10. James Brown
Born May 3rd, 1933 (died December 25th, 2006)
Key Tracks "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "The Payback," "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose"
Influenced Michael Jackson, Sly Stone, Prince, George Clinton
For me, James Brown was never just the voice. It was the whole package. But the impact of that voice gave me hope, because it was a simple presentation and didn't trade on range. And there was that scream. It was like an inner voice. It sounded like an assertion of rights of primitive man: "I am alive, and I can do things." He used to describe his dancing as "African nerve control." He had a point.
If you go back to his early recordings, he was trying to sing standards. He didn't quite have what it took. The first time I heard him was on Live at the Apollo, from a few years later. I was working at a record store. Apollo has still got a lot of formal songs on it — "Try Me," "Lost Someone." But what really blew my mind and influenced my thinking was the continuity of the performance. You have the long introduction and the incredibly detailed entrance music. And when James comes in, he does a lot of holding back, with dynamic effect, loud and soft. In "Lost Someone," there's this opiate repetition where the band is going back and forth on two chords, and he's saying, "I'll love you tomorrow," on and on. Then all of a sudden, he goes, "Uh!" He whacks you, and the band replies. Nothing is casual, but it doesn't sound forced or straitjacketed.
He was a terrific editor. The one that flipped me out — I still remember being in the car, hearing it — is "I Can't Stand It." He was down to fuck the chorus, fuck the melody. This is barely a riff. But he pushes the group along like the coxswain on a Roman galley: Stroke, motherfucker, uh!
He always has an edge in his ballads where he lets you know it's real. There's a lesser-known one called "Mama's Dead," from Black Caesar. It just kills me. At the end, after he's sung all these heavy things, he just says, "Everybody got a mother, and you know what I'm talkin' about." Or in the chorus of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" — a lesser artist would say, "It wouldn't mean nothin' without a woman." Or "without a girl." But they wouldn't say both. And it's not just a lyric. He is singing something primitive and basic. He tells you how society runs. Man makes this, this is how money works. Maybe that comes from being somebody who didn't have many things when he started out. The part in his autobiography that always gets me is when he lived with his dad, tapping the pine trees for rosin. You're down to real poverty.
The big thing I got from him was, don't just stand there and look at your shoe. Fuck that. It had to be like something's going on here. He always sounds like he's breaking loose. Once you've made the decision to go out in front of people and start moving around, it frees up so many things. You're now creating movement in a society that's based on order. And within yourself, you feel different. That motion makes you make decisions as a vocalist, decisions that free you from the stilted stuff.
In those situations, music has a cathartic power, and the guys who do it, they know that. That's why James Brown could call himself Soul Brother Number One — and nobody ever said he was bragging.