Most people, especially whites, never knew how exciting soul music could be until we saw James Brown, Live and In Person. Amazingly enough, his first record was initially blocked from being released, so he might have remained a regional artist -- such as the great Irma Thomas -- who didn't break through nationally to reshape popular music.
Fortunately, he was too dynamic -- "Mr. Dynamite," they called him -- to be contained by the limitations imposed on him by the conventions of the record industry or society.
A sense of the explosive impact of a Brown performance can be glimpsed by seeing footage from the famous 1964 T.A.M.I show in Santa Monica where Brown glided and screamed and fell to his knees imploring his woman to "Please, please, please...please don't go," then rising with a cape over him , a man overcome, and turning back to sing his heart out. (You can see an excerpt on YouTube.com and you can see more clips in Steve Anderson's posting here.) In some versions of the full film, there are cutaways to the blond white teenage girls screaming their heads off, shaking with an excitement and, possibly, lust they didn't know they had in them. As one writer comments about that moment when James Brown conquers a show that included the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and the Supremes, three of the biggest acts in music history:
THEN--James Brown enters from stage left, skating one-legged the whole way, electrifying EVERYONE. It is IMPOSSIBLE to watch the James Brown sequence and not be transformed by it: he pulls out ALL the stops, dropping to his knees (hard too), dancing faster than God Almighty ordinarily allows, shouting, whispering, screeching, imploring, and shutting down everything that came before. To witness his performance is to have an epiphany. At the end, even the hardened studio musicians backing everybody up stand to applaud him, and he's called back from the wings at least twice to a sustained ovation.
The Stones are next; and to this day Keith Richards says that following James Brown at the TAMI Show was the biggest mistake of their lives.
Mick Jagger, that magnetic performer, looked, at the T.A.M.I. show, like a young, frightened teenager play-acting in front of his mirror at home, doing little stutter steps he'd copied from James Brown but could never equal.
For me, seeing James Brown live at the Apollo Theater on a Saturday night in the late 60s is still among the peak music experiences of my life, including seeing Springsteen and the Stones at their very best. Even though I was a nervous schoolkid going up to Harlem when racial tensions were at their highest, the frenzy he unleashed while dancing across the stage on one leg , or moonwalking years before Michael Jackson, his voice alternately rough or surprisingly sweet, then punctuated by screams , rocked the theater with a pandemonium that transcended race or even conventional notions about how powerful a performer could be .
Yet the James Brown single that rocketed him to R&B fame, "Please, Please, Please" was almost never released. Like the near-burning of "Citizen Kane" at the behest of William Randolph Hearst, our cultural history would have been very different if that single was never made, but an unstoppable force such as James Brown would no doubt found his way to a broader public, if a few years later. Ralph Bass, the A&R man who signed him for Syd Nathan's King Records, told author Michael Lydon in the book Boogie Nights how he beat out Leonard Chess of Chess Records in the race to get him on his record label.
"Since Macon was such a Jim Crow town, I was told to meet [manager Clint ] Brandly by parking my car in front of a barbershop which was right across the street from a railroad station, and when the venetian blinds went up and down, to come on in. And I did," he told Lydon. Brandly had a contract proposal in his hand from Chess, but Chess was delayed from flying in from Chicago because of a severe rainstorm. "I gave the cat two hundred dollars and I said, ` Do you want to sign right now?' He says, `You got a deal. Call the whole group in to sign the papers.' I don't know James Brown from a hole in the ground, and I went to the club that night and saw him do his show, crawling on his stomach and saying `please, please, please---he must have said `please' for about ten minutes..." Bass noted that Brown likely borrowed the crawling routine from earlier performers such as Howlin' Wolf and Big Jay McNeely, but the musical flair was all his.
But despite the impact of the song and performance, Bass had to fight for it to get released. He recalled,"I almost got fired for doing the record. After I collected my two hundred dollars that I paid out and paid for the expenses, I went back to St. Louis, and they sent some people looking for me to tell me I was fired.
" I called the old man [Syd Nathan] and asked Syd what's wrong. He says, `Man, you cut the worst piece of shit I ever heard in my life.' I said, `What are you talking about?' He says, `Man, this man sound like he's stoned on the record, all he's saying is one word.'
"I said, `Oh, you mean "please."' He says, ' Yeah, all he's saying is "please, please, please, please.'"
"I says, "Well, I'lll tell you what, put the record out in Atlanta, Georgia, and if it don't sell, baby, don't fire me, I quit. I'll walk clear all over the country to show you how bad this record is.' Well the rest is history. Who knew then that James would be what he is today?"
James Brown triumphed because he had unequalled energy and an uncanny genius for fully unleashing the rhythmic power of music. He was also a tremendous competitor, willing to leap from balconies to top other performers or fall to the ground over and over again, even on concrete floors, to score musical points. (You can read excerpts about this at Amazon in Sweet Soul Music by typing in search terms such as "James Brown" and "knees" or "James Brown" and "balcony." But better yet, buy the book by Peter Guralnick.)
Eddie Murphy plays a fictionalized version of James Brown in Dreamgirls, out today, but nothing can compare to the original. The Godfather of Soul, an ageless performer and music pioneer, lives on forever.