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James Brown’s Final Bow

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This wasn't the Christmas morning surprise we had in mind. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, died about 1:45 EST this morning. He'd been hospitalized on Christmas Eve, suffering from pneumonia. According to reports, he was in good spirits at the time, determined to be well in time for a planned New Year's Eve concert in New York.

It was not to be. Brown's heart gave out this morning in an Atlanta hospital. The hardest working man in show business will do no more encores — at least, physically. The musical legacy he leaves us, however, ensures his spirit will never surrender to that trademark cloak.

"Disco is James Brown, hip-hop is James Brown, rap is James Brown; you know what I'm saying? You hear all the rappers, 90 percent of their music is me," Brown told The AP in 2003. And indeed, it is. I don't know if he was really "the Godfather of Soul" — guys like Otis Redding and Ray Charles were technically more influential in that genre — but it's an indisputable fact that James Brown gave the world funk.

Without Brown, there would have been no Parliament or Funkadelic, at least not as we know them — he gave Catfish and Bootsy Collins their start. They honed their guitar and bass crafts playing for James Brown before hooking up with George Clinton. Had they not united with Clinton, One Nation Under a Groove probably would not have happened. And had that not happened, Talking Heads most likely would not have discovered polyrhythms, and their greatest album, Remain In Light, would have never existed.

If anybody brought dance to the forefront of pop music, it was James Brown. His moves weren't contrived or choreographed — they sprang full-blown from his soul to his feet, and everywhere in between. Michael Jackson may have reigned as King of Pop in the eighties, but James Brown had laid down the gauntlet two decades earlier. The shuffles, stamps and twirls that accentuated his performances inspired artists like Prince and others to incorporate the physically funky into their brand of musical funk — which Brown more or less invented.

Brown's influence on hip-hop is undeniable, too. He's probably been sampled on more rap tracks than any other artist, largely because he was an early advocate of Black pride. He didn't wear it on his sleeve — he walked the walk when he talked the talk. He was handing out toys to underprivileged kids on Friday last week. I'll leave it to other people to talk in length about his run-ins with law and his drug and alcohol abuse. Those are tabloid tags that signify nothing.

It gets down to this: James Brown is one of those rare figures who epitomize rock and roll. When he sang "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", he heralded a new direction for soul, and rock in general. What James Brown did was open up an entirely new entity that would serve to define rock as we know it. Rappers would sample his work above all others, and rockers paid homage to his polyrhythmic structures throughout the nineties. Without James Brown, there would have been no funk, no punk, no — well, nothing.

James Brown brought the party to us for forty years. He may have departed the mortal coil, but his influence will will entwine music forever.

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About Ray Ellis

  • Well said Ray. Agree 100% on the Talking Heads reference too — a lot of the mainstream press missed that. As for hip-hop, “Funky Drummer” alone was the foundation for hip-hop tracks too numerous to name.

    Nice eulogy sir.


  • priest4life

    This article points to all of the correct and great influential treats that are the James Brown legacy. We had all hoped he could stay with us forever. Anyone who ever saw James Brown perform would never forget the truly inspired and connected artist. And that he was — a true artist. When he performed, you felt a kinship with him and his music that could not be described or denied. The James Brown brand of Funk will be missed by millions. James Brown the man will be remembered for all of the right reasons. May your soul rest in peace, my friend.

  • Bliffle

    The constant lionizing of James Brown is astounding to me. He was a serial abuser of people, especially females, his songs are pathetic, and his ego crowded better musicians off the stage. To proclaim him an ‘artist’ is bogus, he was nothing but a show-biz creation who will soon be forgotten.

  • zingzing

    bliffle, there probably hasn’t been a more influential musical artist since elvis. it’s a straight up fact. and while i see a bit of a samey-samey quality in some of his later work (mid-70’s on), the fact is that the first 20 years of james brown’s work was something special almost every time out. his mistakes became sub-genres. sure, he had ego. but, his ego was very deserved. as for his abuse of people, on stage or off, that has little to do with the music, which is what he will be remembered for.

    the man himself? meh. i didn’t know the guy. the music? classic. have a heart. the guy died. it’s christmas. sheesh.

  • RM

    If there were a heaven, right now it would be “Funkadelick”

  • Bliffle

    Browns failings as a person have everything to do with his lousy music.

    “as for his abuse of people, on stage or off, that has little to do with the music, which is what he will be remembered for. ”

    Browns music alternates between aggressiveness and pleading, which is characteristic of a well-known personality type that abuses one when they have the upper-hand and then pleads abjectly when they are bested.

    One ought be careful who one admires lest one become like them.

  • RK


    If you look back at many of the great influential musicians/”artists” of music, I’m sure you will notice a similar common trend stretching as far back as the medieval time. Artists of our own generations are even more prone to this sort of “off the stage” behavior, yet this does not negate what any have accomplished ON the stage. Maybe it would be more pertinent to search for James Brown’s influential qualities through an objective look at his MUSIC and how it affected the music to come AFTER him. Another important factor when arguing an artist’s influential attribute would be to notice what other successful artists list as influential to them. Seeing how you yourself have no credibility in the field, your opinion is of the least important to the rest of us and these artists opinions can be of more significance.


