Music and Mastery of James Brown
James Brown is as much a part of American history as hot dogs at the ballpark. Brown illustrates how one can make something from nothing American style. Brown was a musical pioneer and the timelessness of his demonstrates that he will be an icon forever. It is Brown’s unique style of music, singing, and dancing that have earned him the popularity that still lives on today. Brown personified soul and then he introduced it to funk. His screams, moves on stage, and excited nature display musical genius at work.
Brown was born in 1933 and grew up in poverty. He rose above his circumstances and pursued music when he was still a teenager. Brown’s first group was called the Flames and the band’s first big hit was in 1956. It was called “please, please, please.” David Brackett describes this type of music that Brown and his band performed as establishing:
What was to become a stylistic trademark: insistent repetition of a single phrase (in this case, the song’s title) resulting in a kind of ecstatic trance. This approach and Brown’s characteristic raspy vocal timbre and impassioned melismas display his debt to the black American gospel tradition. His stage shows, dancing and with the audience also convey the fervour of a sanctified preacher. (Bracket)
This is an accurate description of what Brown sang onstage as well as how he looked while he sang it.
Brown was part of a movement of 60s rock music called “soul” (Kamein 614) that is a combination of “gospel roots and its relationship to the black community” (614). Soul music expresses African-American pride and culture and its foundation comes from melodic riffs derived from folk blues, which evolved into soul jazz by the late 1950s. Singers and musicians experimented with soul jazz, incorporated their own musical techniques and flavors and by the 1960s, soul fell under the umbrella of soul jazz. Soul music is not rhythm and blues but the two are connected through heritage and their influences are present in James Brown’s music. Marc Elliot states that while Brown’s legacy can be traced back to the sounds of Louis Jordon and Nat “King” Cole. Brown is no doubt a “true American cultural icon, America’s goodwill ambassador whose smile is as instantly recognizable around the world as that of his predecessor, the late, great Louis Armstrong” (Elliot iv). There is no doubt that Brown borrowed from those before him but like any innovator, he took what he knew and then made it his own – the mark of a true genius.
In 1963, Brown recorded and released the “first live recording from the Apollo Theater, a project he funded himself” (Danielson 6). The album was the in the United States. In 1965, Brown released “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” which became a hit. In the following years, Brown and his “orchestra” (6) began working on a new style that “surfaced for the public with “Cold Sweat” in 1967″ (6). For years after that, Brown was considered the “best within the rhythm and blues/soul/funk branch of black American music” (6). Danielson son contends that Brown’s music from 1965 to 1974 is significant because “from this period was important to the struggle for a black cultural identity as history as a means of demonstrating an African influence and African-American music and culture” (41). The music was important to the “process of identifying a specifically black culture, and Brown’s undeniable success as a black entrepreneur in the powerful American music industry made him almost an icon of progress and self-consciousness, of consolidation, hope, and pride. Brown had succeeded in spite of a terrible start in life and seemingly without making musical compromises” (95). Indeed, he did.
Brown’s style has been one that successfully changed with the times. A close look at his songs will reveal how his music evolved with the sounds of the times. Brown drew from rhythm and blues musical influences such as Little Richard and Ray Charles, as these influences are present in his early work. From “Please, Please, Please” to “Living in America,” Brown’s identifiable sound has never lost his style. His first hit Please, Please, Please” demonstrates sounds that were popular in the late 1950s. In “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” we hear the earlier influences of the late 50s and early 60s in the lyrics and the guitar riffs.
Brown’s career and musical inclinations began to change in the mid-60s, which can be seen in “I Feel Good (I Got You). Published in 1965, “I Feel Good” is another iconic James Brown song. This song is upbeat, happy, and makes the listener want to move. In the late 60s, Brown’s music experienced a change and this can be seen in “Cold Sweat.” This song brings more drum action into the song and the horn section is representative of the funk influence. “Cold Sweat” is often regarded as Brown’s first funk tune” (Danielson 40). According to Danielson, the “grove is not much different from a predominantly rhythm and blues song such as ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’” (D 40). While there are similarities, the changes between the songs are significant. Danielson maintains that while “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is a “melodic line” (40) while in “Cold Sweat,” the rhythm is only “fragments” (40). She asserts:
All of the instruments, including vocals, work more or less in the same way, forming small but significant rhythmic gestures that are linked in every direction. The grove has become an intricate fabric of sharp percussive sounds in which one sound brings on the next: the texture of the music has changed from horizontally divided layers of sound to a rhythmic patchwork. (40)
Brown’s career experience a rebirth in the 1980s with the hit song “Living in America.” This song represents how Brown never lost popularity as this song can be identified by anyone of almost any age. The lyrics in this song are profoundly American and represent patriotism similar to that which Bruce Springsteen and Lee Greenwood have enjoyed. “Living in America” also illustrates how Brown never lost his individuality. Traditional horn sections are still present along with a funky beat that resonates from his earlier tunes.
James Brown is no doubt a musical legend and genius. From his struggle out of poverty to his fame late in life, Brown never compromised what he believed in. These are characteristics that few musicians experience but when they do, they shine far brighter than any other stars. Brown overcame personal difficulties and will be remembered as an influential musician that helped mold the funky sound of soul.
Brackett, David. “James Brown.” Grove Music Online. Site Accessed May 19, 2008. http://www.grovemusic.com
Kamien, Roger. Music: An Appreciation. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 2000.
Danielson, Anne. Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. 2006.
Elliot, Marc. I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul: Introduction. New York: Penguin Books. 2005.