James Brown: Doing It to Death
“I don’t have to work,” said the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, James Brown. “I don’t have to make some payments next month, or pay the electrical bill, gas bill or whatever. That’s been taken care of many, many years ago. I let my gut feeling make decisions.”
Mr. Brown’s gut had him in town on Nov. 10, the eve of a two-night stand at B.B. King’s nightclub in the heart of refurbished Times Square. And why not? New York has always held a charm for the man who invented the enduring, heavy-on-the-downbeat dance music called funk. Just last month, Mr. Brown shared the stage with Lenny Kravitz at the 2000 VH1 /Vogue Fashion Awards at the theater at Madison Square Garden. Twenty years ago, the half-forgotten performer sparked a comeback at the old Lone Star Café on East 13th Street. And back in 1962, Mr. Brown recorded his career-defining road show on 125th Street in Harlem. The resulting document, Live at the Apollo , remains his highest-charting album ever.
“New York is made up of the little things that meant something–Birdland, Lone Star and all of that!” Mr. Brown exclaimed. But, he said, “what’s special in New York is the Apollo Theater. It contributed to a whole race of people–then it contributed to all the young people, who wanted to know where the music came from.”
Mr. Brown was wearing a gray suit, a bright purple shirt open at the collar and black suede boots with silver tips. His hair was processed, and his eyebrows were painted on. In a coarse voice roughened by those signature screams and gut-punched exhortations, he talked of his legacy–occasionally referring to himself in the third person–and his upcoming shows.
“Now see, most entertainers won’t work in another entertainer’s place. But this is B.B. King’s, he’s a very good friend of mine,” Mr. Brown said. “So I’d be happy to play his place anytime and let the people see James Brown and know what a good time is.”
Up close, the 67-year-old Mr. Brown looks more the Grandfather than the Godfather of Soul. But his rapid repartee and exuberance contradict the wrinkles and slight paunch brought on by a half-century of shows and tours. He is acutely aware of his pervasive influence on contemporary hip-hop (“Well, rap came from me …”) and yet bemoans an unfortunate lack of originality in today’s music. Asked how he feels when he hears a James Brown sample spicing a current rap hit, Mr. Brown told Manhattan Music: “Those samples are extensions of me. I’m proud of them, because now I get paid.”
Still, Mr. Brown said, “I’m not proud of the stigma it leaves. I’m not proud of the fact that there’s no new music. I got kids and grandkids and great-grandkids … [and] we don’t want them to come back with no music. They can’t be nothing but robbers.”
Mr. Brown is an ex-con twice over: first for petty theft as a teenager, and in 1989 for various violent and drug-related offenses. He is now born-again. Praises to God punctuate his conversation. His manager is his pastor, who accompanies him on his travels. And his religion influences his business decisions, such as who gets to quote from timeless funk anthems like “I Feel Good” or “Hot Pants.”
“I get about 125 to 150 different inquiries every day on the catalog, for publishing rights, from around the world,” Mr. Brown said. “The first thing I look for is, if it’s [related to] alcohol or tobacco or pornography or violence, then my office disapproves it no matter how much it pays.”
For example, he continued, “Will Smith wanted to use my stuff, a sample for a song, and it would have made it so big, and it would have made us a lot of money … but we didn’t like the song.” Then there was Chris Rock. “I know his mother,” Mr. Brown said. Still, he turned the comic down because “the profanity is what he chose to do.”
A gospel sensibility has always informed Mr. Brown’s music. His shows still shake with the uplifting charge of a prayer meeting, and his roots go back to a time when rock ‘n’ roll, soul and funk were part of the same Southern musical brew coming out of juke joints and churches.
“Me, I was hard gospel–jubilee. Ray Charles was also in that,” Mr. Brown said. “You know, jubilee is rap.” Then he sang a few lines of proof: “Well, God spoke to Jonah–he’s a Christian man / Said ‘Gotta go down,’ he want to save the land. / Jonah didn’t want to do what God command / Got him a ticket out of the gospel land.”
On Friday night Mr. Brown’s faithful made B.B. King’s cavernous basement room a shoulder-to-shoulder pressure cooker. Tables and chairs had been removed for a sold-out crowd including veteran soul fans from uptown, teenage funk acolytes and two generations in between. Expectations were high, and Mr. Brown did not disappoint.
At 9 p.m. sharp, the Soul Generals, Mr. Brown’s 16-piece, neatly uniformed group–including two drummers, two bassists and three guitarists–broke into a brief number that brought the Bittersweets, his four backup singers, to the stage. Then, clad in a white tuxedo, M.C. Danny Ray–Mr. Brown’s perennial sidekick–exclaimed those now-immortal words: “And right about now it is … star time!”
Mr. Brown kicked off in high gear and, over the next 90 minutes, seamlessly weaved one familiar funk motif into another (I counted only four pauses during the entire show). In the first 20 minutes alone, he performed “Get Up Offa That Thing,” “Cold Sweat,” “Popcorn” and “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time.”
No matter that Mr. Brown’s gravity-defying splits have been reduced to the occasional stage-spin or microphone-play. His rhythmic accuracy is still perfect, and the mere suggestion of a strut, slide or camel-walk elicited gasps and screams. The applause only subsided as Mr. Brown ceded the mike to two less-than-stellar protegées: Janis Joplin copycat Tomi Rae Hynie, and later Spanish rapper Sara Raya.
