August 8 – 14, 1968
Thursday, August 8
The hotel room on Turk Street smelled strongly of old cigars and I took a long walk and got acquainted with the city. On the way I passed the club in the North Beach district where Carol Doda was working as a waitress. She was a silicone pioneer and much talked about in the US at the time. Rumour said that she carried the drinks on her breasts instead of on a tray. Ten years later, her name was still up outside the club, but in smaller letters. In this neighbourhood Jack Kerouac’s heroes partied and listened to bop music in On The Road. The “Summer of Love” in 1967 was a short high point of the hippie era in San Francisco. A year later, confused and drug-using people of my own age were still there.
A Samurai Film Festival opened in Chinatown – Admission cost $2.
Friday, August 9
In the morning I went to radio station KSOL (150 8th Street). Program Director was Tom Johnson and I talked to one of the station’s six disc jockeys, and also its friendliest – Bert Bell. In San Francisco 10% of the population was Mexican and 10% was black, while 85% of KSOL’s listeners were black. They had 45 songs on the playlist. And three times per hour businesses and nonprofit organizations in the black community advertised for free. Circa twenty different activities every week were presented for listeners by the people involved. On Sundays they played gospel music for five hours.
Famous San Francisco artists were the Ballads, Joe Simon (who was on tour), the Magicians, Fred Hughes and Little Johnny Taylor. But the most famous one was still Sly & The Family Stone and Sly had worked as a DJ at this very station. KSOLs main competition was KDIA in Oakland with Buggs Scruggs as their most famous DJ.
I got some information about local clubs and venues. Mostly in San Francisco, but also in Oakland and Richmond:
Avalon Ballroom (1268 Sutter)
The Carousel Ballroom (at Market and Van Ness Ave)
The Coliseum (which was a large arena in Oakland)
The Cow Palace (Geneva Ave)
Fillmore Auditorium (1805 Geary)
Long Island Club (3rd St.)
McKesmo Club in Richmond
The Winterland (At Post/Steiner)
There were two Sportsman clubs. One was at 1414 Turk in San Francisco and the other at 5319 Grove in Oakland.
Someone suggested that I should visit the newly established music magazine Rolling Stone at 746 Brannan. The editor Jann Wenner was the right man to see there. I also noted down a few addresses which I do not remember what they were about: 325 Mason Boxoffice (maybe that’s where I bought tickets for James Brown show), and Du Base Stephens, 1925 East 19th St.
The entertainment pages showed that Magic Sam was opening for an English band (either the Who or Ten Years After). They were at the Avalon Ballroom or the Fillmore during the weekend. This concert was only announced as a small ad (one-two lines). But I had seen both groups the year before, and there were much better artists around.
James Brown, Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner were in town and the radio announced a concert by Jackie Wilson in San José, or in the area later known as Silicon Valley. Jackie was there on Sunday, at the same time as the James Brown show. I could choose between the top three of the most popular R&B artists of the last fifteen years and the best female stage performer of that era too … (Even if the show in 1967 with Ten Years After was the best I’ve seen with an English group, they were playing in a much lower division than these American artists.)
Saturday, August 10
In the evening I went to Mr. Ds, in the center of San Francisco, to see Ray Charles. Admission ($4.50) included food and drink before the show and that was too expensive … I stood strategically at the stage door to get in for free instead. It did not take long to see Billy Preston’s face appear under a street lamp in the dark. He understood exactly what I wanted and got me in through the back door. He spoke with the staff so I got a seat at the long dinner tables too.
Billy Preston was known to the Swedish audience. His instrumental version of In The Midnight Hour was used as the theme song of a popular radio program broadcasted on Saturday night. His LP “Wildest Organ In Town” (Capitol) was found in well-stocked record stores.
William Preston was born September 2, 1946 in Houston, but he moved to Los Angeles before he was one year old. His father stayed in Houston, “and that’s how long I had a father,” said Billy laconically. Billy’s mother played the piano in church and already at the age of three Billy learned to play. In 1955 Billy got a role in the film St. Louis Blues, about W.C. Handy’s life. Nat King Cole played the title role, and Billy was W.C.Handy as a boy. Later Billy met Nat on a TV show and he promised that he would arrange a recording contract with Capitol for Billy. But Nat, always friendly and helpful, died before it became a reality.
