I remember the 45s that my high school roommates brought home from the weekends. Most of them had the familiar labels from Atlantic, Capitol, Columbia – after all, white guys recorded on those labels, too. Even Motown labels were friendly and common, growing up, as I did, with the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye records my sisters brought home from college.
But there was something about those James Brown platters. They looked and felt different, like they came from the same ghetto Brown did. He recorded for King Records – which Wikipedia says was a country label out of Cincinnati with some “race record” side projects. The labels were a dark shade of blue and a simple crown was suspended above the word “King” in silver lettering.
The 45s themselves looked subversive, and not only because the titles of the songs happened to be “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Sex Machine”. They looked like they were made in someone’s basement. Even the font for the songs titles was lame, as if all of the usual aesthetics of labeling and appearance of the product had been cast aside in the interest of just getting the damn things out. Add the dirty fingerprints and scratches of high school kids on the black vinyl and the whole thing seemed very, well, funky.
He might have been put out 33 rpm albums and we had some in the room (Aretha Live at the Apollo, Bill Cosby: My Brother Russell, With Whom I Slept), but our James Brown collection was all those funky 45s. Some were songs were still under the white-guy radar; follow-ups to his few cross-over hits and Black Power ghetto anthems.
As a white guy, you could dig the guitars, the horns, the screams and the splits; but you could never really understand the funk, heart and soul, the repressed rage behind the voice and that pained look on his face. James Brown sang and played for the man back home, out on the stoop, slumped on the natty couch staring at the black-and-white TV with a 40-ounce in a bag. Always real, he never devolved into a cartoon of himself, even when he took the check from The Man, put on red-white-and-blue and briefly joined the Rocky franchise for “Living in America” in 1976.
For all his dynamic stage presence and histrionics, James Brown was a band leader. Many of his albums were stocked (some would say “padded”) with instrumental, full-band work-outs, that probably only made sense for those in the studio. Even some of his hits show him directing traffic (i.e.: takin’ it to the bridge in “Sex Machine”) and he’d throw out sudden key changes just to see if the band could handle it. When I saw him live in 1981 in Madison, he drove the big band with a shake of his head and a twist of his hand.
That night, I watched him talk to children and adults backstage, and got to ask him a question about the Atlanta child murders (the reason for the benefit show he just performed). Already too old for his then-49 years, JB spoke quietly but forcefully, as if it was still Nation-time and people were still looking to him for answers. For James Brown, it seemed, the struggle was never over, either for his constituent people or for his inner soul.
In death, James Brown gave us one last gift. His passing on Christmas Day gave his fans and admirers the perfect excuse to blow out the stale residue of over-played holiday music with original funk, turned up loud on the way to and/or running from church and family events. Tired Rudolph gave way to the Good Foot; chestnuts roasted, maybe, but only on the Sex Machine. Brown may have felt like he broke out in a Cold Sweat, but his passion was always hot, always driven by inner strength and his connection to the folks back home. There are no sad, slow songs to remember James by; there is only the dig-deep riff, the funky break, the howling scream from the inner soul.
Of all the rock and soul icons we lionize – Elvis, Beatles, Dylan, Young, Springsteen – James Brown is the only one I can think of who never tried to re-create himself, never gave himself over to image-makers and false-idol-creators. He stood before us, sweat pouring down his mask-like face, and counted it off. The band, and he, took it from there. In a world and a profession where you are considered a fool if you don’t get yourself pimped, James just went ahead with his Bad Self and we’ll never see another like it.
Photo from 1981, by James Nelson, via the Daily Cardinal