Today I finished up this week’s lectures in History of Rock, and the week ended on a GREAT note, with a discussion of the one and only James Brown!
I won’t pretend to be any sort of expert on JB. I didn’t grow up listening to him, other than the usual hits, and only got turned on to him in the ‘90s, when a boyfriend introduced me to him. The boyfriend turned out to be a real dick, but my love for JB stuck with me, and that was one good thing that came out of that relationship. Hmph.
Anyway, I really enjoyed that particular lecture in the course, and it really put JB’s place in music history into perspective for me. This was a time when the Brits were invading the American music charts; American pop was trying to promote its own versions of teen idol groups; Stax was releasing what some see as more “authentic” black soul music, but still using studio musicians; and Motown was trying to have black artists cross over to the white pop charts—and having great success with it, but seen by some as “selling out” the authenticity of black music. (I’M not saying that, so don’t come after me on it. That is a criticism that has been levied at Motown and Berry Gordy, Jr. Personally, I don’t think it’s accurate. It was just a more polished version of this music, and it was some great stuff.)
James Brown comes along and kind of sets all this stuff on its head. A total showman, probably the best frontman EVER—discuss amongst yourselves—and this is from me, a huge fan of Mick Jagger, the current best frontman, in my opinion! An American artist, James is seen as not “selling out” in any way, shape, or form, not changing his Southern soul sound or his black identity in order to cross over to the pop charts...but having HUGE success there, anyway. The professor speculates that this could have been because he was essentially non-threatening. His songs, at least early on, weren’t overtly sexual. The lyrics weren’t, anyway.
In fact, the lyrics of a lot of his early songs didn’t really say a whole lot. The focus here was not on the songs or the lyrics, but on the grooooove, man. In fact, that should be capitalized. The Groove. James and his band made the whole thing about laying down the beat and gettin’ your funk on. The prof said that even some of James’s vocals became a part of a meshing of sounds...a sound that resulted in this glorious mix that makes you want to shake your moneymaker.
I can personally testify (Testify, sister!) that when out and about, and a band plays some James Brown, and The Groove grabs you...well, you just gotta go with it and work it on out. I find The Groove almost hypnotic, and it just kind of takes you over. It’s a powerful thing. It transcends race and time. Can I hit it and quit it?
Take it to the bridge!