James Brown treated rhythm like a mad scientist with test tubes full of chemicals — always reinventing, trying new combinations and creating more powerful potions. Brown — the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Mr Dynamite, Soul Brother No. 1, and the Minister of Super Heavy Funk — died December 25 of congestive heart failure at the age of 73.
Hundreds followed the horse-drawn carriage carrying his coffin for a showing at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where Brown made some of his most memorable appearances throughout the years. Mourners sang, "Say it Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" — a tribute to a man who was shaped by and helped shape the relationship between race and music in the US.
Brown was born in 1933, in a one-room shack in Barnwell, South Carolina. After his parents separated when he was just four years of age, he went to live with his aunt who ran a brothel in Augusta, Georgia.
Brown made do with odd jobs — picking cotton and shining shoes — and was never able to finish school. In 1949, he went to jail for petty theft after breaking into a car; he was paroled three years later.
When he got out of jail, he looked to playing music — going from gospel to eventually his own band, the Famous Flames. In 1956, the Flames broke through on the R&B charts with "Please, Please, Please", which would remain one of Brown's signature songs.
In the 1960s, Brown broke through to the pop charts by reinventing the old classic "Prisoner of Love" — which crooner Perry Como made a hit in the 1940s — and making it Brown's first of several top 20 Billboard hits.
In 1965, Brown made another musical breakthrough with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag". Music journalist David Marsh wrote of "Papa's Got" in The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, "Skirting the edges of intelligibility, his voice quavering and shaking like a man with cosmic palsy, Brown declared a new order of rhythm and himself as its avatar ...
"The result is a beat chopped up into an infinity of bright, hard shards. Each pierces the formula that was beginning to dominate soul music as it was pulled, like any other pop genre, toward more blandness than was good for it. Brown had helped perfect that formula, but with 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag', he declared his refusal to live within its restrictions."
With this song, he invented "the One" — putting the accent on the first beat instead of the two and four — and funk was born.
"I don't think it's any coincidence that funk and the civil rights movement found their voices about the same time", Brown wrote in 2005. "The more embedded we became in the movement, the more self-pride our music expressed."
In April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Later that year, despite criticism from Black activists who opposed the war and initial opposition from the US government itself, Brown went to Vietnam to entertain the troops.
In August, he wrote "Say it Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud": "Now we demand a chance to do things for ourself/We're tired of beatin' our head against the wall/And workin' for someone else/We're people, we're just like the birds and the bees/We'd rather die on our feet/Than be livin' on our knees/Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud."
In his 2005 memoir, he describes the song as a "rallying cry for peaceful self-pride". While Brown didn't claim to be a revolutionary — saying he favoured encouraging Black business over radical activism — his song "Say it Loud" was.
As rapper Chuck D wrote in 2002, "It was in this complex time that my young and simple mind remembers my family going from Negro to calling our race 'colored', in fact my birth certificate list me as a 'Negro boy'. Yeah 'colored'. This was the answer to the question of what I was in 1967 at age seven. After the King assassination James Brown's 'Say it Loud — I'm Black And I'm Proud' came out ...
"James Brown single-handedly took a lost and confused musical nation of people and bonded them with a fix of words, music and attitude. After a hot summer of baseball camp, summer lunches and barbecues, 'Say It Loud — I'm Black And I'm Proud' was the catch phrase that prepared me for the third grade, 1969, and the rest of my life. Black now signified where we were at, a new discovery of our bad self."
During this period, Brown took some confusing political directions — for example, supporting Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon in 1968, then supporting Nixon again in 1972. Protesters with "Nixon lover" signs picketed one of his shows at the Apollo in 1973.
At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission went after Brown, forcing him to close down a radio station he owned in Baltimore.
The Internal Revenue Service also went after him. Brown, by the way, had a great response for failing to pay taxes: "The government is responsible for it because they didn't allow me to go to school", he wrote in his 1986 autobiography The Godfather of Soul, "... the people who represented me had shingles and sheepskins, and I didn't have any of 'em. So I owe nothing ... You pay taxes when you're represented. You pay taxes when you exercise all of your rights."
"Say it Loud" became a rallying cry for a generation, and was taken up as an anthem by Black radicals and the civil rights movement.
Not only did Brown invent and reinvent music, but his band produced trailblazing musicians in their own right (that is, if they survived Brown's strict discipline). They include Bootsy Collins of George Clinton's Parliament and Funkadelic, who wrote upon Brown's death, "Mr. Brown was the God of Rhythm and Music. Me along with countless other musicians were his Sons. No one else will ever come close. For he is declared this day by all Funkateers across the globe: 'The Funkiest Mutha in the Universe.'"
"He was an innovator, he was an emancipator, he was an originator", Little Richard told the Associated Press. "Rap music, all that stuff came from James Brown."
[From Socialist Worker, newspaper of the US International Socialist Organization. Visit <http://www.socialistworker.org>.]