James Brown 1933–2006

A guest post from Mur­ray Cam­mick. Mo’ says:

This is the ver­sion of the James Brown sto­ry (that was pub­lished in the Feb­ru­ary 2007 Rip­It­Up mag­a­zine) before I axed 300 or so words and a bit of the colour from the sto­ry.

Bryan Staff interviews JB, Auckland 1978
Bryan Staff inter­views JB, Auck­land 1978

The Godfather Of Funk 

We will need a new card for Christ­mas 2007, one that recog­nis­es the birth of Jesus Christ and the death of James Brown on Decem­ber 25.

When you read Brown’s biog­ra­phy you won­der how he sur­vived his child­hood in a house of ill-repute and his impris­on­ment as a teenag­er. With no edu­ca­tion, how did this wild and crazy guy become the biggest soul star in the USA and then rev­o­lu­tionise that style to invent funk?

I get pissed off  when music writ­ers choose the 1962 Live  At The Apol­lo as Brown’s best live album. They are ignor­ing the piv­otal achieve­ment of his life, the fact that in 1965 he invent­ed a new sound with the sin­gle ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’. This sin­gle was No.1 on the Bill­board R&B charts for eight weeks. He should be called the God­fa­ther of Funk not the God­fa­ther of Soul.

I found a writer in the James Brown box set Star Time  who sup­ports my con­jec­ture, his name is James Brown.

The first nine years of my career 1956–65 were good. I had ‘Please Please Please’, ‘Night Train’ [etc]. They sus­tained me, but it wasn’t enough. Then I thought about the peo­ple around me. I want­ed to come up with some­thing that would give us a place in the busi­ness. That’s when I hit on ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’. It was a slang that would relate to the man in the street, plus it had its own sound: the music on the one-and-three, the down­beat in antic­i­pa­tion. To the musi­cians I was say­ing, here’s a new bag. Here’s a new direc­tion. Here’s one that rep­re­sents the peo­ple, not just Mozart, Schu­bert, Beethoven, Bach, Strauss or Man­to­vani. So I brought the real­ness back. It was a rev­o­lu­tion that became a uni­ver­sal sound and it’s still uni­ver­sal today.” (abridged)

MCJamesB_Aust

Brown remained one funk’s finest prac­tic­tion­ers through­out his career and inspired the careers of Sly Stone, the P-Funk crowd (many of George Clinton’s musi­cians includ­ing Boot­sy Collins were pre­vi­ous­ly in  Brown’s band), Prince, Michael Jack­son and the hip-hop gen­er­a­tion etc.

In 1968, Brown released the sin­gle ‘Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud’ that spent six weeks at No.1 on the USA R&B charts. He pre­viewed this song cau­tious­ly at his 1968 Dal­las con­cert. This con­cert was released in 1998 as Say It Live And Loud on Poly­dor. Chuck D of Pub­lic Ene­my writes in the CD’s intro about this sec­ond piv­otal song, “James Brown sin­gle-hand­ed­ly took a lost and con­fused nation of peo­ple and bond­ed them with a fix of words, music and atti­tude. ‘Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud’ was a phrase that pre­pared me for the third grade, 1969 and the rest of my life.”

The Hard­est Work­ing Man in Show Busi­ness” is one of the oth­er slo­gans used to describe James Brown. New Zealan­ders can under­stand why he has earned this title as most of the oth­er greats of soul music (Sam Cooke, Otis Red­ding, Aretha Franklin, Mar­vin Gaye, Solomon Burke, Smokey Robin­son, Wil­son Pick­ett, Al Green, Sam & Dave etc) have nev­er ever played once in New Zealand, yet James Brown has played here three times and was also booked for two oth­er con­certs that were can­celled.

James Brown first played Auck­land in the mid­dle of 1978 when he did two shows in one night at the Shore­line Cabaret. Brown was to appear at the Jan­u­ary 1988 Neon Pic­nic, which col­lapsed when the Music Fes­ti­val could not pay for the air­fares for the for­eign musi­cians to trav­el to New Zealand. Brown was also booked to appear at an out­door show on April 1, 1995 at Mt Smart Sta­di­um, that was can­celled when tick­et sales were slow.

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After play­ing the Byron Bay Fes­ti­val in Aus­tralia, Brown then played a packed show at the St. James The­atre on March 31, 2004. His return to Auck­land on Feb­ru­ary 10, 2006 saw Brown play­ing to a half-full Civic The­atre.

