Get on the Good Foot
From Britney Spears to Korn, from Snoop Dogg to 'N Sync, from Erykah Badu to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, this is, like it or not, a hip-hop nation. Hip-hop rhythm is the heartbeat of everything from the hardest gangsta rap to the most overbearing modern alterna-punk to the fluffiest, most innocuous bubble gum—not to mention about 75 percent of the TV commercials currently on the air—and without JAMES BROWN, there would certainly have been none of it.
Not merely the Godfather of Soul, Brown is the Supreme Being who created the funk from which all hip-hop sprang. And on the seventh day, he failed to rest. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business fashioned something completely new and unheard of in the mid-'60s, a kind of music based on rhythm 'n' groove rather than melody and chord changes (grooves that proved as influential in jazz as they were in pop, incidentally). Along with a musical revolution came the Attitude, which prevails in a more extreme form to this day: vulgar sexuality ("Licking Stick, Licking Stick"), confrontational ethnic pride ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud") and a braggadocio's stance of self-reverence ("Super Bad"). Other performers such as Sly Stone, George Clinton, Roger Troutman and Prince may have taken Brown's innovations and raised the bar a few notches, but it all traces back directly and indisputably to Brown.
The difference, though, is that Brown possessed so many qualities, so much of the talent clearly lacking in today's crop of pop poseurs, that Godfather field notes of this type actually do the man a grave disservice. He was a sensational, thrilling singer—who was ever better, really? —who could caress a ballad with so much emotion you thought his internal organs might spill onto a stage and then turn around and push out cochlea-traumatizing shrieks over a supercharged funk workout that sounded like Superman ripping a sheet of glass in two with his bare hands. The hooks Brown wrote into his songs were so relentlessly clever that they were forever burned into memory the first time you heard them. And as a showman, Brown was simply without peer. He didn't stalk a stage and wave his arms in your face like an agitated cretin; rather, he performed dance steps and acrobatics that seemed to defy the laws of physics, not to mention his own personal well-being (his testicles must surely be pounded into tiny, leathery pellets after so many years of performing hyper-speed splits that resolved with banging his crotch violently on the floor).
But perhaps most important, Brown fashioned bands so impossibly tight and precise that he didn't require modern technology for his music to sound like it originated from a machine rather than human beings. He may have a reputation as the most impossible and assholic taskmaster/ bandleader in the history of mankind, but the results speak for themselves. Has anyone ever come up with more perfect, tightly coiled grooves than Brown proffered on "Cold Sweat," "Mother Popcorn" or "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)"?
Brown was, for a time, also among the most revered and important leaders in African-American culture (he single-handedly quelled a race riot at a Boston concert the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder). His emphasis on black pride and self-reliance closely mirrored the doctrines set forth by the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party, yet he sweetened the message with a professed love of all people and the sheer, fly magnetism of his style (iridescent sharkskin suits in lieu of dashikis; blindingly Brilliantined conks in place of afros; razor-tipped Italian boots instead of sandals).
That he later blew his cred by sucking up to Nixon is not surprising in retrospect, for Brown has always been a bundle of contradictions, hypocrisy and personal failings. His autobiography was full of anti-drug and personal-responsibility rhetoric, yet Brown, of course, later turned out to be a dusthead of the worst order. He sang the most desperately tender, woman-worshiping love ballads but was accused of whomping the crap out of his wife. And the man is clearly delusional, bordering on megalomaniacal—he told me in an interview some years back that when he flew to Vietnam to entertain the troops, the warring forces declared a truce, and Americans and Viet Cong danced together arm in arm that night. And then the cow flew over the moon.
But let us forgive Brown these shortcomings and foibles, for even God himself occasionally fucks up (how else to explain such phenomena as Kevin Costner, Jack-in-the-Box tacos and Coors Lite?). In his own way, James Brown is a flawed god. Among those flaws is the fact that he ages like a mere mortal—he'll turn 67 the week before his appearance Tuesday night at the Sun Theatre. Yet the last time I saw Brown live a few years ago at the Taste of OC festival, he still managed to amaze. No, he wasn't the same force of nature you might remember from The Ed Sullivan Show (if you're as geezerly as I), but he managed his share of tortured shrieks, cartilage-decimating knee-drops, and the mandatory cape routine, which has become something of a pop-culture ritual. And, as always, his band didn't require canned music, some asshole scratching records or any sort of digital toys to come off like a 5 million horsepower engine oiled to perfection.
Go check out Soul Brother No. 1 at the Sun, and see where all the diluted, cookie-cutter crap you gleefully consume had its genesis in raw genius.
Underrated Texas blues-guitar ace ROY GAINES has spent most of his lengthy career in the service of others rather than copping any well-deserved glory for himself. A protg of T-Bone Walker, he played gigs around his native Houston as "T-Bone Junior" before setting out to LA in the '50s, where he played in the celebrated jump-blues bands of Roy Milton and Chuck Willis. As a sideman to singer Bobby "Blue" Bland, he re-defined Walker's signature tune, "Stormy Monday," which became among Bland's biggest hits. Today, with the tune a clichd cover among second-rate blues garage bands, it is Gaines' version rather than Walker's that serves as the template for nascent pickers.
Gaines is doing the T-Bone shuffle again on his latest album (he has only had a very few records released with himself as leader over the years). Using Walker's slick and playful style as a springboard, Gaines embellishes the formula with sweet, melodic flourishes and brushstrokes of his own while retaining the essential vibe of his hero. Even Gaines' vocal phrasing is in huge debt to Walker's, but his tone is a deeper, rougher baritone than Walker's soothing croon.
Gaines' playing, at once derivative and unique, is Texas guitar blues at its pre-Stevie Ray smooth-and-jazzy finest. Check him out Saturday night at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach.
James Brown performs at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Tues., 8:30 p.m. $69.50; Roy Gaines performs at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Sat., 9:30 p.m. $8.
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