I cried when I learned of James first public bout with the horrors of drug addiction and I dont give a damn who knows it. To see such a strong (and strong-willed) man caught in the debilitating grip of PCP was almost too much for me to bear. It confused me, turning my perception of the world on its head.
Admittedly, James had long played fast and loose with the facts when it came to the way he lived his life. One need only look to his first autobiography (published in 1986) and the incongrouous statements about his lack of formal education to see that.
For example, if as he so boldly stated he could not have been expected to properly calculate and pay his income taxes since the American system of segregation had provided him with sub-par schooling in mathematics, where did he get off bragging about his business savvy and innate skills for investments and fiscal negotiations?
Still, the idea that Soul Brother Number One, who lectured kids at length about the importance of staying in school (even recording a minor hit called Dont Be A Drop-out), having pride in themselves, and staying away from drugs and alcohol, would willingly experiment with and fall prey to abusing animal tranquilizer was nigh on unfathomable.
When a force of nature as seemingly unstoppable as The Hardest Working Man In Show Business could be brought to his knees and truly to the brink of insanity then what hope could possibly exist for the rest of us mere mortals?
Beyond the disappointment and indignity in that, how much more awful for those of us who believed so strongly in JB to see him fall from grace?
How much easier it might have been for him to leave this old world felled by an assassins bullet like John Lennon or from an accidental death like Otis Redding or even indirectly from drug use like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin?
But no... JB refuses to quit.
He soldiers on like Dylan and Bowie and Cash and Miles and Prince geniuses all, who simply never cease creating and performing until age, infirmity, senility or death strips them of the ability to communicate with the public. And, like those superstar icons, one can almost get away with chopping off one half of his name and referring to Brown as merely James.
For, after all - in the world of popular Western music there can be only one.
In contmeplating the article that was published in this weeks issue of Connect Savannah, I tried to imagine myself as someone who was unfamiliar with JBs history, back catalog and import. That seemed to be the best way to approach such a piece. Unfortunately, I found myself incapable of putting aside my own deeply-seated admiration for the man.
However, in attempting to do so, it forced me to accept the fact that in 2005, many people in America (including those who consider themselves devotees of popular music) have either lost sight of James Browns legacy, or were never made aware of it in the first place.
Much of this ignorance can be chalked up to age, but a much more likely cause is the inarguable fact that since the early 80s, Brown has slowly metamorphosed into a broadly drawn caricature of his former self.
When many people think of James Brown, they think of Eddie Murphys good-natured (but harsh) impersonation of the singer from that comedians halcyon days on Saturday Night Live. Still others chuckle at the image of department store displays of grotesque battery-operated dancing effigies which writhe around to tinny samples of his most famous hits (surely one of the worst celebrity licensing deals of the past half-century).
To truly check my own sentiment at the door, Id have to seek out others who might have strong feelings about the entertainer, and find out what it was (if anything) that endeared James Brown to them in the past or the present.
While space restrictions prevented me from including all of the responses I collected (and some respondents input entirely), much of what was ommitted seemed worth sharing. The following are complete transcripts of those interviews, and while some of the information does appear in both pieces, theres still plenty of fresh food for thought.
Connect Savannah: What did James Brown represent to you in his heyday?
Tom Kohler (author, citizen advocate): James Brown knew more about how to communicate than anyone I had ever met. He communicated with me at the National Guard Armory on Eisenhower Drive in the mid 1960's. He was a poor black man who built an empire out of talent and sweat.
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 helping to make the white-controlled government actually start to recognize black Americans as full-fledged citizens. Most people these days may not care to learn about or think about these things, and they may just want to hear his music but his legacy is still real.
As far as the music goes, he intensively explored a certain type of funk. He combined black R & B with some aspects of popularized white music of the time. Even if he didnt invent this combination, he completely defined and popularized that style.
Sebastian Edwards (musician, Superhorse): Well, initially, as a listener, it has such an infectious beat. As a musician, I respect the dicipline 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. James would always have his band leave room in their arrangements. The songs have air in them. Hes made sure that he left plenty of silence. Each player can just stick to their little part, but they all work together to lock into a solid groove that can just go on and on.
Hes probably celebrating something very ancient... like African folk music. But theres a very special way in which it has to work. Theyre bowing down to a formula that was there long before him or his band. James seems very wise about that. Im guessing he heard those grooves in the black churches, because thats where rock and roll came from. Some of those congregations have eight-year-olds playing the drums and twelve-year-olds playing bass and doing the most spectacular things on their instruments...