I saw all these shows and it would be easy to say how great it was back in the day at the inti­mate Shore­line Cabaret show, but my favourite New Zealand con­certs were his two recent vis­its to play Auckland’s aging pic­ture palaces.

Back in 1978, James Brown flew into Auck­land and did two shows in one night and went straight from the sec­ond show to the air­port for a 5.30am flight to Aus­tralia. I think he might have been a tired man on the night. I went to the late show (not the din­ner show) at the Shore­line Cabaret, a small venue on the top floor of the Taka­puna Shop­ping Mall.

In Rip­It­Up Alas­tair Dou­gal (the orig­i­nal edi­tor) wrote:

On stage his tiny frame seems to con­tain more pow­er than he dare let loose. After the fast songs, he has to vis­i­bly com­pose him­self before he can tack­le a mov­ing ver­sion of ‘Geor­gia on My Mind’ — it’s as if he didn’t con­tain this strength, he would over­whelm the song. The fast songs dis­play Brown’s taste for sim­plic­i­ty. He’s stripped the soul for­mu­la down to its basics — rhythm and voice.”

After the show I went back­stage with Bryan Staff (Rip­per label founder) and Alas­tair Dou­gal and met James Brown. A woman who was with us, anoth­er pho­tog­ra­ph­er Gillian Chap­lin, was not allowed back­stage. ‘No women back­stage’ we were told. Bryan Staff (then at 1ZM) told James that as a teen liv­ing in Christchurch, he’d encour­aged a friend’s father Jack Url­win (Peak Records) to release ear­ly James Brown sin­gles in New Zealand. We were wel­comed as “soul broth­ers” and Mr. Brown did a brief radio inter­view.

Out­side the venue, Brown’s entourage were leav­ing for the air­port. My most vivid mem­o­ry from that night, was of the large grand moth­er­ly wardrobe lady for Mr. Brown, out­side the venue sit­ting atop a big old leather wardrobe suit­case, as though it were a motor­bike. She must have won­dered why she was in this strange land at 4am on a win­ter morn­ing. I asked her if she looked after the whole band and she replied, “No. Mr Brown is enough work.”

It is weird that I can­not remem­ber the 1978 show in any sig­nif­i­cant detail. Maybe meet­ing James Brown was so mem­o­rable that I for­got the show or pos­si­bly I had not yet embraced his evolv­ing funk sound.

To add to my con­fu­sion, in Decem­ber 1979 in Tokyo, James Brown record­ed the live album Hot On The One, which imme­di­ate­ly became my favourite live James Brown album. How dif­fer­ent could his 1979 show be from his 1978 show?

Key songs on Hot On The One are drawn from his late 1970s albums that music writ­ers and even James Brown have crit­i­cised. ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’ (title track of a 1976 album), ‘It’s Too Funky In Here’ (from 1979’s The Orig­i­nal Dis­co Man), ‘A Funky Good Time’, ‘Body Heat’ (title track of anoth­er 1976 album) and ‘Jam’ (from 1978 album Jam 1980s, the release he was push­ing in Auck­land and Tokyo). The first three of these songs became the back­bone of the first half of the James Brown live show, right through the 1980s until 2006. And most nights, what a great show that was! It’s cap­tured on DVDs Live at Chas­tain Park (1984), Live in Lon­don (1985), Live In Berlin (1988) and even Live from The House of Blues (2000).

James Brown Biog­ra­ph­er Geoff Brown describes 1988 as “the worst year of his life.” It was the best James Brown year of my life.

The Neon Pic­nic Fes­ti­val was sched­uled for the last week­end in Jan­u­ary 1988, on the Sweet­wa­ters Ngaru­awahia site with a line-up includ­ing crit­ics’ favourites such as James Brown, The Pogues, Los Lobos, Nona Hendryx and Roy Orbi­son. The event looked shakey finan­cial­ly, weeks out from the event, so Simon Grigg and I booked cheap air­fares to Mel­bourne to see James Brown where he was booked for three nights at the Metro, an old the­atre con­vert­ed into a flash night­club.

