James Brown can take his rightful place alongside Coltrane, Miles, Ellington, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Otis and the other giants. The guy had a remarkable music and business mind – a one-of-a-kind way of hearing.
I first caught Brown live back in 1964 with cape – three drummers and two bass players. I was playing a prom at the Coliseum in Louisville, Kentucky in a side room while Brown inhabited center stage in the sports arena. What a spectacle. The place burned with female shrieks and thundering rhythm. I’d never heard a band play with such precision outside the Basie band.
That summer we followed Brown into Club Cherry in Lebanon , Kentucky with The Shadows, which was a cover band playing mostly rhythm and blues classics of the day. Club Cherry was a black music venue that sat next to a long stretch of railroad tracks. The decor was all things dim and walls sticky with tobacco stains and evaporating body sweat. When you entered, one of the first things you saw was two large glass canisters next to the cashier. One had three or four left-behind pickled pigs feet submerged in what appeared to be pond water and the other showcased a preserved pig snout. Posters of Arthur Prysock, Count Basie, Lowell Fulsom, Cab Calloway graced the walls. Bands shared dressing quarters with the owner who on this occasion had failed to sweep away a recently spent condom. Soiled clothing and the smell of fresh pomade challenged the nasal passages.
The stage where Brown worked his magic was not at all the grand dimensions you’d expect, leaving one to believe floor space down front served that purpose. On this night two fights broke out, both swift and memorable. One guy took a shot from a kitchen chair across the backside followed by a kick to the head: Justice served, I guess. I remember thinking how unruly and bizarre the whole week must have been with Brown in attendance. The local white clubs were jammed with beer swilling teenagers more intent on getting a liver rupture than a shot of music. Club Cherry was all about sex and music. In which order they arrived depended on how magnificent the doo shaped up and how smooth your delivery. Over at Club 69 the white boys were like vultures, hovering over the potential carrion until the last chick fell unconscious after drinking a vat of near-beer.
Fast-forward to the mid nineties when Brown was booked into the Masonic Temple in Toronto . Gino Empry was Brown’s PR man for this occasion. My wife Kristine and I jumped all over the offer to attend the press conference with cameras in hand. The place was dominated by television crews so we decided to split up and shoot from opposing sides. Brown eventually held court. I snapped a few shots when suddenly Brown singles me out. ” Who says you can be taking pictures of me …did I ask you?”
At first I was startled by the remark, but then I realized I could ignore him. ” He then turns to Kristine and says,.” Pretty thing you can shoot as many pictures as you want.”
Needless to say, that was my invitation to cop as many indiscreet shots as I could.
Still, nothing matched the concert images. The room was a suffocating hundred degrees and a hundred per cent humidity. Both Kristine and I shot from down front but the cramped surroundings had me close to panicking for air. We relocated upstairs and caught some wonderful concert frames and enjoyed one of the best concerts ever. The building foundations shook.
In the ensuing years I have found myself buying early Brown sides to reacquaint myself with the complex rhythm patterns – the inside horn lines—that rest at the core of his sound. Brown camped on the offbeats, which is a most unusual place to inject a clever twist of a phrase.
I’ve played many of the Live at the Apollo tracks in various bands but no one really ever played his arrangements note-for-note.
Prince is the grandest and most serious disciple of Brown. He uses the same measured techniques to build from the bottom up.
It’s funny how we say “We will truly miss the man.” But in reality James Brown will never be gone. Like Ray Charles the music will linger for an eternity. Brown was crazy as hell and did some wild ass things but it’s still the music not the personal silliness that was his strong suit.
I met several players around Los Angeles in the 60’s and 70’s who worked as sideman for Brown. As jobs go, this was no picnic. The gig was demanding and paid a paltry sum. Brown carved out minuscule stage real estate for each band member. If one ventured beyond that, they could expect a fine and tongue lashing – the same for wrong notes, miscues and stage wear. The man ruled a tight kingdom and kept his bands in prime shape. I never saw less than perfection.
JB dance in peace!
847 w. January 12, 2006