Rock 'n' roll's primal scream can be traced back to James Brown. It came from within this man. And at 73 years old it's still in his soul, in his throat, and in your face. He's the Reverend Cleophus. He's The Godfather of Soul. Soul Brother No. 1. Mr. Dynamite. He's the hardest working man in show business. James Brown is as relentless and colorful and controversial as his music.
It was Brown's seminal take that ushered two revolutions in American black music. His ragged gospel-based bellow coupled with an intense, driving beat helped turn r&b into soul in the late '50s and early '60s, and eventually soul into funk. Innumerable hip-hop artists have sampled Brown as well, so come to think of it, that's three revolutions.
Brown's numerous run-ins with the law --- including weapons charges and high-speed interstate car chases --- prison time, and financial woes have done little to tarnish the man's luster. When you close your eyes and envision Brown howling passionately, with his slick airtight band and slick airtight 'do and fancy footwork, a handgun waving over his head doesn't seem all that weird. Brown's music ain't all that civilized. So why should he be?
Brown grew up dirt poor in Macon, Georgia. As a teenager he got into some trouble, and was eventually locked-up. Fresh off a four-year stint in the joint for armed robbery, Brown joined The Gospel Strarlighters in 1953. Brown's gravely pipes and charisma soon took center stage. The group switched its pitch to r&b and changed its name to The Famous Flames. James Brown and the Famous Flames signed with the King/Federal label (who barely beat Chess Records' Leonard Chess to the punch) and recorded "Please, Please, Please," in 1956.
At that point Brown was one of the few black performers that simply could not be duplicated or co-opted by white artists. The raw and savage sensuality Brown sweat and bled came from a place most white artists never knew existed, and where kids both black and white were dying to go to. Hail, hail rock 'n' roll.
But he had no hits. He burned rubber touring the famed Chittlin Circuit non-stop but was merely covering heroes like Little Richard, Roy Brown, and Ray Charles. His label was poised to give him the hot potato treatment.
Brown's first No. 1 hit, "Try Me," went to the top of the r&b charts in 1958. It was the first of many. He has had more than 116 charted hits in his career --- second only to Elvis Presley.
But it was the release of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" in 1965, with their polyrhythmic, psycho-sexual beat, that helped redefine soul music and set the music world on fire --- and the world in general on its ass. Both tunes are as relevant today as they were when they exploded 40 years ago.
Known to really crack the whip as a band leader, Brown demanded the same perfection from his band that he did of himself. Brown's band has always been notoriously, flawlessly tight, with its leader at one time fining band members $50 per dropped note, flubbed line, or lagging beat. This led to his entire band walking out on him in 1969.
Brown charted some throughout the '70s but by the mid-'80s trouble had caught up with him once again and he was sentenced to six years in prison. He was paroled after two.
Throughout the rollercoaster of hit record highs and legal lows Brown has always performed live, the frenzy and salacious sex appeal intact. No one has ever matched James Brown's passion, intensity, animal magnetism, and soul. No one ever will.
James Brown plays at the Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street, on Saturday, June 10, at 8 p.m., as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival. $37.50-$65. For more information visit www.rochesterjazz.com.