I don’t believe any of us can recall the very first time we heard James Brown, but more than likely it was through some commercial project attempting to utilize “I Got You (I Feel Good)” or “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag (Part 1).” Chances are though, that if you’re a fan of the man’s music, you know when it first hit you, and for me it was while I was working in a restaurant sometime in 1999. The morning crew we had consisted of a five foot something (if that) Chinese prep cook, a three hundred pound opera singer, and a six foot five rapper. Which one of these people do you think introduced me to James Brown?
It would be the six foot five rapping chef who kept playing the Dead Presidents soundtrack over and over and over again which first truly introduced me to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. The soundtrack would eventually grow on me, introducing me to not only soul and funk, also helping me begin to explore James Brown’s catalog with a song that still, to this day, stands as not only my favorite James Brown track, but one of my all-time favorites: “The Payback.”
My sophomore year in university was spent at a community college as I tried to figure out what direction I should head in. The second semester was a complete enjoyment for me as I took half of my workload to concentrate on classes that I was just taking for fun. One of the classes was “Rock and Roll History.” I passed.
Throughout the class there were students who I felt increasingly negative vibes from as they began to understand that while the subject matter is an enjoyable one on the whole, they would have to explore music and the corresponding history which touched on unpleasant topics behind the music; it was after all, rock and roll.
During the discussion of the Detroit Race Riots the classroom only played the music of James Brown, and during those discussions there were two people who actually seemed to enjoy the music: the professor and myself. The song that was played most during the time was James’ “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” just one of the man’s 48 top ten singles.
All this considered, and I have only really been a fan of the man’s music for the better part of a decade — I can’t even imagine what impact he has had on those who have followed him throughout his entire career. James Brown was human and he fell, especially in his later years, but he continually attempted to use his celebrity to help those around him. Last week Brown participated in his annual holiday giveaway in Augusta, the city which he was raised in, the city that since last year has dawned a bronze statue of their patriarch.
I hope those who condemn Brown for his failures also look at what he has done for our culture as a whole. James Brown: Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Minister of The New New Super Heavy Funk, Mr. Please Please Please, The Boss, the Godfather of Soul… you will be missed.
(This post was featured by The Boston Globe December 27, 2006.)