Thursday, December 28, 2006


10 Memorable Moments with James Brown

by Wayne Robins

1. New Haven Arena, 1968 or 1969. About 7 of us cram into a subcompact for the 200-mile roundtrip drive from Bard College to the New Haven Arena to see James Brown, not to mention our other favorites: Bobby Byrd, Vicki Anderson and Miss Marva Whitney. The show closer— "Please, Please, Please," with James Brown escorted from the stage, then shedding his cape and returning to the microphone— seems to go on forever, and even after the lights go up, we remain, silent, astonished, hoping that he will come back one more time. The difference between James Brown and Elvis Presley is that no announcer would ever say: "James Brown has left the building." And he never did.

2. A phone conversation with James Brown while he was in jail in 1989 for his misbehavior a year earlier. Patched from the jail through his Augusta, Ga., office, to my phone at home, James Brown says he feels good and insists on speaking only about "the positive."

3. "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" on top 40 radio, summer, 1965. Remember: This is the the season of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Like A Rolling Stone," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Eve of Destruction," "I Can't Help Myself" and "The Same Old Song," "Ticket To Ride" and "Help!" "Back in My Arms Again," "Help Me Rhonda" and "California Girls." It may be the greatest, most competitive battle-of-the-bands, ever. James Brown wins it with a song that invokes the great, near-great and forgotten dance manias of the previous 5 years: the Jerk, the Fly, the Mashed Potatoes, the Twist, the Boomerang...The Boomerang?

4. Fall, 1968. A trip to a thrift shop in Kingston, N.Y. yields mint condition singles "Ain't That A Groove," "Money Won't Change You," and "Bring It Up" which immediately go into heavy rotation on the afternoon dance parties emanating from the first floor Stone Row dorm room I share with T.V. Tom Vickers and the drunken guru known as "the Night Owl." 20 years before Prozac revolutionizes psychotherapy, "Bring It Up" is shown to provide temporary relief from clinical depression.

5. The only other job I ever wanted: Bobby Byrd—I'm pretty sure it's Bobby Byrd—chanting "get on up" on "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine."

6. James Brown's conversational vocal riff on "Ain't That A Groove": "Looka here. I gotta tell ya. Haha, dig this. This'll kill ya." He sings a few words, much less memorable. Then he delivers the real killer: "Hit me band." The band hits him.

7. The fade on "It's A Man's Man's Man's World." Without love, a man is "lost in the wilderness. He's lost, in bitterness."

8. The horn section, leading with the downstroke, on "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose."

9. More than 25 years into the hip-hop era, I'm still waiting to hear a message as clear, direct and useful as "Don't Be A Drop-Out" and "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." Not to mention as functionally funky.

10. Scientific evidence of a supreme being; or, proof that this planet has been visited by superior beings, from another planet. No human being, not to mention group of human beings, could have possibly recorded "I Got You (I Feel Good)." The human race simply has not evolved that far.

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