D. Dowd Muska


Godfather of Soul, American to the Core

March 22, 2012

After returning from a 1967 tour of Europe, James Brown gave an interview to Jet. On the Continent, he said, “I truly felt like a man, not a colored or Negro but like a man -- period.”

Lest anyone mistake the comment for newfound radicalism, Brown clarified: “Although we still have problems and regardless of the fact that I was treated so well there, this is still home. I’m still an American above anything else. It may sound foolish to some people, but I’d rather be a broke man here than a rich man over there.”

R.J. Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown documents the Godfather of Soul’s struggles as a man, artist, entrepreneur, and international icon. The author, a music journalist, explores every nook of the performer’s singular sound, including “The One.” It was a “trade secret,” Smith explains, “an anchor, an upbeat that put him in touch with his past and who he had become.”

As immeasurably innovative and powerful as Brown’s music was -- and is -- it’s his role as a cultural and political figure that should attract readers to The One.

Brown had a horrific childhood. An abusive father caused his mother to make herself scarce. “Home” was a whorehouse in Augusta, Georgia. Petty thievery meant the criminal-justice system rather than high school. Freed from juvie, Brown took refuge with a family in Toccoa, Georgia, and put a band together. For years, The Flames toured the “chitlin circuit,” which Smith describes as “roadhouses and chicken shacks, tobacco barns and Quonset huts.”

“Please Please Please” hit big in 1956, and more followed: “Try Me,” “Night Train,” Out of Sight,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” In 1965, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was “the beginning of a new world,” Brown said. Smith writes that the singer “was crossing over more by the day, and he wasn’t doing it with ballads or strings, the usual route to white fans. These were feel records, risky business that didn’t sound like anything else on radio.”

Black-power extremists reached out. But Brown was proud of the success he achieved despite a segregated, literally dirt-poor start. In 1968, the year of assassinations and riots, Tet and My Lai, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Laugh-In, he released “America is My Home”:

America is still the best country, without a doubt

And if anybody says it ain’t you just try to put ‘em out

The Nixon administration’s (rhetorical) preference for empowerment over subsidies appealed to Brown, who called himself “25 percent entertainer, 75 percent businessman.” In 1969, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself)” left no ambiguity about his views on welfare.

Deep into the ‘70s, fans drifted to disco, as well as acts willing to take the funk further -- e.g., George Clinton, Rick James. In 1980, The Blues Brothers introduced Brown to younger Boomers and older Generation Xers. A few years later, Sylvester Stallone asked him to perform a gaudy Vegas production number in the latest installment of the Rocky franchise. “He wore his cowboy boots in his Rocky IV scene,” Smith writes. “He symbolized America, its Reagan-era celebration of the survivor.” “Living in America” brought more interest from Xers, as well as a long-overdue return to the pop charts.

But Brown’s rebirth as a big-time act didn’t last. The money and adulation never returned to the pinnacle reached in the ‘60s, and within a few years, karma caught up to him.

Never much of a drinker, Brown eschewed the counterculture’s drug scene, only to succumb to a severe PCP addiction in middle age. From the era of The Flames, his treatment of band members was controlling and cruel -- musicians regularly quit the show, and few ever returned. The performer was as likely to pick up a check as a member of the Kennedy clan. Creditors and the feds were constantly at the gate. (As president, Jimmy Carter refused to help with the IRS, as would Bill Clinton two decades later.) Brown had always been a woman-beater, and the 911 calls from wife #3 began to mount. Arrested in 1988 for fleeing police along the Georgia-South Carolina border, he served 26 months in prison. Parole was granted in February 1991. He was nearly 60 years old.

Almost immediately, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business went back to touring. He lasted another decade and a half. In 2006, the year he died, James Brown had 81 gigs.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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