The King is dead. James Brown was pop music’s true ruler, a king who, unlike Elvis Presley, actually reflected American culture’s reality.
Brown did it with a painstakingly crafted mix of visceral, horny instinct and militant sociopolitical messages, striking with an impact no one in the history of recorded music had ever attempted. More importantly, he did it with a perfected artistic vision and drive that carried a pervasive influence — still vibrantly alive — on a scale no other could claim, let alone rival.
Although Brown suffered the physical degradation to which all of us are subject, we have never expected anything less than his on-fire prime, as if he should have been exempt from the wear and tear his drastic schedule and performing style necessarily took. That he was able to sustain himself so well under fame’s hyperpressurized atmosphere — unlike the grotesque responses of Presley and Michael Jackson — was really what made his passing such a shock. And despite the angel-dusted lunacy and gun-brandishing foolishness that were the subjects of his more recent headlines, Brown’s loss is an unacceptable, deeply painful one.
Born on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina, Brown was raised in Augusta, Georgia. His Depression-era childhood was anything but pretty. Chopping cotton and shining shoes were a stone drag, but after his other career choice resulted in a 1948 armed-robbery rap and three years inside, Brown sought less restrictive methods of survival. Like Jackie Wilson, Lee Dorsey and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he knocked heads as a prizefighter; then he tried life on the baseball diamond.
Inevitably, though, he turned to music, singing gospel with a former cellmate until the pair decided that R&B was the way to go. They were right. Assisted by avowed idol Little Richard, the only other mid-1950s vocalist laying down the same type of volcanic emotion, Brown and the Famous Flames were not an easy sell. The primitivism and furious involvement that always characterized Brown were solidly in place on “Please Please Please,” his very first recording, but when R&B producer-spearhead Ralph Bass brought the song to King Records head Syd Nathan in 1956, he “thought it was a piece of shit,” Bass later recalled. “He said I was out of my mind to bring Brown from Macon to Cincinnati and pay his fare.”
Nathan was an idiot. The song took a top-five spot on the R&B chart, and after ’58’s “Try Me” hit No. 1, Brown’s ascent never slowed. Albums like Cold Sweat, Raw Soul and Pure Dynamite made him an idol. Big-screen appearances were an incalculable advantage, and after exposing the Rolling Stones’ irrelevance in the 1965 concert film The T.A.M.I. Show, even Whitey began to pick up on him.
No one else sounded like J.B. Where fellow soul architects Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles used their gospel backgrounds to lend rhythm & blues a deeper, more spiritual weight, Brown laid claim to gospel’s fiery, transportive extremes. Employing a previously unheard emotional depth, Brown came to represent the culmination of an evolving new sound. And his vocal mastery, dazzling showmanship and jab-and-thrust musicality not only carried that evolution to the top of charts but propelled it through several of the most significant stylistic growth spurts of the last five decades.
Brown shepherded black America’s music through soul, then codified the pungent, rhythmic delights of funk — thereby almost single-handedly laying the foundation for hip-hop. His exultant war cry radiated a craving, profound need. Often expressed through stabbing, inchoate vocal shards, desperate, overstimulated grunts and primal, burning tiger growls, it was put over with a sheer, almost ugly intensity that reveled in its own irresistible and undeniable beauty. As a band leader, he required musical accompaniment as stripped-down and hard-hitting as his vocals, a presentation that remains as instantly recognizable as it was unique.
By the mid-1960s, Brown had built an autonomous empire, including a lucrative publishing catalog, real property and investments. (He owned radio stations, flew in his own plane and enjoyed international renown.) Brown was in a position that enabled him to make boldly unprecedented statements; beholden to none and without peer, he used his liberation to profound effect. 1968’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” immeasurably enhanced and anchored the social context that produced the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam. Brown’s radical black pride was also a benediction that demanded understanding, a call-up that enabled even the most timorous of ofay hipsters to not just recognize but root for Brown’s manifest breakout. “Say It Loud” was a moment in history as honorable, resonant and groundbreaking as the efforts of fellow lions Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, and even his most vernacular funk workouts seemed to throb with the same kind of upright, declarative merit.
Soldiering on valiantly as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Brown never lost that funk-mad genius, even as his messages of self-reliance, pride and conscience became an annoyance to the disco-techno rabble whose rise leeched the sickly heart of pop music dry. He became, despite effusive lip service from the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, more of a sample bank than a living force, one whom it was easier to borrow from than actively uphold as the genius and creative font of a revolutionary modern rhythm & blues sound.
Despite his oft-shockingly rough-edged persona, Brown remained a graceful, universally respected figure. His unusual Hollywood appearance at the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards in 1993 — where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award — seems to provide, from all the sweat-drenched, sex-machine moments of immortality, a suitable closing image. Playing to a crowd of pioneers that included Dave “Panama” Francis, Erskine Hawkins and Jimmy Witherspoon, Brown chose not to sing one of his epochal stunners but instead the postwar-era pop ballad “Lucky Old Sun.” His performance was a deliberate, smolderingly low-key wonder, with all the old voltage lurking just beneath the surface, yet subtly emphasizing the elegiac, twilight nature of the proceedings. It was a masterly, electrifying combination of weariness and faith, one almost wholly alien to his recorded work, yet it revealed that there was so much more within the soul of the artist than anyone realized: “That lucky old sun/ain’t got nothin’ to do/but roll around heaven all day .?.?.”