I Feel Good
A Memoir of a Life of Soul
by James Brown and Marc Eliot
New American Library, 266 pp., $24.95
The Godfather of Soul
by James Brown and Bruce Tucker
Thunder's Mouth Press, 384 pp., $14.95
"I TOOK A TRIP to Rome during one of my down periods a few years ago, and had the good fortune to be greeted by the pope." Reading about this encounter, one naturally wonders what the Hardest Working Man in Show Business and the Hardest Working Man in Religion had to say to each other. "The pontiff shook my hand three times," Brown continues, "and I told him I had been thinking about leaving the music business, and to my surprise, he advised against it. I asked him why. He said, 'Because, sir, you can get things done.'"
Was the Holy Father a soul man in the James Brown sense? Or was this standard papal advice to visitors long in the tooth? You won't find out the answer from I Feel Good, a carelessly written celebrity biography that barely skims the surface of Brown's fascinating life. For an in-depth look, read Brown's first autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul (first published in 1986, reprinted in 2003), coauthored with Bruce Tucker. In Tucker, Brown had a real writer to work with. In Eliot, he has someone best described as no Plutarch. Eliot has written bios of Cary Grant, the Eagles, Erin Brockovich, Walt Disney, Donna Summer, Roy Clark, Vicki Lawrence, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs, Burt Reynolds, Barry White, and Kato Kaelin--more than is good for him, probably, and certainly more than is good for Brown.
The clear purpose of I Feel Good is to repair a very tarnished image. Brown has had a bad 20 years. Between 1988 and 1991, he served part of a six-year prison term for assault, failure to stop for an officer, resisting arrest, and illegal possession of a pistol and drugs. In 1998 he was arrested after a car chase and sentenced to a 90-day drug rehab. In 2003 he was pardoned by the state of South Carolina, but that didn't stop him from getting in trouble again. In January 2004, he was arrested for allegedly shoving his wife, Tomi Rae, to the floor of their bedroom.
But I Feel Good gives only a garbled account of these misadventures, laced with braggadocio and racial paranoia. Again, readers who would rather focus on Brown's accomplishments are advised to read Tucker. Not only does Tucker's book include old-fashioned aids like an index and discography (both maddeningly absent from Eliot), it also brings out the complexity of a man who, despite his recent decline, is an American icon. Rough yet refined, boastful yet humble, Brown is an extraordinary talent who also happens to be blessed (cursed?) with a sharp intelligence that cuts through the B.S. as cleanly as his incredible voice cuts through the air.
The true fan will say, "Skip the books and listen to the music." Good advice, since no amount of description can capture the essence of James Brown. But given the state of popular music these days, listening is not a simple proposition. To a large degree, what one hears will depend on one's background, age, and cultural outlook.
For white middle-class fans who grew up in the 1960s, Brown is the one who added funk to soul. That is, he took the style of black music then popular among whites and injected it with rhythmic steroids. For African Americans of the same vintage, Brown is one of several artists who secularized church music. That is, he took the burning heart of gospel, the "hard" style of the solo evangelist, and injected it with hedonism. To most whites, funk was all about sex--an appeal Brown exploited with titles like "Sex Machine" (even though the lyrics had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with dancing). To most blacks, funk, like soul, was full of echoes: Behind every "baby" they heard "Jesus."
In music, the line between sacred and secular is tricky. A century ago, African Americans drew it between instruments (tambourines okay, drums not) and practices (dancing with the feet apart okay, with them crossed not). In the 1920s a vaudevillian named Thomas A. Dorsey got saved at a Baptist convention and decided to incorporate the music he knew best--the blues--into a new genre called "the gospel song." People are still surprised to learn that the salty blues "It's Tight Like That" was written by the same man who wrote Martin Luther King's favorite hymn, "Take My Hand Precious Lord."
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."
By the early 1960s, funk was well established in jazz. But not until played by Brown's perfectionist band did funk become mainstream--to the extent that such gnarly, muscular, whiplash rhythms can ever become mainstream. Brown recalls: "I was still called a soul singer . . . but musically I had already gone off in a different direction. . . . When I saw the speakers jumping, vibrating in a certain way, I knew that was it: deliverance."