Billy preferred the organ, but he could only practice in church. When he was eleven, he got an organ of his own. Only fourteen years old, he became a member of the group Cogics, which consisted of young members of the Church of God in Christ. He sang and played organ with the singers Gloria Jones and Sandra “Blinky” Williams and the twins Sondra and Andrae Crouch.
Cogics was the best young gospel group in Los Angeles and recorded on Vee-Jay. (See the part about Gloria Jones in the Los Angeles section.) Billy also recorded a solo LP on Vee-Jay called “Hymns Speak From The Organ.” But soon Vee-Jay folded as did any possible payment. Already in 1962 did Billy record the solo record Greasy for Sam Cooke’s SAR label. Despite the title, it was a “semi-gospel” recording, explained Billy. Billy also played the organ at James Cleveland’s How Great Thou Art which sold nearly a million copies. Billy was then sixteen years old and a fully fledged gospel artist. He had no intentions of becoming pop artist. But that border he would soon cross.
Little Richard had dramatically left show business in the late 1950s and in 1962 he planned a gospel tour in Europe. He chose Billy as his organist. Sam Cooke, a former member of The Soul Stirrers would join. During the boat trip to England Reverend Richard Penniman preached and sang for the fellow passengers. But when Richard saw Sam Cooke, who had the first part of the concert, tear down the house, he knew that it would a fiasco unless he sang his rock and roll hits. Richard quickly changed the program. First he sang “I Believe,” a pop song with a religious theme, and the rest was pure rock and roll. But between the performances Richard arranged Bible studies with the Beatles and The Sounds Incorporated, the accompanying orchestra.
The performers also came to the Star Club in Hamburg. Billy loved every second of the tour and felt like a rock and roll organist after six weeks. He got a lot of new friends. Not only with the Beatles, the opening act, but even more among the Sounds Inc.
It was a high-speed musical adventure. I had seen the Beatles live the following year in England (1963) so I understood what he was talking about. But Richard was not happy. He did not want to sing rock & roll, and he did not like to see Billy dress inappropriately and be out all night. Richard left the tour but unfortunately took Billy’s return ticket with him. So Billy had to stay longer than planned in England.
Billy had not really listened to or been aware of any other music than gospel when he was growing up. The only exception was Ray Charles, and Billy had bought all his records. With friends he formed a group called the Bill-ettes, that only sang Ray Charles songs. He also used to dedicate fifteen minutes every day to Ray and sometimes he pretended that he was blind. He was then escorted to a restaurant and helped to order and eat.
Ray also lived in Los Angeles and when Billy was around ten years old, he managed to gather enough courage to call on his door. Ray was singing at the piano and Billy said that he loved his music; he had all the records and a group that only sang his songs. But Ray responded that he was not in search of a new Ray Charles! Later, they met at a Shindig TV show when Billy was his stand-in at the rehearsals. He knew exactly how Ray sang and moved, and many who didn’t look carefully, thought it was Ray who sat there.
In 1965, Billy got a contract with Capitol and his first LP Wildest Organ Ever was arranged by Sly (of The Family Stone). But the producer did not understand R&B and he had too little opportunity to play as he wanted. The result was not very successful, said Billy. In addition to Billy’s Bag and a couple of his own compositions, he had to record other artists’ songs. He was not pleased with Wildest Organ In Town either, and finally managed to stop the release of a live LP for Capitol.
Now, he produced his own records and was hoping for a better result. Still “In The Midnight Hour” had been a big hit.
Behind the stage, I ran into Jessie and Joe, two members of the Soul Brothers, a group who sang with Billy in 1962-63 and they recorded an LP on Vee-Jay as Billy Preston & The Soul Brothers, which was never released.
Then they came to Capitol and made an LP called “Operation Cool Head.” They were Joe Green (born September 29, 1946 in Los Angeles), Douglas Gibbs and Jesse Kirkland (born June 10, 1945 in Ohio). They said they were the first to use the name Soul Brothers but there were a lot of problems and Douglas left the group. As the duo Jessie & Joe hey had recently been signed to Columbia, while the discs were released on Epic. Now they planned to do a sophisticated show with standard songs for the night clubs. They had also performed together with Blinky. (This was told by Joe Green.)
