Soul power: James Brown transcended the stage in concerts

By Mark Guarino

In the press coverage that followed James Brown’s Christmas death at age 73, much was made of how the “Godfather of Soul” would be remembered for what he contributed to hip-hop. Obituaries across the board were specific in pointing out that in the early 1960’s through the mid-1970’s, the music Brown created did not correspond to any present, but was instead shaping a future not yet defined.

Hip-hop benefited from the needle sharp precision of Brown’s band arrangements and turn-on-the-dime drum breaks. Brown’s indelible dance moves and outrageous personality traits both opened the door to the larger than life characters that made hip-hop’s earliest days feel fresh and playful. Snippets of his vocals and band riffs were sampled, legally and not, to both pay dues and provide inspiration. On the week of his death, my email inbox received many prepared statements from current rap luminaries. To quote Snoop Dogg: “I am hurt. That’s my Godfather, my soul inspiration, the hardest working man in showbizness (sic) of all time. He’ll be missed, but his music and his legacy will live on through me, in every way you can imagine.”

Yet after reading that and other press friendly laments, I couldn’t help but feel Brown’s story was being hijacked to suit a generation of Bentley-driving recyclers who need the legitimacy of an old school original. Hip-hop, its mainstream at least, has outgrown its relevancy and become a genre where its artisans are outflanked by its hacks. What drove it to its peak was MTV, which exploited the cultural accessories of hip-hop fashion and made it such viable currency, the mainstream became fundamentally altered. But along the way, video seduced and eventually sucked hip-hop’s rebel pose until it became a hollow gesture. The music’s originality and cultural menace solidified into just another marketing brand valued only for its product placement opportunities.

While it is certain the music of James Brown gave rap producers a vocabulary and rappers themselves a public coat to wear, his legacy runs much deeper than that. Brown can be partially blamed for the lazy appropriation of his relevancy. That’s because he was borrowing against it himself long after his golden period was over. For all of its charms, the late career James Brown was a conscious imitation of the mid- and early-career James Brown. A grunt, a howl, an incomprehensible sound byte, Brown was happy to provide all. And why not? If there was someone who could rightfully claim all the above, it was certainly him.

The James Brown passed over these past two weeks was the James Brown before the funk. In other words, the James Brown that shows up on “Live At the Apollo” (Universal/Polydor), his smash hit album from 1963. Just a little over 30 minutes, the album is not just a showcase of Brown’s indisputable gifts (he was 29 with unbridled energy), it is a cultural turning point. Recorded two years before the arrival of the Beatles and two years after Elvis Presley was discharged from the army, there had been no one possessing the originality, timing, or hypnotic stranglehold over his audience than James Brown. On this album is an artist in no other competition than with himself. It is one of the few singular moments in pop history — Elvis Presley shocking a nation on Ed Sullivan, Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar at Woodstock — where a single event gave the artist not just career longevity but cultural immortality.

The album was almost never to be. Convinced that live albums do not sell, the idea was dismissed by King Records, Brown’s label, forcing him to personally fund the recording on October 24, 1962 at the Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem. Brown had already defined himself as a live phenomenon with his meticulously crafted stage show, elaborate horn arrangements and firecracker energy. On this recording you hear everything Brown was and more: A bandleader at the level of Cab Calloway or Louis Jordan, a self-empowerment preacher, a ballad singer and a soul shouter who turned his naturally brusque voice into a powerful instrument, so powerful he made himself sound like he was ready to rip off his own skin. There is also the James Brown who not just connects with his audience, he moves them into a back-and-forth dialogue that is ecstasy on both ends. As for the future, that’s here too. On this album are cues to what Brown would later hone on funk milestones like “Sex Machine” and “Cold Sweat, Pt. 1”: the nail-rattling rhythms of “Night Train” and “I’ll Go Crazy.”

But what remains remarkable about this half hour of James Brown in 1962 is what it lacks: video. Unlike today where visuals steer careers and are constructed with studied exactitude, Brown was conscious of impressing no one but the 1,500 people before him that night. He was earning his reputation as hard working, but he also was emblematic of a generation of performers who lived and died by turning the stage into a kind of holy shrine of transcendence, in a ritual that took place night after night. There was a reason why people thought of him as otherworldly — and led him to live a tormented personal life. It’s because in his music, he was constantly reaching for otherworldly things.

The fact that you can feel it on “Apollo” but never see it, is a powerful statement about music at its most unvarnished core. No doubt there are performers today who fit Brown’s mold, but they would be rare, as the camera has trained them for rigidity and to follow cues. Which makes Brown’s passing hurt just a little bit more. It is flattery when Snoop Dogg says Brown’s spirit will live through him, and it’s directed the wrong way. In Brown’s world, the revolution was not televised but the power was always on.

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