Dead at the Apollo

If I had the time, I’d build James Brown a proper online shrine, with “Night Train” welcoming you and Tom Tom Club’s exquisite JB tribute song “Pleasures of Love” bidding him farewell… (“What you gonna do when you get out of jail? We’re gonna have some fun…”)

But I don’t have the time, so listen instead (you can do it online) to Terry Gross’s excellent James Brown tribute edition of her excellent “Fresh Air” radio program. It has rare groove tracks and great interviews with Mr. Brown, Maceo Parker and the inimitable Bootsy Collins. My favorite clip is when she asks Bootsy about the dress code of the JBs, and he admits that being down with the psychedelic revolution personified by the likes of Jimi Hendrix at the end of the 60s, he would have been more inclined to take the stage wearing a T-shirt, jeans, an Afro and granny glasses — but it was not to be. In the JBs, you had to wear matching suits and keep your hair cut, or get a fine from Mr. Brown. “It was like we was the Army band,” says Bootsy.

I love the fact that thousands of people took to 125th Street today to bid him farewell, chanting “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” And there he was, lying in state on stage as mourners filed slowly, reverently past, resplendent in the sort of powder-blue suit he’d wear on stage.

I’m also reminded of that scene in Alan Parker’s “The Commitments,” about a Dublin soul band in the late ’60s that includes that immortal “we’re the blacks of Europe” line. The band leader, in one scene, is educating his bandmates in soul traditions by showing them old clips of James Brown performing. At the passionate climax of one song, JB did his signature collapse on the stage to be carried off, covered in his cape, by anxious looking attendants. “Is he dead?” one band member asks, before JB returns to finish the song.

Sad to say, there’ll be no encore this time.

P.S. I’m reminded by Bernard’s comment below that I forgot to add a link to this truly excellent piece from Rolling Stone by Jonahtan Lethem who got to hang with JB while completing his final album. And also this appreciation by my fried and pop-culture oracle Richard Corliss.

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10 Responses to Dead at the Apollo

  1. Bernard Chazelle says:

    You mean Terry Gross? I have to catch that program. Thanks for the tip. (Terry is such a wonderful interviewer of artists.)

    The Commitments? That’s a neat film!

    Re. JB, everyone’s gushing what a genius he was. And he surely was. But no more than 2 decades ago, the folks at RollingStone mag thought of him as a washedup one-trick pony.

    Now everybody agrees that without JB, there’d be no Prince, no Jacko, and who knows where hip hop would be: probably not a place you’d like it to be.

    In pop, only BB King and Bob Dylan have had comparable influence. BB is not pop, but no one who touches a guitar can escape his influence. Dylan, of course, showed that white lyrics don’t have to be middle-class camp like the Beatles, and once songwriters figured that out, rock was never the same again.

    JB? For me–people will no doubt disagree–his contribution is this. Young people think wrongly that rock is rhythm music and jazz is mood music. They have it backwards. Jazz is deeply rhythmic in ways rock is not.
    JB brought the rhythm of jazz (without its complexity) into rock as the ultimate function of the music. In jazz, every instrument is required to provide rhythm; not so in rock. (If you can detect any rhythm in a David Gilmour solo, let me know.) In a JB tune, everyone (especially the singer) has the same rhythmic function (with different modalities depending on the instrument). Hendrix was another “rhythmic” guitarist. But most rock musicians are not: for them rhythm is just “another voice.”

    JB is similar to Louis Armstrong in that sense, for whom singing and blowing a horn were two different ways of doing the same thing (actually not even that different).

  2. Tony says:

    Thanks Bernard, I changed “Amy” to “Terry” in the text, good catch!

  3. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Happy new year to Tony and all readers of RC!

    Wishing for peace in the world, good health for everyone, and most important more great posts by Tony!

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