Being James Brown: Rolling Stone's 2006 Story

Page 3 of 12

Instead, I find myself in the company of James Brown's band and his longtime personal manager, Charles Bobbit, approximately fourteen people whom I will soon in varying degrees get to know quite well but whom for now treat me genially, skeptically, shyly but mostly obliviously. They've got work to do. They're working on the new James Brown record. At the moment they're laying down a track without him, because James Brown asked them to, and because since they're waiting around, they might as well do something — though they do this with a degree of helpless certainty that they are wasting their time. It is nearly always a useless occupation, if you are James Brown's band, to lay down a track while he is not present. Yet the band members do it a lot, wasting time in this way, because their time is not their own. So they record. Today's effort is a version of "Hold On, I'm A-Comin'," the classic Sam and Dave song.

The setting is a pleasant modern recording studio in a bland corner of Augusta's suburbs, far from where the statue resides. The band occupies a large room, high-ceilinged, padded in black, with a soundproof-windowed booth for the drummer's kit and folding chairs in a loose circle for the band, plus innumerable microphones and cables and amplifiers and pickups running across the floor. On the other side of a large window from this large chamber is a room full of control panels, operated by an incredibly patient man named Howard. It is into this room that James Brown and the band will intermittently retreat in order to listen to playback, to consider what they've recorded. Down the hall from these two rooms is a tiny suite with a kitchen (unused) and a dining room with a table that seats seven or eight at a time (used constantly, for eating takeout).

The band is three guitarists and one bassist and three horn players and two percussionists — a drummer in the soundproof booth and a conga player in the central room. They're led by Hollie Farris, a trim, fiftyish, white trumpeter with a blond mustache and the gentle, acutely Mid-western demeanor of an accountant or middle manager, yet with the enduring humor of a lifelong sideman; a hipster's tolerance. Hollie now pushes the younger guitarists as they hone the changes in "Hold On, I'm A-Comin'." Howard is recording the whole band simultaneously; this method of recording "live in the studio" is no longer how things are generally done. Hollie also sings to mark the vocal line, in a faint but endearing voice.

One of the young guitarists, cheating slightly on the "live in the studio" ethos, asks to be allowed to punch in his guitar solo. This is Damon Wood: thirtysomething, also blond, with long hair and a neat goatee. Damon, explaining why he screwed up the solo, teases Hollie for his singing: "I can't hear myself with Engelbert Humperdinck over there." Howard rewinds the tape and Damon reworks the solo, then endears himself to me with a fannish quiz for the other guitarists — Keith Jenkins, another white guy, but clean-cut, and Daryl Brown, a light-skinned, roly-poly black man who turns out to be James Brown's son. "What classic funk song am I quoting in this solo?" Damon asks. Nobody can name it, not that they seem to be trying too hard. " 'Lady Marmalade,' " Damon says.

"Well," says Hollie, speaking of the track, "we got one for him to come in and say, 'That's terrible.' "

Keith, a young man with a trace of disobedience in his eyes, asks if they're going to put the horns on the track. Hollie shakes his head. "He might be less inclined to throw it out," Keith suggests. "Give it that big sound. If all he hears are those guitars, he'll start picking it apart."

Hollie offers a wry smile. He doesn't want to add the horns. Hollie, I'll learn, has been James Brown's bandleader and arranger on and off since the early Eighties.

It is at that moment that everything changes. Mr. Bobbit explains: "Mr. Brown is here."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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