“Gather round, space cadets and funkateers.” So begins the liner notes for Maceo Parker’s seminal 1992 live album and funk opus, Life on Planet Groove. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the album, Minor Music has released Life on Planet Groove Revisited, which also coincides with Parker’s 75th birthday. This limited edition set includes a new analog to digital transfer of the original album, a second bonus disc, and the DVD MaceoBlow Your Horn.
As everyone likely knows, Maceo Parker was a key member of James Brown’s band in the 1960s, blasting out funky sax solos whenever JB shouted, “Maceo! Blow your horn!” Parker famously walked out on Brown in 1970 with other members of the band, who were replaced by a youthful Cincinnati led group by Bootsy and Catfish Collins. Like Bootsy, Maceo would later join up with George Clinton and contribute to various P-funk projects. Though Parker would return to Brown’s band for a few years, he struck out on his own in 1990. Soon thereafter, he wound up at a club called the Stadtgarten in Cologne, Germany, where Life on Planet Groove was recorded. His backing musicians for this performance included Fred Wesley (trombone, vocals), Pee Wee Ellis (tenor saxophone, flute, vocals), Rodney Jones (guitar), Larry Goldings (organ), and Kenwood Dennard (drums). Special guests included Vincent Henry (bass and occasional alto-sax), Prince protégé Candy Dulfer (alto), and Kym Mazelle (vocalist).
The bonus disc was drawn from the same set of dates at the Stadtgarten. The four tracks include extended versions of the Fred Wesley original “For the Elders,” Lionel Hampton’s “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie,” band member Pee Wee Ellis’s “Chicken,” a cover of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”
Also included is the DVD Maceo Blow Your Horn, featuring newly released footage filmed by Markus Gruber during recording sessions for Parker’s album Roots Revisited, which topped the jazz charts in 1990. Most of the footage was meant for promotional purposes only and is black and white, but the sound is decent. The camera follows band members as they jam in rehearsal and lay down tracks at studios in New York (November 1989) and Cologne (1990). These clips are interspersed with interviews where Parker discusses the creative process along with anecdotes about James Brown, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Ray Charles, among others. Along the way there’s some odd filler footage of airplane wings and cityscapes. Just to be clear, this is not a documentary in the manner of My First Name Is Maceo, but rather bits and pieces of footage strung together with title cards. Regardless, the film is certainly of historical interest and any fan of Maceo Parker and his band will be grateful for its inclusion.
Life on Planet Groove Revisited is a fine tribute to the great Maceo Parker on his 75th birthday.
Sheila E.’s Iconic: Message 4 America offers a musical palette of iconic songs, primarily from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the album dropped in September, the self-released project didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved, so we’re happy to give it a shout out during Black History Month.
Described as a musical movement for turbulent times, Sheila conceived of the album as “a call for us to rise up and stand for something that is greater than our self-interest.” Instead of creating new music, she chose to reinvent “some of the greatest protest and revolution songs . . . to fit current times.” Assisting her in this endeavor are members of her band plus a bevy of exemplary guests. Of course, Sheila Escovedo herself is a renowned drummer and percussionist perhaps best known for her work with Prince, but she’s also an amazing vocalist as she proves on each and every track.
The album opens with “Funky National Anthem,” a powerful medley drawing upon multiple texts beginning with Sheila’s spoken intro from the Declaration of Independence. After a brief (and yes, very funky) version of the National Anthem, the final three minutes draw upon some of the most famous and inspiring speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. On this track, Sheila issues a “call for our leaders to rise up and work for the betterment of men and women, no matter the race, color, or creed.”
The first celebrity guest enters on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” with Ringo Starr taking over the drum kit. Once again, a rousing spoken intro kicks off the arrangement (as in the Primal Scream version): “This is a beautiful day / we are unified / we are of one accord / today we are together / when we are together we got power!” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” also features original band members: Freddie Stone on lead vocal and guitar, and Lynn Mabry on tambourine.
