Tuesday, December 26, 2006
This time James Brown is gone. No more faux faints to the floor, no more hasty cape-covering or furious cool-down fanning by concerned band members trying to get the inevitably, and dramatically, exhausted Godfather of Soul to leave the stage. Death chose Christmas Day to declare that 73 years was enough for one rhythm revolutionary who danced and sang America through cultural changes in the '60s and '70s.
Last Christmas, Brown and Washington's Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go, shared a bill at the 9:30 club -- a Godfather Summit, as it were -- marking James Brown's return to the stage following a short retirement after prostate cancer in 2004. Just a few days earlier, he had called from Augusta, Ga., and asked me to "tell Chocolate City I'm on my way! And I'm ready! We're goin' to take care of business. I feel great."
While that gig clearly wasn't the Apollo or the Howard Theater in the '60s, the fact that James Brown could still command a stage in his 70s was astonishing.
The first time we'd talked was in 1986, when Brown was a charter inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was also enjoying an increasingly rare visit to the pop charts with "Living in America" from "Rocky IV."
"It seems like I've been around a long time," Brown conceded then. "Hey, I'm here and I thank God I'm here. Thank God the people still want me. Thank you for having me in your life so long."
He said it personally but meant it universally.
Awaiting the ceremony, the Godfather seemed larger than life: stocky, sweaty in his form-fitting suit and silk shirt, sturdy in the manner of someone who knows what he's done and what it's meant. Almost 20 years later, Augusta's city fathers unveiled a 6-foot, 600-pound bronze likeness of Brown on James Brown Boulevard near the park he once danced in for spare change. Even with a cape and microphone, the statue was nowhere near as imposing as its inspiration, and even a million watts could not have matched his natural smile.
At the 9:30 a year ago, Brown understandably was not up to the pure, relentless physicality of past performances. He let the band carry much of the show, but he still projected more raw power than performers a third his age as he tapped into his sometimes-overlooked roots as a soul singer and balladeer extraordinaire on "Please, Please, Please" and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."
But Brown understood that folks were there to experience firsthand the funk he pretty much invented in the same way Ray Charles invented soul. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "The Payback," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," "Cold Sweat" -- there were lyrics, but Brown's guttural growl was mostly given to a symphony of shouts, grunts and slogans. As usual, he kicked off the show with a jubilant invitation to "Get Up Offa That Thing," but, really, was there a choice? As for Brown's frequent query, "Do you wanna get funky?" -- it ranks as one of the most rhetorical questions of our time.
Only James Brown could turn a simple Huh ! into something with multiple meanings -- all of them thoroughly convincing.
Thankfully, whether 40 years ago or 40 years from now, you never just hear James Brown. Whether on the radio or whatever big playback machine you choose, you'll feel his sweat as any of several dozen songs conjure images as timeless as the music: J.B. gliding on a cushion of air, moonwalking decades before Michael Jackson or Neil Armstrong; J.B. slamming to the floor in seemingly painful acrobatic splits, yet popping up immediately in full spin; J.B. falling to a knee, microphone in hand, a beggar man for love or attention. There will still be nonstop flash in the feet, fire in his soul.
Generations of musicians listened to James Brown, looked at him and took what they could, regardless of the kind of music they played. Much imitated, he was ultimately inimitable. Someone once suggested Brown was to rhythm what Bob Dylan was to lyrics, and there's no arguing that when it comes to foundations of American popular music, Brown is right there with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Dylan -- creators whose innovations changed everything around them.