Monday, December 25, 2006


I was fortunate enough to see James Brown in a small club, the famed Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, in Providence, Rhode Island, about twenty-six count 'em twenty-six years ago. That put The Godfather of Soul in his late 40's, although we were sure he must have been 50, neither of which seems as old to me now as it did then.

It had been a long time since his last surge, which began in 1970 when "Sex Machine" inspired the disco era, and while we had been listening to 1962's Live at the Apollo, particularly the medley kicking off with "Please Please Please" and my personal favorite, "Night Train," which doubles as a railroad anthem and a popular brand of rotgut, that record was more an anomaly. You couldn't really believe that guy seriously still existed because he was putting on a high-energy performance like you'd never thought possible.

So there's maybe a hundred or so of us facing the stage where we first saw The Pretenders or Dead Kennedys or The Go-Gos, and he's a got a pretty big band including horns, percussion, female back-up singers, and they come out before him and play a couple numbers to warm everyone up. Then out comes who I figure must be his longtime announcer, Danny Ray, doing a routine like you can see here, the best intro I've ever seen live onstage, and finally out comes this force of nature, a man not to be denied.

We started dancing immediately.

None of us could believe the splits this supposed past-his-time geezer was snapping into. Like a super-funk robot, but so unmistakably alive, kicking our asses.

One of the highlights was when he actually sat down at the keyboards. He was a great player.

The show was very generous on time, but it was just like a party you didn't want to leave because this one guy at the center was, for lil' ol' us, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. In America, however long he was onstage.

Here's his 1966 genius with the band on Ed Sullivan ("Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" segueing quickly into "I Feel Good") and aside from the wrinkles and other time effects, he was essentially the same singer/dancer, except muscled with age and post-disco evolution. Like when he did climaxed with a fifteen minute-long version of "Sex Machine". Mature, powerful, incredibly funky.

The whole band, the back-up singer interplay, the true soul power; a really great night courtesy of the Godfather's faith in himself which was, after all, his exhortation to all of us. Please, please, please, indeed. Please don't let the barriers -- the poverty, the racism -- keep you down. Please don't be afraid to do things no one has done before and keep doing them in between when they're in style. Please lead the state police on a high-speed car chase down Interstate 20.

Within five years Brown was up on the charts again with "Living in America," his stock rising as rap and hiphop hit the mainsteam, those artists acknowledging him influence. We were lucky to see him so close up that night, his hot moves and cold sweat. Bigger venues followed.

So I'm moved to hear that James Brown has died. The man clearly had his O.O.C. side, but he gave so much to popular music and was so influential to our culture, not to mention the African-American pride revolution, that I can't celebrate him any less. Are we not happier for his having shared his time?

And hey, talk about timing, how about it that The Godfather of Soul goes out on Christmas Day?

Just like having Baby Jesus as your announcer; giving up the biggest intro of all time.

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