Ironically, I have been listening to a good deal of Brown’s music over the past few months. As an emerging electric bass player, I had heard that the Godfather of Soul was known for finding and developing bass players. I would have to agree, I can listen to the bass lines in Brown’s music day after day and never be bored. (For more on his many top ten hits, see the obituary on Slate).
His personal accomplishments are as impressive as his professional accomplishments. I recently finished reading Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music (purchased used at Fine Groove). The book weaves together brief biographies of many of the greatest artists as it tells the story of “Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom”. I gained new appreciation for the many challenges that Brown overcame on his rise to stardom.
James Brown was born in Barnwell, South Caronlina in 1933. At age 4, his parents separated, his mother disappeared and his father enlisted in the service. Brown was raised by relatives.
He earned pennies by dancing for the troop trains that pulled out from Camp Gordon and rummaged for food from the discarded vegetables can behind a food warehouse. One of his classmates remembered Brown coming to school barefoot, even in winter. Brown was the smallest kid in class and was constantly hassled by bullies, but he wouldn’t back down.
Brown never forgot his humble roots. He was committed to giving the people that spent their hard-earned wages on his shows the greatest value for their money. In an average month, he would perform 28 bookings with only two or three days off. He’d give away 5,000 autographed photographs, perform over 80 hours in front of audiences, change his performing costume 150 times, and play at least 960 songs on one or more of eight different instruments. He held his band to high standards too. Members were fined for lateness, sloppiness, imprecise dance steps and bad notes. All form of stimulants were forbidden during working hours.
No one else made music like James Brown. More than any other musician, he blended the polyrhythms of the old world with the instrumentation of the new world. There’s probably more than a little validity to his claims of inventing soul, disco, funk and hip-hop.
In my mind, it’s artists like James Brown that make America great. He was truly an original genius.