An album of this nature can’t be complete without representation from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. On Gayes’ “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Sheila deftly incorporates elements of “Trouble Man,” with Eddie M. (former Prince saxophonist) on lead vocals. “Pusherman,” the Mayfield classic from the Superfly soundtrack is sung by Sheila, who adds “You took Prince, Pusherman.” You know she won’t finish this album without a Prince tribute. Anthony Antoine was selected to sing the combined “America – Free,” yet another amazing and provocative track.
Israel Houghton takes over on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America,” with Greg Phillinganes on organ and Dino Saldo on harmonica. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this. Oh wait! Another highlight is the James Brown Medley. Bootsy Collins joins Sheila for this funk fest that joins together half a dozen of JB’s Black Power era anthems, beginning with “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” and concluding with “Super Bad.” And there’s more P-funk. George Clinton sits in for “One Nation Under a Groove,” which segues into “Mothership Connection.”
These are just some of the treats in store on Sheila’s masterful Iconic: Message 4 America, featuring some of the top musicians in the business performing amazing arrangements of iconic songs. I believe Sheila E. has also achieved her other goals: “To bring awareness, to spark conversation, to allow healing, to restore hope, to express love, to find peace, and to unite through music.”
Artist: Chris Daniels and The Kings with Freddi Gowdy
Label: Moon Voyage
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 15, 2017
Freddi Gowdy was a founding member (with Henchi Graves) of the ‘60s soul duo Freddi/Henchi and the Soulsetters, memorialized in the 2010 compilation Crown Princes of Funk: The Last Set. In the ‘70s, Freddi/Henchi relocated to Colorado where they became known as “the hottest funk-machine west of the Mississippi,” opening for major touring artists including James Brown and Tina Turner. After Graves passed in 2009, Gowdy hooked up with another well-known Colorado group, Chris Daniels and The Kings. The title of their second collaboration begs the question, “what could be better than blues with horns?
Blues with Horns, Vol. 1 showcases Chris Daniels love of classic horn bands from the 1950s-1970s. The ten horn-driven tracks led by Gowdy’s soulful vocals offer the perfect cure for your winter blues. The album gets off to a rousing start with the ode to “Sweet Memphis” featuring Sonny Landreth on slide-guitar and Subdudes keyboardist John Magnie:
This segues into “Fried Food/Hard Liquor,” a celebration of down home blues, juke joints and “greasy lips barbeque.” The song is punctuated by harmonica and guitar riffs, which along with the horn section, often depart from anticipated harmonic progressions. Gowdy’s “Get Up Off the Funk” is an obvious tribute to James Brown, offering a workout for the horns with tasty riffs from sax player Jim Waddell.
There are also a number of covers on the album. Highlights among these include Bobby Blue Bland’s “Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me),” a fun and funky rendition of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Baby’s In Love With the Radio” that tosses out some contemporary references to Spotify and Rhapsody, and a harmonica-infused version of Buddy Miles’ funk-rock classic, “Them Changes.” The project concludes with “Rain Check,” another original by Daniels, who takes over the vocals on this acoustic, ragtime influenced song that reflects on surviving cancer and living life to the fullest (Daniels and Gowdy have both battled cancer in the past).
Blues with Horns, Vol. 1 admirably serves the band’s mission of keeping the New Orleans-Memphis horn-band-blues tradition alive. As Daniels states in the liner note, “this music came from black culture and countless inspirations . . . we only scratched the surface” in this volume. As an added bonus, the CD comes in a pop-up book style limited-edition packaging by famed artist Greg Carr. As Gowdy sings in “Baby’s In Love With the Radio,” give me more of that funk, rock and blues music! Let’s hope volume two is already in the works.
When the holidays come around, one often thinks of James Brown. Why? He died the day after Christmas, and across the world, JB fans celebrate his legacy and discography. JB will live forever and so will his cohorts, who had the honor of touring and playing next to “Soul Brother # 1.” Bobby Byrd , Marva Whitney, Lynn Collins all are in soul heaven, but Bootsy Collins is still going strong. Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley & Pee Wee Ellis still tour. Vicki Anderson is still with us, and Martha High likewise is still with us and touring. Martha who? Yes, even for some who are JB diehards, that name is not clicking like the other names mentioned. Trust me, the real ones know her name and if you don’t, read on.
