It's been almost 40 years since james brown gave the most overwhelming concert I've ever attended, or ever will. On April 5, 1968, he played the Boston Garden--less than 24 hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C. were already aflame, and only 2,000 of us showed up in an arena that held 14,000. The mayor came out and urged us to "honor Dr. King in peace," but it was Brown who prevented a riot: when excited fans rushed the stage, he called off the cops and talked everybody back to their seats. What was truly scary, though, was how he made a crucial moment in American history absolutely vanish for two hours. Brown was 34 then: his voice at its richest and most agile, his dancing at its most dazzling, his screams at their most piercing. He could have torn the city apart. All he did was tear me apart, along with everybody else.
Perhaps sheer megalomania led Brown to style himself the Godfather of Soul, but he did have a strong case. Like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, he fused gospel and soul, right from his 1956 debut, "Please, Please, Please," with which he closed his shows for years. By 1967, the one-hit wonder Arthur Conley's tribute to singers of "Sweet Soul Music" was calling Brown "the king of them all, y'all"--as if it even needed to be said.
And yet: that was the year the Godfather tossed soul into the oldies bin. His lean, slinky, trance-y "Cold Sweat" turned soul music's backbeat rhythm around (stressing the first and third beats rather than the second and fourth). It superimposed Bernard Odum's loud, hyperkinetic bass over Clyde Stubblefield's hypnotically looping drum figure, and their flow was punctuated by a simple riff from the horns. How could you hear it and stay seated? This was the template for what came to be called funk--which godfathered disco, then hip-hop. Without James Brown, there'd be no Michael Jackson, no Prince, no Public Enemy. Not even an electric Miles Davis. An alternate universe, with gray skies and bad dancing to a clunky drummer. Sound like a place where you'd like to live?
Many white listeners lost track of Brown after such '60s crossover hits as "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)." Maybe some were put off by the 1968 "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." Their problem--they missed his boldest, most creative years. The voice coarsened, the moves began to slow, but as a bandleader and conceptualist, he was Duke Ellington in polyester. Songs became ingenious one-chord riffs, varied with an equally ingenious "bridge" section. Brown's voice became one more instrument in his ever-innovative textures--along with the free-jazz saxophone in "Super Bad" (1970) or the scratchy guitar that substitutes for a snare drum in "Hot Pants" (1971)--supplying interjections, exhortations and running commentary. This was body music executed with obsessive precision: every track could have been called "Sex Machine." Get on up!
And hip-hop producers have appropriated it for decades. One Web site lists nearly 200 songs that sample just the 1970 "Funky Drummer": by NWA and Queen, Dr. Dre and the Beastie Boys, Tupac Shakur and Vanilla Ice, Nine Inch Nails and Sinead O'Connor. But no rapper's boast about his AK-47 had the sly old-school menace of one line in "The Payback" (1974): "I don't know karate, but I know ka-razor." (Yes, some Web sites claim he's saying "ka-razy." You gonna believe them or my own ears?)
I guess this obituary would be a big wet kiss if I failed to mention James Brown's prison terms (armed robbery, PCP ...), his busts for domestic violence (one wife had him arrested four times) and his Kim Jong Il leadership style (once his whole band walked out). So consider them mentioned. But the only drama that matters now took place in the studio and on the stage. At the end of that shamanistic performance in Boston, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, drenched in sweat, writhing and screaming as he sang "Please, Please, Please," had to be wrapped in a satin cape and hustled offstage by worried-looking attendants--only to break away and dash back to the microphone to scream some more. Repeat with another cape. Repeat again. I'd been around long enough to know this was the usual "cape act"--but maybe this time he was possessed, and did need keepers to protect him from himself. Who doesn't, at some point? They got the last cape around him, the lights went up, and still I couldn't believe he wasn't coming back.