Saturday, December 30, 2006

Godfather's Gone, His Soul Lives On

Here's a thoughtful reflection of the life and music of the incomparable James Brown from Kenya courtesy of

Brown Dead But His Soul Lives On

The Nation (Nairobi)
December 30, 2006
Posted to the web December 30, 2006

By John Kariuki

The death this week of the "godfather of soul", James Brown, marked the exit of the last of the original exponents of this kind of music and undoubtedly its most enduring figure.

Brown died of pneumonia at the Emory Crawford Long Hospital, the US.

Coming from a generation of African Americans who ushered in the era of flamboyance in black music, Brown became an icon of showmanship high-energy shows that were so charged that he once claimed that on each he expended enough energy to supply electricity to a town of 25,000 people.

He was everything to look out for in a stage performer, earning the tag of Mr Dynamite, the hardest-working man, as compliments.

With his fancy foot work, Brown is credited with introducing synchronised dance on stage, a style that inspired fellow American pop star Michael Jackson.

His exuberant style and showmanship have few comparisons in the African American music, and probably only Little Richard gets anywhere.

A hardworking man to his final moments, Brown had planned to perform in Toronto, Canada, on New Year's Day, a fact that speaks volumes about his credentials as the self-proclaimed most hardworking man on earth.

In a career spanning 50 years, he had 119 chart hits from 50 albums, earned three Grammy awards and was a pioneer inductee to the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame.

His greatest successes were in Papa's Got A Brand New Bag (1965), which won him a Grammy award in the R&B category, Say It Loud, I am Black "n" Proud (1968) and Living In America (1987), which won him a second Grammy.

The third was a Lifetime Achievement award in 1992.

Quite some credentials for a man who worked as a shoeshiner and learnt the tough ways of the street and serving jail as a juvenile when he was booked for petty crimes of car breaking and later for several drug-related cases.

But the shoeshine boy finally put the brush to his own life, earning millions of dollars as a recording and performing artiste and, like most others of his generation, blowing much of it away through bad investment decisions and fast living.

True to his superbad form, by the time of his death, the soul music he pioneered had fathered two of the most viable youth trends - hip hop and rap. Thus, Brown may be dead, but soul music lives on.

In defining soul, he once termed it "a reflection of the hard knocks suffered by Blacks in America. The unfulfilled dreams that had to be fulfilled."

Already, samples of his music have made careers out of rappers such as Ice-T, Fat Boys and Chuck D, and his influence has inspired other legends - notably Sly Stone, Rick James, Prince and a whole array of groups that gained fame during the funk music that evolved from his brand of soul.

There are others who can also claim credit for driving the popularity of soul and from his generation such as Wilson Picket, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Sam & Dave, all of whom were out there pushing for the genre that drew considerably from African American gospel music and straddled the ground between rock 'n roll and blues, but eventually refined itself enough to father trends of its own.

Originally, the general rhythm arrangement in the early soul music was built around hard, crispy guitar chops, busy drum patterns and staccato horns. But with Brown, the groove bass took prominence to create a more danceable beat, and the horns were more pronounced.

The concept has flourished to form the backbone for today's disco music which bears dominant basslines and sparse vocal melodies to allow more rhythm and beat.

In a comment, Chuck D sees nobody to equal Brown in real funky music. "He had the best grooves and nobody comes anywhere near," he said. Equally impressed was Radio One DJ Bob Harris who described Brown as "one of a kind, never to be repeated."

Besides Brown, Sly Stone and the late Rick James are the other musicians whose recordings have been used to flavour the current hip hop. Sly Stone's late 1960s classic Everyday People has been on the hip hop circuit, as were Rick James recordings from his Super Freak album that was adapted by MC Hammer as the backdrop to his rap.

But both came after Brown who was their early inspiration.

But Stone did probably better and, just like Brown's hit Say It Loud, I am Black and Proud, his song became the anthem for black pride in the 1960s.

Stone's 1969 hit Every Day People was equally potent as the rallying call for racial and social harmony. But while most other soul musicians were adapting to more melody than punch in their singing, Brown stayed in the old school, opting for punch to evolve a style that seemed more of scat singing (half-singing), popularised by jazz and blues musicians, only that his was more punctuated.

It has not survived the 90s which saw a smoother more melodic style in vocals, but has been redefined by the younger generation of rappers to extend its reign. It is clearly not soul as James Brown did it, but a new offspring that very much resembles the father.

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