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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: FUNK,
PART TWO

While James Brown and band honed their act on the chitlin circuit—the network of black-owned clubs friendly to African-American performers during segregation—hits arrived slowly but surely: “Try Me,” “Night Train,” “Please, Please, Please.” JB’s lightning-fast feet, sanctified screams, microphone gymnastics and sweaty, incendiary performances made him the de facto star of the T.A.M.I. Show, the 1964 concert film where he famously put the Rolling Stones to shame (and, legend has it, inspired Mick Jagger to step away from the mic stand and shake his ass). James was on the brink of pop superstardom, which he clinched with his creation of a brand-new music form on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” the following year.

Okay, pause. During my teenage years in the early ’80s, school-cafeteria debates over Michael Jackson vs. Prince took us clear through lunchtime. One trump card of #TeamPrince was that Prince played everything. The guitar solo on “Beat It” electrified, but only thanks to Eddie Van Halen. All of Purple Rain’s orgasmic guitar from “Let’s Go Crazy” to “Purple Rain” belonged to Prince, who also wrote everything. (MJ did not.) To go a step further, jazz icon Miles Davis created over a dozen classic albums before then, but none feature the trumpeter all by himself; they’re unthinkable without the contributions of bandmembers like the great John Coltrane. The mass appeal of James Brown stems largely from the consummate musicians behind him: saxist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley. Which brings us to drummer Charles Connor.

Straight out of New Orleans, Connor—of Dominican and African-American descent—started playing the drums at age five, under the sway of calypso and Dixieland jazz marching bands. His first professional gig as a teenager came courtesy of Professor Longhair, as a drummer for Mardi Gras in 1950. Connor’s clout where rock ’n’ roll is concerned came three years later, when Little Richard hired him as the backbeat of his band, the Upsetters. To compensate for the occasional lack of a bassist, Chuck Connor innovated a hard-driving bass fiddle effect to his style. This innovation inspired James Brown to declare, in a 1991 Rolling Stone interview, that Connor was “the first to put the funk into the rhythm” of rock ’n’ roll music. Down South in the mid-’50s, Connor sometimes toured four nights a week with Little Richard and the other three with JB.

James Brown’s skill as a funk bandleader demands the same respect as Duke Ellington’s celebrated expertise leading jazz bands. He was exacting and occasionally brutal as the captain of his ship, legendarily fining his players for mistakes. But his toughness bred an indestructible groove.

When listeners loved a James Brown record, no, they weren’t getting caught up in his ability as a musician. His new sound—funk—owed nearly everything to the horn sections and drums of the James Brown Orchestra and, later, the JBs: musicians like Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis (sax), Fred Thomas and Bootsy Collins (bass), guitarists Catfish Collins, Jimmy Nolen and Country Kellum, as well as drummers Clyde Stubblefield, Melvin Parker, Jabo Starks and Nate Jones. (It’s important to note that the Famous Flames was a singing group, not a band.)

In 1967, JB doubled down on his new sound with “Cold Sweat,” the horn line of which co-writer Pee Wee Ellis interpolated from Miles Davis’ “So What.” But increasingly, the James Brown brand stood for more than just funk. Celebrity philanthropy might seem par for the course nowadays, but a lot of these moves come straight from the James Brown playbook. In ’66, Brown released the Top 5 R&B hit “Don’t Be a Drop-Out,” encouraging youth to stick with formal education and donating the song’s royalties to dropout-prevention charity programs. Much later, he hosted an annual toy giveaway in Augusta at Christmastime for 15 years, and entitled his final single (released in 2001) “Killing Is Out, School Is In.”

On the night after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, James Brown’s improvised speech onstage at the Boston Garden (broadcast live on local TV station WGBH, with encore presentations immediately thereafter) helped calm a grieving, angry community engaged in nationwide spates of rioting.

“We are black! Don’t make us all look bad!” Brown insisted to a group of kids who’d charged the stage in defiance of the cops. “Let me finish the show … You’re not being fair to yourself or me or your race. Now I asked the police to step back because I thought I could get some respect from my own people. It don’t make sense. Are we together or are we ain’t?”

“Even though I was going to take a financial bath, I knew I had to go on and keep the peace,” Brown recalled in a 2005 memoir. “There are some things more important than money.”

The episode came to be known, in some circles, as “the night James Brown saved Boston.” What’s more, officials in other imperiled cities, hoping to quell unrest after MLK’s murder, reached out to JB for assistance; he became, for that brief time, a roving ambassador of urban peace.

Often, Brown was a funkateer of woke. It’s virtually impossible to overstate the combined impact of the Godfather of 
Soul and Muhammad Ali (the Muslim name chosen by Cassius Clay) as examples of powerful, self-reliant and civic-minded black manhood in the ’60s. Outspoken, socially engaged athletes like Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who threw the black-power sign at the ’68 games) also figured prominently in the iconography of the period. And James Brown’s funk, with its motivating, uncompromising groove, was the sound of social machinery in motion.

On the other side of the ledger, though, there’s Brown’s controversial alliance with former president Richard Nixon.

“No more black stuff,” Nixon said to an aide on an Oval Office tape recording from 1972. “No more blacks from now on. Just don’t bring ’em in here.” JB hadn’t supported Nixon during the ’68 campaign that awarded him the presidency. But he accepted a performance slot in the Nixon inauguration’s All-American Gala when invited, explaining to Jet magazine, “I accepted because I want to give our new president a chance to bring the people of this nation together in every respect of our national life.”

So he performed; Nixon didn’t attend due to security concerns. By reelection time, James Brown met with Nixon despite the president’s reluctance, pushing for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and endorsing his reelection campaign. Fans weren’t happy. Nixon’s conservatism and racism (other taped conversations revealed his frequent use of the N-word) made him a strange bedfellow for the Godfather, who dissed him on “You Can Have Watergate Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight” after the 1972 scandal that led to his resignation. Since then, African-American musical icons like Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar in the White House have now become far more commonplace.

Brown’s stumbles later in life blemished his legend somewhat—including rampant drug abuse (which escalated into violence on several occasions) and charges of domestic violence, harassment and sexual assault. He died in 2006.

But during his prime, James Brown stood for black pride in the age of Black Is Beautiful, something he supported repeatedly on songs like “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” and the self-empowerment anthem “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself).” In the mid-’60s, he abandoned his processed hairstyle for an afro in support of Black Is Beautiful. He mentored Reverend Al Sharpton, one of the greatest black activists of modern times. In a display of peak black entrepreneurialism, JB bought radio stations in Maryland and Tennessee, and operated several record labels. He encouraged Pan-Africanism, performing at Muhammad Ali’s famous Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight bout in Zaire; included African countries like Nigeria and Zambia on his world tours; and inspired the evolution of Afrobeat. His influence spread through distance, all the way to Africa, but also through time, as scores of rap artists in the 1980s used his past hits as the bedrock for their own. On the Mount Rushmore of funk, James Brown is indisputably the George Washington.

This playlist, Black History Month: Funk, contains most of the cuts referenced in our primary discussion of the genre, including a generous sampling of James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton's various P-Funk projects, The Meters, Prince and many more. We don't mind if you decide to stop reading and dance.

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