January 14th, 2007


to the bridge

've waited a while to gather my thoughts and write about the passing of James Brown. While he may not have invented soul, he was its undisputed Godfather: Soul Brother #1.

I was exposed to James Brown fairly early. James Brown was my father's favorite musical artist. My introduction though was limited, as Dad was a fan of his early 60's output: his early hits like "Please, Please, Please", "Prisoner of Love", and "Try Me". Dad would get excited anytime he was on TV, especially when performing the first two of those songs, waiting for the predictable cape trick. By that time in his career, it was a contrivance that had been tried and rung true and I would nod, watching it with him in silent bemusement. It would be years later until I saw the power and energy of that shtick as it played early in his career. My exposure to his era was somewhat limited at the time, but even now I regard a lot of Brown's early recordings as virtually indistinguishable from a lot of the early 60's R&B recordings. While he may have been a great performer in his time, and he still could get those crazy legs going in the early 80's, to me he seemed nothing more than a pop star, 20 years faded past his prime. It's worthy to note that Dad was eternally incensed that Prince copped Brown's microphone-stand/splits trick.

Thanks in part to Prince, as well as the hiphop of the late 80's that sampled him endlessly, I felt compelled to revisit Brown's music. James Brown once quipped that rap music was only as good as his last record. Granted, "I Got You (I Feel Good)" was just on that border between his run-of-the-mill R&B and the hard funk, but it's so overplayed it's almost impossible to hear it with fresh ears. You can't listen to the radio, or watch television or film without running into it. In the mid-90's I finally acquired a good anthology of his work, the James Brown 40th Anniversary Collection two disc set and had my ears fucking opened.

In the modern age, there are very few examples of truly original artists: one for which there is no precedent and very few, if any, followers. With the possible exception of George Clinton and Sly Stone, no one has even come close to understanding what James Brown was doing and everything else plays like a pale imitation. The title of this entry is a reference to one of James' more common adlibs. After the second chorus he would often command or ask his band to take him to the bridge of the song. Even leading us through it was no help. Man, James was on another planet where he took his music; using horn sections in ways no one had ever thought possible, multiple bassists and drummers, and lyrical content ranging from the socially aware to crazy-ass scats and adlibs, often in the same song. And he was a tremendous showman above it all.

James Brown cast a shadow so large that multiple generations of artists haven't even begun to step outside of it. You can't even see the boundaries from within it. You were one of a kind James and you'll be missed.