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Papa Didn't Take No Mess

RIP, James Brown

Once, after appearing at a photo op with LBJ, he was asked by columnist Earl Wilson if he was worried that he would get branded as an Uncle Tom. "No," Brown replied. Wilson asked why not. "Because I'm not."

His music was who he was. He helped prod old-school R&B into soul and pretty much invented funk, lock, stock and smoking barrel. And for the record, funk didn't begin with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Brown himself said in his book that his 1964 single "Out of Sight" was the Rosetta Stone of funk -- the first recording where he initiated his Picasso-like approach to something like cubist rhythm: "'Out of Sight' was another beginning, musically and professionally...You can hear the band and me start to move in a whole other direction rhythmically. The horns, the guitar, the vocals, everything was starting to be used to establish all different kinds of rhythms at once. On that record you can hear my voice alternate with the horns to create various rhythmic accents. I was trying to get every aspect of the production to contribute to the rhythmic patterns."

The music that followed from "Out of Sight" -- a progression from there to "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" to "Ain't That a Groove" and "Cold Sweat" to "Licking Stick" and the "Funky Drummer" to the "Popcorn" jams and beyond -- lay dormant in mainstream America for a few years. These were the peak disco years -- roughly 1976 to 1981 -- some of the bleakest years in the history of African American music. It's been written in a few of his obits that he was a forefather of disco. If so, it was a bastard child he didn't want to claim. He hated the simplicity of the dumbed-down beats -- to him, disco must have sounded as bad as a Westheimer strip mall would have looked to Michelangelo. "Lightweight," "didn't make any sense," "watered-down," and "a lawyer's recording" were just a few of the epithets he hurled at disco in his autobiography. And then, with the invention of hip-hop, James Brown's spirit came roaring back with a vengeance like few in our nation's history.

Go back and listen, first to the 1963 recording of Live at the Apollo, perhaps the longest stretch of pure adrenaline in American music. Then check in on his recordings from a few years later and listen as he changed the way the world danced for the next 40 years and counting. And even that sells him short. He provided the meatiest musical sustenance to a generation you could imagine, and by doing so, moved mountains. By changing the way we felt, about ourselves and about other people, he changed the way we thought.

Brown mostly let his music do the talking for him. Though he had his failings in his personal life, there was no hate in his message to the world. In the late '60s, he could have started riots with nothing more than a few inflammatory words. He didn't -- unlike his spiritual descendent Radio Raheem, love always trumped hate in his soul.

In the end, he transcended the world of mere mortals. I saw him at a shamefully sparsely attended show at what was then Aerial Theater downtown in about 1999, and by the end of the show, which I had expected to expose him to be a doddering old man well past his glory days, I found myself pressing toward the stage with a few hundred others who all wanted to touch his hand, or the hem of his garment, or something. (Never happened to me at any show before or since.)

Brown, never one for unnecessary modesty, knew he had Christ-like powers on stage. As he put it in the liner notes to Star Time, his box set: ''JAMES BROWN is a concept, a vibration, a dance. It's not me, the man. JAMES BROWN is a freedom I created for humanity.''

And all humanity -- black, white, brown, yellow, purple with pink hair and green breath -- is immeasurably the better for it. From every mountainside, let James Brown ring.

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