Soul Brother #1, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, taught us many things in his life. His last lesson: don't die at 1:45 AM on Christmas Day, or your only obituary that day will be a piece of hackwork that's been sitting in the Associated Press files for years, slowly accumulating paragraphs detailing embarrassing brushes with the law, health problems, etc. without granting much space to what made him noteworthy in the first place: his music. If all you knew of James Brown were to be gleaned from the AP obit, you'd think his music was mostly important for inspiring disco and hip-hop.
No. Not even close. Brown's music is its own reward, and remains superior to most of what it inspired in later decades.
One of Brown's titles was The Godfather of Soul; he really should have been dubbed The Father of Funk, because he was one of those rare people who truly deserve credit for inventing a musical genre. Oh, not quite by himself, perhaps. Certainly without guitarist Jimmy Nolan and drummers Clyde Stubblefield and James "Jabo" Starks it wouldn't have come out sounding as great, because what Brown did was elevate rhythm above harmony and melody. That might seem like he was making his music simpler, but the increased complexity of the multiple simultaneous rhythms more than compensated.
Brown was already a superstar by the time he invented funk in 1964. He'd been a star almost from the beginning; "Please Please Please" reached #5 on the black singles chart in 1956. For a while after that, however, he seemed in danger of being a one-hit wonder. He didn't chart again until 1959, when "I Want You So Bad" (addressed to a woman, but it might as well have been fame he was singing about) scratched its way to #20. But later that year, "Try Me" hit #1 and even crossed over to #48 on the pop singles chart. There would not be a year over the next two decades when he would not chart.
The list of those early hits -- also including "I'll Go Crazy," "You've Got the Power," "Think," "If You Want Me," "Bewildered," "Lost Someone," "Night Train" -- shows that even if he had retired in 1963, he would still be revered as a soul titan. Of course, he didn't retire. In fact, his 1963 LP Live at the Apollo even reached #2 on the pop album chart, unprecedented for an R&B concert album. (It includes an iconic introduction by organist/MC Lucas "Fats" Gonder that memorably cites those hits and more.) King had been skeptical about releasing the album; Brown had to fund the recording himself. Playing upwards of 300 shows a year, he had faith that the intensity he and his thoroughly drilled band put across would be compelling even to home listeners, and he was proven right -- many consider Live at the Apollo the greatest live album ever.
Brown became fed up with having to fight King owner Syd Nathan every step of the way even after so spectacularly proving him wrong (Nathan had specifically said, "Nobody will play it on the radio," among his other objections to the project, but in fact some stations played the entire half-hour LP at night) and continuing to have more hits, even cracking the pop Top 20 with his cover of "Prisoner of Love." So he tried to switch labels; "Out of Sight" came out on Smash. In retrospect, this was the beginning of funk.
Nearly a year passed while the resulting legal problems were worked out; Brown ended up back at King, but with more creative control. Finally funk's invention could be unleashed on the world with full force. Over the next two-plus years, the new sound was delivered in even more concentrated form on "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," and "Cold Sweat," which all made the pop Top 10. The horn charts functioned more as rhythmic punctuation than as harmony; bass and drums were the most prominent instruments; Brown's vocals were more chanted than sung. And to speak of rhythm in this funk is deceiving, because it was actually constructed on intertwining polyrhythms (Stubblefield in particular was the master of playing three rhythms at once), with the individually simple parts like interlocking gears in a complex machine. It was soon the most influential template in R&B. Meanwhile, Brown notched more hits, most notably "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."
Brown spent a decade further refining funk, often stripping it down even further or adding new elements, racking up #1 R&B hits "I Got the Feelin'," "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," "Give It Up or Turn It a Loose," "Super Bad," "Hot Pants," "Make It Funky," "Get on the Good Foot," "Papa Don't Take No Mess," and "The Payback," along with #2 "Sex Machine." Oddly, over the course of his career he only had one #1 LP, even on the black or R&B charts (The Payback, in 1974). Along the way, his ever-changing band served as the training ground for such leaders in their own right as Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Bootsy Collins (who all also played in the next innovative funk band, Funkadelic).
Brown's chart success waned after the rise of disco (a streamlining of elements of funk), but even at his lowest ebb (for a while he didn't even have a label contract) he continued to put on thrilling shows, giving his all no matter how small the venue. New Yorkers were able to catch him annually on the tiny stage of the Lone Star and be inches away from the star of the show as he ran through his longtime trademark ending where he would pretend to collapse from exhaustion, the MC would throw a cape over his shoulders and help move him towards the back of the stage, only to have Brown dramatically revive and come back for more (a move that Bruce Springsteen copied, with love). In the mid-'80s he made a comeback that lasted into the '90s, after which his drug use and lack of anger management captured headlines and resulted in more than two years in prison. But don't focus on the ugly decline, because his many musical contributions deservedly overshadow his personal valleys. James Brown's music remains eternally exhilarating. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who earlier this year recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.