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James Brown's Music In America

In this essay, I will briefly explore the relationships, if any, between the Civil Rights movement and the development of funk. James Brown's tune, "I’m Black and I’m Proud” comes to mind as a point of reference.

Now, if we are talking about James Brown and the development of funk in relation to the Black Civil rights movement in particular, and the tune “I’m Black And I’m Proud”, I am not too sure this was a main or primary concern for Mr. Brown. For instance, a quote from Wikipedia states;

“Brown only performed the song sporadically following its initial release and later stated he had regrets recording it, saying in 1984, "Now 'Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud' has done more for the black race than any other record, but if I had my choice, I wouldn't have done it, because I don't like defining anyone by race. To teach race is to teach separatism."

“...The song is obsolete now... But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people...”

Brown was very interested in making his shows the tightest, most polished act in the music business, how this translated into a geo/racial/political statement towards the Civil Rights Movement may be somewhat debatable. He was very active in African culture, in America as well as in Africa. His high visibility as performer in America and abroad as well as a large number of continuous yearly bookings helped to spread African American music around the pop world. Brown was very driven to succeed on all fronts.

“Pee Wee” Ellis, his saxophonist, once commented: “When you heard James Brown was coming to town, you stopped what you were doing and started saving your money.” Recorded in 1962, the album LIVE AT THE APOLLO is an awesome document of Brown’s dramatic shows and the raw, emotive power of his voice. The record sold millions of copies, establishing James Brown as one of the leading black performers of the period.”

“A perfectionist, he famously fined his musicians for missing notes or playing the wrong ones. And when he yelled out the name of a musician, that person was expected to improvise perfectly on the spot. Another saxophonist, Maceo Parker, admitted, “You had to think quick to keep up.”

It would probably be better stated that James Brown’s music was more a result of a growing movement towards musical and racial gender freedoms. White politicians may have used him as a screen for more votes and possible favoritism. Brown’s allegiance and agreement to then President Nixon and Boston Mayor White to curb race riots by continuing to do a scheduled Boston concert resulted in eased race tensions in that city during a particularly volatile time. Mr. Brown was a person who walked both sides of the racial line without so much regard for race as for his own personal beliefs.

Brown was a savvy businessman who always held his business and audience first with the highest regard. He knew when he was being taken advantage of and was able to turn that to an advantage as well. One instance in particular points to this direction. After his agreed to performance in Boston, Mayor White continued to broadcast his concert to ease tensions without compensation to Brown.

“White arranged to have Brown's performance broadcasted multiple times on Boston's public television station, WGBH, thus keeping potential rioters off the streets, watching the concert for free.[68] Angered by not being told of this, Brown demanded $60,000 for "gate" fees (money he thought would be lost from ticket sales on account of the concert being broadcast for free) and then threatened to go public about the secret arrangement when the city balked at paying up afterwards, news of which would have been a political death blow to White and spark riots of its own.[68]

White eventually lobbied the behind-the-scenes power-brokering group known as "The Vault" to come up with money for Brown's gate fee and other social programs, contributing $100,000. Brown received $15,000 from them via the city. White also persuaded management at the Garden to give up their share of receipts to make up the differences.[68] Following this successful performance, Brown was cautioned by President Johnson to visit cities ravaged from riots following King's assassination to not resort to violence, telling them to "cool it, there's another way”.”

By the end of the 60’s the rock music scene had basically played itself out to its cross gendered audiences. Singer songwriter tunes based on introspection began to find a home with the youth of the day as did a growing trend towards minimalism in the classical world. James brown begins to really strip his music down to the bare essentials coupled with a truly vaudeville / glam/ music review and stage show. He boils it down to an incessant groove, dance and visual presentation which paved the way for performers like Michael Jackson.

Jackson is quoted as saying James Brown was his most powerful influence in his own music. The connection is easily made after viewing a Brown performance and then a Jackson performance. There is youtube footage of Brown and Jackson performing together. The similarities are pretty present at this stage of Jacksons development.

Brown's band during this period employed musicians and arrangers who had come up through the jazz tradition. He was noted for his ability as a bandleader and songwriter to blend the simplicity and drive of R&B with the rhythmic complexity and precision of jazz.

“Admirers of Brown's music, including Miles Davis and other jazz musicians, began to cite Brown as a major influence on their own styles. However, Brown, like others who were influenced by his music, also "borrowed" from other musicians.”

“Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, James Brown increasingly abandoned melody and harmony, focusing on rhythm in songs like “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’,” and “Give It Up or Turn it a Loose.” Brown admitted, “I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums.” By the end of the 1960s, he was mercilessly reducing every instrument to a percussive role.”

Brown employed jazz arrangers and musicians into his fold to crank out a music which was infectious and continued to draw sweat from the pores of his musicians in following generations. Bootsy Collins was with Brown in this next musical incarnation. The Jimi Hendrix of funk bass, Collins helped to define Brown’s funk edge and went on to to expand the range and possibilities of funk in other bands.

Brown’s influence on humanity was great in the musical sense with a personal life shaped by the world he encountered as a young man trying to survive the absolute harshest of conditions.

© copyright 2017, Todd Mosby Music, Saint Louis, MO