Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott and Dan Ackroyd, with Craig Robinson, Viola Davis, Lennie James and Brandon Smith.
Like with the First Man on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong, we examine the life and times of the “Godfather Of Soul,” “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,” “Mr Dynamite” himself, the incomparable James Brown! Yeah!
True to form, this installment culls deeply from a personal, hands deep in pockets kind of nostalgia. The owned, best kind.
Ah, but the Temps. They could sing. As a little white kid with all the coolness cachet of a sack of flour, I knew I couldn’t plead like David Ruffin, but I liked what I heard. I recognized Motown music as soulful without really understanding what that meant. It was something good, and a nice change of pace from infinite rotations of Graceland (still a great album BTW). A bit more oomph, if you catch my drift.
My mom’s fave Motown group—despite being a 60s Beatlemanic, which was federal law for girl Boomers back then—were and are The Four Tops. It was the first concert she caught back in college. Her alma mater is back in Virginia, and her being from a white bread New Jersey circa 1966 the concert was a revelation. Soul music wasn’t a hot topic back in her hometown, but had a firm foothold in the South. The Motown groups would make regular circuits all around this side of the Mississippi, and were a seasonal fixture in her college town. College gigs were common back then. Like back in the 90s when I caught some newb shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Funniest club date ever, but that’s another story.
So moms caught the Four Tops at the height of their career. She went to an all women’s school, which required much screaming and flailing and perhaps pantie-tossing as these sweat ‘n’ soul guys rocked the stage. She told me how they danced in perfect synch, and when not swiveling they would huddle arm in arm for the ballads, like their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Your Love Is Sweeter Than Ever.” When it came to the rockin’ songs like “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” lead singer Levi Stubbs had the audience in the palm of his hand. I’m making it more dramatic than what my mom saw, but she read this bit and couldn’t argue. To this day whenever she hears a Tops’ tune on the radio, from my iTunes library and/or in the car she starts doing the butt dance and fingerpopping like she did back in the day. Play “It’s The Same Old Song” and it’s Pavlovian; she drops everything and starts to groove. She’s in her 70s. She’s 20 again. It’s a sight to behold. Grow old but don’t grow up, right?
An aside: Moms has always been a sucker for singles, regardless of genre. It’s residue doubtless left over from that Tops’ show. For instance, she drove her father mad with endless rotations of the Dion classic “The Wanderer” back in high school. Whenever Van Halen’s “Jump” comes on the air her reaction is always: “This is a classic!” She’s said the same thing for Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” She also prefers AC/DC with Brian Johnson over Bon Scott. There’s no accounting for taste, I’ve heard. When I shared such tidbits offhand with my old bartender friend he blurted, “Yer Mom’s cool!” She also attended high school with a young wallflower named Joe Walsh. That Joe Walsh. He was already ugly then. Moving on.
Back to her concert revelation. Think about that for a moment. Never ever in your wretched life have you ever caught your favorite musician in their prime and knew it. My mom was one of the chosen few: it was actually the Tops’ first national tour, like all across the USA. The way she tells it, she knew what was going down back then. It was a revelation.
Me? Sure, Motown was cool. I love Stevie Wonder and the Temps and Marvin Gaye and all those cats. Great songs to sing along with even if you’re not Ruffin. However growing up on punk and prog and…well, Elton my tastes in tunes demanded a little more oomph. A little more grit. A lot more horns (I played sax in band, remember?). A little more…soul.
Enter Stax Records. Deep southern soul. Aretha, Otis, Carla, Ike, Booker T and the MGs (“Memphis Group” for the curious) and especially my guys Sam and Dave. I loves me some Sam and Dave. They never sang a bad song. Never. One of my fave songs by them was their first single, “You Don’t Know Like I Know.” I blare this from my car at mind shearing volume as if I drove a low rider. It was in reality an early 90s Volvo sedan. Whatever. Sweat and soul and defiantly not pretty like Motown was. Moms was never much for Stax. Takes all kinds.
Okay. To prove some sort of point in how Stax operated in stark contrast to Berry Gordy’s empire of smooth, here’s a choice tale about how sometimes the best accidents result in the best songs down in Soulsville, USA. Have a seat. Here’s a beer. Shaddap and lissen hup.
The following is an excerpt from Henry Rollins’ Do I Come Here Often? (Los Angeles: 2.13.61 Publishing. 1988) when the infamous LA punk icon got to interview the legendary Issac Hayes about when he was a house songwriter at Stax back in the mid-60s. Here’s Ike’s tale:
“…Starts in a big ol’ room like a movie theater…The toilet was up in the corner of the room. I’m sitting in the center of the room, up against the wall by the piano, playing. And Dave [Porter, fellow Stax songwriter] said, ‘Man, I’ve got to use the john.’
