Here’s my James Brown story. It’s not much of a story.
I used to be a night person. It was a necessity of working 2-10 p.m., night shift at an afternoon paper. But I was young and had the sort of energy and lifestyle that made those hours pretty much ideal. Anyway, one night one of my colleagues, Dave Jones, stopped by my desk and said, “You want to see James Brown later on tonight? He’s playing at the Agora.” It was a crummy but busy rock club down in the campus area (now the Newport Music Hall, for you Buckeyes), seats about 1,000, maybe more.
“The show’ll be over by the time we get there,” I said. Nope, said Jones. He’s playing two shows.
This was 1982, around there, which would have made Brown 50-ish. He’d been in showbiz for decades already, had been its Hardest-Working Man for at least that long. But he was, shall we say, in a trough. The ’60s were long over, disco was dead, hip-hop was still a-borning, New Wave had peaked and radio was starting to split into armed camps of strict formats. “Living in America” was still a few years away, and the baby-boom nostalgia machine had yet to crank all the way up and give him a residual income from getting “I Feel Good” in all those Huggies commercials. And so he and his band were touring and playing two shows a night in 1,000-seat clubs.
We arrived in plenty of time to get tickets for the midnight show. The hall filled with a mixed-race crowd spanning a wide age range. We snared a table off to the side, a few steps above the standing-room main floor, ordered a pitcher and waited.
Brown’s shows always began the same way — with his large, brass-heavy Revue playing a few numbers by themselves, while an MC, Danny Ray, started the crowd chanting “James Brown! James Brown!” I was eager to see the show, but this seemed a little silly, even as we joined in. I looked closely at the Revue. The intimacy of the space and the artlessness of the lighting showed every pill on their powder-blue tuxedos. Their ruffled shirts looked tired. I thought I could see grime on their collars and cuffs, but that might have been my imagination. And it was the second show, after all.
After about 15 minutes of this, Brown made his entrance, lights shining on his trademark pompadour, his forehead already sweaty, his clothing the same tight polyester pants and wide-spread collars he’d been wearing for years. To this day, I can’t tell you a single song I heard or much at all about the music, except that it simply ran over me like a train. By the second song, Jones and I had left our table behind, moved onto the floor and were dancing like a couple of Ecstasy idiots. I felt like a Pentecostal taken with the spirit; the show was that powerful. The Revue played their guitars and horns and Brown danced and screamed and moaned into the microphone, sweat flying from him the way it would from a prizefighter. He stopped once in a while to mop his brow, but not for long. It was just a seamless, two-hour musical throwdown, and I hadn’t seen anyone, yes, work that hard on a stage ever. Still haven’t.
As time ran short, he went through the same wind-down he’d been doing for years: He starts to leave the stage, and MC Ray comes up with a cape and throws it over his shoulders. The first time I saw this was on a TV show in the mid-’60s, and the action was more of Ray trying to save his man from an onstage collapse: Boss, you gotta stop now or you’re gonna hurt yourself! The cape was thrown over him the way a groom throws a blanket on a racehorse that’s just stepped off the track — gotta keep those muscles warm so they don’t cramp up. But no! James Brown is too powerful to stop, and must keep gettin’ fun-kay! He throws the cape off and rushes back to the mic, sings a little more, and after a bit Ray approaches with another cape. This goes on for three or four capes.
On this night, the action was a little stylized, an acknowledgement that this routine was now 20 years old and everyone knew how it played out, but it was still entertaining as hell. By now it was last call in the club, 2 a.m., and the management was ready for it to be over. They turned the houselights all the way up, but James Brown cannot be rushed by the Man. He played two encores, another blur of butt-shakin’ and splits and good-gods and microphone swinging, and then finally left the stage for good and we all filed out to let our sweat evaporate on the sidewalk.
(Two years ago, Jones e-mailed me and said he’d finally seen a show that was better — Prince’s “Musicology” tour. Prince wears tight pants, a pompadour and knows how to get fun-kay. Wonder where he learned that?)
It seemed I saw several shows that year that simultaneously underlined both the joy and the pain of the professional musician. There was also Albert King, blues genius, in a bar so small he had to leave the stage by walking through the crowd. Still buzzing from “Little Red Rooster,” I assaulted him with a bear hug, which he was nice enough to return. (My overwhelming impression: This man is sweaty.) He would have been around 60 at the time, playing tiny bars for college students. And yet, he put everything he had into that show, or at least seemed to. I think about James Brown, already annointed the Godfather of Soul, reduced to two-show nights in small venues, still giving so much that he demanded you give it all back to him. And we did.
A couple years ago, Terry Gross had one of Brown’s longtime band members on her show, and they talked about the rhythmic signature of his music: “Playing on the one,” which is how Brown often cued his band: “On the one!” ONE two three four ONE two three four. The beat was more insistent that way, the musician said. I don’t know enough about music to comment, except maybe this: Amen.