Martha High was born Martha Harvin and grew up in Washington, DC. For thirty years, she performed backup vocals for JB. Then, in 2000, she left JB and hooked up with Maceo Parker. Her new album, Tribute To My Soul Sisters, backed by Japan’s premiere funk group, Osaka Monaurail, is just that and more.
On the opening track “Think (About It),” you hear perhaps two of the most famous lines in hip hop: “Use what ya got, to get what ya want” and “It takes two to make a thing go right.” Cool C’s “The Glamorous Life” and Rob Base’s “It Takes Two” sampled those lines respectively, but it was Lyn Collins who first shouted those lines in 1971. Martha High has chops and on her version of the song she pays homage to Collins.
“This Is My Story” was originally done by The Jewels, the group High joined in the ‘60s just before they were hired to tour with JB. High’s vocals come across as praise and possess a “what a time we had” kind of vibe. “I Cried,” a track originally done by Tammi Terrell, was a eyebrow raiser. Terrell had no connection to JB, but nevertheless, High pulls it off and makes you want to seek out the original. Marva Whitney and Vicki Anderson also get their due from High.
Martha High would have fit right in on the Academy Award documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Makes you wonder why she never became bigger in the game. The same can be said for all of the female vocalists who performed with JB.
Tribute To My Soul Sisters not only acknowledges former JB vocalists Lyn Collins, Marva, Vicki, and Tammi, but is a fine tribute to Martha High, who is still going strong and sounding great. Better late than never.
Bobby Byrd, hands down, is the perhaps the greatest sideman in the history of music. Now I may get killed with the “what about Mick/Keith, Bono/Edge, Chuck D/Flavor Flav” comments, all of which are valid points (though Chuck & Flav may be the best comparison in my opinion). But if the name Bobby Byrd isn’t jumping right at you, allow me to take this time to bring you up to speed.
Who else could go on a stage and hold their own with “the hardest working man in show business,” “Soul Brother # 1,” “The Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite”? Ok, by now I think you know who I’m referring to. Yes, Bobby Byrd was James Brown’s right hand man for 20 years, one of the original Famous Flames, which explains my earlier comparison. Think “Sex Machine.” James said, “Get Up” and Bobby Byrd had the comeback, “Get on up.” In fact, James calls Bobby Byrd’s name to “take ’em to the bridge.” But before the “Sex Machine” era, and apart from the Famous Flames, Byrd released his own recordings. As all hip hop historians know, Eric B & Rakim sampled Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” (1971), and there are many others that used Byrd samples, including Jay-Z. But let’s go back a little further.
This new CD compilation, Help For My Brothers: The Pre Funk Singles 1963-68, begins with the earliest singles released by Byrd on the Federal, Smash, and King labels. All were produced by James Brown, who also shared co-writing credits on many of the songs. To hear Bobby Byrd sing and be the front man might seem strange, but his voice is actually good. No screaming over lyrics. One of the earliest tracks, “I’m Just a Nobody,” has that 60’s vibe and the tempo is what was the norm during that period, a slow groove. Also included is his first solo hit, “Baby, Baby, Baby” with Anna King from 1964, as well as “We Are in Love” from 1965, an even bigger success. Byrd takes a gamble with “Write Me A Letter,” perhaps the best track on the CD. His vocal presentation is not what one expects: rockabilly. Yes, rockabilly!
Bobby Byrd didn’t have James Brown’s stage showmanship, but his voice perhaps was a little better. Help For My Brothers, the first-ever compilation of Byrd’s earliest, lesser known singles, shows the evolution of his solo work. Byrd was more than JB’s sideman, and for that we will be forever grateful.
Reissues such as James Brown’s The Singles, Vol. 8, 1972-1973 are not for the casual listener. Sequenced chronologically, with many tracks broken up into separate parts (replicating the two sides of a 45 rpm single) and others presented in their original mono mixes, such reissues assume an almost scholarly interest in the artist. That said, if any figure in American popular music is worthy of this obsessive treatment, it’s James Brown.