Hes a gifetd frontman and a gifted bandleader. As a musician myself, I can tell you right now that there are hundreds and thousands of amazing musicians all over America let alone the world and these are people youll never hear about and theyll never even make it out of their hometown. But somebody as powerful as James Brown back in the day could pick and choose. He could get the cream of the crop, and just get down to the business of making them into the best players they could be.
Dennis Goldbaugh (musician, The Jimmy Wolling Band): For one thing, james music was always about the band not just him. Nobody else at the time used those same beats and rhythms the way he and his band did. It seems to me that he invented what we now think of as modern dance beats. He made his first record in Macon, Georgia, which is where Im from. He made it right in the local radio studio.
My brothers eight years older than me, and he was big into soul music. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, all the big guys. He saw James Brown in the Macon Civic Auditorium, and in those days the mid 60s James would do a big show around Christmas or New Years, and it was segregated. If it was a white act, the whites would sit on the floor, and the blacks had to stay in the balcony. If it was a black act, the blacks were on the floor and the whites were in the balcony, and my brother saw several of those shows from the balcony when James was in his prime.
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! There were a lot of soul bands that evolved from blues or gospel music, but he took it in a whole other direction.
He invented funk. They might play on just one chord for the whole song, but each particular musician had his part. To people whod never heard anything like that it ma have sounded chaotic. Today were used to hearing those kind of sounds and coming down on the one beat. But thats all thanks to him.
He was a hell of a showman, an amazing dancer, an amazing singer, and a surprisingly good musician as well. Like a lot of musical pioneers, he probably wasnt the nicest fellow in the world. But hell, he was a visionary. I cant wait for the show. Were finally getting some great shows around here and theyre all comin at once. When it rains it pours.
I dont expect to see and hear the kind of show he was doin back in the 60s and 70s, but Im sure hell be workin as hard as he can. He was born dirt poor in the deep South with very few opportunities, and he was workin for a living from the time he was old enough to walk around! He was driven, and he followed his own path.
Jeremy Stoner (musician, ARTillery Punch): I dig me some James Brown, and I have since high school when I was playing in the jazz band. Guys that I played garage rock with were into his stuff as well.
Craig Johansen (guitarist, Hot Pink Interior): I dont expect to see him in his prime, or even perform at the same level he did when he was in Rocky 3 singing Living In America, but hes gonna be in Forsyth Park, and so of course Ill be there. He means so much, and hes still doin it. I would still go if they charged money, but the fact that its free just makes it an obvious choice. How can anyone in town not go to this?
Connect Savannah: Have you ever seen him live before?
Tom Kohler: 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 other was a guy we had just met at Wilder Jr., High School who was in a local band
called the Checkmates. My friend played in a band called "The Deep Blue".
We had a great time. 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. The three of us snake danced with hundreds of people on the floor of the civic center. It was sweaty and great.
We watched james fall to his knees, be covered with a cape, helped up and led off stage and then throw off the cape and run back to wail us into deeper frenzy. This went on for maybe fifteen minutes, maybe six or seven rounds of frenzy.
When the concert was over we all streamed out into the night. My friends mom and dad were standing outside to pick us up. They were not happy. The lack of racial diversity was jarring to them. Remember, this was 1965 in Savannah.
Ben Tucker (bassist, composer): Oh, Ive seen him many, many times, but I havent seen him live for the past eight or ten years.
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 new 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 72, 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. It literally never stopped. 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. Even if your amp goes to eleven. When you look out in the audience and you have a sixty-year-old lady dancing, you know youre doing it right. Its all about disciplined restraint. But, if its your turn, you better hit it hard and then quit until its your turn again.
Jeremy Stoner: Absolutely.
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. Thats what it does better than anything.
Connect Savannah: James seemed to have a real knack for picking wonderful musicians and helping them to shine its the same way with Frank Zappa, Miles and Dylan. These people could have wound up in anyones band, but under the guidance of James Brown, they reached amazing heights.
Phil MacDonald: Thats an accurate statement. Its because the people you mention Zappa and Davis and Dylan, theyre icons. Listen, if people dont go see this guy Friday night, it may be their last chance. Someday, itll come full circle and theyll realize what they missed...
Connect Savannah: There was a time when JB was the epitomy of the slick, debonair American male. What sort of message do you think that sent?
Tom Kohler: James Brown scared the hell out of a lot of white people. He was stealing peoples kids. He and Elvis were doing the same thing.
Connect Savannah: What's 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: Its not difficult for me to see in him what he once was, because I know where he came from. 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 find it ironic that he fell prey to paranoia, substance abuse and violent behavior after publicly campaigning against such behavior so vociferously in the past?