It was a full house that night. The audience had finished their dinner, and Billy had gotten a seat and a free beer for me. Ray Charles big band started playing, showcasing the many great jazz musicians who were in the orchestra. Then Billy did Agent 00 Soul, Edwin Starr’s soul hit. Billy danced around on stage and demonstrated the latest dance fashions and a James Brown inspired footwork.
Billy also did the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” standing at the organ. He showed what a champion of organ playing he was. After this brief introduction it was time for Ray Charles. He did a fine show, intended for a seated, white, middle-class audience, with R&B, Country and Western and jazz standards done in the Ray Charles way.
“Something’s Wrong With My Baby,” Instrumental, “Georgia On My Mind,” “Yesterday,” “Premium Stuff,” “Crying Time,” “Tell The World About It (or You),” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Understanding,” “What’d I Say.”
I missed “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” which I think is his very best soul number.
Ray Charles, also introduced Billy during his own set, with the following words:
“When my career is over and I have to step down from the stage it’s comforting to know that there is a very talented young man who can do what I’ve been trying to do all my life. Here he is: Billy Preston!”
Ray was in great spirits. He interrupted the show and started to talk and did so incessantly for at least a quarter of an hour. He also did a short opera-segment – thus satisfying probably every taste in the audience. When the show drew to a close, he did not want to leave the piano.
Ray Charles has been called the best gospel-based singer who has never sung gospel music (professionally). Otherwise, he could have led his own “Five Blind Boys of Georgia (or Florida),” and given the blind groups from Alabama or Mississippi a tough competition in many exciting “battle of the groups.”
But it was probably quite foreign for Ray to accept the life offered to a blind singer then. Instead he first followed in the footsteps of Charles Brown and Nat King Cole before singing gospel influenced R&B. Still always in control unlike soul-singers like (the early) James Brown or Wilson Pickett.
When Ray was in Stockholm the following year he had Mable John, Little Willie’s older sister, in the Raelettes. She had recorded on both Stax and Motown, and sang a fine soul version of “Same Time Same Place.” But I do not think she was here this night.
There were two dinner sittings and two shows that night and I saw both. Ray had been the most popular black artist before James Brown, but pretty soon he had a large white audience and was launched as an overall musical (jazz) genius. But his show lacked the nerve and precision many black artists had when they appeared before a black audience. Ray had relaxed after many years with white audiences.
Billy suggested we see Ike & Tina Turner together the next day. He had a little free time before tomorrow’s show and the pair appeared very near Mr D’s. I could hear the Kings of Rhythm play when I entered the street on my way home. But this Sunday it was James Brown time for me.
I understand why many English musicians had taken Billy to their hearts ever since 1962. He was a very nice guy.
Sunday, August 11
James Brown appeared seven days a week all year round. We had been in Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles almost simultaneously but I had missed his show by a day or two. Now San Francisco was full of posters advertising “A show for the entire family.”
So far, my trip has been largely exempt from racial tension, although the mood in Los Angeles had been worse than in other towns. But after the assassination of Martin Luther King, radical, militant black political groups came to the forefront with the Black Panthers in the lead.
James Brown was the most popular black artist in all categories and endorsed Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election which Richard Nixon won in the autumn of 1968. James had released the disc “America Is My Home” a few months earlier. On this prehistoric rap recording, James supports the American dream – where everyone who wants a better life can create it for himself and his family.
But name me any other country
You can start out as a shoeshine boy
And shake hands with the president
It ain’t gonna help you gotta have that royal blood to make it
And I ain’t got nothing royal but me
So I can take the chances, I’m gonna stay home
And look ahere I got a brand new jet
When I need to move
I saw a brother made it
Now ain’t that a rule
James Brown’s black capitalism probably had more support among future Reagan economists than in the Black Panther Party where these views were considered reactionary. James Brown was sometimes threatened by militant black groups during his concerts. The situation in San Francisco-Oakland was extra polarized. The Black Panthers were formed in Oakland. Their leader Huey Newton was imprisoned. Outside the town hall in San Francisco militant black groups demonstrated around the clock. “Free Huey!” was heard everywhere.
But James Brown had taken note of the criticism of “America is My Home,” and had just recorded his new single “Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud,” which became the signature tune for militant blacks.
