To call James Brown the Godfather of Soul and the "hardest working man in show business" is an incredible understatement. He was a true culture hero and a great musical genius, one of the musical titans of the twentieth century, not to mention ever. Brown couldn't read a note but that didn't matter a bit, because he always had great musicians around him to execute his revolutionary dictates, deep concepts that came from the divine oracle of funk within his soul. He did revolutionize music, every bit as much as Charlie Parker or Miles Davis or John Coltrane. The funk came through him and it was not just knee-deep.
That none of his seventeen R&B number-ones ever went to number one on the pop charts in America is a cultural disgrace. He was the Einstein of rhythm.
To call him a popstar is to underestimate his greatness. James Brown was a jazz musician, but like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, he understood that the roots of jazz are in dance music, and at its peak of power the music must move the body as well as the soul—and so he created a new ultra-modern sound that reconciled the head and the body, the heart and the mind, the past and the future. And so James Brown created The Funk. He put the beat on the one, and as George Clinton said, "the one giveth and the one taketh away." His legacy is all of the P-Funk pure, uncut funk and the best of hip hop.
James Brown's funk combos, the Famous Flames and the JBs, created a brand-new bag, a totally new sound that remains unsurpassed. I think that the body of work Brown produced from "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965) up until "Get Up Offa That Thing" (1976) stands as an unequalled revolution in music.
I saw Brown perform many times and I was never disappointed. I also had the honor of interviewing the maestro in 1988, on the occasion of his collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force. Maybe I'll reprint some of that interview one day soon. Anyway, it was like interviewing a king or a roman emperor or something, just the sheer presence and gravity of the man. He took the questions and answers seriously. A few days after the interview was published I was sleeping late when the phone rang and woke me.
I was stunned. I fumbled for something to say.
"How are you?"
He paused a moment.
"I feel good!" he crowed.
And I knew that he did.
His gracious, gentlemanly thank you was one of the greatest honors I ever received, and today I have a gold frame on my kitchen wall with large letters in James Brown's hand: "Get on the good foot and take it to the bridge. God bless! James Brown."
God bless James Brown!