Friday, December 29, 2006

I was eleven years old in 1969 when my father got his teaching job at Fisk University and my parents went for a visit to Nashville to check it out. Among the presents which they brought back were two 45 rpm records, one by Merle Haggard and the other by James Brown. I played both of them to death during my pre-pubescent years. The Haggard 45, "Hungry Eyes" backed by "California Blues" came to represent country music to me. The James Brown 45, "Papa's got a brand new bag, Parts I and II," always made me think of dad and of that sophisticated African American culture in which he participated so enthusiastically at Fisk.

As is made clear in the Democracy Now! program linked to above, Mr. Brown earned his reputation as "the Godfather of Soul" for mastering the nuts and bolts of music production and keeping a band together even when the white folks and many "colored" folks had given up on him in the early 1970's. The only artist from the 1970's who came close might be Sly and the Family Stone, but "Dance to the Music" and the other Sly tunes were the music of my dad's students. Sly got listened to by Miles Davis, maybe even Jimi Hendrix, but he never quite seemed to grab my dad. Nor have African musicians mentioned digging Sly the way that Fela Ransom Kuti most definitely listened to Mr. Brown and the JB's.

All was not fun and games for those that played with the godfather. You can read all about that in "Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman," by the trombonist and jazz arranger Fred Wesley, which can be previewed on Google and is for sale on Amazon. I suspect that Mr. Brown's troubles with music promoters and recording studios in the early 1970's were not entirely due to the involvement of organized crime in the music business, as he would later claim. He was by all accounts a difficult and demanding artist to sign, record, and keep up with. He certainly could not be "managed," although he did settle down a wee bit by the time that he was featured in this Rolling Stone profile in 2005. Of particular interest to me is Mr. Brown's mention of Native American ancestry, possibly Cherokee, although he apparently claimed to be part "Asian" as well. His spirit just vaulted him up on top of the music one last time.

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