This volume, covering Brown’s post-King, early Polydor years, continues the pattern established in the previous volumes in the series: extensive, well-researched liner notes with copious photographs; complete discographical information including personnel, recording, release, and chart data; fresh remasterings of the single mixes; knowledgeable notes (here by Alan Leeds), and enough rarities (including canceled singles and alternate, UK-only tracks) to make the set especially attractive to collectors, JB fanatics, and libraries. That this documents the beginning of the end of Brown as a top-selling artist does not necessarily diminish its importance. Though only one single in this set reached the top 20 on the pop charts and some of the song choices — particularly Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy–This Girl’s In Love” and the Beatles “Something” — seem at first blush to be ill-suited to the James Brown style (the David/Bacharach cover is particularly wretched), there are enough fascinating nuggets here to warrant closer examination. The aforementioned “Something,” for example, never appeared on any James Brown LP, and its transformation into a moody, mid-tempo soul groover works far better than one might reasonably expect.
By this point in his career, Brown had settled into some predictable patterns. There are ballads with strings (“Nothing Beats A Try But A Fail,” “Woman”), hard-funk numbers that had long dominated Brown’s output (“Pass The Peas,” “Giving Up Food For Funk,” “I Got Ants In My Pants”), a variety of remakes, and swingers hearkening back to his earlier R&B days (“Honky Tonk,” “If You Don’t Get It The First Time”). But there are also atmospheric, jazzier pieces, enabled in part by Brown’s move to the New York City-based offices of the Polydor label, his collaborations with newcomer Dave Matthews and old standby Fred Wesley, and his growing interest in both social causes (“King Heroin”) and soundtrack music (singles taken from the soundtracks to Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off). A number of these efforts utilize top-flight session players — Richard Tee takes a cooking organ solo on “I Know It’s True” and Buster Williams’ acoustic bass line on “Sportin’ Life” transforms a simple funk riff into a sophisticated jazzman’s theme and variations—to supplement the efforts of the post-Collins-brothers-but-still-crisp J.B.’s. James Brown the instrumentalist also takes a couple of star turns: there are typically off-kilter organ solos scattered throughout, a weird but fun scat vocal/piano solo on “Like It Is, Like It Was,” and a surprisingly effective, thumping turn on the drummer’s throne propels his cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”
In all, the period covered by this set finds Brown looking for ways to, if not surpass his earlier heights, at least to remain relevant to an audience becoming more political (and, subsequently, supremely ticked off at Brown’s endorsement of Richard Nixon in 1972) and increasingly attracted to funk-rock hybrids like Funkadelic. That the quality of the music here is, on the whole, as strong as it is proves that the Godfather of Soul wasn’t finished yet, and Hip-O Select deserves great credit for exploring James Brown’s singles releases in such detail. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting further entries in this valuable series.
Those who tuned in to Boston’s public television station WGBH on April 5, 1968 planning to watch Sir Laurence Olivier in a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya were probably shocked to hear “Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his band” introduced instead. Vanya, Astrov, and Yelena were booted from that evening’s programming in favor of a live broadcast of James Brown’s concert at Boston Garden, which occurred only twenty-four hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The concert had been planned for months, but in the wake of King’s tragic demise, it was repackaged as a “memorial concert” and shown live on WGBH, with rebroadcasts throughout the night. James Brown and this concert are often credited with keeping the peace in Boston that night, as it was one of the few major American cities not torn apart by reactionary violence, riots, and vandalism. Dozens died and hundreds were injured in cities throughout the United States, but according to Tom Atkins, Boston’s only black councilperson in 1968, “The city was quieter than it would have been on an ordinary Friday night.” Whether Brown actually did save Boston is up to the individual to decide, preferably after having watched The Night James Brown Saved Boston and James Brown Live at Boston Garden.
