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Papa's Out of the (Brand New) Bag
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Christmas in May.

That’s what this feels like to many of us in the greater Savannah area.

It’s been an awfully long time comin’, but it looks like the Coastal Empire’s finally gonna get back on its collective good foot.

James Brown’s comin’ to town.

In case you haven’t gotten the memo, this Friday night, the Savannah College of Art and Design is sponsoring a free show by one of the all-time greatest figures in American popular music. A man who at one point in his heyday was so ubiquitous that Look magazine placed him on their cover with a headline that read, “Is this the Most Important Black Man in America?”

It was a rhetorical question.

At that point in his career, James Brown was arguably one of the most recognized – and influential – men in the free world. It was quite an achievement for a person of his upbringing.

Born into extreme poverty in tiny Barnwell, S.C., 72 years ago this month, the future “Mr. Dynamite” stumbled through his early education, but could be found with much more regularity shining shoes or dancing in front of the local movie theater for spare change.

After being convicted of breaking into cars left him with a sentence of between eight and sixteen years of hard labor, it seemed as though Brown’s life was on a fast track to nowhere. But less than four years later he was awarded early release, and in a short while would emerge as a key member of his friend Bobby Byrd’s gospel band.

With Brown quickly assuming the duties of frontman and bandleader, the Famous Flames (as they became known) shifted from sanctified music to rhythm and blues, and before long, the group was tearing up the relatively lucrative chitlin circuit.

From 1959 through 1976, Brown’s iron fist and headstrong direction saw that group (and several others under such names as The JB’s and the Soul G’s) write, record and release eighty-six singles which charted in the Billboard Top 100. As the first international crossover artist, he helped bring black-oriented music to white audiences as never before, and without diluting or toning down his style, message, or attitude.

Utilizing an uncanny knack for sussing out young talented musicians with the potential for virtuosity, membership in his

band became something of a rite of passage for many players who would later go on to much acclaim on their own, such as Bootsy Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Maceo Parker, and Fred Wesley.

In fact, when the core of his backing group defected to George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic stable in 1968, that fissure paved the way for literally hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of funk and soul bands to follow in their wake.

His influence is almost inestimable, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. In an interview a few years back, Atlanta saxophonist Philip Raines did his best to express how so many musicians feel about the strange amalgam of raw soul, unrelenting improvisation, and limbic, sexual energy that has become Brown’s stylistic trademark.

Says Raines, “I’ve listened to everything he’s recorded, I think. I honestly think he changed the world a little.ÊChanged my world anyway.ÊNot the same way as monster players like Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin, but in this primal way like his music had soil in it. There is a certain trance involved to playing the parts, and it is the most solid foundation for an extended solo. And James Brown can take it hot.... He could grab the pan no matter how hot, how hard, however many things were hurled against him.ÊThe guy could just work like nothing nobody had ever seen.ÊYou go try to sing ‘Please, Please, Please’ like that. Damn if it won’t make you sweat.”

And sweat he did, famously dropping an average of seven pounds of water weight per show as he gyrated through backbreaking splits, turns and kicks that would leave men half his age spent and gasping for air – even if they weren’t singing.

True, in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s his fame dwindled as more extreme and theatrical forms of funk, soul and disco supplanted the popularity of his

trademark innovations, but then again, all of that competition sprang from his triumphs.

In the late ‘80s, Brown, beaten down by debilitating drug abuse and a wrecked career found himself on the wrong side of the law once again – this time for a series of abusive incidents with his wife, and some reckless and dangerous behavior while under the influence.

While he has since served his time and appears to be clean and sober, in the past few years there have been troubling brushes with authorities and a handful of what appear to be public relapses into drug abuse.

Unfortunately, there are many young people for whom this two-dimensional caricature is all they know of this towering figure of modern music and pop culture.

While the following local musicians and music fans may not be avid puzzlers, I queried them in the hopes of learning a small bit about what James Brown and his accomplishments mean to his disciples.

Connect Savannah: What did James Brown represent to you in his heyday?

Dennis Goldbaugh (musician, The Jimmy Wolling Band): It seems to me that he invented what we now think of as modern dance beats. I got into an argument in a bar once with somebody. They were incredulous when I told them that I thought James Brown was more of an important figure in the evolution of music than Jimi Hendrix. They couldn’t believe it! Today we’re used to hearing those kind of sounds and coming down on the “one” beat. But that’s all thanks to him.

