The Magazine

Troubled Soul

The man who started it all heads for the finish line.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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Though blurry, the line persisted through the 1950s. The recent movie Ray contains a scene in which angry Christians protest the use of gospel sounds by a young nightclub singer named Ray Charles. Righteous anger was also directed against the rock 'n' roller Little Richard, who took his "devil-destroying" style from the Holiness Church in Macon, Georgia. The leading white rock 'n' rollers also came out of Pentecostalism: Jerry Lee Lewis learned piano in the Assembly of God in Ferriday, Louisiana (also attended by his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart); and Elvis's legendary hip shake was standard practice in the Pentecostal First Assembly of God in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Brown belongs to this generation, but strictly speaking, his career did not start in church. As every fan knows, Brown made his performance debut on the Third Level Canal Bridge in Augusta, Georgia, where in 1940 at the age of seven he "buck-danced" for soldiers on their way to Daniel Field. The dimes and nickels he earned were given to his Aunt Honey, who ran a house of "gambling, moonshine liquor, and prostitution" and had taken the boy in after his mother deserted him and his father, an itinerant laborer, could not keep him.

Yet church played a formative role. Ashamed of his patched garments, Brown was caught stealing clothes and sent to the Georgia Juvenile Training Institute in Rome, where he formed a gospel group. Upon his release he went to live with a foster family in Toccoa, where he sang with the Trinity CME Church choir and the short-lived Ever Ready Gospel Singers. Unable to break into radio with gospel, he formed an R&B band with his friend Bobby Byrd. Eventually known as the Flames, this little band worked their way through countless tiny gigs, including one at the white high school, where they played halftime during afternoon basketball games.

"Once," recalls Brown, "I came sliding across the basketball floor with a big dust mop and danced with it. The kids went wild."

That dust mop served Brown well. Ever the consummate showman, he was soon the star of the Flames, optimistically renamed the Famous Flames. In 1956 they had their first hit, "Please, Please, Please" (#6 on the R&B chart). When their record label suggested calling them James Brown and the Famous Flames, the others resentfully quit. But Brown kept going, forming a new band, working tirelessly at his sound and stagecraft, and not only climbing the R&B chart but also "crossing over" to the larger, more lucrative pop chart.

Many of Brown's crossover hits between 1959 and 1962 ("Try Me," "Bewildered," "Prisoner of Love") were ballads in the soaring, aching style of soul. His vocalism here is so powerful, the listener is struck by how easily he could have edged Otis Redding off the stage at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. But that didn't happen, because by the time millions of white kids discovered they had soul, Brown had moved on to funk.

The breakthrough came in 1965: "Papa's Got a Brand-New Bag, Part I" (#1 R&B, #8 pop). Few moments in popular music are as legendary as the recording session at which Brown's band changed the basic beat from one-TWO, three-FOUR to ONE-two, THREE-four. But instead of penetrating the legend, Eliot adds another goofy layer to it:

With the "One," James Brown had thrown out all the traditional chord progressions along with his sweet melodies, the salad and the dressing of R&B and soul--and retained only the thick juicy cut of the rhythm. Gone along with the excess was the timidity, the apologetic head-down shuffle of Black musical passivity. James Brown's "One" represented pride and authority, a sound that stepped up to the mike with strength and conviction, and a generation of Black and White boomers instantly embraced it on the good foot.

Now let me get this straight. By encouraging guitarist Jimmy Nolen and saxophonist Maceo Parker to punch out an especially tight, snappy rhythm, Brown was liberating his fellow blacks from harmony and melody, those twin oppressions that had destroyed the pride of such timid, apologetic, head-down, shuffling darkies as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Sidney Bechet, Big Bill Broonzy, Nat "King" Cole, John Coltrane, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Green, Earl Hines, Mahalia Jackson . . . ? (You get my drift, so I'll stop at J.)

"Funk" is an old word. In England, it means a bad mood. In America, it means a strong odor, especially a bodily one. Among African Americans, "funk" also refers to the rough, bluesy, polyrhythmic end of the musical spectrum (along with "dirty," "nasty," "low-down," and "gut-bucket"). In the early 1950s, when post-bebop jazz musicians were returning to their musical roots, "funk" was adopted as a badge of authenticity. For example, Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet called his 1954 album "Opus de Funk."