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Being James Brown: Rolling Stone's 2006 Story

Page 12 of 12

The tinkering preparations and ritual outbursts at last conclude. James Brown takes his place behind the keyboards, looking ferocious in his shades and sleeveless top. He leads the band through an endlessly complicated big-band jazz-funk piece, which, after three or four false starts, he runs for a perhaps fifteen-minute take, long enough for him to request, by hand signals, two Fred Wesley trombone solos, a bass solo from Fred Thomas and three organ solos from himself. During his own solos — his famously atonal and abstract keyboard work is truly worthy of Sun Ra or Daniel Johnston — James Brown looks fixated, and again appears to have shed thirty years. At the end of his last solo he directs the horns to finish, and laughs sharply: "Takes a lot of concentration!" He turns to me and slaps me five. Fred Wesley turns to the ashen Fred Thomas and, perhaps trying to put a chipper face on what they've been through, says, "Playing that bebop, damn."

I rendezvous with the band in England ten days later, for a performance in Gateshead. The players are in another kind of survival mode now, keeping themselves healthy under punishing travel conditions, while trying to stay in the mood to put on The Show. Donning their red tuxedos, the guitarists point out details they can guess will amuse me. "Danny Ray had jackets made without pockets," says Damon. "He doesn't want to see any lines. So I don't have any place to put my picks onstage." I obligingly examine his tux — sure enough, no pockets. Damon explains that he has no recourse but to stack a supply of picks on an amp, where they invariably vibrate off, onto the floor.

I ask them how the tour's been to this point. Damon, while not critical of the previous week's shows, says, "He needs to warm up on tour, too. Think of all the bits he has to remember. If he screws up, you notice." Damon recalls for me a night when the floor was slick and James Brown missed his first move, and as a result "lost confidence." Lost confidence? I try not to say, "But he's James Brown!" It is somehow true that despite my days in his presence, my tabulation of his foibles, nothing has eroded my certainty that James Brown should be beyond ordinary mortal deficits of confidence. And with this thought I discover that a shift has occurred inside me. I wish for the show tonight to be a triumphant one, not for myself, or even for the sake of the band, but so that James Brown himself will be happy.

I'm wanting to take care of him, too.

It's as if I've joined the family.

Bumbling along with the red costumed tribe in the tunnel to the stage, I find myself suddenly included in a group prayer — hands held in a circle, heads lowered, hushed words spoken in the spirit of the same wish I've just acknowledged privately to myself: that a generous deity might grant them and Mr. Brown a good night. I still haven't seen Mr. Brown himself. Now I can hear the sound of the crowd stirring, boiling with anticipation at what they are about to see. As the players filter onstage into their accustomed positions, bright and proud in their red tuxes, to an immense roar of acclaim from the Gatesheadians, I settle into a spot beside Danny Ray.

When the band hits its first notes and the room begins to ride the music, a kind of metamorphosis occurs, a sort of transmutation of the air of expectation in this Midlands crowd. They've been relieved of the first layer of their disbelief that James Brown has really come to Gates-head: At the very least, James Brown's Sound has arrived. After the band's long overture, Danny Ray, every impeccable tiny inch of him, pops onstage. He says, "Now comes Star Time!" and the roof comes off. Under Danny Ray's instruction, the crowd rises to its feet and begins to chant its hero's name.

When James Brown is awarded to them, the people of Gateshead are the happiest people on Earth, and I am one of them. Never mind that I now know to watch for the rock-paper-scissors hand signals, I am nevertheless swept up in the deliverance of James Brown to his audience. The Sun God has strode across a new threshold, the alien visitor has unveiled himself to another gathering of humans. I see, too, how James Brown's presence animates his family: Keith, fingers moving automatically on frets, smiling helplessly when James Brown calls out his name. Fred Thomas bopping on a platform with his white beard, an abiding sentinel of funk. Hollie, the invisible man, now stepping up for a trumpet solo. Damon, who during Tommie Rae's rendition of "Hold On, I'm A-Comin'," can be heard to slip a reference to "Lady Marmalade" into his guitar solo.

The show builds to the slow showstopper, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." The moment when James Brown's voice breaks across those horn riffs is one of the greatest in pop music, and the crowd, already in a fever, further erupts. When they cap the ballad by starting "Sex Machine," it is a climax on top of a climax. The crowd screams in joy when James Brown dances even a little (and these days, it is mostly a little). Perhaps, I think, we are all in his family. We want him to be happy. We want him alive. When the James Brown Show comes to your town — when it comes to Gateshead, U.K., today, as when it came to the Apollo Theater in 1961, as when it came to Atlanta or Oklahoma City or Indianapolis anytime, life has admitted its potential to be astounding, if only for as long as the Show lasts. Now that James Brown is old, we want this to go on occurring for as long as possible. We almost don't wish to allow ourselves to think this, but the James Brown Show is a precious thing that may someday vanish from the Earth.

Now James Brown has paused the Show for a monologue about love. He points into the balconies to the left and right of him. "I love you and you and you up there," he says. "Almost as much as I love myself." He asks the audience to do the corniest thing: to turn and tell the person on your left that you love him. Because it is James Brown who asks, the audience obliges. While he is demonstrating the turn to the left, turning expressively in what is nearly a curtsy to Hollie and the other horns, James Brown spots me there, standing in the wings. The smile he gives me is as natural as the one he gave Fred Wesley, it is nothing like the grin of a statue, and if it is to be my own last moment with James Brown, it is a fine one. I feel good.

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