Keith Kozel (frontman, GAM): I think that all the wonderful things he did for the black community in the ‘60s cannot be underestimated. He was at the forefront of making the white-controlled government actually start to recognize black Americans as full-fledged citizens. As far as the music goes, he intensively explored combining black R & B with some aspects of popularized white music of the time. Even if he didn’t invent this combination, he completely defined it.

Sebastian Edwards (musician, Superhorse): As a musician, I respect the discipline that he instilled in his early bands – and I assume in the band he has now. Those guys were so tight it’s unbelievable. Hip-hop has been borrowing from him and his band ever since. The songs have air in them. He always left

plenty of silence. He’s probably celebrating something very ancient.

Connect Savannah: Have you ever seen him live before?

Tom Kohler (author, citizen advocate): I went to see James Brown in 1965 or ‘66 here in Savannah at the National Guard Armory on Eisenhower Drive. I was in the seventh or eighth grade, and I went with my best friend. We were two of three white people there. The place was packed. We saw the whole show, the go-go dancers with the longest of legs and the shortest of skirts, the music was as tight and right as we had ever heard. That night James Brown was in complete control of the most powerful emotional force I had ever witnessed. When the concert was over, my friend’s parents were waiting outside to pick us up. They were not happy. The lack of racial diversity was jarring to them. Remember, this was 1965 in Savannah.

Phil McDonald (bassist, The Sapphire Bullets): I’ve seen James on three occasions, if you count the chance encounter in Manhattan. I ran into him with a friend of mine in front of the Taft Hotel in 1974. Of course, we knew who he was. I asked him if he needed a white bass player. He just gave that little signature “heh-heh” laugh, and that was the end of that exchange. I saw him in ‘71 or ‘27, and then again in ‘76. The first time was the most incredible. He brought three drummers with him. Two of the guys played funk, and the third guy only played on the ballads. When the funk started back after a slow song, one of the guys would start, and then the other guy would ease out of the songs and towel off, so he could be ready when it was his turn again. Just like a DJ with two turntables...

Connect Savannah: Is there anything in your own playing you can trace back directly to James Brown’s influence?

Sebastian Edwards: That would be the funk. Less is more and silence ultimately is the loudest note of all. It’s all about disciplined restraint. But, if it’s your turn, you better hit it hard and then quit again until it’s your turn.

Craig Johansen (guitarist, Hot Pink Interior): No. But there’s so many other bands who were strongly influenced by his music that it’s trickled down to me. Every bass player or drummer that I’ve ever known was totally into his music.

Ben Tucker (bassist, composer): Well, me, James, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder... we’re all in the same bag, because we understand what the blues is all about. James really understands the rhythm. He makes it so powerful, and before you know it, it’s magic. It’s all the blues, but his spin is unique. His music is a heavy influence on today’s music. Rap, for instance is all James. It’s less melodic, but it’s the same...

Phil McDonald: My favorite song he ever did – and it still impresses me to this day – is called “There Was A Time.” Now, it’s one chord. There’s not a chord change in the tune. It’s nothing more than a presentation of dynamics. That left a lasting impression about what music really is. It’s energy and the manipulation of energy.

Connect Savannah: What’s your take on the bad publicity he’s received for his problems with drugs and violence?

Ben Tucker: Well, the media likes to ignore him except when they’re humiliating him. They say, oh he’s a crazy, burned-out old man who beats up his wife and screams and shouts! And yet, they accept rap. I don’t get it.

Phil McDonald: Some eighteen-year-old kid who doesn’t realize that most every sample on every hip-hop record he owns came from this man wouldn’t automatically put two and two together. But, that’s not my problem. If these kids don’t get it, that’s their loss.

Connect Savannah: Do you enjoy his music less because of his problems?

Tom Kohler: Life is hard and JB grew up hard. Most people, at some point in their life give back the demons they were given. His behavior with women is deep seated and despicable. He is still JB to me, but a much more human JB. He was an idol. Now, he is an imperfect man, like all men.

Craig Johansen: You know, if Elvis was still alive, what kind of trouble would he have gotten into in the last thirty years? Most of James Brown’s peers are dead. He’s outlived them all. Who knows what sort of twisted stuff they’d be up to?

Phil McDonald: I don’t separate the two sides. I embrace every waking moment the boy still has. I won’t in any way allow someone’s personal life to intrude on their art. If that were the case, I’d have thrown away all my Boy George records.

Ben Tucker: Naw. I don’t even let the personal stuff come in the way of his artistry. You know, when he’s dead and gone, they’re gonna say, well who’ll replace him? Ain’t nobody gonna replace him! There can never be another. He’s a legend.