“He went to the restroom, and I struck a groove. And I said, ‘Damn, I don’t want to lose this thing…Hey man! C’mon!’
“And he said, ‘Hold on! I’m coming!’ And he came out the john with his pants down saying, “That’s it! That’s it! Man, I got the title!” And hey, we sat down and wrote ‘Hold On, I’m Coming.’ You know, it’s a funny thing the way these tunes come out.”
Huh. Chances are Motown’s hit factory never sought inspiration from taking a dump.
That being said, and as with all legends—be it Arthurian, Spider-Man or musical—there always is a wellspring. Whether is be the smooth and poppy grooves of Motown or the girt and grease of Stax, if soul music be where the twain met and/or splintered thanks lay to James Brown and his Famous Flames. Both sides of the card. Grit and groove. Shine and tarnish. Inspired both ends of the spectrum and spreading the gospel—again, so the speak. Brown was a visionary, with his trailblazing fusion of gospel, classic R&B and funk, informing both Houses and endless musicians to this day. Even to this day—15 years after his passing—where his standards can be omnipresent thanks to nostalgia, constant revisionist history of his craft and miles and miles of samples culled for rap songs he’s still a force of nature. As I suggested, his songs could be sweet like Motown or lowdown as with Stax. Brown was so explosive that he was a genre unto himself within soul music. Doubtless that some of the Godfather’s style influenced Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and Aretha. Brown was the Jackie Robinson of funk, brought it to the masses and informed both Motown and Stax how it should be done.
I know, I know. I’m laying it on thick. Some folks dismiss Brown’s catalogue as old hat, so saturated his tunes have been co-opted into popular American culture. However consider this one final story about how a young James left his first mark on the world stage. Only Hendrix at Woodstock outshone James live. Once more into the breach, my friends and quit groaning or else no nap time and no juice boxes with graham crackers. Roll out the towels.
There was this concert film back in the early 60s, The TAMI Show. It featured many up and coming musicians to strut their stuff and doubtless doing so would push record sales. There were a lot of cool acts in their infancy on display on TAMI (“Teenage Awards Music International” for the record). The Beach Boys. Chuck Berry. Smokey Robinson. Marvin Gaye. The Supremes. All on the guest list, including James Brown and the Famous Flames and also some snotnose British Blues group calling themselves the Rolling Stones.
The historical record went down claiming James and the Flames stole the show. The kids went bonkers. The Stones waited in the wings as the act to close the show, and they were agog with James’ performance. It was kinda like, “We have to follow him?” Mick and crew were amazed and delighted by the Flames’ act and figured that guy Brown had the right idea.
For years upon years we know Mick Jagger in concert likes to preen and strut and boogie and play to the audience. I caught the Stones back in the early 90s, and of course I expected Mick to swivel and shake. I was not let down. But if it was not for James Brown, I doubt the Stones wouldn’t’ve enjoyed their legacy so long. They would’ve died after the inaugural Monterey Pop festival playing so aloof. Save Keith, natch. Only kryptonite could kill Keef. The red kind, natch.
If you ever caught some classic videos on YouTube of Mick and the boys performing their frontman came across as too cool for school. Mick’s gestures made him appear aloof, like the audience didn’t deserve his talent. After he and his band watched James and the Flames cut it up, the modern Stones appeared. Instead of Mick affecting the stance of him waiting his turn at the pool table, TAMI showed him bouncing and dancing and swerving and getting into it as we expected him to do well into his 70s. Not unlike James Brown in his 20s. Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a gas, gas, gas now.
Hey, if some then unknown soul brother could alter the course of Britain’s premier rock institution, well, I guess must be a story behind that…
I supposed some you out there in the blogosphere noticed the “part 1” tag attached to this week’s installment. Welp, here’s why:
Due to technical difficulties—namely me trying to reconcile the differences between WordPress’ classic editor and its new block editor—the remainder of this installment got wiped. Sorry. Lost my notes, lost my media, then lost my crackers. Sorry.
Instead of scrapping the whole wad I decided to post the first half; The Breakdown part broke down. Why? Either to maintain my oh so rigid posting schedule and/or maybe drum up some tension and cliffhanging (like when Capt Picard was captured by the Borg at the end of TNG’s third season) as to what may have made Get On Up either compelling or never mind. Wait and see.
Ah well, don’t fret none. Get On Up‘s part 2 will be concluded in the future. Hopefully by then by then I’ll have learned to stop toggling/vacillating between too many Safari tabs. Not to mention not putting my faith in autosave too much.
Until then, stay tuned. 🙂
The Next Time (God willing)…
As the first computer scientist, Dr Alan Turing devised his test—better known as The Imitation Game—based on an idea that a computer could be said to “think” if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from another human being.