This is the first piece I've seen that touches (if only briefly) on
Brown's influence over postpunk. I'd add that we hear his influence
over the Bush Tetras, James White, Tom Tom Club/Talking Heads,
Suicide, Killing Joke, and dozens of other bands, but I think David
Cantwell put it best on his blog: "James Brown died Christmas morning
at age 73. He is survived by his fourth wife and several children, and
by soul music, funk, disco, house, new jack swing, hip hop, and rock &
Godfather of Soul, and C.E.O. of His Band
By KELEFA SANNEH
Published: December 27, 2006
What did James Brown do?
Even now, half a century after the release of his first single,
"Please Please Please," and days after his death of congestive heart
failure, at 73, early on Christmas morning, that's a surprisingly
difficult question to answer.
He was a singer, of course, though he was perhaps better known for his
grunts and his patter. "I wanna get up and do my thing. (Yeah!) Can I
get into it? (Yeah!) Like a ... (What?) Like a ... (What?)" With an
introduction like that, who cares if the song never starts?
He was a dancer, too, though that seemed less like the cause of his
appeal and more like an effect of it. He moved as if he simply
couldn't help himself, and he toured that way too. His scheduled New
Year's Eve concert in New York was to be just one more date on his
latest tour; tonight, for example, he had been scheduled for a concert
in Waterbury, Conn. (Now that's dedication.)
Most of all, he was an old-fashioned, hard-driving bandleader — which
is to say, an anomaly. In an era of rock stars he often seemed like
the second coming of Cab Calloway; the old big band had gotten
smaller, but the man in front had only grown.
And while his rock 'n' roll counterparts chafed at the idea of being
mere entertainers, Mr. Brown never stopped bragging about being "the
hardest-working man in show business."
He was black and proud, he was a sex machine, but he was also a
brilliant conductor, known for coaxing great performances out of the
singers and musicians behind him. That, most of all, is what Mr. Brown
So celebrating the James Brown sound also means celebrating the
musicians who created it. When he delayed the fourth and final beat of
a measure, the drummer Clyde Stubblefield warped time in a way that
helped inspire a whole constellation of rhythm-obsessed genres. Bobby
Byrd (he of the famous "Yeah!" and "What?"), Maceo Parker, Fred
Wesley, Bootsy Collins, Lyn Collins, Vicki Anderson: to love James
Brown is to love them too. And not enough has been written about Jimmy
Nolen, the visionary guitarist whose spidery licks helped inspire two
generations of post-punk bands. (When people talk about "angular"
guitars, they often mean "Jimmy-Nolen-ish.")
In this sense the bandleader was also a brand leader: in the 1970s,
especially, "James Brown" was not just a star, but an executive, a
producer, a franchise. His name (sometimes his face too) on the record
label meant you were getting a James-Brown-approved product. And if
you went to see the J.B.'s, the backing band that morphed into a
terrific stand-alone group, you were also seeing a reflection of Mr.
Brown, even if he was nowhere near the building.
Bandleaders have always (of necessity) been businessmen too, but Mr.
Brown was wise enough to be unembarrassed by the echo. There was a
hint of corporate precision in the way he led those musicians onstage:
each wiggle of the hip or flicker of the hand was an urgent memo from
top management; each post-show conversation was a performance
evaluation. Even his political program reflected this obsession; his
vision of black power was in large part a vision of black spending
power, and he saw no reason why a black nationalist shouldn't also be
an eager (and successful) black capitalist.
The musician as executive: this is the not-quite-new notion that
defines the current musical era. Pop stars flaunt their corporate
ties; rappers brag about their business acumen (real or, more often,
imaginary); rock bands cheerfully acknowledge that they are brands on
the run. And while some listeners may be nostalgic for a time when pop
music was untainted by corporate chic, Mr. Brown's career is a
reminder that the old-fashioned bandleader and new-fangled pop-star
C.E.O. really aren't so far apart. When he called himself "the
hardest-working man in show business," the emphasis was on "working"
If James Brown, the musician, has also been influential and enduring,
it's not just because of his evergreen hits, which still sound
vigorous, even though they have been reissued and covered and sampled
ad nauseam. And it's not just because of all the styles he helped
inspire, from Nigerian Afro-beat to Brazilian funk-rap.
It's also because, decades before the rise of computer music, he
proved that some virtuosos do their best work with no instruments at
all. In that sense his true heirs today are producers like Timbaland:
knob-twiddling masterminds who program sounds instead of conducting
them, beat-obsessed visionaries who keep reinventing Mr. Brown's
propulsive templates, serial collaborators who understand the business
of pop music.
No one could ever do all the things Mr. Brown did. But here is what's
more impressive: musicians are still finding new ways to do some of