Christmas in May.
Thats what this feels like to many of us in the greater Savannah area.
Its been an awfully long time comin, but it looks like the Coastal Empires finally gonna get back on its collective good foot.
James Browns comin to town.
In case you havent gotten the memo, this Friday night, the Savannah College of Art and Design is sponsoring a free show by one of the all-time greatest figures in American popular music. A man who at one point in his heyday was so ubiquitous that Look magazine placed him on their cover with a headline that read, Is this the Most Important Black Man in America?
It was a rhetorical question.
At that point in his career, James Brown was arguably one of the most recognized and influential men in the free world. It was quite an achievement for a person of his upbringing.
Born into extreme poverty in tiny Barnwell, S.C., 72 years ago this month, the future Mr. Dynamite stumbled through his early education, but could be found with much more regularity shining shoes or dancing in front of the local movie theater for spare change.
After being convicted of breaking into cars left him with a sentence of between eight and sixteen years of hard labor, it seemed as though Browns life was on a fast track to nowhere. But less than four years later he was awarded early release, and in a short while would emerge as a key member of his friend Bobby Byrds gospel band.
With Brown quickly assuming the duties of frontman and bandleader, the Famous Flames (as they became known) shifted from sanctified music to rhythm and blues, and before long, the group was tearing up the relatively lucrative chitlin circuit.
From 1959 through 1976, Browns iron fist and headstrong direction saw that group (and several others under such names as The JBs and the Soul Gs) write, record and release eighty-six singles which charted in the Billboard Top 100. As the first international crossover artist, he helped bring black-oriented music to white audiences as never before, and without diluting or toning down his style, message, or attitude.
Utilizing an uncanny knack for sussing out young talented musicians with the potential for virtuosity, membership in his
band became something of a rite of passage for many players who would later go on to much acclaim on their own, such as Bootsy Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Maceo Parker, and Fred Wesley.
In fact, when the core of his backing group defected to George Clintons Parliament-Funkadelic stable in 1968, that fissure paved the way for literally hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of funk and soul bands to follow in their wake.
His influence is almost inestimable, but that doesnt stop people from trying. In an interview a few years back, Atlanta saxophonist Philip Raines did his best to express how so many musicians feel about the strange amalgam of raw soul, unrelenting improvisation, and limbic, sexual energy that has become Browns stylistic trademark.
Says Raines, Ive listened to everything hes recorded, I think. I honestly think he changed the world a little.ÊChanged my world anyway.ÊNot the same way as monster players like Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin, but in this primal way like his music had soil in it. There is a certain trance involved to playing the parts, and it is the most solid foundation for an extended solo. And James Brown can take it hot.... He could grab the pan no matter how hot, how hard, however many things were hurled against him.ÊThe guy could just work like nothing nobody had ever seen.ÊYou go try to sing Please, Please, Please like that. Damn if it wont make you sweat.
And sweat he did, famously dropping an average of seven pounds of water weight per show as he gyrated through backbreaking splits, turns and kicks that would leave men half his age spent and gasping for air even if they werent singing.
True, in the late 70s and throughout the 80s his fame dwindled as more extreme and theatrical forms of funk, soul and disco supplanted the popularity of his
trademark innovations, but then again, all of that competition sprang from his triumphs.
In the late 80s, Brown, beaten down by debilitating drug abuse and a wrecked career found himself on the wrong side of the law once again this time for a series of abusive incidents with his wife, and some reckless and dangerous behavior while under the influence.
While he has since served his time and appears to be clean and sober, in the past few years there have been troubling brushes with authorities and a handful of what appear to be public relapses into drug abuse.
Unfortunately, there are many young people for whom this two-dimensional caricature is all they know of this towering figure of modern music and pop culture.
While the following local musicians and music fans may not be avid puzzlers, I queried them in the hopes of learning a small bit about what James Brown and his accomplishments mean to his disciples.
Connect Savannah: What did James Brown represent to you in his heyday?
Dennis Goldbaugh (musician, The Jimmy Wolling Band): It seems to me that he invented what we now think of as modern dance beats. I got into an argument in a bar once with somebody. They were incredulous when I told them that I thought James Brown was more of an important figure in the evolution of music than Jimi Hendrix. They couldnt believe it! Today were used to hearing those kind of sounds and coming down on the one beat. But thats all thanks to him.
