“American Original” James Brown Inspired Many
USINFO Staff Writer
Washington - Americans awoke on Christmas morning to learn that one of their cultural icons was gone, and tributes have been flowing ever since. Pioneering musician James Brown was a notoriously strict bandleader, yet he had a generous heart. The inventor of funk music, he was one of the most energetic stage performers until his death at 73 on December 25.
President Bush praised Brown as an “American original,” who “enriched our culture and influenced generations of musicians.” Todd Harris, who served as Brown’s tour manager, said he represented “a piece of America” to his fans around the world. “[T]heir faces almost looked like they were coming to see Abraham Lincoln or something,” he recalled.
“My longevity comes from him. My ideas came from him, because I used to do every hip tune this man put out. … He inspired me more than any other entertainer in the world,” said musician Chuck Brown, 72, the “Godfather of Go-Go,” who shared the stage several times with the “Godfather of Soul.”
“I can talk about this man for years. … He was my greatest inspiration throughout my whole musical career and make sure you print that!” Chuck Brown told USINFO.
A DETAIL-ORIENTED BAND LEADER
Icon or not, James Brown was known as “the hardest working man in show business.” Lisa White, booking manager at Washington’s 9:30 Club, recalled “a very detail-oriented person” who, well after achieving international fame, continued to take an active role in his band. White remembered standing behind the club’s soundboard while the band was going through its sound check for that night’s performance.
“A lot of people that achieve that stature in their career, they don’t bother to come to sound check … but not James Brown,” she told USINFO. “He was like the conductor rehearsing everybody through their different parts and making them go over it … until they got it right and calling people out for stuff that they weren’t doing or that they should have done.”
“[I]t just impressed me how much he still cared about making sure that the performance he was going to give the people who bought the tickets to the show was going to be the best it could be,” White said.
Brown, in his quest for excellence, was renowned for fining band members to punish poor performance. “One time … one of the guys in his band did something wrong and he was like, ‘Ha! You’re paying me now!’ or something like that. It was funny,” White said.
Chuck Brown said he remembered seeing James Brown on stage when someone made a mistake. “He’d just raise his fingers. He’d raise two fingers. That means that’s what you got, a $200 fine, you know? He was very strict.” But that band was “the tightest band in the world as far as I’m concerned.”
A LEGENDARY PERFORMER WITH A MISSION
James Brown was “a commanding presence on the stage,” Lisa White said. “I mean, he’s one of those people that when he walks on stage you just have to pay attention to him no matter what.”
Brown’s concerts “were almost like a combination of World Wrestling Federation [matches] and a Baptist church ceremony,” tour manager Todd Harris told USINFO. “He’d always stop the show and tell everybody in the audience to turn to the person on their left and say hello and ‘tell them that you love them,’ and do the same thing on the right.”
Brown performed all over the world, in Europe, Indonesia, Malaysia, the French Caribbean, China, and New Zealand, to name a few.
“He’d always bring a little piece of America to these different areas,” Harris said, and he would bring people on stage wherever he went.
“There were little kids all the time in the front row. He would stop the show and bring them up onstage and have them dance. Overseas, in Japan, he has a whole fan club that comes dressed like him. He always brings those guys onstage,” Harris said.
James Brown saw himself as an American cultural ambassador with a mission, Harris said. “It was much bigger than the music. And he’d stop and mention that to you. He’d always stop and tell people, ‘this is bigger than you think. This is George Bush, this is politics, this is everything right here.’”
After tragic events such as the Asian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, Brown routinely would stop the show in the middle to have a 30-second moment of silence. “He was always really into what was going on,” Harris said.
Chuck Brown first saw the legend in 1957 at a small club where James Brown played a free show to assist the owner, who was having financial difficulties. James Brown “really took my heart,” he said. “The energy that this man projects on the stage and the sound of his voice and the soul, the feeling that he gives you, you know?”
Among the many lessons Chuck Brown learned was “how to help people when they’re down.” James Brown’s generosity did not extend only to club owners. “I’ve seen James on occasion helping people off the street,” doing “more than he ever got credit for.”
He was also a hero to many fellow African Americans, one of his most famous songs being “Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud.”
“He gave [African Americans] a lot of confidence in themselves,” Chuck Brown said. “He taught me how to stay focused by listening to him and watching him, and taught me how to keep a strict direction on my band and on myself of course. I had to be tight in order for them to be tight.”
Harris recalled James Brown’s efforts to keep peace in the wake of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, when riots were breaking out in major U.S. cities.
Brown asked that his concert that night in Boston be broadcast over the television networks “so that it would help curb some of the violence if everybody stayed home that night and watched him” instead of taking their anger to the streets. It worked. Boston was the only major U.S. city that did not have riots that night.
JAMES BROWN “WILL ALWAYS BE A LEGEND”
Asked about the legacy of James Brown, Harris said he “really changed the way music is looked at.” Funk music began with Brown’s song “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” when he “put an accent on the rhythm of the one as opposed to the two and four.”
Brown’s innovations marked the beginning of current rhythm and blues and rap. “There would not be any of it without what he started,” Harris said.
“It’s really like an Abraham Lincoln passed away. It’s something much bigger than he is, what he left us.”
James Brown “will always be a legend,” Chuck Brown said. “He’s just going to be around forever. It doesn’t seem to me that he’s gone.”
Brown’s final concert in Washington at the 9:30 Club on December 28, 2005, with Chuck Brown opening the show, can be heard courtesy of National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered.