I can’t let James Brown’s passing go without some comment, especially when it concerns the man who wrote, "I Feel Good."
Ironically, my connection to the Godfather of Soul came from my own version of "I Feel Bad." It was the early seventies. Nixon was President. I was living in Washington DC. A year before, I had dropped out of college. Little did I know bipolar disorder had something to do with it. I thought everyone had their ups and downs. It would take me many long years to figure out that down didn’t necessarily equate to hoping the world would end and that up didn’t have to mean strangers pointing at me and snickering in amusement.
So it was that a college acquaintance who managed to get a kick out of my manic moments called me from out of the blue. He played trumpet in a soul band that did a lot of James Brown, and their leader happened to be looking for a trombonist. Snappy horn arrangements were essential to James Brown’s music, and the James Brown line-up of the day happened to feature, of all things, outstanding trombone solos by Fred Wesley.
James Brown’s back-up band, the JBs, would lay down some amazing funk - indeed they invented funk and perfected it. James Brown would crank up the action with his James Brown thing, and then from over the top would sound forth the coolest hippest music to ever issue from a wind instrument.
That was how I found myself one of three white men in an eight-piece soul band. Following the riots upon the death of Martin Luther King several years before, racial apartheid in the US had entered a new level of insanity. Young and often resentful black individuals sought refuge amongst themselves, while my white contemporaries gave lip service to changing the world before getting too stoned to give a damn. But here I was, with a rare opportunity to cross the color barrier.
My decision was met with sneers from the people I went to college with. Sure, they may have listened to Hendrix, but they looked down their noses at James Brown. "Hot Pants I’m Coming" was not exactly music to pass around the bong to. Way too simple and irrelevant to them. Little did they know.
James Brown literally stripped music to its rhythmic essentials, doing to pop music what Igor Stravinsky did to classical music back in 1913 with Le Sacre du Printemps. But the musical subtleties and complexities had to go somewhere, and they found a new home in rhythm. Indeed, that is the genius of James Brown. The challenge was to make a two-chord piece with virtually no melody sound interesting. Not only could James Brown and his JBs do it over the standard three minutes, they could literally keep piling on the funk over the eternity it takes to burn a burger to a crisp.
Indeed, a similar trend was about to happen in modern classical music with the musical minimalism of Philip Glass. Simplistic redundancy became the strong point. You could choose to die of boredom or you could open your ears to a wholly new transcendent reality. On the level of higher consciousness this had getting stoned or dropping acid beat by a country mile, and all my hippie acquaintances were way too stupid to realize it.
So it was that I would venture out into a Washington DC night, past gutted whole city blocks still smoldering from the Martin Luther King riots, trombone case in hand, "McGovern for President" bumper sticker attached to the outside, and into a world white people couldn’t even imagine existed. I would like to tell you how I belted out "Just Gimme Some More" to a wildly appreciative audience, but the truth is I was never that good a musician. Fred Wesley simply couldn’t be imitated, and James Brown’s rhythms were far too subtle for me to get a handle on. I was lucky as it was to last six months.
But I was able to take away from that experience a strong appreciation for the genius of James Brown. His influence on every musician who came after him - regardless of genre - is indelibly profound. The fact that he died one day before President Ford gives me an opportunity to put his legacy into historical perspective. Two hundred years from now, long after Ford and the controversy over the Nixon pardon is forgotten, our descendants will still be listening and dancing - and walking and hanging out - to the music of James Brown. The instruments they will be listening to may not have been invented yet, and the style of music may sound totally different, but believe me when I say this - the musicians who wind up entertaining George and Jane Jetson and their kids will all be taking their cues from an elite cadre of twentieth century recording artists. And that includes - the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr Dynamite, the Godfather of Soul, Soul Brother Number One.