Keith Kozel (frontman, GAM): I think that all the wonderful things he did for the black community in the 60s cannot be underestimated. He was at the forefront of making the white-controlled government actually start to recognize black Americans as full-fledged citizens. As far as the music goes, he intensively explored combining black R & B with some aspects of popularized white music of the time. Even if he didnt invent this combination, he completely defined it.
Sebastian Edwards (musician, Superhorse): As a musician, I respect the discipline that he instilled in his early bands and I assume in the band he has now. Those guys were so tight its unbelievable. Hip-hop has been borrowing from him and his band ever since. The songs have air in them. He always left
plenty of silence. Hes probably celebrating something very ancient.
Connect Savannah: Have you ever seen him live before?
Tom Kohler (author, citizen advocate): I went to see James Brown in 1965 or 66 here in Savannah at the National Guard Armory on Eisenhower Drive. I was in the seventh or eighth grade, and I went with my best friend. We were two of three white people there. The place was packed. We saw the whole show, the go-go dancers with the longest of legs and the shortest of skirts, the music was as tight and right as we had ever heard. That night James Brown was in complete control of the most powerful emotional force I had ever witnessed. When the concert was over, my friends parents were waiting outside to pick us up. They were not happy. The lack of racial diversity was jarring to them. Remember, this was 1965 in Savannah.
Phil McDonald (bassist, The Sapphire Bullets): Ive seen James on three occasions, if you count the chance encounter in Manhattan. I ran into him with a friend of mine in front of the Taft Hotel in 1974. Of course, we knew who he was. I asked him if he needed a white bass player. He just gave that little signature heh-heh laugh, and that was the end of that exchange. I saw him in 71 or 27, and then again in 76. The first time was the most incredible. He brought three drummers with him. Two of the guys played funk, and the third guy only played on the ballads. When the funk started back after a slow song, one of the guys would start, and then the other guy would ease out of the songs and towel off, so he could be ready when it was his turn again. Just like a DJ with two turntables...
Connect Savannah: Is there anything in your own playing you can trace back directly to James Browns influence?
Sebastian Edwards: That would be the funk. Less is more and silence ultimately is the loudest note of all. Its all about disciplined restraint. But, if its your turn, you better hit it hard and then quit again until its your turn.
Craig Johansen (guitarist, Hot Pink Interior): No. But theres so many other bands who were strongly influenced by his music that its trickled down to me. Every bass player or drummer that Ive ever known was totally into his music.
Ben Tucker (bassist, composer): Well, me, James, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder... were all in the same bag, because we understand what the blues is all about. James really understands the rhythm. He makes it so powerful, and before you know it, its magic. Its all the blues, but his spin is unique. His music is a heavy influence on todays music. Rap, for instance is all James. Its less melodic, but its the same...
Phil McDonald: My favorite song he ever did and it still impresses me to this day is called There Was A Time. Now, its one chord. Theres not a chord change in the tune. Its nothing more than a presentation of dynamics. That left a lasting impression about what music really is. Its energy and the manipulation of energy.
Connect Savannah: Whats your take on the bad publicity hes received for his problems with drugs and violence?
Ben Tucker: Well, the media likes to ignore him except when theyre humiliating him. They say, oh hes a crazy, burned-out old man who beats up his wife and screams and shouts! And yet, they accept rap. I dont get it.
Phil McDonald: Some eighteen-year-old kid who doesnt realize that most every sample on every hip-hop record he owns came from this man wouldnt automatically put two and two together. But, thats not my problem. If these kids dont get it, thats their loss.
Connect Savannah: Do you enjoy his music less because of his problems?
Tom Kohler: Life is hard and JB grew up hard. Most people, at some point in their life give back the demons they were given. His behavior with women is deep seated and despicable. He is still JB to me, but a much more human JB. He was an idol. Now, he is an imperfect man, like all men.
Craig Johansen: You know, if Elvis was still alive, what kind of trouble would he have gotten into in the last thirty years? Most of James Browns peers are dead. Hes outlived them all. Who knows what sort of twisted stuff theyd be up to?
Phil McDonald: I dont separate the two sides. I embrace every waking moment the boy still has. I wont in any way allow someones personal life to intrude on their art. If that were the case, Id have thrown away all my Boy George records.
Ben Tucker: Naw. I dont even let the personal stuff come in the way of his artistry. You know, when hes dead and gone, theyre gonna say, well wholl replace him? Aint nobody gonna replace him! There can never be another. Hes a legend.