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Elvis shimmied, Little Richard wailed, Jerry Lee Lewis smashed the piano stool and played the keys with his feet, and all helped liberate pop culture from the straitjacket of propriety. Rock n roll made them move like that. But those three had a guitar or piano to play or play with or hide behind. Brown had played the piano and other instruments, but onstage theyd just slow him down. He needed his hands and legs free to prowl, keep the band pumped up, work the crowd into a practiced frenzy. For 50 years, he was a full-service entertainer. James Brown, a name so common it was almost a generic pseudonym like John Doe, was one of a kind.
I first saw Browns act in Philadelphia, probably at the Uptown Theatre, in the late '50s. He came on, and the place instantly got hotter. He prowled the stage, shrieking with the intensity of a tent-show shaman and the knowing hyperbole of a carny pitchman. All this mere prelude to the extended climax of Please Please Please, his first hit, which back then was fresh off the R&B charts.
The songs sentiment was common, almost a trope, in '50s R&B: Baby, please dont go, cause I love you so. (Ray Charles did two or three in this vein.) But, as one of Browns rare songs with more than three chords, it had some musical ingenuity: a desperate statement following by him and the saxes in a slow, keening descent.
This went on for a few thrilling minutes. Then, totally spent by his exertions, and crushed by the stubbornness of womankind, Brown collapsed onstage, was lifted to his feet by attendants and, with the robe of a defeated boxer draped over his shoulders, began to drag himself toward the wings until the cries of the audience magically revived him, like Lazarus or Frankensteins monster, and he summoned the will and strength to sing one more chorus.
Like so many supreme expressions of showmanship, this shtick of dynamite which Brown repeated unvaried for a half-century was both a stunt and a metaphor. No, he wasnt at deaths door, and yes, the imploring audience was in on the act. But who cared? It had the gaudy theatricality that would become the norm in pop culture: orchestrated hysteria that was either fake-real or real-fake. On this level, Brown was the godfather, not of soul, but of heavy metal and glam rock, of Rocky Horror and Dreamgirls, of the WWF and Jerry Springer.
On another level, the performer who called himself the Hardest Working Man in Show Business wasnt kidding. In a nonstop one-hour show Brown did spray his energy around like ballplayers with champagne after the big win. Further, he extended this sense of urgency to the entire show. Elvis was attitude, J.B. was epic drama. Other singers had their little 2min. narratives of sexual depression or release; Browns show was a kind of musical play, ending with the (literally) show-stopping Please Please Please his death and resurrection as a comic-opera Calvary. The life story of a man was enacted in song and dance, with Eros as the main course and Thanatos for dessert.
He had that dessert yesterday. The man who had feigned heart attacks countless times on stage died of congestive heart failure, with no resurrection in sight. But the lurid showmanship he brought to pop culture will never die. His last words, apparently, were Im going away tonight. Considering his impact, they might have been I feel good.