Requiem for James Brown

Few musicians can hope to achieve the stature or impact of the late James Brown. When Brown died of congestive heart failure at age 73 on Christmas Day, 2006, the outpouring of tributes and elegies and the sheer spectacle of his funeral in Harlem seemingly put him on par with kings and presidents.

(Get Minister Faust's "REQUIEM FOR JAMES BROWN" podcast HERE.)

Widely acclaimed as the “godfather of soul,” James Brown was a highly influential musical pioneer whose work shaped the development of rhythm and blues in the 1950s, rock and roll in the 1960s, funk and disco in the 1970s and hip hop in the 1980s. He was a guest at the White House; he toured the United States, Nigeria and the world; he modeled business ownership for African-American musicians so that they might be owners instead of merely the owned. He was truly a titan.

Of course, as is fitting for someone whose life ended on the mythic date of Christmas Day, James Brown began humbly. Born May 3, 1933, in Barnwell South Carolina, James Brown was abandoned by his parents when he was only four years old, leaving him to be raised by relatives. But by his mid-teens, Brown went to prison for armed robbery. With the help of the then-unknown Bobby Byrd and his family, Brown returned to civilian life and became a gospel musician and ultimately a rhythm-and-blues man. By the time “Please, Please, Please” had become his first big hit, Brown was already known for his supernova stage performances. His popularity soared at precisely the time that the African-American freedom struggle was transforming from the self-definition of civil rights to that of Black Power, leading Brown to record such classics as “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” at a time when the words “negro” and “coloured” were commonplace.

Despite musical and financial low-points in the 1970s, Brown found renewed gravity with the advent of DJ mixes and digital sampling, which took the musical refrains or breakbeats from his songbook and looped them to form backing tracks for the dawning recording art of hip hop music. That foundational presence, combined with three other events, helped James Brown return to the Top Ten. The first of the three was recording the song “Unity” with hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambatta; the second was being caricatured by a young Eddy Murphy during Murphy’s Delirious tour, album and concert film and in the classic Saturday Night Live parody, “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub;” the third was recording “Living in America” for Sylvester Stallone’s jingoistic retread Rocky IV. While the song was no more jingoistic than Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (if less critical), like Springsteen’s song, it was adopted uncritically as a patriotic anthem.

Of course, James Brown’s rediscovered popularity did stop Brown from assaulting his wife or from serving two years in prison for that crime. But his star never truly set, and shines still in the music and performances of the many people he influenced, from Michael Jackson and Prince to Chuck D. and many, many White musicians as well. He even had an impact on Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, whose own band in turn had a major influence on Brown’s arranger David Matthews and thus the resulting James Brown sound, part of the 800 songs Brown recorded.

Last week, tens of thousands paid tribute to James Brown, filing past his coffin in Harlem and attending events in memoriam including a three day wake at the Apollo Theatre. Brown’s body was returned to Augusta, Georgia last Friday, where it lay as if in state for last Saturday’s public viewing at the 8,500-seat James Brown Arena, awaiting an evening public service also led by Brown’s surrogate son, the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Tonight on The Terrordome, we’ll hear many voices in praise of James Brown, from an elegy by Michael Jackson to parodies by Eddy Murphy, from documentary footage of Brown teaching viewers how to dance, to a rare Japanese miso soup commercial featuring Brown, a television appearance in which the late Sammy Davis, Jr. asks Brown to teach him how to dance (and in which accomplished mimic Davis does a spectacular job), from rare documentary material on the man (see below), plus, of course, music by James Brown himself. That’s all on the first 2007 edition The Terrordome: The Afrika All-World News Service.

Many, many thanks to WMFU's Beware of the Blog for providing the link to so many valuable clips.

In 1980, US filmmaker Jon Alpert of Downtown Community Television began filming a documentary on the hardest working man in showbiz after Brown claimed that he was being muscled out of American performances, and thus a living, by organised crime, which had a stake in the US recording industry. The clip is courtesy of Democracy Now!, which featured Jon Alpert as a guest on December 29th. In the clip, which had never aired before the Democracy Now! broadcast, we’ll see Alpert interviewing James Brown and Reverend Al Sharpton as the three of them drive through Harlem and later converse in a hotel room.

Harry Allen, Public Enemy's Media Assassin, on how James Brown created a revolution in music through rhythm-and-blues to rock-and-roll to funk to disco to hip hop and wrote the anthem to the Black Consciousness Movement in the USA.

Part of the impetus for James Brown’s return to the spotlight in the 1980s was Eddy Murphy’s caricaturing of him during his Delirious tour, album and concert film and in the classic Saturday Night Live parody, “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party.” Right now, let’s hear both.

James Brown’s surrogate son and protégé, the Reverend Al Sharpton, delivering a eulogy for Brown, and joined onstage by singer Michael Jackson who, perhaps in grief, drops his falsetto just long enough to let loose a whisper of his genuine voice.


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