The concert hall (the Town Hall or the City Auditorium) the name of which I forgot, held a few thousand listeners, but was not more than half full. But there were many guards.
During the intermission I went to the foyer. Suddenly a big brick or stone crushed one of the windows and we ran back into the safety of the concert hall. I was convinced that it was not the Ku Klux Klan or an Aryan power group that threw these stones. This was an internal fight between blacks, perhaps fired up by FBI infiltration. (The Ku Klux Klan were behind several bombings that summer and the FBI had infiltrated them.) The most popular artists were asked or blackmailed for financial support. Did James refuse to pay his part to the Panthers?
The mood among my bench neighbours was cold too. It was hard to get them to cooperate when I tried to get out to take photographs.
I was not included in this family show.
First the James Brown Orchestra played a few instrumentals before it was time for the local black group – The Mystics. They were five men and first made a falsetto version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and then “I’m Losing You.”
And finally a section called “Dance Beat,” where they demonstrated that they were good dancers.
Then James Brown entered the stage for the first time. He was introduced by a woman. He began to warm up the audience with a pop song: “If I Ruled The World” and then “Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud,” where the crowd stood up and chanted the slogans. (I’m not sure it had been played on the radio yet.)
“That’s Life” (Frank Sinatra’s signature), and finally “Kansas City,” and James danced off the stage
Then Marva Whitney, a protégé of James Brown, was introduced. He produced her records. She looked very young, skinny and vulnerable, and she sang “Ain’t No Way” (Aretha Franklin) and “Here I Am Baby” (which didn’t sound too good).
Then James came back. He was introduced by another black man (probably a politician), like a real Soul Brother. James emphasized that he had never forgotten where he came from and what had brought him here. Now, James performed some of his best soul ballads: “Lost Someone,” “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” “Bewildered,” “Cry Cry Cry.”
James Brown’s melodramatic performances are always unsurpassed. These songs are truly great, but he had sped up the songs a little bit and done other unnecessary tempo changes. I was not completely satisfied. The lights were turned out and James disappeared again.
It was time for another further short set from Marva Whitney: “Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin), “People” (Barbra Streisand).
Then the James Brown that the audience had come to see appeared. He did several blockbuster, funky dance hits from recent years:
“Cold Sweat,” “Lickin’ Stick,”“I Got The Feelin’,”“I Can’t Stand Myself,” “Maybe The Last Time,” and he did “Please Please Please” for the first time.
This was only a short version to remind the audience that the show was coming to an end. The audience reaction enabled him to make a few extra numbers in a row – his best early funk numbers (alongside “Out of Sight” and “Night Train”) namely, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “I Got You.”
Then followed “Please Please Please” with the classic ending where his aide dressed him in a robe (or boxing champion cloak) and tried to lead out the totally exhausted singer. James threw off the cloak twice and then returned while the orchestra played the riffs. Now the audience really reacted. Some ran toward the stage where helmet-wearing staff were guarding. A couple of bottles were thrown, but no one was hurt.
James Brown had the deserved reputation of being America’s greatest (black) stage performer of all time and all categories. I would not protest if someone suggested that this covers the entire twentieth century.
But there were cracks in the facade. Much of the voice was still there even though he often was quite hoarse and hardly could do “Shout And Shimmy” any longer. He had gained weight and his footwork was slower. The moves and steps were often hinted at and not taken out completely. He had met his audience so often that he hardly needed to prove or accomplish anything anymore.
He could still move across the stage on one leg, spin around a few times, do the splits and grab the microphone without missing a beat. His dramatic vocal style with the right song selection was second to none.
But the weaknesses I had seen in Stockholm the previous year were more pronounced now.
In 1967, he had only two background singers left (including Bobby Byrd), but they sang very little and danced mostly.
Now the Famous Flames and their gospel quartet-sound had disappeared and he had only one go-go girl left. It felt cheap.
The repertoire was more funk-based and Tina Turner did a (much) better version of “Please Please Please” – the song that finished all his shows since twelve years back. James didn’t plead or said “please” to anybody. He took what he wanted. It didn’t fit his personality to fall on his knees.
His performance was narcissistic and James Brown asked himself not to leave the stage and gave the audience the opportunity to ask him the same ( “Please, do not go!”). But for Tina Turner “Please Please Please” was the perfect expression of the feelings she was carrying.
