As I’m sure everyone has heard by now, James Brown died on Christmas day. Normally I’m not one to dwell too much on celebrity deaths, after all it’s not like I knew the man, but some people have an impact that goes far beyond their person or their life. Johnny Cash was such a person and for me, so was James Brown.
My first encounter with James Brown’s music is lost on me. In many ways James Brown was just always there, background music at the Little Knight, something you tapped a foot to while shooting pool. I knew the hits and not much else.
Then Jimmy played me the Funk Power compilation of Brown’s short lived version of the JBs that included a then unknown Bootsy Collins. It would be a slight exaggeration to say the CD changed my life, but not an outright lie. We happened to be driving from Athens GA to New York at the time and we listened to that and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions pretty much the whole way.
The twelve minute rendition of Soul Power on that record is still probably the hardest funk music I’ve ever heard and lyrically that record transcends most of the rest of Brown’s career. Maceo Parker and the rest of the old band had just quit, Bootsy and the new band would quit inside of a year, but for this one moment the raw unpolished perfection of the JBs comes screaming though.
I don’t particularly like religion, but I think I do believe in the soul. And I realized at some point that when I say soul I mean something very similar to what I think James Brown meant — a mixture of the secular and the spiritual, the profane and the sublime. Soul is not something out there or in you, it’s the place where you meet the out there.
James Brown was not a perfect man, perhaps not even a great man if we are to consider his personal life in detail, but there were moments when he channeled something very few people ever get to touch and that is the real soul power.
So long Mr. Brown and say hello to Mr. Cash and Sun the one when you get wherever it is you’re headed.