James Brown’s musical and political roles in the aftermath of King’s assassination are chronicled in this three-disc collection from director David Leaf. Disc one, The Night James Brown Saved Boston, documents the events surrounding the concert. Incorporating footage from the concert, news clips from riots at the time, and commentary from Dr. Cornel West, Rev. Al Sharpton, Jr., Dr. Robert Hall, Brown’s manager Charles Bobbit, and several others, this disc provides an overview of what happened in the country and how Boston, with James Brown’s help, prevented itself from going up in flames that night. The second disc in the collection is James Brown Live at the Boston Garden, the actual WGBH broadcast from that night, complete with questionable sound quality, occasionally jumpy camera-handling, and one of the most electrifying James Brown concerts ever caught on tape. Finally, disc three is entitled James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68, and it is a compilation of various Brown performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in March of 1968. While the three-disc collection is entitled I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s, nearly all the footage is from 1968.
The Night James Brown Saved Boston chronicles the trials and tribulations leading up to and including the April 5, 1968 concert. Originally, Mayor Kevin White wanted to cancel the concert because to bring “as many as fifteen or twenty thousand black people … particularly young people” into the city “would be a problem,” but White eventually came around when Councilperson Atkins warned him that to cancel the concert in the wake of King’s assassination would cause “all hell to break loose.” The show went on as planned, with the added tag of “memorial concert” for Dr. King. Tensions were palpable: most commentators in the documentary mention various elements of fear, anger, and revenge, and Leaf blends those interviews into the narrative along with news reports of ravaged cities, pleas from President Lyndon Johnson to “reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by non-violence,” and an interview given by White the afternoon of the concert, in which he said, “I’m hoping it [the concert] is one valve that will let off some steam.” The rage came to a head toward the end of the actual concert, when several people jumped onstage and Brown dismissed the police in order to handle the situation himself. He told the interlopers, “You’re not being fair to yourselves and me either, or your race. Now I asked the police to step back because I thought I could get some respect from my own people. Don’t make sense. Now we together or we ain’t.” Apparently they were together, because the fans left the stage peacefully, and Brown finished the concert without further disruption. This is the most powerful moment of the entire concert, but it is rendered less so in The Night James Brown Saved Boston because it is constantly interrupted by commentary from the various informants. (Seen in its entirety in James Brown Live at Boston Garden, however, it is a positively nail-biting few minutes.) Brown may or may not have saved Boston that night, but the way in which he disarmed a potential riot certainly saved many necks and a lot of pride at Boston Garden.
The Night James Brown Saved Boston also addresses the unfortunate financial ramifications of the concert, its live broadcast, and the refunds offered to ticketholders. White had okayed the broadcast without first asking Brown, and Brown was livid about the money he stood to lose, particularly because not only would the concert be televised, but the Garden was also offering refunds to ticketholders. Bobbit, Brown’s manager, estimates that they lost about sixty thousand dollars, even after the city provided about ten thousand dollars for the expenses. White’s response is smug: “He was worth the sixty [thousand]. I don’t know about the music, but for the city, he was,” and Bobbit said that Brown ultimately shrugged off the loss and said it was good for the people. Even though White refers to both Brown and himself as “two arrogant people,” the fact that Leaf does not linger over the financial losses allows both White and Brown to save face. While Brown’s financial losses are an integral part of the story, the appropriate amount of attention is paid and the majority of the emphasis remains on the concert, not the money.
The dramatic structure of The Night James Brown Saved Boston is relatively straightforward. Little information is given about either Brown or Dr. King prior to April of 1968 and instead, the story limits itself to the 48-hour period surrounding King’s assassination and the Brown concert. (For those in need of biographical background, Rickey Vincent’s liner notes summarize Brown’s childhood and rise to stardom.) Throughout the documentary, the music and politics are interwoven without seeming preachy or overtly sentimental: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” underscores a speech given by King on April 3, 1968, lending King’s extended syllables (“I’ve seen the promised land,” “we as a people”) a sense of musicality; at another point, footage from the concert shares the screen with a news report about the violence in other parts of the country, juxtaposing the peace in Boston with the violence in other cities. Otherwise, Leaf sticks to bouncing back and forth between the commentators and still images or concert footage, rather than inundating the viewer with too much information. The final fifteen minutes, which are devoted to Brown’s activities and activism after that night, including “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” drag and feel like a frantic attempt for an effective closing.