The show lacked fluency and did not build up to a natural climax. The famous very long Apollo Theatre introduction from 1962 when James Brown is presented before he enters the stage was also removed. It exemplified the grandiose and extravagant atmosphere that existed in soul music when it was at its best. The inspiration probably came from the church but the names of God and Jesus had been changed to James Brown. ( “The man who walked on water! – The man who raised the dead!” etc).
Expectations were built up to maximum and then James entered and surpassed it. (Bill Clinton used this presentation in his first presidential campaign, and he got all the black votes.)
It was strange that James introduced his latest hit “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” so early in the evening. Did they want to silence any demonstrations?
My own favourites in James Brown’s repertoire are the pure gospel-based songs like “Oh Baby Don’t You Weep,” “Maybe The Last Time,” “Shout And Shimmy,” etc. Or soul ballads like “It’s A Man’s Man’s World.” But now his hits sounded like a marathon funk dance party where songs like “Lickin’ Stick,” “There Was A Time,” “I Got The Feeling” were succeeded by another sounding the same. And the pace of many older songs were sped up.
James Brown was moving in a direction that I did not think was musically satisfying. White people were no longer welcomed by his black fans. Songs like “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” accelerated this trend.
I moved backstage after the show, and after a while I came to the orchestra’s dressing room. These musicians were in his band:
Waymon Reed (trumpet) was born January 10, 1940 in Nashville. He had been with James for three years and also played on Steve Alaimo’s LPs. Next to his name, I had written “nice.” Because it was he who took care of me and made sure I got to James Brown’s dressing room later.
Richard “Kush” Griffith (trumpet) was born August 8, 1948 in Louisville, Kentucky. He wrote down a short presentation about his life with James Brown, “joined on the 18th May 1968 as a result of a recommendation of a good friend (my father).” Richard was rather corpulent.
Levi Rasberry (trombone) was born in Washington, August 5, 1946 and he had been with James Brown since late July 1964. He was small in stature.
Fred Wesley Jr. (trombone) was born in Mobile, Alabama, July 4, 1943. He had come to James seven months ago. He had also played with Ike & Tina Turner.
St. Clair Pinckney (Baritone and tenor sax) was born September 17, 1930 in Augusta, Georgia. He had been with James for six and half years. Before that he was in and out of the military for five years. He and James were school friends during two and a half years. He had a white cap on his head.
Maceo Parker (tenor sax) had been with James since one and a half years but also earlier, and then had left and come back.
Alfred Ellis (soprano sax, organ) was born April 21, 1941 in Leesbury, Florida. He had been with James for two and a half years. Before that, he played jazz organ in Jimmy Smith inspired trios.
Jimmy Nolan (guitar) had been with James four years. (He looked like Otis Rush). He spelled his name with an a – and not “Nolen”)
Charles Sherrell (bass) was born in March 1943 in Nashville. He had been with James for 2-3 months, and previously worked at Capitol as a studio musician and recorded two vocal discs (on Capitol) that did not sell.
Al Kellum (bass) had been with James for three years. He was good looking.
Clyde Stubblefield (drums) was born in Chattanooga, Tenn. April 18, 1943 and had been with James for three years. (I think he had played with John Lee Hooker before.)
Nathanael Jones (drums) had been with James for six months.
Richard Jones (violin) was born July 2, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York. He had been with James Brown two and a half years and previously played in various symphony orchestras.
Sylvia Medford (violin) was born in New York but did not state her age and had been with James for a year. I think she was about as old as Richard Jones.
There were fifteen musicians on stage. In their dressing room, I spoke with fourteen of those. Who did I miss? (James Brown did a live recording in Dallas, August 18, 1968. It was the same band members plus Marilyn Jones (violin). But I only saw two violinists on stage …)
The musicians were a little better paid than in other soul bands. James no longer had much contact with his band members. He, his wife and his 14-year-old son flew between gigs, while the orchestra used the bus. James had done away with the vocal group The Famous Flames about four months ago. Thus cutting away his gospel roots and the early inspiration of the 5 Royales. Around the same time Vicky Anderson left and married Bobby Byrd, the founder of the Famous Flames.
