James Brown lived by “The One”. He learned his rhythmic chops from drummers who learned them from the African traditions of their ancestors. The emphasis on what Brown referred to as “hitting the one” gave him his unique brand of music. Whether it was called “soul” or “funk”, it was a pulsing, drum propelled musical style based on hitting the first beat of the measure as opposed to emphasizing the two and four beats. Brown always expected his band to take their cues off of him and if they knew where the one beat was, they could follow him anywhere he wanted to go. Some scoff at this notion because Brown himself had a hard time describing the magic of “The One”, but in the end, it worked for him so he didn’t really have to explain it. He just had to feel it and get his band to feel it so they could follow him.
Brown had a series of jobs and musical groups to keep him occupied after being paroled from the Industrial Training Institute in Toccoa, GA. He soon had a wife and three sons. The first band he was in that gained a regional reputation was The Flames. By 1954, they were working the so called Chitlin Circuit of black clubs throughout Georgialina. Gigs for white college kids broadened their audience. Their show was geared to whoever hired them to play. We may not be able to envision the Godfather of Soul singing Roy Acuff and Hank Williams tunes, but it was exactly this kind of diversity that kept them in demand.
At some point, James Brown became the man in charge. It didn’t happen overnight, but when it did, they became James Brown and the Famous Flames. Brown was known as the ‘Hardest working man in show business’ but there was also a dictatorial side to his leadership. He would punish his band members for not polishing their shoes or not playing a good show. He would fine them for various offenses and the band knew it was coming from the small gestures he made on stage. The audience would rarely notice there was anything going on, but when the show was over, he often subjected the band to brutal rehearsals right after a night on stage. Surrounded by his friends, handlers, and fixers, JB got into and out of many dust ups either with his charm or wads of cash. He was married many times over, but he abused both his wives and girlfriends with equal ferocity. Publicly, he was the Godfather of Soul. In private, he could be a monster.
James Brown had several top notch bands walk out on him. If they tried to put pressure on him to get their pay or better working conditions, he would just as soon fire them as negotiate. One group planned a rebellion to protest their treatment and JB got wind of it. He got on the horn and summoned a band of young musicians he had jammed with periodically at his record label’s studio (King Records) in Cincinnati, Ohio. The imported band included future George Clinton / Parliament / Funkadelic side men Catfish and Bootsy Collins. When the new guys arrived, Brown fired his old band on the spot and proceeded to play the scheduled show cold with a whole new band. This pattern of slash and burn band formation would be repeated over and over. Sometimes a few of the old band would be retained to school the new guys. Drummers and guitar players came and went, but he would hang on to the good ones if he could. The band with the Collins brothers lasted longer than some because they dealt with Brown’s controlling nature by hitting the door and going home to Cincinnati between gigs. It worked for a while, but the revolving door into and out of JB’s band was never still for long.
Clyde Stubblefield was typical of the drummers that Brown would find for his bands. He played on many of the famous tracks Brown recorded in the 1960s and 1970s like Cold Sweat and Say it loud, Say it proud. His solo on Funky Drummer is so widely known that it has been sampled on countless hip-hop tracks over the years. As important as he was to the James Brown sound, he saw few royalties. Stubblefield was widely admired in the music field. In 2000, Prince found out that Stubblefield was deeply in debt from a fight with bladder cancer. Prince considered Stubblefield to be one of his favorite drummers, so he personally wrote a check to pay off $90,000 of Clyde’s medical bills. In his later years, Stubblefield lived in his wife’s home town of Madison, WI. When he died in early 2017, his wife said he didn’t expect to see royalties from his time with Brown, but he was okay with it. He remained active in the Madison music scene even as Brown schooled his new drummers to play Funky Drummer the way Clyde had.
James Brown was not overtly political. That he was chummy with Senator Strom Thurmond surprises many people who don’t know they shared Georgialina roots. JB wasn’t afraid to ask various presidents or presidential hopefuls for assistance in keeping the IRS at bay. He parlayed his support for candidate Hubert Humphrey by asking HHH to support social and economic empowerment for Brown’s people. Brown was unabashed about his love for America and went to great lengths to get permission to travel to Vietnam to perform for the troops. When his critics pointed out that he was condoning a ‘white man’s war’, Brown countered by reminding them that there were ‘a lot of brothers over there in need of support.’ He was upset that they had to take a stripped down band on the whirlwind tour, but he made sure they wouldn’t forget that they had seen The James Brown.
Through good times and bad, James Brown was nobody’s pawn: JB did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. When Hollywood called, he was able to turn his appearance in The Blues Brothers movie into a shot in the arm for his flagging career. Had he taken the judge’s advice at one of his earlier tax trials, he would have hired a good business manager and been much better off for it. Of course, he didn’t, because he would rather put his trust in himself. Being a bit of a thief himself, he would rather have had an accountant who cooked his books a bit because he could understand that better than an honest bookkeeper. Well into his career, his method of banking involved cardboard boxes and buried loot all over his yard.
Brown liked his drink, often mixing moonshine with grape juice, but he avoided hard drugs for much of his career. Perhaps it was age creeping into his bones that lead him to try PCP (also known as Angel Dust – a drug that was intended for use on horses but it made them kind of crazy), but whatever the root cause, it added a new wrinkle to his sometime erratic behavior: paranoia. He hid or denied his drug use for a long time, but his band was pretty aware of the problem. His handlers had their hands full when his temper would explode over real or imagined incidences, sometimes as insignificant as JB thinking someone had used the bathroom in his office. The drugs may have given Brown the illusion that he could still perform like a younger James Brown, but how great a toll it took on his health and his bank book one can only imagine.
Just when it seemed Brown was going to slide into obscurity, something would always pull him back up. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV needed a theme song to rival the earlier movie’s Eye of the Tiger theme. Song writer Dan Hartman (who had teamed up with Edgar Winter for some memorable tracks and had some top forty hits of his own) came up with Living in America. Brown told Hartman, “You write the song but I will do it like James Brown.” It wasn’t like anything Brown had recorded before, but he made it his own and then kept playing it in his shows because it brought people back see him. James Brown’s career, fortunes, and life style performed this yo-yo like ride for decades and those around him held on – you either went with him or got left behind!
James Brown was the man. He had the tools, talent, and the charisma to walk into any hall and be the main attraction. From the Chitlin Circuit to the Apollo to Madison Square Garden, he could give an audience what they wanted to see. His insecurities, either from his humble beginnings or the drug use or some combination of the two, kept him looking in his rearview mirror to see who was coming after him. He didn’t need to. There was no one there. Only the disciples of funk and soul who wanted to learn from the Godfather and try to bring that element to their music. He drove himself hard and in the end, he couldn’t continue being James Brown. He had set the bar too high for too long to keep up with his own legacy. Still, the music remains and in the end, we will still have ‘The One’ and that is the part of the Godfather of Soul that will endure when the troubled parts of JB’s life fade from memory.
Top Piece Video – the glitzy JB Living in America