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.