Bobby Byrd had done fine solo stuff (“Funky Soul,” 1967), and I felt that Vicki Anderson was a better singer than Marva Whitney. Bobby and Vicky were really sweet when I stood waiting for James Brown to leave the Konserthuset in Stockholm 1967. (I think I was the only one waiting.) They gave me a James Brown picture.
James Brown was known never to book other artists on his show that received lots of applause or attracted the interest of the audience. The other artists this evening had been mediocre. Artists had told me how they were fired from his show or that their part was cut short if the audience liked them too much.
Now we were about 30-40 persons patiently waiting outside his dressing room. I had received half a promise to meet him. Through the closed door of his dressing room came instrumental funk music with the James Brown Orchestra. I assumed he listened to instrumental tracks he wanted to develop further or use. Sometimes his voice was heard to comment and at some point he cursed and yelled. A couple of people were let in through the door including his son Teddy, who later died in a car accident. Finally, two hours after the show ended, the door opened. There he was standing a few meters in front of me, with his hair in perfect trim, rather short in stature and wearing a waist-long light brown suede jacket. Then all hell broke loose. I took a step forward, but all others rushed screaming towards James Brown. A girl who stood next to me managed to get her head under the shoulder strap of my bag. It was torn off and disappeared in the turmoil.
His aides quickly pulled and pushed James towards the exit and waiting car. He was gone, and I stood there without a bag.
But I was quickly surrounded by a gang of aggressive black youths. They had taken care of the bag and now wanted money to return it. We were standing on the side street outside the stage door. The street was only sparsely lit.
These youngsters didn’t seem nice at all when they looked me straight in the face and juggled my bag between them. Had they thrown those stones and broken the windows earlier?
I understood that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But after much negotiation and an occasional harsh word, I managed, however, to get the bag back. It was empty, and a few small things and the James Brown-concert program was gone of course.
At the same time a car rolled up beside me. A black couple sat inside and they told me to jump in. The man had worked as a janitor at the concert and he saw that I was in danger. My guardian angels had saved me this evening too. But it was probably the most dangerous incident that summer – which now had become both long and hot.
Five years ago, James Brown had been the best black stage artist of his generation (and what a generation it was!) Mick and Keith of the Rolling Stones said after their first US tour and a concert by James Brown that one could place James Brown on one side of the stage and Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry on the other side. Nobody will notice them because James Brown will get all the attention.
Fifty percent of Mick Jagger’s stage show then was of course stolen from James Brown. (And one hundred percent of Michael Jackson’s.) No wonder the Stones declined an offer to tour with James Brown at the same time. Dan Penn told me that James Brown had a half-hour standing ovation after his TAMI show. The Stones were at the same show. Everybody could see how pale they were in comparison. I joined James Brown’s English fan club immediately. I was the first (and only?) Swedish member.
Michael Jackson used to watch James Brown’s TAMI film for hours. He remarked that James didn’t dance but flew.
Honestly, today I regret that I did not see Jackie Wilson instead. But it was a long way to San Jose, and who could imagine Jackie would be (almost) brain dead after a heart attack on stage a few years later?
I had talked with Bert Bell KSOL about Jackie Wilson. I knew he was a good performer but I was worried that he had difficulty moving due to a bullet fired by a jealous girlfriend, which sat near the spine. Jackie was quite OK, Bert Bell said, but his days as a top draw was over.
Later I also understood why James had not visited the Ike & Tina Turner Show in Los Angeles. He had recorded “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” that night.
Monday, August 12
Yesterday’s concert had given much food for thought. It was supposed to be the highlight of the trip but had after all been a disappointment. I had taken in so much musical impressions in a week with, among others Ike & Tina, Ray Charles and James Brown that there was no room for more. I bought some records and found Malcolm X’s memoirs in a bookstore that I began to read at night. I also visited the Swedish Consulate in San Francisco and studied Swedish newspapers.
Tuesday, August 13
I called the Galaxy record company (1281, 30th Street, Oakland). There Little Johnny Taylor had recorded his classic “Part Time Love.” On the same green label, Roger Collins, had done the original of Wilson Pickett “She’s Looking Good.” But nothing happened there. Charles Brown’s “I’m Gonna Push On” on Galaxy was outside the soul genre and I had not heard enough of Charles to understand what a great artist he was. I bought more 45s instead and found Urban Blues by Charles Keil in a used bookstore. I sat atop Telegraph Hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, and continued reading Malcolm X’s autobiography.
