By Daniel Garrett
James Brown, 20 All Time Greatest Hits!
Polygram Records, 1991
Papa don’t, papa don’t, papa don’t take no mess. The James Brown anthology 20 All Time Greatest Hits! gathers some of the performer and writer James Brown’s best work, documenting why he has become a lasting legend. Here are “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Try Me,” “Cold Sweat,” “Get on the Good Foot,” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” and, among others, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” James Brown seems to express the attitude and emotion of an ordinary man, but he raises that emotion to the level of explosion, and gives it the swaggering urban style of a country boy who does not intend to go back to the country; and it is not hard to perceive a tension between self-possession and loss of control in the man; and his work consists of songs that seem collages as much as compositions.
James Brown is said to have added something unique to a popular music tradition that includes musicians and performers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, John Coltrane, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Smokey, Marvin, Diana, and Stevie, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Roberta Flack, Donna Summer, Minnie Riperton, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Beyonce Knowles. Yet, Brown’s work was not always popular; it was done first for a minority of people and its appeal gained force and range. In his oeuvre, James Brown’s exuberance and spontaneity are impressive, winning, and his themes timely, according to some; and others find him and his repertoire an absurd and crude embarrassment. Of course, James Brown is street-smart rather than sophisticated, and the behavior he models is not for all time and places, no matter what anyone says. All that grunting and screaming really is a bit much, with emotion and rough but expansive gesture a substitute for thought and fine manners: actually, the choice is not between humility and histrionics, nor between rage and repression. People who are desperate, insecure, or primitive declare or give everything when making a claim, turning every situation into a loud, knife-wielding live-or-die scene; whereas people who are confident give just enough fact, logic, and conviction to establish the validity of their case.
James Brown expresses the emotions of an ordinary man, his affection and contentment, with embellishment in the jazzy “I Got You (I Feel Good),” his voice rough, and tone appreciative when he is not screaming. He says, “I feel nice, like sugar and spice,” adapting a phrase that a children’s rhyme uses to describe what little girls are made of, suggesting that women leave a trace of character on a man. Brown states baldly and boldly, “Ya gotta have the feeling” in “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine),” and here, possibly attempting to mix the profane and the profound, being a machine is less about coldness and routine operation and more about focus and efficiency. In a musical piece with piano fills, and engaging but irregular guitar riffs, and call and response between him and his band, Brown uses many phrases—“stay on the scene, like a sex machine” and “taste the piano” and “shake your moneymaker”—indicating different objects of attention, or a quite random jam. The musical structure of “Get Up” seems like a series of additions rather than evolutions, a joining of fragments rather than a composition conceived as a whole. Is that modern experiment or awkward production?
With horns and voice squealing, and affirmations aplenty (and a lot of “baby, baby, baby”), Brown sings “I Got the Feelin’,” which is as much an assertion of identity as of love or sexual desire. In the much-quoted “Mother Popcorn,” Brown sings of women, “I like ’em proud” and “you gotta have a mother for me.” Where someone like singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson, the first gentleman of Motown, if not one of its princes, would use charm, intelligence, melody, and metaphor to persuade or seduce, James Brown is more likely to use blunt statement and raw insistence. Appetite, as much as attraction, is being expressed.
The tune “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” has a low, fast, simmering rhythm; and Brown, who calls out favorite foods, conjuring a shared African-American cultural scene, makes his mission clear in “Make It Funky.” Oddly, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” recalls the 1950s as much as more recent times, with its horn rhythms one thing and its guitar sounds another, something of a pastiche. Was Brown’s music, like that of most artists, a music of diverse influences, of the past and the present, a music of transition? Consider: James Brown as narrator asks someone to be appreciative of character and relationship in “Think,” in a voice of significant and appealing vulnerability, supported by a saxophone that would fit jazz, with other instruments creating a rhythm that conjures rock. There are introductory orchestral strings in “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” followed by a spare vocal sound; and in this life-lesson song Brown says that men have accomplished much with technology and science, but that would mean nothing without a woman or a girl. “Try Me” is a plaintive, doo-woppish ballad. It is great to have a sense of Brown’s range.
“I don’t care about your past, I just want our love to last,” sings Brown in “Cold Sweat,” a song in which he screams about his excitation. There are good and bad moral and social positions, a good foot and a bad foot; and Brown sings about that, as if teaching the ignorant, in “Get on the Good Foot,” which has a tight rhythm and ringing horns. (Is that the song in which the phrase “ain’t nothing going on but the rent” first appears?) James Brown, as some artists do, became something of a cultural prophet, an artist, businessman, moralist, and political activist, though the great Motown musicians Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder would be more articulate and more wide-ranging in their thematic and political concerns. James Brown became instructive. “A man has to do whatever he can,” sings Brown in “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” a song that becomes a familial and mythic enactment of masculine responsibility: “Papa didn’t cuss, he didn’t raise a whole lot of fuss, but when we did wrong, he beat the hell out of us” and “papa is smart, papa got a whole lot of heart.” James Brown was offering a picture of a valuable ordinary black male in a society that, more often than not, denied that value. No doubt, James Brown deserves respect for that.
James Brown grew to respond to diverse situations; and in the low-volume, repetitive funk of a song like “The Payback” he acknowledged different values and social conflicts, his forceful voice declaring, “Get ready, you mother, for the big payback” and “I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razor.” It would be easy to be impressed, and dumbly impressed, by that threat of violence, except that Brown adds something that simultaneously suggests both pride and insecurity: “I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a son of a man,” he says, before letting out a high-pitched yell. (It is the kind of yell that someone like James Baldwin might say is the sound of a man fearing castration.) When does a man have to assert his manhood? When it is threatened. The matter, the doubt and need rooted in social status, is laid bare in “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” an affirmation of dignity and a rejection of shame, one of those songs that is like a personal dream coming true, a private hope gratified in public. “Some people say we got a lot of manners, some say it’s a lot of nerve…brother, we can’t quit until we get our share,” says Brown, in what became an anthem. Unfortunately, bragging, shallow ego-stroking, can soothe as much as deep truth. “I got a move that tells me what to do” and “I got soul and I’m super bad,” sings Brown in “Super Bad,” amid a yearning, churning sound, with a bit of psychedelia near the end of the song. Strutting can become a substitute for substance; and generations can accept that splashy self-betrayal happily.
Grunts and shouts occur in “Hot Pants,” but may be more punctuation than expression—something not everyone might perceive. “A woman’s got to use what she got to get what she want,” asserts Brown, in what could be practicality or degrading cynicism (which is determined by the individual, and the situation). Sometimes the shifts in rhythm in “Hot Pants” are sharp enough to inspire wonder. Is that conscientious construction, or just throwing everything in, indiscriminately? It is important to recall that both classical music and jazz have great shifts of rhythm and melody, significant structural changes, as part of their compositions; and such shifts may be part of Brown’s innovation in popular music.
20 All Time Greatest Hits! closes with “Get Up Offa That Thing” and “Please, Please, Please.” In “Get Up Offa That Thing,” dance is an emotional release, and there is a communal chant; and Brown calls out the horn-blowing Ohio Players. “I love you so” and “baby, you did me wrong” sings Brown in the doo-woppish ballad “Please, Please, Please,” the begging lending intensity to the clichés. The songs on the anthology are a reminder of why James Brown has been revered by some and laughed at by others.
Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and his writing has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.