First night at the Metro and I’m in the crush near the front of the stage just behind a posse of loud, pos­si­bly ine­bri­at­ed young Greek guys. An out-of-it jerk push­es past me. I get eye con­tact from the Greek posse and I step aside and the jerk is picked up by the col­lar and he rock­ets past me, pro­pelled 10 metres back on to the club floor. My posi­tion to see James Brown was not threat­ened again.

The band’s intro num­bers are sen­sa­tion­al, they are hot­ter than the album Hot On The One and the leg­endary Maceo Park­er is back and he walks the the­atre floor with a radio mic on his sax and the audi­ence goes crazy and a con­cerned James Brown looks through the gap in the cur­tains. He knows he can’t fol­low that and prob­a­bly regrets that Maceo is back, for a moment or two.

Brown takes the stage to an already hyped crowd but he’s a bit too big for his stage cos­tume and his fly is not going to stay up. The tight­est band in the world is near­ly falling over with laugh­ter but not loos­ing a beat. In time with the groove, Brown jumps around to face his band and see if the sit­u­a­tion is redeemable. The band imme­di­ate­ly look 100 per­cent seri­ous as they are in the view of their boss. Brown returns to the mic, fac­ing the audi­ence and the band sport grins from ear to ear. In the pause between songs one of the Greek guys shouts “Your fly’s undone!” After one more song, Brown retreats back­stage for a very nec­es­sary cos­tume change.

The show was mind-blow­ing, although at the time I thought Brown did leave the front of stage to doo­dle on the key­boards too often. In terms of a musi­cal expe­ri­ence, I thought I’d seen God and the deity was not Mr. Brown alone but a trin­i­ty of Brown, Maceo Park­er and the almighty band.

The fol­low­ing night pre­dictably, Maceo was con­fined to the stage but as Maceo and the band stormed through the intro num­bers I knew the show was peak­ing. It could not get bet­ter than this! I saw musi­cal divin­i­ty again that night but that deity was the sum of its parts — i.e. long­time band­mem­bers such as St.Clair Pick­ney (sax), the rhythm sec­tion (of course), back­ing singer Martha High, Maceo and pos­si­bly the great­est band­leader of all time, James Brown.

The essence of the shows I saw in Mel­bourne are record­ed on the DVD that Brown record­ed in the mid­dle of that same year in East Berlin. Due to the excel­lence of his per­for­mances it is dif­fi­cult to believe that 1988 was year in which Brown’s PCP use had caused a May con­cert to be can­celled in New York and led to his Sep­tem­ber 1988 arrest after a lengthy police chase. Brown was lucky to be alive as his ute had 23 bul­let holes in it. Brown served two and a half years of a six year sen­tence before resum­ing his career. And of course, the unfor­tu­nate cause of the pur­suit was Brown’s bran­dish­ing a gun in anger after some­one used his pri­vate toi­let.

James Brown, Auckland 2004

It was great to have James Brown back on the road in the 1990s and amaz­ing that he found his way back to New Zealand twice. The 1988 Mel­bourne shows are still my favourite shows as Maceo Park­er was there. But the 2004 and 2006 Auck­land shows were also excel­lent and his recent band was funky as his bril­liant 1980s line­up.

How good a show is, can depend not on fac­tors like a performer’s age or agili­ty but on whether they are enjoy­ing them­selves on the night. James seemed to enjoy him­self at both the St James and Civic shows and real­ly excel on some of the old soul songs. How hap­py could he have been on the first night in Mel­bourne when his employ­ee tried to blow him off the stage and he didn’t fit in his pants? The 2006 Civic gig seemed some­how inti­mate, like Brown was in your lounge and he enjoyed his key­board doo­dles and I did too.

One mark of genius in music is a pro­lif­ic out­put, whether you’re Bob Dylan, Prince or James Brown, the audi­ence and the music writ­ers should not be able to keep up with you. Relis­ten­ing to Brown’s many albums — music fans, archivists and writ­ers will now find gold where they found fault.

First con­fes­sion is from Robert Christ­gau (for­mer­ly of Vil­lage Voice, New York) in the LA Times, reflect­ing on his 1974 review of the song ‘Time Is Run­ning Out’ on the album The Pay­back – “ ‘A horn-and-voice excur­sion that sham­bles on for 12:37,’ I’d sniffed. What then I’d dis­dained, now I loved. That’s how pro­found James Brown is. We’re still try­ing to catch up with him. I doubt we ever will.”