Wednesday, August 14
I took the flight to Detroit and arrived at 8:15 in the evening.
James Brown is probably the most important African-American popular music artist of the last century. He was not only a black Elvis Presley, with the same appeal to his audience as Elvis, but he was also the Colonel, Elvis legendary manager.
James Brown said that he was ten-percent artist and ninety-percent businessman. In short, he was Elvis and the Colonel in the same person. While Elvis was one head higher and totally superior to his contemporary white colleagues, James Brown’s colleagues were sometimes almost as good, but never better.
They lacked his manic energy and pathological ambition and his ability to always wager one hundred percent. Everybody agreed that James was the greatest male soul artist – Soul Brother No. 1. But he was not at all popular among his colleagues.
With an enormous ego he stepped on many toes. He could not be trusted. Solomon Burke and Joe Tex openly said that they didn’t like him.
It is difficult to compare James Brown’s career with other artists. One should rather broaden the comparison to leading politicians and military officers. James Brown worked as hard to totally dominate the black record industry as a Joseph Stalin would have done. His attempt to overflow the market with James Brown records can probably only be compared with Mao Tse Tung’s marketing of his own Little Red Book.
He probably used as many dirty tricks as these political heavyweights. James also had political ambitions. He was involved in Lyndon Johnson’s Stay In School program and he was the chairman of an association that aimed to keep children in school and he recorded “Don’t Be A Drop-out.” When Martin Luther King was shot the mayor of Boston gave James Brown and his orchestra unlimited television TV time to keep young people at home.
The white establishment had begun to understand that James Brown’s power and prestige in the black ghetto was unique, that he had a position that no other black artist had. This summer you could sometimes hear him on the radio in a brief speaking part of the need to stay in school and get an education and not to be out and fight. He summed up his message with the words: “Do not burn – learn!” He also owned his own radio stations.
Other artists like Elvis and the Beatles had also totally dominated the industry for some time. Then all old recordings and B-sides went up the charts. In 1956 and 1964 all their records charted. Lots of singles were released. (Elvis had 17 A and B sides of his 11 singles listed in 1956. The Beatles had 30 A and B-sides charted of a total of 19 singles in 1964.)
These successes left James Brown no peace. But he did it differently. The more popular he became, the more discs he recorded and released. Aretha Franklin broke through with a bang in 1967, and in 1968, she had eight records on the Hot 100. But she only released four records (both the A and B sides went into the charts). James Brown also had eight songs on the charts in 1968 but on eight different singles. The year after he had nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100 – and these were from nine different singles. Every trend, and success he milked a maximum out of.
1969: The launch and success of the dance and the song “The Popcorn” was followed by (1) “Mother Popcorn (part 1)” (2) “Lowdown Popcorn” (3) “Let a Man Come In And Do The Popcorn (part 1)” (4) “Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn (part 2)” – There were three sequels and a sequel to the sequel … and all went entered the Hot 100.
My subjective impression is that at least every tenth song on the radio, jukebox or concert gig that summer was with or was by James Brown. But I have a feeling that James Brown’s goal was one hundred percent. When other artists released three or four records per year, James Brown bombed the audience with records. It was one single per month or twelve every year, half of them tough dance tunes, plus three ballads and standards and one or two instrumental organ songs plus a Christmas song. He also re-released earlier studio recordings with audience added. There were several new LPs every year. He produced records with other artists in his own stable and with his own orchestra.
James Brown no longer created hits like other artists, but one song flowed into the other and made an ongoing soundtrack to the life in the ghetto. Most important perhaps, by releasing so many records, there was no need or room for cover artists and plagiarists.
In 1968 I certainly had ninety-nine percent of everything he had recorded himself and a lot of what he produced with other vocalists. But as a producer for others, he had very moderate success. They got only the remnants left over from his own table, and his efforts with artists such as Yvonne Fair – where her “I Found Out” eventually became his own “I Got You” was the exception, as well as some good singles by Bobby Byrd and Baby Lloyd. While his competitors had songwriters, producers and organizers James Brown even did this himself … Which made his recordings sound more and more the same.
