Always, he insisted they "do it to death." Some of his most intriguing sounds came from reworking the same songs over on countless live albums or in permutations of his own hits. Tin-eared detractors heard it as merely recycled material. Perhaps the world didn't need a clutch of variations on his 1969 "Popcorn." But James Brown did. Among them: "Mother Popcorn, Part 1," "Popcorn 80's" and "It's a New Day So Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn." The fact is, JB worked his series and aural triptychs with the same urge for refinement that hauled Picasso through his blue period. Bulldogged into parsing his process, he told me: "When I solo on the organ, it's like somebody's guidin' my hands. I don't have to look for it. Writin', too. It's like the tablets were written for Moses. Yes, ma'am. And everything I do hasn't been finished yet. So I can go back and keep tryin' to finish it. All those songs I put together are about ten percent of what the songs should be."
The urge was, he said, "a monster vision thang," which is nothing short of the desire to make a fragmented world whole – and the most basic impulse for art.
Thus, it is impossible to overstate James Brown's musical legacy. For nearly fifty-five years, he made the global soundtrack pop, crackle and ooze, from Astoria to Zaire, live from the bandstand, howling from tinny dashboard radios, still calling stubbornly, slyly from the sampled rhythm tracks of latter-day rappers. But what should never be lost in the translation to postmodern funk is the galvanizing live aspect of James Brown's theatrical, testifying soul: The man could dance. In the Sixties, a decade full of careers that caught fire in live moments – from Dylan turning electric at Newport to Hendrix at Woodstock – JB proved it all night, every night. You had to see him to believe him.
In 1982, as he was readying Thriller, Michael Jackson told me he fell in thrall to the Godfather at age six while playing the Apollo with his brothers. Jackson was drawn instantly to that lodestar in tight, stovepipe pants: "The man gets out of himself. He's got a kind of freedom. I crave it. Every day." He asked whether I could help him get hold of a tape of the 1964 teen spectacular The T.A.M.I. Show, which contained the most mind-bending Brown footwork ever recorded. Brown told me it was the fastest he'd ever danced. Michael had heard that Elvis watched the footage over and over.
Just hours after the Godfather's death was announced, a grainy bit of T.A.M.I. footage showed up on YouTube. It shows him dancing to "Night Train," so lost in the hovercraft shuffles and spins that he forgets both the microphone and the goggle-eyed representatives of white teen America are there. Ever the canny showman, the Godfather named the dance trances that seized him: Popcorn! Mother Popcorn! New Breed Boogaloo! The crazes enslaved teen nations. But surely, it was as a dancer that James Brown was perfectly, unconditionally free.
Still, Mr. Brown would remind you, Jim Crow – the mythic minstrel whose very name defined segregation – was a dancer, too, but he bucked and jived for The Man. It was no accident that the first place we went on my inaugural tour of James Brown's Augusta was the ancient, overcrowded Fourth Street jail where he was held as a sixteen-year-old. He said it hadn't changed much since 1949. And certainly not by May 1970, when a black inmate, also sixteen, was beaten to death there, triggering the worst race riots in that city's history. A shaken Brown flew home from a date in Michigan at the behest of Georgia governor Lester "Pickax" Maddox. That canny old segregationist knew of JB's success cooling constituents in Boston and Washington, D.C., in the wake of the 1968 King assassination. And that boy was always coming up with his slogans: Don't be a dropout. Don't terrorize, organize. Don't burn, learn. To the native son's sorrow, things were too far gone when he got back: six more black deaths, fifty homes and businesses destroyed in the area he had inhabited as Niggertown.
JB caused a commotion during our visit, as inmates hollered greetings and pleas for help. The ruckus brought a fat guard in mirrored shades, who drawled "Now what y'all doin' rilin' these boys up?"
We beat a hasty retreat. As we drove off, JB explained: "You hearin' rage and frustration. And those are things I left behind. Where I been is not where I am, no thank you."
This did not mean he abandoned Niggertown. A quarter century before Magic Johnson dared build multiplexes in Crenshaw and Harlem, the Godfather believed in black enterprise. He owned radio stations, a fast-food chain and his own company, Top Notch. He lost nearly all of it in an IRS donnybrook. But what he lacked in business acumen, he made up for in tenacity. As he explained to hapless boxer Leon Spinks one night, "You got to keep what you get punched in the head for."
As an activist, James Brown never meant to overthrow the republic – just find room in it. He sang his bootstrap manifesto: "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)." He was a patriot who could chopper to 'Nam to succor the brothers marooned there, then embrace Richard Nixon. His musical calls to social justice were not as eloquent as Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches. But they were equally heartfelt.
Consider the genesis of his most famous 1968 anthem, the companion piece to Aretha Franklin's 1967 proclamation, "Respect." It was composed in a Los Angeles hotel a few hours before dawn. A disgusted Mr. Brown switched off the TV news after another report on black crime. He fretted and paced a bit, sent his grateful manager off to his rest, then summoned him twenty minutes later. The boss had scrawled some indelible lyrics on two napkins, commanded the incredulous Mr. Bobbit to find a studio in the middle of the night – along with musicians and thirty black children. And lo, it was done: The kids were corralled onto a bus in Watts. At the studio, they learned their chorus quickly: "Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud!" Eight words sent out on megawatt black stations nationwide helped the movement reach critical mass.
Everywhere he went, he represented the constituency as a sharp-dressed man. No one understood his concept of male beauty better than JB's childhood friend Leon Austin, who explained that Mr. Brown knew he wasn't pretty in the accepted sense. In Augusta, there existed a stratification of "high complexion" versus "low." "A darker person would be named as ugly," Leon explained. His friend was dark. "So," concluded Leon, "he made the ugly man somebody."
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