There It Is: James Brown at 90

Despite his foibles, the Godfather of Soul’s music very much still matters

James Brown on the cover of 1973’s The Payback (Image: Discogs)

It is no easy feat to reconcile one’s admiration for an artist against the behavior that artist displayed offstage.

James Brown is one such act. He was a complicated man with a checkered history of domestic violence, drug abuse and family negligence counterbalancing his public role as the hardest working man in show business. He beat up his wives, refused to acknowledge some of his children and smoked enough PCP to kill Godzilla himself. 

So why bother paying tribute to Brown as his spirit turns 90 today? Because for all his unforgivable foibles, the evolution of rhythm in modern music would sound very different than it does today had he never been born. 

When James Brown hit that stage or entered that studio, he was transformative in the way by which he took elements of gospel, the blues and soul to help craft the sound that would be called funk and R&B. 

Grooves so tight you can bounce a quarter off them, assisted by a stellar crew of musicians including drummer Clyde Stubblefield, saxophonist Maceo Parker, guitarist Jimmy Nolen, trombonist Fred Wesley, reedist/keyboardist Pee-Wee Ellis and bassist Bernard Odum among many others. The music Brown crafted with these men would soon become a key building block in the births of hip-hop, house music and techno by way of sampling while inspiring such future superstars as Sly Stone, Michael Jackson and Prince. Basically anyone who ever danced to “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock has felt the essence of what James Brown brought to the table. Punk and New Wave owe a debt as well.


VIDEO: James Brown performs “Please Please Please” on the T.A.M.I. Show

Let’s put it this way: From my viewpoint, only The Beatles rival JB in terms of reach and roots within the fabric of modern song. 

He was a bad man, that much is true. But today we celebrate James Brown on what would have been his 90th Birthday strictly on the merits of the music that sprang from his crazy, genius brain. 

“James Brown knew how to freak the tribal speak and the tribal feet alike—the tribal neckbone and irrepressible tribal hambone too,” wrote the late, great Greg Tate in the Village Voice shortly after Brown’s passing on Boxing Day 2006. “Being a poet, a boxer, and a onetime Pentecostal supplicant, the Godfather knew a thing or two about being hit with the spirit and hit with the quickness; he also knew how to hit back, how to respond in kind in a New York minute. Bold, Black, and Beautiful things just happened faster in the world according to Brown. Tempos, terpsichore, tantrums, tangents, even jail time. They didn’t call him Mr. Dynamite for nothing.” 

I’m no expert on James Brown. I’m just a guy who first caught his spirit when I saw Rocky IV. But in my never-ending quest to become a better music fan, I’ve come to appreciate the omnipresence of JB in just about everything I listen to, be it the Boo Radleys, The Joe Perry Project or the new Thundercat/Tame Impala single. 

While I’ve owned such JB classics as Live at the Apollo, There It Is, The Payback, the Black Caesar soundtrack and Hell since the 90s, I finally came across an affordable copy of the 1991 box set Star Time on CD about a year ago. If there is one collection out there that remains the quintessential encapsulation, it’s Star Time.

“As we move through the last decade of the 20th century, James Brown, perhaps the ultimate example of African Americana, is the catalyst for another generation of black and proud musicians and thinkers,” wrote Nelson George in his essay from the box set’s liner notes. “I’m an adult now and have traveled on the A train more times than I’d like to. Yet of all the music of my childhood nothing resonates with as much power as Brown’s intense recordings. The music in this package stretches from the years of ‘Right on!’ to the time of ‘Word up!,’ a long time for any performer’s music to maintain its relevance. But listening to these jams again, hit after soulful hit, it’s clear once more that James Brown is the root and everybody else just a branch from his tree.”

On his 90th Birthday, the tree of James Brown’s music has only grown more healthy branches, ensuring that his music will keep this world spinning on its axis well into this millennium. 



Ron Hart

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Ron Hart

Ron Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Rock and Roll Globe. Reach him on Twitter @MisterTribune.

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