But then, what is the James Brown Revue without the “Revue”? It’s as much a part of the act as his final routine. While singing “Please, Please, Please,” Mr. Brown fell to his knees as Mr. Ray draped a sparkling green cape over his shoulders and led him upstage. As he has done countless times with feigned drama, Mr. Brown threw off the cloak and rushed back to sing; the crowd roared. An extended version of “Sex Machine” pushed the show to its climax, and the singer departed, sweat-drenched and smiling.
The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business? Believe it. Approaching a youthful 70, Mr. Brown’s got the timecard to prove it.
– Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is author of the just published Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (Da Capo).
When Johnny Cash recorded his Rick Rubin-shepherded American Recordings (American) in 1994, country music was undergoing a sea change it hadn’t seen since countrypolitan reared its pomaded head around 1960. Thanks to Soundscan, record companies had finally been put on notice that if they didn’t start recording acts that sounded like the Eagles, they may as well close up their Nashville divisions. Scores of country legends who had previously benefited from benign neglect–the Waylons, the Merles and, for God’s sake, even the Willies–found themselves homeless or, at best, on the road again.
Ironically (but logically), the only folk who cared enough to do something about this were the rock royalty that country previously had no use for, but who had been avidly following the bad-boy images of these totemic stars since childhood. So Waylon Jennings fixed himself up with Don Was, Tammy Wynette did the “Justified and Ancient” thing with the K.L.F., and under Def Jam founder Mr. Rubin’s protective wing, Mr. Cash recorded as sublime a country record as was released in the 90’s with just a quavery voice, an acoustic guitar and contributions from the likes of metal god Glenn Danzig.
It worked, even if it didn’t sell. Mr. Rubin’s bourgeois danger jones gained legitimacy, and the work of clever songwriters such as Nick Lowe garnered emotional authenticity when interpreted by the Man in Black (who evidently didn’t hold a grudge over the Carlene Carter marriage fiasco). And Mr. Cash himself–a religious but honestly conflicted man–contributed some of his darkest songs in decades.
But then Mr. Rubin began to push his luck. 1996’s follow-up, Unchained (reportedly recorded at the same sessions) featured Mr. Rubin’s Los Angeles party buddies, the Heartbreakers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, backing up Mr. Cash, and the results are anonymous and lack propulsive bite.
Since then, Mr. Cash’s health has slowly slipped away from him (as has the health of Mr. Rubin’s now-Sony-affiliated label), but here we have American III: Solitary Man (American), a grab bag of both solo and accompanied tracks that initially gives the impression that this might be an odds and sods from last decade’s sessions.
That is, until you listen to the singing, which appears to be of recent vintage. Mr. Cash’s always limited range and hurly-burly pitch seems to have been reduced from A-F to A-C. In theory, this should pose no problem for the listener; Mr. Cash was always more Morrissey than Freddie Mercury. But although Solitary Man isn’t a vocal embarrassment on the scale of Ray Price’s comeback album this year, neither does it possess the rough-hewn tragic glory of Billie Holiday’s late-period Lady in Satin . So a song that might seem ready for a radical rethinking, such as U2’s “One” (with its glorious original arrangement and idiotic lyrics) ends up losing on both ends.
And what of Neil Diamond’s title track? Mr. Cash’s solo rendition doesn’t sound entirely comfortable. Despite his triumph three decades earlier with Bob Dylan’s less sophisticated outlaw paean, “Wanted Man,” Mr. Diamond–like Messrs. Cash and Dylan, a Columbia Records superstar in the 1970s–is something of the obverse of Mr. Cash. The pleasures of Mr. Diamond’s early work were obscured by his silly pretensions and considerable hubris. Mr. Cash, on the other hand, added gravitas to quite a few pieces of mariachi-fueled tripe in his time. Sometimes he sounded embarrassed, but often he elevated them. At least he was never defeated by the material.
Mr. Cash prevails once again on Solitary Man , even if the often-interesting material here isn’t exactly improved by his interpretation or his performance. Nothing against Nick Cave–who, like Mr. Diamond and Mr. Danzig, was underrated as a songwriter in his prime–but “Mercy Seat” was originally an attempt to reach the heights (or depths) of Mr. Cash’s greatest work.
Of course, every interpreter needs new material, and you could make a case that the new Tin Pan Alley dresses in black and hangs out at the Viper Room. Still, dressing an aging, ailing legend in the clothing of Nick Cave is just ass-backwards.
When Marty Willson-Piper played Luna Lounge for the CMJ Music Festival back in October, he finished the gig feeling a little unsatisfied. Mr. Willson-Piper, 42, is a guy who likes to keep busy. In addition to being the guitarist of the long-running atmospheric Australian rock band, the Church, and a guitarist-vocalist for the British shoe-gazer group All About Eve, Mr. Willson-Piper recently released a solo album, Hanging Out in Heaven (Heyday), which he was plugging at CMJ.
Anyway, Mr. Willson-Piper, who grew up in Merseyside in northern England, compared putting together and rehearsing a band for a single show to “meeting Nastassja Kinski, having sex with her once–her really enjoying it, you really enjoying it–and then you never seeing her again.”
Hence, Mr. Willson-Piper has been releasing a little of that pent-up energy via a couple of additional shows in town. He will perform an electric set at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J., on Nov. 16, with the band who accompanied him at Luna Lounge: drummer Linda Pitmon and bassist Dave DeCastro of Steve Wynn’s quartet (Mr. Wynn, formerly of Dream Syndicate–not the casino business–will also perform that night.) Mr. Willson-Piper also noted that the other members of the Church are in town mixing the band’s next album, which is slated to be released next year. In a perfect world, they would show up and join Mr. Willson-Piper on stage. So would Ms. Kinski.
– Frank DiGiacomo