2 Comments

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Noisy? I guess so… — The Opin­ion­at­ed Din­er
June 03, 2013 at 12:06 PM

[…] So The Opin­ion­ated Din­er with­ered a lit­tle. A lot actu­ally — saved only by a sin­gle post from me in the last six months — and a great one from Mur­ray on James Brown. […]

Cecil­ia Opie
April 08, 2016 at 06:04 PM

Mr Simon Grigg,
I’m delight­ed I’ve seen your arti­cle about James Brown’s shows in Aus. and NZ. I saw the 2nd James Brown show in 1988 at the Metro, Melb. A huge fan. It was an incred­i­ble night for me, and as a con­se­quence, quite con­fus­ing. Just like you, I was in front of the stage, being ‘gen­er­al admition-‘it was run for it & who dares wins! All these years I’ve been hop­ing I’d meet some­one who saw and remem­bers this show-as, 2/3rds into it, I was crushed against the stage and fainted.It was fright­en­ing-every­thing fad­ed out to white and I dropped. I was then res­cued by a staff mem­ber and tak­en back stage, as this was the only clear place.Semi con­scious for 5–10mins,I began to get myself togeth­er, embar­rassed, (There were two real­ly crazy look­ing old groupies dressed like Iced T’s wife on his records. But white skinned-they ignored EVERYONE, strange spaced out and made up like hook­ers in a Hol­ly­wood movie.I was just about to see if I could stand when the brass sec­tion walks in. Incred­i­ble! All these real­ly old skin­ny black guys in suits, still with their horns in their hands. It was a lit­tle weird, then they all began to talk to me-incred­i­bly polite­ly. They saw me as a child pret­ty much, they asked if I’d like a drink, “Any­thing at all baby” I was shy, shak­ing my head, until I saw a can of coke in their fridge-what’s bet­ter to wake you up? I said, “Um,a Coke?” And they bugged out their eyes and said, “I beg your par­don?” Pre­tend­ing they thought I meant cocaine. Teas­ing me. “Baby, you sure you don’t want some­thing else. Not every­day you get back stage of James Brown! You play you cards right, might meet the man him­self!” They were a lit­tle ner­vous about him. It was odd, these dear old men, mas­ter musi­cians, stand­ing in a row wait­ing like school boys, so they wouldn’t crease their suits, wait­ing for Mr Brown and the female singer to come back so Mr Brown could check them. And none of them called him “James”, it was Mr Brown, or anoth­er flat­ter­ing euphemism. A cou­ple of the guys, were a lot younger, nor were they horn play­ers, and one guy-a lot more cheeky. He was sit­ting way back on his easy chair, one of the chairs the horn play­ers wouldn’t sit down on, with his shoes on the seat, irri­tat­ed mak­ing fun of every­one, tired and less ‘total­ly’ respect­ful and sweet. Every­one was smok­ing pot, old and young, and they all kept offer­ing me, espe­cial­ly the old dudes! “No thanky­ou.” I said, I was still pret­ty sick! I would just LOVE to know the whole line-up that night and work out who was who. What hap­pened at the end? Well, my stu­pid boyfriend came bang­ing on the door and with a real­ly rude atti­tude, dragged me away. I don’t know why he didn’t stay for a lit­tle while, he was such a fan too. I think he’d been knock­ing a long time and I’d not been able to hear. He was a real douche when I think about it. A real para­noid type, not inter­est­ed in how I was, just insist­ing ‘we get the fuck out’ before I was turned into a groupie. They had all the action they want­ed in that area! I think they just liked me because it was out of the blue, they were tired, after anoth­er over­seas show, far from loved ones. I was only eigh­teen years old. These guys had grand­chil­dren my age. They seemed to think I was a sweet girl. Who knows? And if I had have met JB, it might have end­ed in trou­ble. He was after all arrest­ed soon after, and jailed. What a ter­ri­ble fall for such an incred­i­ble man! Per­haps he need­ed a wake-up call, judg­ing from the way his own band was half ter­ri­fied of him. And he was able to come back, at his age! You may have seen me that night. If you can pass on any infor­ma­tion or enlight­en me in any way regard­ing this, please do. I have enjoyed read­ing your stuff tonight. You were able to bring much of it back-(the Greeks at the front! I hope I’ve been able to tell you a pret­ty inter­est­ing sto­ry any­way. Best wish­es, Cecil­ia Opie

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