James Brown sang of Agustuh, Gee Aay, as where he was from. Augusta was one of the poles of his most famed driving experiments. Barnwell, S.C., was the other, where he was slapped alive, stillborn in a shack in the woods. JB was “a complicated man.” I mean, Al Sharpton used to do his hair.
James Brown first exploded on the airwaves here in Raleigh in 1964. “Out of Sight” blared to everyone: black folks, old-line neighborhood freaks, professor’s kids with crystal sets, tough cookies from the Methodist Home Orphanage, and the Mustangs and GTOs from Country Club Hills. “Do not let your children listen to Negro records,” grimly intoned the AM right-wingers. We just jeered and turned it up. “Ainitfunkynow,” we screamed.
JB had a message a lot of folks could get behind; not entirely appreciated by drunken frat kids, but they were still there. That was his most important gift: Using the universal cultural solventmusic’s uncanny, subtle powerto stretch, bend, flash-illuminate some aspects of human community to a syncopated backbeat wail. The James Brown dimension was some sort of glittery, shiny, biscuit-makin’, rump-shakin’‚ sweat-slingin’ tone poem paced out with horn hits and guitar kachunks like a straight razor and sudden, abrupt shrieks, all of it fueled by this chugging engine, beautiful in the beats that weren’t there, the ones that forced you to accommodate with a deliberate backbone twitch on the dance flo. Try to hum a fast James Brown “song.” They elude melody. His material is a thick vessel full of a concoction of syncopated sounds, impulses shaken and stirred. There almost ain’t no there there. Two black children, girls, showed me how to dance at the beach in 1980, to “It’s Too Funky In Here,” tiny, black silhouettes with a jam-box at 300 yards, starkly etched against the burning white quartz sand. When you expected a hip in one place, it would be somehow somewhere else, just jumpin’‚ thumpin’, doin’ it.
James Brown’s career was a particularly startling and influential version of the American touring band, one lasting legacy of gasoline and cars. From Louis Armstrong to The Thundering Herd, Duke Ellington (Stayhorn was from Hillsborough), Bobby “Blue” Bland and The Parliament/ Funkadelic Mothership to Prince, there was a roving network all a sort of throbbing Afro/ Carib continuum.
Then there’s the country and western scene. I’ve done my time on job sites and in auto garages. My fellow wrenches, the “boys on the corner” at old John West Auto, called James Brown “jungle jive,” but they turned it up loud. The Godfather erased a lot of boundaries.
The Reagan years were rolling along just fine in that dumpy Raleigh way. Petey was doin’ his part. Had a 375-horsepower rolling bar with bucket seat, a ’66 Sport Fury convertible built up the way I liked it, lookin’ like Robert Mitchum comin’ to eat your babies, the done it yo-sef Highway Patrol 440, disc brakes, all dat, the 1000cc Goomba Murdercycle, clothes, hats. … And shoes? Custom-made Whites, Fluevogs, Stacy Adams. Man, I had shoes. God modified the Fury’s stock push-button AM, permanently fusing it to AM 57, old WLLE aka Woolie, straight-up jungle jive along with Brother James Thomas’s “Obituary of the Air.”
“Electrifyin’ news. The Godfather of soul, Mr. Please Please and the JBs at Memorial Auditorium, one night only.” “Night Train” had been a local hit for years; “Raleee, Nawfkehalinah” sung by the Godfather fixed that. Memorial was his house, right here in the ‘hood. The Memorial gigs were legend. This was the biggest deal I’d ever heard of. The city was buzzing for months, all the talk in the bars. There was a run on the music at the stores. He was everywhere, pouring out of cars again.
The night of the show, there was a moband I mean mobof cars in front. The date was well along in his career and illustrated a nearly universal American pattern. About the time a black musical form is perfected, white folks en masse “discover” something that has been there, like Columbus, and put it to work; a good thing, otherwise we’d be all be listenin’ to Seals and Crofts. Used to be a James Brown show was almost all black with a percentage of white folks. In the early ’80s, the percentages were perfectly reversed. They spilled out of the theater into the lobby, a throng of hipsters and older fly folk.
The lights came up, and there he was full-on boogaloo in a heavy taffeta cloak the color of a raspberry popsicle.
“The Prime Minister of Superheavy-Duty Funk, Mr. Please Please, Try Me, the Godfather of Soul, out there like a tornado in your garden party, Mr. James Brown” and ba-bump-bump bump bump ba-bumb, “Git awn up, like a sex machine,” and Memorial Auditorium took off like a runaway train fulla TNT. “Try Me,” “Say it Loud,” “Get Up Offa That Thing.” They played ’em all on and on and on, ba-boooom playing and playing, the house increasingly joyously raucous and out of control until it felt as though the roof was gonna fall in. There is no substitute for live music, but this was off the chain. “This is a man’s world,” the Godfather crooned. I watched a lesbian friend. She rolled her eyes and laughed. When he sang “Sister’s out in the yard, doin’ her outtasite dance,” she winked at me.
“Maceo, blow yo hawn.” Maceo Parker walked from where he stood to the edge of the stage, stepped down and began to strut-walk up the stage-right aisle, squu-wallllking the whole way, stopping to do a move every now and then all the way up to the back of the house, out the exit doors, around the lobby and back through the other doors down stage-left aisle and all the way back to the stage, his sax screaming. On the stage, James, at 50-plus, executes full splits, holding his head back, creating the shrill squealing sort of scream thing, like glass breaking only stretched out. Halfway through the set, he strapped one of those guitar-shaped keyboards and began some noises that didn’t seem to have much to do with what the other people on stage were up to.
Through “Night Train,” at the holy words, Memorial exploded. There was some sort of static electricity jolting through the house. I saw a woman actually crying, others shouting, standing on the seats, Out. Of. Control. Never seen anything like it, before or since. To this day, I get a tremble and goose flesh when I hear the song. It had to be one of the singular moments of my lifeand Raleigh’s.
There is something The Godfather touched inside people, way down deep. Like folks used to say, “Black, white, purple, hell, I don’t care, checkerboard.” His was a force of nature, some sort of very rare butterfly, one of the few things I continue to really cherish that this culture has produced.
James Brown is gone, but thanks to technology, he has entered eternity. From now to the last ding-dong of doom, he will live with us as surely as old, dead white guys like Brahms and Mozart. He was one of those rare orchids that are a summation of why we are here, why we live: to do what you do as well as it can be done, all the time. As long as recorded music is played, his influence will continue to affect the American milieu. I’ve always wanted to hear it over the speakers in the N.C. State tower. I’ve been up there, easy patch job.
Gerald Ford? A baby stillborn in a cabin in the woods changed the world in ways that guys like Ford could never fathom.