James Brown (1933 – 2006)
The current issue of Wax Poetics magazine (#61) has a great interview with Fred Wesley who for many years was James Brown’s musical director. In the piece Wesley describes the collaborative process that went on between Brown, Wesley and The JB’s, Brown’s back-up band. Coming to Brown’s band as a trombonist with some serious jazz chops (and aspirations to match), Wesley joined a talented team of musicians and quickly found his soul and funk legs. He moved up the ladder to the musical director spot and received writing credits which still provide him with a comfortable life to this day. I liked the WP piece although I came away thinking that Wesley didn’t show proper enough respect to Brown’s talent and the fact that he was a consummate show man who stayed at the top of his game for over 50 years.
Brown was born on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina. Supposedly, Brown’s name was to have been Joseph James Brown, Jr.; however, his first and middle names were reversed in error on his birth certificate. He later legally had the “Jr.” designation removed. Around the age of four or five the Brown family moved to Atlanta to live with an aunt who ran a brothel but they eventually moved to a nearby house of a different aunt. His mother split for NYC and Brown spent a lot of time on his own before dropping out of school in 6th grade.
Although Brown started his career singing gospel in Georgia he eventually joined an R&B vocal group called The Avons as lead singer. Winning talent shows at Augusta’s Lenox Theater, Brown knew this was life for him. The Avons later became The Famous Flames and came to public attention in the late 1950s with the hits “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me”.
Brown was tireless. He toured the world, showed how it was done, and had the tightest back up band ever behind him. His backup band, The Famous Flames, were also known as the James Brown Band (or Orchestra) or just the JB’s. Brown’s success peaked in the 1960’s. During that period he churned out hits such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”.
Brown’s 1963 release “Live at The Apollo” is considered one of the greatest live album ever. What the ABB’s “Live at The Fillmore” is to rock music, Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” is to soul music. The album captures the essence and power of Brown’s live show in a way that doesn’t always come through on a studio track. The record company thought it foolish to release an album with no new songs. They figured it wouldn’t sell to JB’s fan base but he proved them wrong. Christgau pointed out in his review that although shorter than most live albums, the screams and swooning of the female fans push this over the top as great music. I also like his characterization that The Famous Flames were “cleaner than a silk suit”. The last glimpse of the now-defunct chittlin circuit.
As the ’60’s drew to a close and the civil rights movement changed the perceptions of both black audiences and performers, Brown’s music evolved from a gospel and blues base into a more “Africanized” approach and style which, in turn, heavily influenced the development of funk.
I’ve been listening to Brown since the late ’60’s. I believe the first JB song I grooved to was the 1967 hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”. I had it on a compilation album and was mesmerized by the soul funk groove that JB and his back up band was laying down. PGABNB didn’t include Wesley but it did include legendary sax player Maceo Parker and Jimmy Nolen, Brown’s guitarist (1965 – 1970) credited with inventing the chicken scratch playing style that was his trademark.
Part of the James Brown legend was that in response to withheld wages and poor treatment, the entire band quit on the same day in 197o. This didn’t appear to faze Brown much who picked up a younger band he found in Cincinnati called the Pacemakers. The new band famously included future funk master bassist Bootsy Collins and his brother Catfish Collins. James knew how to pick ’em.
Brown’s career spanned six decades and he was always at the top of his game. While influenced mostly by Louis Jordan and Little Richard, Brown was clearly the single-most critical influence for a generation of soul singers including Michael Jackson, Sly Stone, and Prince.
Brown died on Christmas Day 2006 from complications of pneumonia. According to his manager who was at his bedside, Brown stuttered “I’m going away tonight”, took three deep breaths and passed.