His music is eternal and omnipresent
Ever since I can remember, the music of James Brown has been a gift to me whose value I can never measure, because it has been something on which I have relied upon to keep me happy, grounded and smiling.
So when the news came of his passing on Christmas Day, it was almost an anticlimax. The music that JB made during his greatest years seems so alive, so eternal and so omnipresent in my world that his physical death didn’t sadden as much as it did surprise me.
James Brown dead? Impossible. Even now, it seems like an irrational notion. His music is like a pure element mined from the ground. James Brown cannot die any more than a 24 karat gold bar could.
Because of my well-known obsession with James Brown, I did several media interviews about him but it still seemed impossible that he was dead. I talked about my brief personal encounters with the man, the way that his music touched me, but the words seemed inadequate.
I flashed back to my 1996 telephone interview with Brown. Of the thousands of people I’ve interviewed in my career as a journalist, only JB intimidated me. My talking to him was a mortal talking to a king.
One of the most dominant themes in his music is pride — self-pride, ancestral pride, pride in one’s country. It’s no small irony that the children singing the chorus in his song “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” were mostly white and Asian. He brought pride to everyone.
The joy that Brown conveyed through his music knows no color or no ethnicity. To me, a white kid growing up in a white neighborhood, his message of pride lifted my spirit and filled my soul.
Brown had disavowed “Say It Loud,” saying it was polarizing his audience, and I asked him during my 1996 interview if he would ever play it again. He said he might someday but seemed oddly surprised to be asked about it by some white Midwestern journalist.
He said, “One day, when you can go on any side of town and not be frantic, or curious, about what might happen to you, and be at home at any place in America, we won't have to worry about ‘Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud).’ We won't have to worry about those songs by Joan Baez or Janis Joplin and John Lennon that they made in the ’60s. That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to let people know that, hey, don't give me nothin', just open up the door, and if I don't earn it, then I don't earn it.”
He paused and then added:
“I want you to quote me as saying this: If I become a bum, then let me become a bum by my own choice. Then, if I become a bum, don't label me as a nigger bum, just let me be a bum. Now, that's pride.”
I said nothing. Brown laughed.
“That didn't make you jump when I said the word ‘nigger,’ did it?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said.
“We're talking about situations,” he said. “If we're talking about the lower South, they called the whites the crackers. That still is there, but hopefully we don't use those words anymore.”
A few days after the interview was published, I went to a Brown performance at World Mardi Gras. I shoved my way up to the front of the audience. And when he grasped my hand, I was in awe.
It seemed massive, his hand, but surprisingly soft, considering all the work it had done. That hand had been used to pick cotton, been hoisted in the air at the command of racist cops and had been used to create some of the most wonderful music mankind has ever known.
I have absolutely no doubt that scholars will still be poring over Brown’s music hundreds of years from now. His life and work will be the subject of discussion, and his memory as revered as Mozart’s is now.
If that seems like an overstatement, check out the introductory paragraph in the Rolling Stone album guide — it sums up my feelings quite well:
“James Brown may never have captured the zeitgeist as Elvis Presley or the Beatles did, nor can he be said to have dominated the charts like Stevie Wonder or the Rolling Stones, but by any real measure of musical greatness — endurance, originality, versatility, breadth of influence — he rivals or even betters them all.”
I was privileged to see Brown perform several times — all of them, unfortunately, in the years after he’d created his best work. Even then, there were flashes of his former brilliance, enough so to make you believe that he had once been the greatest in the world.
JB created masterpieces as easily and as effortlessly as any of us would make paper airplanes on a lazy afternoon. Perhaps he wasn’t even aware at the time just how radical and long-lasting the changes he brought to music would be. Happily, the music is still there, as timeless and funky as anything ever made.
For that reason, it’s hard to mourn his physical passing, because as long as there is music, and people to appreciate it, the souls of millions will continue to be stirred by the creations of James Brown of Augusta, Ga.
May you rest in peace, Godfather — and thanks for everything.