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"Minister Of Super Heavy Funk": The Life and Significance of James Brown

December 29, 2006

“Minister of Super Heavy Funk” might be my favorite title for James Brown (1933-2006), but I’ve also always liked “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” I think the latter’s appeal, to me at least, was because it seemed true. I mean, who sweats, struts, and sings with more energy?

Funky titles aside, my appreciation for Brown’s music led – here at his death – to more than the usual amount of reflection about a pop culture figure’s life and significance. I’ve read a couple of obituaries, and the one that seemed best appeared in Wednesday’s New York Times. It was authored by Jon Pareles, and here are some excerpts:

– “In the 1960s and 1970s [Brown] regularly topped the rhythm-and-blues charts, although he never had a No. 1 pop hit. Yet his music proved far more durable and influential than countless chart-toppers. His funk provides the sophisticated rhythms that are the basis of hip-hop and a wide swath of current pop.”
– “His music was sweaty and complex, disciplined and wild, lusty and socially conscious. Beyond his dozens of hits, Mr. Brown forged an entire musical idiom that is now a foundation of pop worldwide.”
– “The funk Mr. Brown introduced in his 1965 hit ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,’ was both deeply rooted in Africa and thoroughly American. Songs like ‘I Got You (I Feel Good),’ ‘Cold Sweat,’ ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ and ‘Hot Pants’ found the percussive side of every instrument and meshed sharply syncopated patterns into kinetic polyrhythms that made people dance. Mr. Brown’s innovations reverberated through the soul and rhythm-and-blues of the 1970s and the hip-hop of the next three decades. The beat of a 1970 instrumental ‘Funky Drummer’ may well be the most widely sampled rhythm in hip-hop.”
– “Mr. Brown was a political force, especially during the 1960s; his 1968 song ‘Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud’ changed America’s racial vocabulary. He was never politically predictable; in 1972 he endorsed the re-election of Richard M. Nixon.”
– “Mr. Brown led a turbulent life, and served prison time as both a teenager and an adult. He was a stern taskmaster who fined his band members for missed notes or imperfect shoeshines. He was an entrepreneur who, at the end of the 1960s, owned his own publishing company, three radio stations and a Learjet (which he would later sell to pay back taxes). And he performed constantly: as many as 51 weeks a year in his prime.”
– “Mr. Brown’s stage moves — the spins, the quick shuffles, the knee-drops, the splits — were imitated by performers who tried to match his stamina, from Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson, and were admired by the many more who could not. . . . His trademark routine of collapsing onstage, having a cape thrown over him and tossing it away for one more reprise, again and again, would leave audiences shouting for more.”
– “Amid the civil rights ferment of the 1960s Mr. Brown used his fame and music for social messages. He released ‘Don’t Be a Dropout’ in 1966 and met with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to promote a stay-in-school initiative. Two years later ‘Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud’ insisted, ‘We won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve.’ When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, Mr. Brown was due to perform in Boston. Instead of canceling his show, he had it televised. Boston was spared the riots that took place in other cities. ‘Don’t just react in a way that’s going to destroy your community,’ he urged.”
– Brown’s music “creat[ed] a sensation in Africa, where it would shape the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, the juju of King Sunny Ade and the mbalax of Youssou N’Dour.”
– Brown “provided soundtracks for blaxploitation movies like Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, and performed at the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.”
– “The rise of disco . . . knocked [Brown] out of the Top 40 in the late 1970s. But an appearance in The Blues Brothers in 1980 started a career resurgence, and in 1985 Mr. Brown had a pop hit, peaking at No. 4, with ‘Living in America.'”


If you’re interested in more details on Brown’s personal life, do check out the Pareles piece. It’s quite comprehensive. Brown’s funeral, at the Apollo Theater, was covered in both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Although the maxim “De gustibus non est disputandum” certainly applies in the realm of music, I doubt many ‘funk fans’ dislike James Brown’s creations. As for me, my taste for his music is certainly contradictory: I must admit some prudishness when I deplore Brown’s lyrical contributions the general sexualization of American culture. But no matter my – or your – moral foundation, Brown’s musical and performance funkiness is plain fun.

Brushing morals and musical taste aside, however, I wonder about the historical significance of James Brown? In terms of the history of music, music performance, and popular culture in general, I believe Pareles obituary covers the salient points.

But what of Brown’s social importance? Before reading the obituaries, I’m not sure I realized Brown’s role in the tumult of the 1960s. I wasn’t aware of his potential for political consequence. It sounds like an article is begging to be written on his post-King-assassination, 1968 Boston performance. It is clear the Brown is most important to African-American working class – not necessarily middle class – history. Somehow I doubt that Brown’s music and persona were important to Condoleeza Rice’s family. In this way a story of Brown’s significance would parallel efforts at constructing a history of hip-hop. But perhaps my opinion of Brown’s class appeal is affected by his self-appointed title, “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business”?

A preliminary search reveals just a few books on Brown: two autobiographies (one published 2005 with Marc Eliot, the other in 2003), one Douglas Wolk analysis on the 1962 Apollo show, a biography by Cynthia Rose (Living in America, 1991), and another biography for children by Jennifer Fandel (2003). It looks like a serious study is just waiting for an author. – TL


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