James Brown Live at Boston Garden, which resurrects the footage that had previously been abandoned in the WGBH archives, presents the concert exactly as it appeared on television that night. It opens with Atkins introducing Brown, a brief speech by White, and then, there is nobody but James Brown. The sound quality is less than stellar, but as Russ Morash, the director at WGBH, explains on disc one, the poor sound quality resulted from the incongruous equipment (the audio department usually handled “fine,” classical sounds) and the fact that “they substituted the most expendable mics that they could, fearing the worst, that they would be thrown to the floor and stamped on.” Regardless, the performance is outstanding: Brown does not need pyrotechnics, elaborate stage machinery, or his own personal lighting director – when his hair shakes itself loose from the pompadour, the sweat courses down his face, and his limbs seem to move without regard to his bones, any concerns about the sound quality are forgotten. The performance of “I Got a Feeling” last over ten minutes, and it is arguably the most outstanding number in the concert. The solos by tenor saxophonist Maceo Parker and drummer Clyde Stubblefield in “Cold Sweat” are also show-stoppers. Following is a brief clip of “I Feel Good” from the Boston Garden concert:
James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68 rounds out the triumvirate of discs in this collection, and it is the least exciting of the three but still a worthwhile viewing experience. The color video often just includes head shots or images of Brown from the chest up; such a field of vision erases his dancing and the unstoppable energy that seems to radiate from every cell in his body. Distance shots are almost too far away to capture the frenetic movement in Brown’s dance breaks, and there are too many visual distractions, such as heads in the audience and light refracting from band members’ instruments, to capture the full effect of Brown in motion. Of course, the deficiencies are not the responsibility of those who reissued this performance, and this series, broadcast on television as James Brown: Man to Man, is one of the few lengthy live performances recorded prior to Brown’s 1968 Boston concert. The middle of the program features footage of Brown in Harlem and Watts, discussing the state of blacks in the United States and remarking, “My fight is for the Black American [to] become America.” The bonus features on the disc include three other live performances, including “Out of Sight” from the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I Show, and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” both performed at L’Olympia in Paris in 1967 and 1968, respectively.
This collection addresses an exquisite moment in American history in which music and politics reflected the best and worst parts of the human spirit. The music is incomparable, and it is no hyperbole to say that the energy in Brown’s performance transcends time, whether viewed on a black-and-white TV set in 1968 or on a 2008 digital flat-screen. Ultimately, what these discs are missing is Brown’s own (speaking) voice. West, Atkins, White, and Sharpton relate statements Brown made to them, but these secondary reflections are no substitute for hearing the Godfather of Soul himself speaking. While James Brown’s speech certainly lacked the elegance and polish of Dr. King’s, the documentary would be that much more effective if even one sentence about the concert from Brown himself was included. Alas, the music is his only statement. And what a statement it is.
“In the middle of the twentieth century, Brown was a member of a historic generation of entertainers who pushed the boundaries of American song, dabbling in gospel, blues, jazz, country, and the emerging sound of rock and roll. From barrelhouses and tent shows, from bars and churches, a new attitude toward performance was concocted, just as the civil rights movement was stepping onto the national stage. Brown would become one of the many to embrace “soul” as a style, making secular salvation his stock in trade. Along with impassioned vocalizing, he developed a flamboyant onstage persona-part street dancer, part boxer, part preacher-that would redefine showmanship for his generation, and which resonates to this day.” – Nelson George, excerpted from the preface to The James Brown Reader.
The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul is a “must have” for all JB fans (which should be just about everyone on the planet). Nelson George (author of The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Post Soul Nation, and Hip Hop America) and Alan Leeds (JB’s former tour manager) have compiled over four decades of articles about the Godfather of Soul into one concise volume, supplemented by photos from Leed’s personal collection as well as a Time Line (p. xiii-xxxii) and Discography (p. 303-313), both annotated by Leeds.
