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Requiem for The Godfather

24 Feb 2007

>> © Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis

James Brown died this past Christmas morning. He was the consummate entertainer, a penultimate personification of drive, stamina and the so-called "American Dream" with all of the riches and conflicts that questionable ideal carries, especially with regards to the African-American.

I’ll never forget the night I first saw him in concert. It was November 14, 1997 and thanks to a snowstorm, the crowd at the now-defunct Lulu’s Roadhouse in Kitchener, Ontario was less than half full. I’d managed to make my way up to the front of the stage, and as the exhortations of emcee Danny Ray and the opening snare shots of “ Cold Sweat” rang out into the crowd, there he was: badder than bad, cleaner than clean, “ Mr. Dynamite” himself: JAMES BROWN!!

Most official reports state that James Brown was born in a shack in Barnwell, South Carolina on May 3rd 1933. That’s open to debate, but what is unquestionable is as Cliff White & Harry Weinger point out in the liner notes of the CD “Star Time”:

“James Brown was born to lose. He refused to accept that fate.”

Raised in a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, James Brown was imprisoned for petty theft in 1949 for breaking into a car to steal a coat at 15 years of age. Released three years later he was determined to become an entertainer. He joined friend Bobby Byrd's group, and helped by his struts, splits and obsession to outdo Little Richard,  the outfit now christened The  Flames released the million seller; " Please, Please, Please" in 1955. Disgruntled with Brown's top-billing, The Flames dissolved. Solo classics like "Try Me”, "Bewildered" " and "Night Train" burned up the charts. Most smouldering however, was Brown''s reputation as an outstanding live performer or as he couldn''t have put it better himself; "Mr. Dynamite".

"So now ladies and gentlemen, it's Star Time. Are You Ready for Star Time?!!", so began Fats Gonder's introduction on "James Brown Live at the Apollo" recorded on October 24, 1962, at the famed theatre. "Live At The Apollo" is perhaps one of the seminal live albums of all time, if not the greatest. It is the album that finally broke Brown through as a mainstream performer. Just over 30 minutes long, "Apollo" is a transcendental recording, distilling James Brown's omnipotence; a sort of Saturday night church if you might, alternately exhilarate and exhausting. At a time when the R&B market was thought to be only singles dominated, Brown established the album format peaking at #2 in the summer of 1963. Record label execs doubted the albums potential but it was followed by 4 sequels. "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" had been vindicated.

"Live At The Apollo" was enough to establish Brown''s legacy for a lifetime. But this was only the beginning. Recorded the month Malcolm X was assassinated, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and follow-ups like the legendary "I Got You ( I Feel Good)” with their intense and tight grooves seemed to foretell the tumultuous years of the late 1960's. But it was the absolute Bomb that was "Cold Sweat" released in the summer of 1967 that is often credited as the first Funk groove. Driven by Clyde " Give The Drummer Some" Stubblefield's on the one groove and Maceo Parker''s inspired sax solo, "Sweat" not only ignited a rhythm revolution in America but the vibrations were being felt throughout the diaspora: from Kingston to Rio to Lagos. Along with Muhammad Ali, James Brown was becoming a global icon of black pride and determination.

This was a role that Mr. Brown took very seriously; buying the radio stations: WJBE in Knoxville TN, and WRDW in Augusta, GA. Entertaining U.S. troops in Vietnam, investing in a chain of Soul food restaurants. Brown was the embodiment of his philosophy of "Get an education! Work hard! Get in a position to own things. That's Black power!" A staunch Republican, he campaigned with Hubert Humphrey in 1966 and sided with Nixon in the early 1970's. This controversial political affiliation would haunt him into his twilight, resulting in hisses and boos at Toronto''s Molson Amphitheatre in 2004 when he attempted to have a moment of silence for the recently departed Ronald Reagan. In December of 1988, James Brown was handed two concurrent six year prison sentences stemming from traffic violations and resisting arrest. Released in 1991, Brown continued to tour endlessly. Admittedly at the sunset of his career, Brown's shows still continued to galvanize current fans of hip-hop and R&B who wanted to know what the hype was in the first place.

So back to that night in Kitchener in 1997: It was one of the greatest concerts I'd ever seen in my life. Well into his 60's Brown was a vision of energy and vitality. It is a picture I'll always remember. And throughout all of the ups and downs of his remarkable career, it''s that uncompromising, forceful, relentless vision that exists. The most influential musician of the last half of the 20th century, an influence on politics, fashion and arguably the greatest showman of our time James Brown will always be Soul Brother #1.

Rest in Peace Godfather!

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