A James Brown story.
The Godfather required razor’s-edge perfection from his bands. Anything less, and you had to pay a fine. So when a musician missed a cue or flubbed a note, Brown, his hand held behind him where the audience could not see, would splay his fingers – two fingers, four fingers or, heaven help you, all five – as a code to tell the offending player how much his mistake would cost.
This particular night, for whatever reason, the band was off its game, and the hand was busy flashing increasingly angry signals. So distracted was Brown with toting up fines that he accidentally danced right off the edge of the stage. It is said that the last thing band members saw as he went over was both hands repeatedly flashing all 10 fingers.
The man who told me that story is a Grammy Award-winning singer and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s one of Brown’s musical contemporaries, but he is not one of Brown’s peers. James Joseph Brown, who died on Christmas, had no peers.
The story is like others you hear from people who knew or worked with or interviewed Brown: it paints him as something of a difficult boss, an autocrat and a taskmaster. But there is another way of understanding the tale: James Brown knew how James Brown was supposed to sound, and darned if James Brown would rest until James Brown’s band delivered.
Because James Brown was his own greatest creation.
Yes, he was one of the most significant figures in music history. Yes, he was a performer so dynamic that everyone from Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson to Justin Timberlake still struggles to be like him. Yes, his raw, serrated voice and rhythmic genius were a major influence on rap, disco, funk, techno and any other music with a beat.
But ultimately, James Brown’s signature achievement might simply be that through an exertion of will and steel, he created himself. How many other black boys grew up in the Depression-era South shining shoes, dancing for pennies, picking cotton, getting in trouble with the law? How many of those grew up to own private jets and radio stations and to hobnob with presidents?
In the ’60s, that era of strivers and change, James Brown made himself an icon not simply of black success, but of black self-determination. And for as much as people wore out their shoes dancing to hits like “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” for as much as they pumped their fists to sociopolitical anthems such as “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” it was that sense he gave of being self-contained, of being unbought and unbowed, that set him apart.
That’s why, when Martin Luther King was shot and more than 100 American cities burned, Brown could go to Boston and ask angry black people to stay cool – and they did.
It was more than that he was famous and had hits. How many riots did the Supremes ever head off? If Miami was on the verge of racial warfare, would anyone call Beyonce?
No, but they did call Soul Brother No. 1. And for all his many nicknames – Godfather of Soul, Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite – that’s the one that most neatly encapsulates what James Brown meant to the ’60s and beyond. To be a Soul Brother or Sister was to be not just cool, but rising, about something, agent of that change Sam Cooke saw coming and Bob Dylan felt blowin’ in the wind.
James Brown was the No. 1 Soul Brother because he created the role and in so doing, helped create a whole new kind of African America. He taught us to see ourselves as righteous, capable and proud – like him. He may have been flinty and hard to please. He may have been autocratic.
He was also one of the greatest visionaries American pop culture has ever known.
Say it loud.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.