Doin' It to Death
During a break from a 1989 recording-studio session in upstate New York, the alumni of arguably the finest band in American pop music gathered over soda and takeout Chinese to invoke the man who had dragged them all to greatness.
No one in the room--not Bobby Byrd or Bootsy Collins, Clyde Stubblefield or Pee Wee Ellis--seemed sorry that James Brown was absent for a change. They were proud of the work they'd done with him--together they'd redefined soul and funk--but they muttered that Brown was a petty, egomaniacal tyrant.
The food got cold, and the musicians went back into the studio. Their producer labored reverentially to let the former Flames burn, but the proof's in the groove. The players were outstanding, yet the King All-Stars album just didn't catch fire without that pompadoured Napoleon at the helm.
At the time, Brown was imprisoned near his birthplace in South Carolina on various charges related to wife-beating, a car chase and angel dust. He'd started his musical career directly after a three-year stint in a Georgia reform school, and his brilliant oeuvre now seemed bookended.
While Brown's former band labored without him, I phoned Brown in prison. Poet Amiri Baraka was spearheading a "Free James Brown" campaign, and I wanted to know what the object of that crusade thought from his perch in the stir.
"These people know who I am here!" Brown said when I got through. He sounded pleased, arrogant and surprised. "They know I'm somebody."
Well, no shit, I thought, who didn't? The rest of our conversation was brief and garbled. I could never get it straight, for example, whether he was referring to the jailers or the convicts.
That abortive conversation took place just as compact discs were catching on. Vinyl is a lot of things, but it's not forever, and among the many reasons to love the digital age is the flood of reissues that came out on CD. For example, Brown made more recordings after he got sprung, but nothing that measures up to his heyday. His most recent effort, a live return to the Apollo Theatre--the venue of his greatest triumph--was thoroughly anemic. Fortunately, that's not the whole story. Thanks to some enlightened self-interest at PolyGram, Brown's back catalogue is a particular beneficiary of the reissue boom. First there was the superb four-disc Star Time box, and then a series of classy Chronicles two-disc sets--Soul Pride: The Instrumentals, The J.B.s: Funky Good Time, Messing With the Blues and Roots of a Revolution.
But PolyGram's latest JB set, Foundations of Funk--A Brand New Bag: 1964-1969, is the cream so far. Few other archival sets have offered such sustaining pleasures.
In 1964, Brown was fresh from a brace of R&B chart successes and still hungry for hits. For seven years he dabbled, drawing on the strengths of his shifting ensemble of session players. He was a fervent syncopator; everyone became part of the rhythm section. The mainstays of those years--Maceo Parker, Ellis, Country Kellum and Byrd--often ended up feeling manipulated. They knew they'd played a crucial role in forging Papa's new bag, but it couldn't have happened without the man they privately called "that greasy little nigger." Brown's name was stamped on their collective imagination. Maceo, for one, is about as famous for his horn-playing as for Brown repeatedly calling "Ma-ce-o!" on live recordings. That's got to grate after a while. Brown's empire was at once thundering and delicate. He built the trains and made them run on time, but in the end he pissed off the coal-shovelers and lost the mortgage on the station.
But inside the grooves of the 27 tracks on Foundations, nothing else seems to matter; it's 1967, and an emcee somewhere is stepping from behind a red-and-gold brocade curtain: Right about here, ladies and gentlemen, it's the moment all of you been waiting for--Are you ready for star time? Mr. Dynamite, the man with the crown, the fella who taught you to say "Please!" The only brother who can put you in a cold sweat--can you stand it? Bring it up! Put your hands together for the hardest-working man in show business!
The cuts on Foundations were all originally released as 45s, but in many instances the original recordings were faded to suit the conventions of AM airplay and often were continued on the B side as "Part 2." The PolyGram reissue corrects that by remastering the entire original sessions, adding a few seconds here and more than a minute there, so that, for less than the cost of dinner for two, you get one of the crucial cultural documents of our time, sequenced chronologically.
Like a Rock
Popsy Dixon is the answer to that burning question I'd never thought of until I put on the latest Holmes Brothers CD: What would Louis Armstrong sound like if he sang with a rock 'n' roll band? The other answer is: nothing but fine.
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The Holmes Brothers, a trio with a pedal-steel player out of New York, continue to blend gospel, blues and soul in a way that nearly everyone else of import stopped doing two decades ago. Dixon, their falsetto singer, still shoulders the mantle of Al Green and Claude Jeter. He soars on "Radio Face," setting a gold standard for harmony and housewrecking in rock as he weaves around Andy Snitzer's saxophone. The new album, a soundtrack titled Lotto Land (Stony Plain), is the Holmes' fifth recording and their first to hit the record stores in three years. It was recorded in 1992 to accompany the indie art-house film of the same name. It's really half an effort, a shotgun marriage with lyrics by the movie's writer and director John Rubino. But a little is worlds better than none at all, and cuts like the churchy and country "On the Rocks" are something to savor until the Brothers' next Rounder album comes out at the top of next year.
Tell 'em We're Surfing
A Washington Post writer whose name I didn't catch was on National Public Radio the other morning talking about hip hype--the inflation of cool. He said one litmus test of with-it-ness was your stand on the Marsalis brothers; time was when Wynton would have been the cooler one, he said, but today it's probably Branford, for the same reason he wouldn't have been before--his mainstream network TV exposure on The Tonight Show. "Now, in the Quentin Tarantino age," he said, "pop is cool."
When I was little, surf music was cracking the Top 40 charts and I'd whack away at my cousin's drum kit in a den far from the sea, trying to replicate the drum solo on "Wipe Out." Then Jimi Hendrix came and went, and things settled down--until now, in the Tarantino age, when culture's in a blender set on high, and surf music is happening all over again. You can tell it's a bona fide movement because Rhino Records, those surfers of hip, has cannily assembled Cowabunga!, a retrospective that surveys the genre from Dick Dale to the present.
Hoosier neobilly Junior Brown does the same a lot quicker, recapitulating the history of breakin' boards in just seven minutes on his new album Semi Crazy (Curb). With his strange but sweet double-necked guit-steel, Junior plucks and riffles through "Pipeline," "Walk Don't Run" and "Secret Agent Man" in a way that makes them cleaner than most contemporary combos can manage. He's got a fine, sturdy bass voice, but his "Surf Medley" clinches it: His instrumentals are better. They're free of ironic hokum, for one thing, and freshened by the same Appalachian sagacity Joe Maphis once possessed. Part of surf's appeal is that almost any kid can do it if she or he puts in the practice. But not all guitarists are created equal, and if you play until your fingers bleed, you may not get more than note-perfect recitation and bloody fingers. Junior brings something besides awesome technique to the party. His sense of humor may not wear well--novelty songs seldom do--but when he shuts his mouth, you can hear someone's kinfolks play. Granted, it's hard to discuss integrity and "Secret Agent Man" on the same page, but Junior's stew is no synthetic movement: It's plumb hillbilly cool.