As his wording implies, Brown never lost the gospel spark. The high point of his concerts was always the moment when, after a 30-or 40-minute version of a song, he would sink to the floor of the stage and allow his "cape man," Danny Ray, to enfold him in a satin cloak like that of the wrestler Gorgeous George. Then, as Brown limped offstage supported by Ray, the band would teasingly revive the rhythm. Brown would stop, swaying like a man drunk with exhaustion, and amid the fulminations of the rhythm and the screams of the fans, wait for the spirit to seize him. When it did, he would throw off the cape and deliver a ferocious encore.
Brown, in his prime, blazed with energy both spiritual and erotic. Yet as soul gave way to disco in the "liberated" 1970s, the spiritual was forgotten and the erotic reduced to raw sex. Some performers, like Barry White, embraced this change and became caricatured "love men." Others, like Al Green, rejected it and returned to gospel. Brown tended the flame without going to either extreme, as suggested by his comment to Tucker: "Really, a lot of the ways I communicate with people and what I communicate I owe to the church. When I'm on a stage, I'm trying to do one thing: bring people joy. Just like church does."
Yet disco hurt Brown. Listeners who came of age in the 1970s will hear his rhythms as part of a generalized soundtrack that, as the decade wore on, became ever more mechanical. Brown's account of this transformation is priceless:
Disco is a simplification of a lot of what I was doing, of what they thought I was doing. Disco is a very small part of funk. It's the end of the song, the repetitious part, like a vamp. The difference is that in funk you dig into a groove, you don't stay on the surface. Disco stayed on the surface. See, I taught 'em everything they know but not everything I know.
After the disco craze imploded in 1979, the name was dropped but the method remained. Brown adds: "It was all done with machines. [The artists] thought they could dress up in a Superfly outfit, play one note, and that would make them a star. . . . The record companies loved disco because . . . machines can't talk back and, unlike artists, they don't have to be paid." Computerized rhythms still dominate popular music. Why struggle to record live drummers, bassists, and other percussionists, when the majority of listeners don't notice the difference? To grasp the current relevance of Brown's comment, just substitute "pop" for "disco" and "Britney Spears" for "Superfly."
Finally, people who grew up in the 1980s will associate Brown not with soul or disco but with rap--because when rap first emerged from uptown New York dance clubs, its foundation was funk, especially James Brown funk. But rap did not grow directly out of the musical tradition that produced James Brown. Instead, it grew out of a spoken tradition with roots in both North America and the Caribbean. In the West Indies historically, the popular music of blacks was not played on the government-controlled radio. Nor was it played in people's homes, because most blacks were too poor to own record players. Instead, it was provided by mobile DJs with large record collections and powerful "sound systems," who specialized in "toasting," or delivering a steady patter over instrumental remixes of popular records.
The creator of rap is said to be Kool DJ Herc (Clive Campbell), a Jamaican immigrant who introduced toasting to the Bronx. He was quickly followed by Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler), the son of Barbadian immigrants who devised a way to switch back and forth between two turntables. Atop his "wheels of steel," Grandmaster Flash was a true percussionist, weaving together the "breaks," or most heavily rhythmic sections, of two different funk records.
Early rap was thus an improvised art requiring a ready wit, a sharp ear, and quick hands. But the 1970s were a time of swift technological change, so it was not long before rap went high tech. All it took were a few chart hits. Once rap entered the studio, it no longer depended on the skills of live performers, either record spinners (DJs) or rappers (MCs). Instead, it became a sound collage, assembled on tape by a producer adept at "sampling" all sorts of recorded sounds--not just voices and rhythms but everything from sirens and gunshots to political speeches and jazz solos. (Today, of course, sampling is even easier, because it is done digitally.) Because the funky rhythm remained essential, the single most sampled source in rap is James Brown. That's why he commented to Spin magazine in 1991 that rap "is the next thing, but it's all from me." And that's why he sued record labels who were sampling without paying for the rights.
