A few days late, I know, but it’s still hard to believe that James Brown is now the “Gone Father of Soul”, as one British tabloid so charmingly put it on Boxing Day.
If you haven’t read it yet, I can heartily recommend Douglas Wolk’s Live at the Apollo book (from which there’s a brief extract below), and if you want to immerse yourself in even more JB, why not listen to the fabulous 6-hour show Douglas recorded for WFMU back in 2001?
“Brown has perhaps a dozen ‘gold’ records to his credit,” the little unbylined puff piece in that week’s New York Amsterdam News announced. That was pushing it – he’d only had fifteen chart singles by that point. James Brown didn’t have a certified gold single until 1972’s “Get on the Good Foot,” although King evidently didn’t bother with RIAA gold and platinum certification. Still, for an Apollo audience, Gonder had a lot of familiar song titles to mention.
There are an awful lot of citations of chart numbers and dates in this book. Live with them. They are an essential part of James Brown’s art. His genius is the genius of rolls of tickets torn off one by one, of money handed over for records, of the hit. The great James Brown songs are popular, the popular James Brown songs are great. As George W.S. Trow wrote in another, darker context, “It’s a hit! Love it! It’s a Hit. It loves you because you love it because it’s a Hit!” “You come to see my show,” Brown sang. “That’s why James Brown loves you so.” “This is a hit!” he declared as the tape rolled for “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag;” he cut it out of the released record, but persuaded some of the other artists whose records he produced around that time to yell the same thing, so it might work its magic for them too.
Look at his singles discography,and ignore the instrumentals, the duets, the reissues, the throwaways on King’s subsidiary label Bethlehem, the Christmas and novelty records – just concentrate on the songs he threw his weight behind. A pattern emerges, or rather an unbroken block: between “Money Won’t Change You” in July 1966 and “Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved, Loved)” nine years later, James Brown had over sixty consecutive chart hits. On his own terms, he was an unstoppable champion, and those terms were people paying to hear him sing, and being reassured that what they were paying for was popular.
That’s why he wanted to make Live at the Apollo so badly: he could demonstrate that being James Brown was itself a hit. All he had to do was get it on tape.
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