Last summer, when the James Brown biopic “Get on Up” opened on movie screens, jazz bassist Christian McBride organized an all-star concert at the Hollywood Bowl to celebrate Brown’s music. Guest vocalists included D’Angelo, Aloe Blacc and Bettye LaVette; also on hand were Brown alumni such as Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley and Danny Ray. Most impressive, perhaps, was the presence of Brown’s rhythm-redefining drummers: Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks and Robert “Mousey” Thompson.
“Clyde was on my left, Jabo was on my right, and I was in heaven,” Thompson recalls from his home in Landover Hills, Md. “These were the creators of a style; they were funkmasters. James had some other great drummers, Nate Jones and Maceo Parker’s brother Melvin, and to come at the end of that train was an honor. I really appreciate all the support I’ve gotten from Clyde and Jabo for keeping James’s music alive. No one’s saying, ‘Why are you doing that?’ It’s still family.”
The James Brown Experience, the repertory band that Thompson founded and still leads, will headline Classic Soul Night at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre on Friday. Skip Mahoney and the Casuals and William DeVaughn, two more old-school R&B acts from the D.C. area, are also on the bill. Thompson was Brown’s last drummer, working with the singer from 1993 until Brown’s death in 2006. As such, he has an insider’s insight into what made the drumming on Brown’s records so innovative.
“It’s that moving pocket,” Thompson explains. “It’s steady, but it’s always moving forward, almost like riding a wave. It seems simple: It makes you bop your head and pat your fingers, but we throw in those little syncopations. If the main beat is the steak you put on the plate, the little hits we threw in are like the salt and pepper that give it some flavoring. James treated all of us like, ‘Hey, you’ve got some creativity; put it to use.’ ”
Thompson, now 58, was an 8-year-old in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood when his parents took him to a concert at the Howard Theatre. He still remembers how the curtains parted to reveal the ball of energy that was James Brown. The place went crazy, and he decided right there, “That’s what I want to do.” But when he tried to sing Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’ ” with his friends as a 9-year-old, he could never get the drummer to play the accents the way Brown’s drummer did.
“When I did my split,” Thompson says of Brown’s signature dance move, “I wanted to hear that crash-bang to pump up the excitement. So I jumped behind the drums, and I started playing it. Who knew it would lead to me playing with James Brown himself?”
Thompson was playing with Wilson Pickett when he got called for an audition in 1993. He got the job, and when Brown recorded “Live at the Apollo 1995,” you can hear the singer shouting, “Mousey! Mousey!” after Thompson’s drum break on “Cold Sweat Pt. 1.”
“I never got fined,” Thompson says of Brown’s notorious punishments for his band members, “but I did see that. He was a stickler for always keeping your eye on him. If you had to turn a knob on your amplifier, you didn’t turn your back on him, because that’s when you’d get fined. If you had a wrinkle on the back of your jacket, he’d say, ‘You got a road map on your coat.’ You’d have to go back and iron it. You definitely had to be on time for everything. That’s the one thing he wouldn’t overlook.”
After Brown died in 2006, Thompson played with the Soul Generals, a band of Brown alumni from all eras. When that group disbanded, the drummer founded the D.C.-based James Brown Experience with singer-comedian Greg Cooper as lead singer and Eugene Chapman as leader of the horn section.
“Not enough has been done for James,” Thompson insists, “not for what he left us. These kids need to know where Prince, Michael Jackson, Usher and all the rest came from. If you love music, you want to know how it grew. If Chris Brown says ‘James Brown,’ these kids might go looking for him. They can find videos on YouTube, but with my group they can see it live.”
Long before he joined Brown, Thompson played the drums on the 1976 album “Land of Love” by Skip Mahoney and the Casuals.
That’s the record that gave Mahoney his highest charting single, “Bless My Soul” (No. 40 on the R&B charts), and his signature song “Wherever You Go,” both ballads that combined strings, falsetto, Motown and doo-wop. This year, the group released its latest album, “Good Old Days.”
“Skip’s vocal versatility is amazing,” Thompson says. “He can sing low or sing high. Playing drums behind Skip prepared me for playing with James Brown. I learned that when singers move their hands, you have to accent it, so audiences can hear what they’re seeing.”
DeVaughn, the third act of Friday’s bill, is best remembered for his 1974 hit “Thankful for What You Got,” which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 4 on the pop charts. The track’s laid-back groove, anchored by a rippling conga pattern, was made memorable by DeVaughn’s cool delivery of the refrain, “Diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean.” The song has been covered by everyone from Arthur Lee and Massive Attack to Yo La Tengo and has been sampled by such hip-hop acts as N.W.A., Ice Cube and Ludacris.
When DeVaughn appears at Classic Soul Night, he will be joined by the Seal of Approval band with the Diamonds on backing vocals. DeVaughn will sing not only his older hits such as “Thankful for What You Got” and the top-10 R&B single “Blood Is Thicker than Water” but also his brand new single, “Slow Down.” Like Thompson and Mahoney, DeVaughn keeps recording and performing music, as if to prove that the classic soul and funk of the past century still has something to say in this one.
Himes is a freelance writer.
Mousey Thompson and the James Brown Experience, Skip Mahoney and the Casuals, William DeVaughn on Friday at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 16th Street NW and Colorado Avenue NW.
Gates open at 7 p.m. to the first 3,700 people; show begins at
7:30 p.m. There is no rain date. Free.