  • Grand Master Paleface

    Nice article. I think Mr. James Brown’s career began in earnest in 1953 if I am not mistaken. He helped calm the understandably angry crowds when MLK Jr. became a homicide victim. His music was always in a class by itself. Nobody was capable of judging his music because nobody had his unique abilities. Despite being a human being and his birth into extreme hardship and poverty, he over came those obstacles. And also prevailed to become a force in music as large as any that have ever existed. People of such genius are sometimes eccentric. And very hard for some to understand. Not always little angels either. Many have had problems with authority and relationships. Howard Hughes was very eccentric, for example. Speaking of “personality types.” May I remind some that, although not a genius by any measure, Rush Limbaugh is a convicted felon. The very type that Mr. Limbaugh argued previously should be executed or imprisoned under horrible conditions for life.

  • Zatoichi

    Saw Brown about a year ago at a small college playing to about 2,000. Lucky to get front row center, about 20 feet from the stage. Tightest band I have ever seen and what he was able to physically do at 70 some years old was great. It was all there: the intro, the feet, the grunts, the snap of the snare, popping horns, guitar that just grabbed you, the cape, the sweat. Many, many successful groups have used him as a base for their sound. Was he difficult in his personal life? Yeah, but so are many other “stars” and “innovators”. Does not make it right, but I have no control over that. He left a sound that you just know is James Brown – snap, pop, tah-dah “Momma come here quick….” and your butt is moving.

  • Bliffle

    His aberrant persona is reflected in his music. Don’t people exercise any discrimination when they choose music, or do they just do what their friends do, to curry favor? What sheep!

  • Firstly,I’d like to thank everybody for their comments–well, almost everybody. I feel like I’ve been writing a lot of eulogies ,as Glen put it, lately. It’s not something I’m fond of doing, but I feel I have a responsibility to say thanks one last time to the people who have shaped or inspired me in one way or another. It’s apparent from your comments that you all feel the same way.

    But every bed of roses has a prick or two, doesn’t it?

    Which brings me to Bliffle.

    Bliff, old sod, you make a lot of noise, as bratty people in need of attention are wont to do.
    It’s screamingly obvious you’re looking to make this a subject of controversy. It’s a pathetic attempt, at best. See, in order to have an argument, you have to start with a set of statements you can back up with facts. Saying James Brown’s music reflected his “abherrent” personality is nothing more than a puerile attempt to inflame.You cite no examples–you just make a pronouncement as if it was divinely inspired.

    You’re whistling in the wind, Bliff. The rest of us– we feel good.

  • zingzing

    bliffle, silly man: “His aberrant persona is reflected in his music.”

    dude, not sure what you are talking about here. his lyrics are, at least during his most famous days, more directions to the band, leading the funk, rather than any sort of personal statement revealing his psychology.

    if you can tell me what, exactly, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)” has to say about beating up women, i’ll give you a lolly-pop.

    do you not like “thriller” because it’s about suddenly about wearing a mask over your face and sleeping with little boys?

    what does “purple rain” have to do with refusing blood transplants? (did i get the right religion? must listen to “purple rain” to find out…)

    your argument is a total non-sequitor. you can dislike the man all you like, but it doesn’t change the music whatsoever.

  • Great piece on an essential figure in pop/rock/soul history (even if Talking Heads never explicity gave credit to Brown for influencing the direction of their music, off-shot Tom Tom Club did in “Genius of Love”!) Was personally glad that I didn’t hear of Brown’s death until the day after Xmas – would’ve really put a pall on the day.

  • Bliffle

    His on-stage persona is demanding and intolerant. When he is frustrated he swings to the opposite extreme of abject servility. He cannot be reasonable.

  • IgnatiusReilly

    Bliffle: He cannot be reasonable.

    I’ve often heard that what people can’t stand in others are faults they see in themselves. Thanks for illustrating the point.

  • Bliffle:

    Browns failings as a person have everything to do with his lousy music.


    One ought be careful who one admires lest one become like them.

    These comments smack, in a serious way, of a person with a personal dislike of Brown who is stretching, and I mean with all the flexibility man can muster, to justify extending that dislike to his music.

    Especially from one so passionate about classical music. I take it that under this logic you also have zero respect or use for the alcholic Mozart, the violently raging and cruel Beethoven, or the antisemitic Wagner, among others? Certainly those traits are reflected in the composers’ works, particularly the latter two.

  • Many years ago I had a dream in which I was wandering in the woods, looking for the “James Brown Pavilion.” When I found it, it was a big but rustic entertainment complex in a bucolic country setting. Anybody seen this? I suppose not. Maybe if we build it, they will come.

  • Lovely tribute Ray. Job well done!!

  • Thanks, Tink.I watched his send-off/funeral today on CNN–not the venue I would have expected. But what a way to check out! It was a celebration of his life, a concert, a respectful service, one last jam! So long, James. . .



    BIFFLE< If you don't like JB, why do you come here? RIGHT ON, RIGHT ON!