Apart from self-interest, Brown's opinion of rap seems mixed. Back in the 1980s, he shared the general view of it as more bound up with politics than most forms of black music. That suited him, because that was how he saw his own music. It has never been easy to classify Brown politically. Today's "liberal" and "conservative" labels don't fit. Mostly Brown belongs to the generation of African Americans described by Martin Luther King as "materialistic, patriotic, and religious." During the 1960s, when his fame was at its zenith, Brown was attacked by both left and right. The left criticized him for writing a song called "America Is My Home," for entertaining the troops in Vietnam (even though he had to battle the State Department for permission), and, above all, for endorsing Richard Nixon in 1972. The right criticized him for writing a song called "Say It Loud / I'm Black and I'm Proud," which many misinterpreted as anti-white.
Brown came close to being a political leader in April 1968, when rioting broke out in several cities after the assassination of King. Brown was scheduled to give a concert at the Boston Garden, but Mayor Kevin White tried to cancel it, for fear that it would provoke rioting. Brown argued that it would be more prudent not only to hold the concert but also to televise it. He was right. Thousands of young Bostonians stayed home to watch Brown perform--and to hear him say, "Let's not do anything to dishonor Dr. King. . . . You kids, especially, I want you to think about what you're doing. Think about what Dr. King stood for. Don't just react in a way that's going to destroy your community."
It was in this same upbeat spirit that, in the mid-1980s, Brown told Tucker that he saw rap as "an extension of things I was doing for a long time: rapping over a funky beat about pride and respect and education and drugs and all kinds of issues." Yet Brown also saw where rap might be headed: "I feel solidarity with the breakers and the rappers and the whole hip hop thing--as long as it's clean."
Rap took a turn for the worse in the late 1980s, when the so-called gangsta style came out of Los Angeles. And in 1990, the pornographic sensibility entered in the form of a Florida group called 2 Live Crew. At first, gangsta rap seemed a kind of naturalism: an honest account of the ravages of crack, family breakdown, and gang violence in blighted neighborhoods. But naturalism became exploitation when gangsta rap caught on in the suburbs, and the pathology of the poor became the minstrelsy of the rich. As for 2 Live Crew, their legacy thrives in the "crunk" style, which depicts the sexuality of young black men and women in ways that, to put it mildly, conform to the fevered imaginings of the worst white racists. The standard defense is to say that this stuff is a parody. But of what? For millions of young people around the world, including many African Americans, these words (and video images) define blackness.
How did this happen? Brown's explanation in Eliot is worth quoting at length, because it echoes the view of a whole generation (not his) who grew up thinking of rap as something positive and now reel at the lessons it is teaching their kids:
The FCC controls the licensing of everything connected to broadcasting. If they don't want something on the air, it doesn't get on. . . . I believe a lot of the most anarchic, "dirty" songs . . . were either something [the artists] were pressured by labels into recording, or actually products originated by some faction of the FCC. . . . Who else do you think has sanctioned all the playing of the worst of it on the air constantly, so that White people could shake their heads and say, "See? That's what Black people are really all about. That's how they talk about their girlfriends and worse, their mamas. . . . Rappers out there . . . Listen to your Godfather! . . . Somebody's lying to you somewhere. . . . We need to get back to the roots of our music.
This may sound paranoid, but as the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. Brown has always understood that when the middle class dabbles in the sewer, the lower class drowns. Last year, when a mug shot of him with creased face, disheveled hair, and open dressing gown circulated on the Internet, he was mortified. Like all old-fashioned show business people, especially those who grew up without good clothes, Brown hates to appear ill-groomed. Compare this fastidiousness with the sartorial grossness perpetrated by rappers today, and you will see how high the B.S. is piled.
Godfather of Soul, get your act together. We need your help to cut through it.
Martha Bayles, who teaches in the honors program at Boston College, posts a blog called Serious Popcorn at www.artsjournal.com.