There was a time when James Brown really was Soul Brother Number One. Though it was only six, seven, eight years ago, it seems like a lot longer. Back in the early and mid-Sixties, Brown’s shows had the same mythical stature for soul audiences that the Stones now have for the rock audiences. His influence on the developing soul artists of the time — Wilson Pickett, Otis, later Aretha — was immeasurable. It was not only the emphasis on hard rhythms over melody, but the concept of soul as something distinct from vaudeville, from night clubs, from rock and roll. While most other performers used local pickup bands, Brown Toured with his own band, which he rehearsed ruthlessly, fining members each time they hit a wrong note. He could achieve a control unknown to, say, Sam Cooke, in live performance. He wrote, produced and arranged his own songs, always making his aggressively black presence felt.
In a song he wrote for Arthur Conley, “Sweet Soul Music,” Otis Redding lists all the important soul stars of the day (including himself), ending reverentially with James Brown, “the king of them all, y’all.” Yet in an interview held at the same time, Otis persistently referred to his desire to fill the void in black music created by the death of Sam Cooke, ignoring Brown. What Otis seemed to be getting at was Brown’s staggering incompleteness as an artist.
This caused no problem with his classics of ’66-’67, “Cold Sweat,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and his charming, obliquely autobiographical “There Was a Time.” But by now his egoism has eroded his music to such an extent that I look at his songs as nothing more than minor irritants on my local soul station.
A casual perusal through the titles of his recent singles gives you a picture of the dreariness and decrepitude: “Ain’t It Funky,” “Make It Funky” (Parts 1 and 2), “Sex Machine,” “Hot Pants,” “Popcorn,” and finally “It’s a Brand New Day so Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn.” To all but the connoisseur, they’re completely interchangeable — the same riff repeated over and over. Yet they continue to sell astoundingly well. His latest single, “On the Good Foot,” sold a cool million, and that seems to have spurred James on to attempt a two-record concept album.
He got a little frantic though, finding himself with four sides to fill up and nothing to fill them up with, except his own egomania. The few new songs on the record — a conventional soul tune, a pop thing, and a couple of dance numbers — are horrible. Brown does several new, inferior versions of old songs. For instance, on “Make It Funky” he says, “Let’s hear some B.B. King guitar,” and someone plays some bad B.B. King licks.
A lot of the time is filled up with talk. While the band repeats the same riff, he reminisces about the first time he played the Apollo, which turns out to be the most interesting thing about the album. Later on he and his cronies reel off what sounds like Billboard’s Top Thirty Moneymakers — which, not surprisingly, turns out to be the most repulsive part of the record.
Brown’s current depravity knows no bounds. He has the audacity to ask early R&B star Hank Ballard, the originator of the Twist, to recite, on the album, a testimony to Brown’s greatness. Some excerpts: “A living legend — that’s what they call him. When I was in the gutter, he was the only one to have faith in me. He’s lowdown … he’s funky … he’s sentimental … and the man is sad.”
The man is sad, all right. But on some level, it seems he was aware how ludicrous, how odious, how maddening his venture was. One of the few new songs he penned for the record, a sentimental ballad, is titled — as if he were perversely asking the world for mercy — “Nothing Beats a Try but a Fail.”