Phil McDonald: Do as I say, not as I do. Its the classic teacher/pupil relationship. it was a shtick like any other. It had nothing to do with his reality. Its like when youre a kid and you find out that one of your elementary school teachers is a human being. You see em smoking a cigarette, and you freak out, because to you, theyre perfect and they dont do anything wrong. Everybody wants to believe in the image.
Well, let me ask you this: Why is someone who just happens to be the finest soul singer who ever came down the pike held to a higher standard? Only because hes the best. If he were anybody else, they wouldnt be takin shots at him. Its part of human nature. Thats the way it goes.
Connect Savannah: Do you enjoy his music less because of his legal 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.
Amy Linden (R & B scholar): He's the Yosemite Sam of R&B. But then, all those guys are nuts. They're nuts partly because of self-preservation and partly because that was their way of getting over... In the end it's back to that great debate: Does he become any less of a great artist because he's obviously a completely ridiculous human being?
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?
Sebastian Edwards: I totally separate the two things. Hes been an incredibly influential songwriter and frontman and musician for all these years, but hes still just a person like you or me. And hey we all have our mistakes and bad moments.
Hes a legend. Hes not magic, but hes done wonderful work. Despite his age, Im certain hell come out and kick up some serious dust in the park. (laughs) That is the beauty of music. Its not like being a professional football player, or an Olympic gymnast or swimmer. In those cases, your career ends at some point whether you want it to or not. Musicians just get smarter and wiser and more crotchety. But they only improve.
Jeremy Stoner: In this kind of situation, I like to try and keep it separate. Theres the James Brown you see onstage and then theres the James Brown away from the public eye. I have so much respect for what he does onstage, that I think its only natural that I dont judge his art by what sort of person he might be. If hes a real asshole, Im not sure that that has much to do with whether or not I can appreciate his music. Obviously, I dont support his violent behavior, but I very much support the music that he makes onstage.
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. Hes iconic. Hes the Godfather of Soul, he will bring it like nobody else can bring it. And, he can still bring it a hell of a lot better than most even at his age. Ill be there, and if I can get up and get close, thatll be even better.
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.
Connect Savannah: What would say to try and convince someone that they should make a point to see JB in 2005?
Jeremy Stoner: Well, Id say that this guy is a legend. You wouldnt want to miss something like that. If you enjoy live music of any kind whatsoever, you gotta go! You know hes gonna have a great band, and the level of showmanship is gonna be sick. Unless youre really morally opposed to him as an individual. Other than that, you wont want to miss this.
Joe Nelson (musician, The Glow In The Dark String Band): I wouldnt put anything past him. Nothing at all would surprise me when it comes to this man. If he got up there and danced and sang as well as he did thirty years ago, I would not be surprised at all. Im proud of him for continuing to get out there at his age and do the very best that he can. Even if hes half as good as he used to be, hell still be great. Most people his age would have retired years ago.
Ben Tucker: Hes a true blue legend. There is no other. I have a lot of respect for him.
Phil McDonald: I see it like this: If the people who dont really know who he is or why hes so important, could be made to understand that if they want to know where the Chili Peppers came from, or where the Beastie Boys came from and you can just go down the list its like a family tree! James gave birth to everything else in the R & B and funk side. I mean, back in the day, even Al Green wished he could have been James Brown. Thats what he was aiming for. To me, he is an icon and he has left a legacy that will not be rivaled. Its that simple.
Im just a big fan, as you can tell. Even when I listen to things like Living In America. Its a perfect radio song. And I know he didnt write it, but lemme tell you hes the only one that couldve pulled it off! Without James, it would have become almost a laughable kind of performance. But instead, it merely became his novelty song, and everybody deserves to have one of those, right?
Connect Savannah: What are your hopes for this concert?
Tom Kohler: I am guessing that I will not be one of three white people at this concert. That is significant to me. I'm calling my two buds from 1965, they both moved back and maybe we'll go together, with our families. I have daughters in the seventh and ninth grade. It will be very cool to see what they think.
Sebastian Edwards: I would say that this is gonna be the biggest party since last year when George Clinton played. Its gonna be such great fun, and you wont have to know anything about music. Its not about that. Its about watching little kids dance right next to their grandmas in the park for free.
Phil McDonald: Hell be welcomed like the prodigal son. All the negative images from his personal life will be forgotten. The segregation and the racism will be gone. It will be like a new day. And Ill be happy for that to be the perceived image.
Connect Savannah: But what about that ridiculous dancing doll of his?
Craig Johansen: Well, now... I remember the Evel Knievel motorcyle toy where youd wind it up and he go flyin across the room, or jump over a van or something. That was cool. You know what I mean?