I’ve just received an email from a good friend telling me that James Brown has died.
It being Xmas, I’ve been out all day doing Christmas type things (and sitting on the beach), and to be honest, this was the very last thing I expected to come home to.
The internet, such is the nature of things, will be awash with tributes to one of the most influential musical figures of the last century, and beyond saying that without James contemporary music as we know it, and popular culture, would be a completely different beast, I’ll leave the musical eulogies to others.
I saw James for the first time in London in 1984, way past his prime sadly but still absolutely compelling. I’d turned down an invitation to see him on Auckland’s North Shore at the quaintly named Kicks Cabaret in late seventies, one of those gigs, and there have been a few, I’ve always regretted, in my naivety (and poverty) missing.
I saw him again twice in the latter years of the eighties and he was never less than astounding. As I mentioned in my live overview, standing physically next to Maceo, and by extension, JB, who was chanting “Maceo, Maceo” over the sax solo, in Melbourne, in 1988, is quite a memory for me.
I turned down the chance to see JB in the early part of this decade (twice actually) and from all accounts, I made the correct decision. I’d seen him late enough in his career and didn’t want to spoil that by seeing a declining money making machine. Those I knew that had also seen him earlier and saw the latter shows indicated that was all it was. Not that I begrudge the man that, it’s just that I didn’t want to see it.
Inevitably there has already been a whole bunch of stuff online along the lines of “one less wife beating junkie”, (his troubles dominated the CNN tribute I saw — it’s hard to be a black icon in the USA) and quite frankly, he wasn’t perfect or close to it — how many of our musical heroes are, especially those that come from the time and place that James did.
However, none of that can remove the sheer joy and exhilaration generations felt and will feel “taking it to the bridge” one more time.
In 1988 Stetsasonic released their classic Talking All That Jazz with the now famous lines:
Tell the truth, James Brown was old
‘Til Eric and Rakim came out with “I Got Soul”
which, whilst there was an element of truth in it, rather missed the point: the hip hop samplers may have given James’ catalogue a new life but without JB, there would have been no hip hop.
End of story. None. He, or those he surrounded himself with, defined and invented the music that made possible Stetsasonic.
One of my favourite JB moments was seeing the man on Larry King in the early nineties claiming he had been sampled “almost 100 times”…uh okay James…are we talking in the average week?
We can talking about legacy as much as we like, it’s all made absolutely irrelevant by the opening swirl of It’s a Mans World, or the breakdown in Talking Loud and Saying Nothin’, or for that matter, a thousand other James moments.
JB was always mostly about the joy of just hearing him; of never getting over hearing him; and of wanting to hear him again and again.
I’ll miss you James Brown, thank you for a big part of my life.
His last words, so I’ve read, were I’m going away tonight. Nope James, you’ll always be here…
With that in mind I’m off to immerse myself. I will, for a moment, get slightly morose and then grin joyously to the untouchable Ballads album