to feel out of sight! I like to feel sexy-sexy-sexy!” “Pimp Danny” also samples the voice of Bobby Byrd and a drumbeat from Clyde Stubblefield, one of the great drummers from James Brown’s Sixties band. In this way, “Pimp Danny” is not only a celebration of Danny Ray, who seems in many ways the band’s talisman-in-servitude, but a kind of yearning conflation of the legendary past eras of the band with its present incarnation. And there’s a plan: Fred Wesley, James Brown’s trombonist and bandleader throughout the Sixties and Seventies, has promised to come to the studio tomorrow to record a few trombone solos, for old times’ sake. (Everyone comes back.) The band wants to try to sneak Wesley back to the Ramada so he can add his horn to “Pimp Danny.”
Many sizzles later, Keith and Damon and I have made it to the Soul Bar, where loud rap is on the soundtrack, which spurs a brief rhapsody from Keith: “You hear a Chuck Berry song, a Jerry Lee Lewis song, it’s an oldie. It’s got no relevance. James Brown comes on, it’s got relevance. Some rapper has a hit, it’s got a little piece of him in it. He hears himself everywhere. His relevance sustains him.” Keith and Damon go on some more about what they’d do if only they could seize control of the sessions. “James Brown should go out like Johnny Cash did,” they say. Keith says, “We’re like a blade of grass trying to push up through the concrete.”
Now, to note that James Brown is self-centered or egotistical or pleased with himself is hardly an insight worth troubling over. That James “I want to kiss myself” Brown dabbles in self-adulation hardly makes him unique in the history of art. James Brown’s subjugation of his various bands’ musical ambitions to his own ego, to his all-encompassing need to claim as entirely an extension of his own genius every riff invented by anyone within his orbit, is, needless to say, a cause of much dispute. To put it simply: The James Brown sound, its historic sequence of innovations, depends on a whole series of collaborators and contributors, none of whom have been adequately acknowledged or compensated. Yet the more I contemplated the band’s odd solicitude toward James Brown’s ogreish demands, the more completely I became persuaded that James Brown is re-enacting an elemental trauma: the abandonment by his parents into a world of almost feral instability and terror. One doesn’t have to look far. His own 1986 autobiography, James Brown, bears the dedication “For the child deprived of being able to grow up and say ‘Momma’ and ‘Daddy’ and have both of them come put their arms around him.”
This is a child who ate “salad we found in the woods” in his first years, a child who was sent home from school — in the rural South — for “insufficient clothes” (i.e., potato sacks). This is a teenager who was nearly electrocuted by a pair of white men who whimsically invited him to touch a car battery they were fooling with. This is a man who, during his incarceration in the 1980s, long after he’d drowned his nightmare of “insufficient clothes” in velvet and fur and leather and jeweled cuff links, was found to be hiding tens of thousands of dollars in
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