While dance songs like “Night Train,” “Out of Sight,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1962-65) had been innovative, I thought the songs he released in 1968 began to sound a bit tiresome.
But after all, from this flood of sometimes mediocre record releases, you could still pick up more soul and R&B classics with him than with his contemporaries (Clyde McPhatter, Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Joe Tex and others). He actually recorded soul already in the early 1960s. More than any other artist he deserves to be called the founder/creator or originator of soul. Musically, the first half of the 1960s is his best. (Already in 1962 Jimmy Jones did a tribute to him with Dynamite on the Parkway Records.)
No one worked harder than James Brown, even off stage. He missed no opportunity for promotion and had the phone number of every disc jockey in the US in his head. During a live broadcast at Waxie Maxie’s record shop in Washington, James Brown showed up in the middle of the program and promised that all the listeners who came there with a used toothbrush would get his new record free in exchange. Within thirty minutes he had 500 used brushes and 300 newly purchased ones left there.
I guess James Brown experienced a sense of failure if the number of tour gigs were below 365 per year. He also often recorded at night after an evening show.
He was the highest paid black entertainer.
I am convinced that if he instead had focused on gospel music he would have taken over from Archie Brownlee as the no 1. male gospel singer. His Famous Flames could have been as famous as the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Archie, who died at age 35 in 1960, had an unprecedented ability to transmit a parish into a bunch of talking tongues, doing sacred dancing and screaming ecstatically. This was the ability James brought from the churches to concert halls. This was the kind of audience reaction he wanted. I don’t think any other soul artist did a better job.
The black (male) show business history is full of great performers: Cab Calloway (1930s), Wynonie Harris (1940s), Roy Brown (1940-50s), Jackie Wilson 1950-60s and James Brown (1960-70s). But it is probably only James Brown who had been the absolutely outstanding stage artist of his generation. At his peak, James Brown was probably the most exciting of them all. It was often reported that James Brown passed out after performances due to nervous exhaustion, or acute dehydration due to sweating, and that he needed oxygen and massage after each show to survive.
In short, James Brown was “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” or “The Godfather of Soul.” Although James Brown rarely mentions any of his own inspirations there is the R&B group the Five Royales, which began as a gospel group the Royal Sons Quintet, and Little Willie John, who he recorded a tribute LP to and Roy Brown of course.
It’s also interesting to see that he, unlike many other soul artists, actually moved freely in the 1940-50s repertoire when he re-recorded it, sometimes twenty years later. That he is said to have an elephant’s memory is not contradicted by recordings like “I Love You Yes I Do” (Bull Moose Jackson), “Why Do Everything Happen To Me” (Roy Hawkins), “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and “Somebody Done Changed The Lock Of My Door” (Louis Jordan), “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (Roy Brown / Wynonie Harris), “Love Don’t Love Nobody” (Roy Brown), “The Bells, Have Mercy Baby” (Billy Ward & The Dominoes), “Bewildered” (Amos Milburn), “Think, Come over Here” (5 Royales). Many of these songs had also been recorded at King, Browns record company, and been published previously by King.
James Brown was on top that summer. He had drawn 40,000 people to Yankee Stadium and earned three or four million dollars (1967). Even though he was the most popular black artist in 1968, there were still many whites who had never heard of him. It was almost impossible for a white singer to cover a James Brown song. Almost none other than The Who had dared to do this (Shout and Shimmy), and with very poor result.
He was a phenomenon and his workload was twice as much as any of his contemporaries. He had taken over more and more of his white manager Ben Bart’s work. He sought to gain total financial and artistic control over all parts in the music industry and had also started a chain of soul food restaurants and radio stations etc. Psychologically he must also have been a unique phenomenon: how can one combine an unparalleled, hysterically emotional vocal career, with being an effective businessman and run a small business empire and touring the year round?
James Brown must have lived on the verge of a nervous exhaustion and mental breakdown for several years and that perhaps explains why he eventually burned out and started using drugs. (James Brown Enterprises, 850 Seventh Ave, NY. Ben Bart, Try Me Music, 200 West 57th St, NY).
I listened a lot to the radio in San Francisco, including gospel programs on Sunday. These are the new songs I heard, and my favourites are marked with (*)