The content is organized chronologically and divided into five chapters by decade, beginning in the 1960s. Articles are drawn from a variety of sources including newspapers (Chicago Daily Defender, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, etc.) and periodicals (Rolling Stone, Variety, Rock, Soul, Goldmine, Village Voice, Downbeat, etc.), along with an occasional excerpt from liner notes. The African American view is interjected by various writers ranging from Nelson George to Chuck D, Vernon Gibbs, and journalists from the Chicago Daily Defender. Given the plethora of press coverage surrounding the life of James Brown, the task of selecting articles must have been extremely daunting, but Leeds and George have done an exemplary job.
What is most notable about this compilation is the care taken to select writings that position Brown’s career within the greater sociopolitical context of each era. George alludes to this agenda in the opening paragraph of his preface:
“It was the Jim Crow time, the early decades of the twentieth century, when stifled dreams, cruel barriers, and institutional racism were the American way. Brown was just another dirt-poor Negro boy dancing for money in a redneck town, yet somehow cultivated strong self-esteem within a system devised to quell just such a quality. Not surprisingly, young Brown bumped up against the barricades of whiteness, entering the penal system, an enduring destination for self-satisfied black males who didn’t know their place.”
Not surprisingly, the articles that follow delve not only into the life and music of JB, but also racism, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, drugs, the black experience in the music industry, and the gradual awareness and acceptance of black music by white America. For example, here is an excerpt from a wonderful piece by Albert Goldman titled “Does He Teach Us the Meaning of ‘Black is Beautiful’?” (New York Times, June 9, 1968):
“Talk about your Black Power. Take a look at James Brown, Mister. That’s right, James Brown, America’s Number One Soul Brother. To whites, James is still an off-beat grunt, a scream at the end of the dial. To blacks, he’s boss-the one man in America who can stop a race riot in its tracks and send the people home to watch television. Twice he worked that miracle in the terrible days following the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Then there is the poignant article “Pleas, Pleas, Pleas: The Tribulations and Trials of James Brown” (Village Voice, Feb. 21, 1989) by Ivan Solotaroff, who tries (unsuccessfully) to interview Brown in prison following his three year sentence on drug charges and aggravated assault (outdoing OJ, Brown led officers on a two-state, 80 mph car chase from his hometown of Augusta, Georgia to Aiken, South Carolina). Here all of the details of Brown’s legal problems as well as his drug addiction are laid bare. But as Solotaroff notes, the odds were heavily stacked against Brown from the beginning, and that he was able to (mostly) transcend these odds and change the whole course of popular music was downright miraculous:
“Among the handful of performers who arose unfiltered out of what was openly called ‘race music’, Brown was one of the few to escape death on the road, death by drugs, death in prison, the living death of golden-oldie status, or the retreat into the obscure immortality of gospel. Twenty years before rappers appropriated him, 10 before disco digitalized him, Brown anticipated the future of black music by stripping his sound to pure rhythm, blueprinting Pan-African pop, a worldwide explosion against which the Beatles and Stones are a circumscribed, Anglo phenomena. At 53, James Brown, the man who taught us all how to dance, was rocking the pop charts (“Living in American, No. 4), and last year only Sade’s “Paradise” stopped Brown from topping the R&B charts for the 18th time.”
The book concludes with two articles published posthumously. In “Perry Man Remembers Visit to Graceland After Death of Elvis” by Woody Marshall (The Macon Telegraph, Aug. 16, 2007), Brown’s business manager, Perry Davis, tells the story of Brown’s frantic efforts to charter a plane to Memphis the day after Elvis died in order to pay his respects to the singer and his family. At Graceland, where Elvis is lying in state, an overwrought Brown encourages Perry to follow his example and touch the body to “bring closure.” Perry draws upon this experience following the death of Brown. The closing article, “James Brown and His First Family of Soul” (Waxpoetics, Feb/March 2007), offers recollections by Alan Leeds, who ponders “just how different the world would have been were it not for James Brown.”
Co-editors Nelson George and Alan Leeds, along with Vernon Gibbs, discuss the book, James Brown’s upbringing, and his influence on the world of music in this video:
The James Brown Reader is really a more of a collection of provocative and extremely riveting short stories, perfect for the beach or those short subway rides to work. But I’m telling you straight up–you won’t be able to put this book down once you get to the office.