"JAMES BROWN! WHO'S HE?"
—Gary Burger, 1966
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James Brown! Born in 1928 with his sun in Taurus and his moon in Leo in Barnwell, South Carolina; educated at the Alto Reform School; dodged the cops by ducking into a canal and sipping air through a reed; never let the master tapes for Live at the Apollo leave the tote bag at his side; more hit songs in America than anyone behind Elvis; touchstone for every musical genre devised since "Please Please Please" crackled out of King Records in 1956; most sampled artist in history; a Sputnik, a Saturn V, an XB-70; an atomic star for an atomic age! Because, while cinema and jazz lit up the jet-set era, James Brown flashed nuclear-hot every moment of his life, a man more thoroughly and robustly American than Elvis ever was—though dying in the bathroom was just as respectable when President Taft did it! If one man should score the soundtrack for the last heavy half of this American century, it's James Brown, who performed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and for Zairean president Mobutu Sese-Seko, who grew up in a brothel and now lives in a mansion, who beamed popular music through an omega point of his own making and quite probably changed the world—the entire world, not just the English-speaking, Beatles-shrieking Western world—all on his own. He'll be able to shoulder his legacy like a velour cape, and his transgressions will sift out of history just like Nixon's and Kennedy's, as it probably should be: "I was always innocent," he said once. "My crime was that I was James Brown."
As a boy, James Brown was sent home from school for wearing insufficient clothes. He would later correct this issue—perhaps overcorrect. Time was, Iggy Pop once said, you could look at the Rolling Stones and learn everything about dressing cool, looking cool, sounding cool. But the Rolling Stones looked to James Brown—Mick Jagger said his greatest mistake was going onstage after Brown in 1964—and what did James Brown say? "Do your hair in different styles," he said. "Make people notice." And what did James Brown do? Pretty much everything: Lookmagazine wondered if he was the most important black man in America in 1969. He was independent (master tapes in hand!), rich (started buying whole radio stations in 1968), popular (96 Billboard Top 100 hits, 116 Billboard R&B hits), had something for everybody ("I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Don't Be a Drop-Out!"), and for about 15 or 20 years, couldn't helm a bum set. The hardest-working man did 150 to 200 shows a year, sometimes half a dozen albums in a year, once led police on a high-speed chase after waving a gun at a real-estate seminar, and was once asked what he felt soul—the same soul that made the hits, but also made the car chases—was about. He gave a good answer: "Soul," he said, "makes you fear God more."
Of course, he also said, "Every time I see the words 'sex machine,' it reminds me of a cash register opening up." But it still fits: if Elvis was sex and l-u-v, James Brown could and did do more with fear and profit motive, a diatonically medieval combination not in the least dishonorable—in fact, a combination so potent for purposes of self-discipline that the Catholic Church used it to peddle letters of indulgence. And James Brown is nothing if not disciplined, if not innocent, if not a man afraid of God. Maybe that gives you a legacy right there: not his band, not his beat, but that turbine-falsetto air-raid siren of a scream—one of the last great memes of our society—and the exclamation point that always follows it.
James Brown performs at The House Of Blues, 1750 Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Sun., 8 p.m. $55-$57. All ages.