woensdag 10 oktober 2012

James Brown and reggae

‘The One : the life and music of James Brown’ (published in 2012) is a biography on James Brown: it digs deep, while staying humorous. It’s loose yet serious. Engagingly written: partly anecdotic but without losing sight of the bigger story and themes. In other words: it’s a kind of biography I like. Now, it is a fact that I have a liking and strong personal interest for certain biographies, and of course especially of musicians I like the work of, but there may be writers out there able to mess up an interesting life story with poor writing or the wrong (research) priorities. This was not the case with this well-written biography.


It was engagingly written, and the author, R.J. Smith, seems to have a particular interest for individual psychology of especially Brown, as well as persons around him. He describes this well. Smith is in my opinion less successful in this work in evoking visual images: description of specific places, or venues, landscapes, cityscapes and such. He seems more internally than externally focused. This tips the balance to good writing more than enough, however, so as to engage me throughout. He does this also with a good sense of humour. The inner life and behaviour of Brown, and how this relates to his life philosophy, provide an intriguing read. This is also the case because I knew some things about Brown, heard before through other media: controversies in his life, conflicts with other musicians, his strict discipline for his band, trouble with the law, his controversial support of President Nixon and in part the Republicans, and his belief in do-it-yourself capitalism.

In this book this is put adequately in the proper, broader context. This starts with his growing up in the racially segregated South as relatively dark-skinned, and in poverty, as well as amidst criminals. Indeed Brown himself got involved in petty crime (stealing) as well, and spent as a youngster time in detention. Brown’s growing up and rearing by his family seemed to have variated between negligence, discipline, and violence. Less constant and present were love and lasting care: this must have formed him. More than cynical, this made him distrustful (which is not the same).


I think that in Brown’s youth a foundation was laid for a crucial - and widely known - trait of Brown: his well-developed ego. His later monikers – most probably coined by himself – “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business” (the adding of “in show business” makes it actually kind of funny..), “Godfather of Soul”, “Soul Brother Number One”, and more, further attest to this. You can call it self-assured, or boastful, even megalomania, but what it essentially comes down to is this: survival. This book made this clear: survival physically, but as well survival of his personhood, of his basic dignity: always threatened to be denied by people around him, both white and black.

Jamaican thinker Marcus Garvey - the early Black Power activist - said that: “Without confidence in self you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence you have won even before you have started”. This seems to apply to James Brown. Smith mentions Marcus Garvey further in this work as well. He compares Brown in a sense with Garvey in relation to the several business ventures that Brown started, but that failed due to his mistrust of others he worked with. Smith sees a similarity with Garvey’s ambitious Black Star Liner project in the 1920s, that ultimately also failed.

I think that in line with his other character traits, Brown was indeed often distrustful of people around him. This also developed in his younger days, I suppose. Due to this mistrust, he did not think equal relationships with people would fulfil his personhood, but rather destroy or limit it. Illustrative of this is his expression “Jump back, I wanna kiss myself”. He repeated this in songs and on stage (and was parodied by Eddy Murphy). Brown felt saver detached – and above – other people: above both white and black people.

This was not in any way out of racial shame: neither did he see the white man as more than him, so he had some genuine Black Power ideas “avant la lettre” (the term as such was popularized in the later 1960s by the Black Panthers and Stokeley Carmichael). This was, however, in a very individualistic way: Brown was not a group or collectivist thinker.

At a later stage, when he had become more famous, he put himself on the same level – mentally – as the president of the US. He did not know his place. I myself tend to admire to a degree people going against the grain, ready to face consequences by not knowing their place, not doing what is expected of them. This was also admirable in Brown, and also the reason why he had so much musical influence. For the genres soul as well as funk he was a crucial originating figure, precisely because he took new routes to distinguish himself as a musician.


A very important, much-used term in this book is “rhythm”. James Brown’s music was relatively rhythm-focussed, and he was also stimulating this, by introducing innovations over time: the accent on the One (of 4/4) for musicians, and the importance of drums. Brown in time started to use two, not one, drummers and two drum kits, on stage and for recording, complementing each other. Related to this is his strong passion for dancing, since he was a child, even performing at a young age as a dancer. It helped make him more self-assured. Just like confidence, dance and music helped him “survive”. The three were interrelated.

The dancing is an interesting parallel with what I read in another biography, by David Katz: of reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry (which I discussed elsewhere on this blog, see post of August, 2012). Like Brown, Perry was also a dancer as a youth – even winning dance contests – before he really entered the music business of Jamaica. You know how to make good music - with good rhythms - when you know how to dance to it. Self-evident but nonetheless a truth.

Like in other biographies of musicians, Smith refers to specific songs and their creative context and specific historic importance. That is good reading. Today, with YouTube, these can also be easily checked, adding extra value. He points at songs of Brown considered “early or pre-funk”, songs that pioneered Brown’s rhythmic focus, the latter being his hit song ‘Out of Sight’ from 1964. That song still had some Rhythm & Blues (R&B) characteristics, but also meant a shift. It was in turn a forebode to his even “funkier” song ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ (1965).



I am primarily a reggae fan myself. I have been so for over 25 years now. This does not mean that it was all I listened too during that time, of course. I listened to some James Brown songs and albums, and liked the funky grooves and soulful singing. There was also some hip-hop I liked, that often recycled elements of James Brown’s music. These share with reggae that they are Black Music genres, but there are more connections between James Brown and reggae.

In the recent biography of Brown by Smith this is not ignored. Smith says on the matter that Bob Marley asked producer Lee “Scratch” Perry to make him sound like James Brown, apparently influencing Jamaican musicians by then (the 1970s). No conflict there, I think, because in David Katz’s biography of Perry it was mentioned that James Brown was also one of the heroes of Perry himself. Before this, also some Jamaican drummers and others since the 1960s were influenced partly by James Brown’s music. Not that surprising in light of the continuous influence from US Black Music on ska, rocksteady, and reggae. While earlier soul groups like the Impressions influenced some Jamaican artists, the edgier, groovy funk influenced other artists later, especially after reggae originated in 1968.

In my previous blog I mentioned that an Afro-Jamaican (percussive) base was another strong influence on Jamaican music. This is one of the reasons that it is wrong to see reggae or other Jamaican genres as Caribbean offshoots of US Black Music. They stand as original by themselves, while absorbing partly some R&B, soul, and funk influences. These were however creatively absorbed in a Caribbean/Jamaican musical context.

That being said: the connections with other, US, Black music genres remained important: related to ethnicity, language, a shared history of slavery, culture, or comparable social positions. Significantly in this light: while blues and rhythm & blues from the South of the US were also popular among the Jamaican populace in the 1950s, when the (“whiter"/country-influenced) offshoot rock & roll became more popular in the US, Jamaicans lost interest and developed their own styles/genres, loosely based on R & B, along with Afro-Jamaican music etcetera: thus they originated ska, to begin with, around 1960. And the rest is history...

Interest in US Black music later shifted among Jamaicans to some soul, and later funk: including James Brown. It is essentially a black connection. Also James Brown’s ‘I’m Black and I’m proud’ message resonated well with the conscious-minded reggae of the Roots Reggae era since around 1972. James Brown influenced a part of the “feel”, more extrovert, of reggae and roots reggae, also musically. I notice this in a funky feel in some songs by different artists. There are however not too many James Brown covers I know of in reggae. I know of some Marvin Gaye covers in reggae, of songs of the Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, other soul singers, for some reason several of Bob Dylan, even of Elvis Presley, and others, but not so much of James Brown. Yet, Brown’s influence was there.

I notice this influence – to give an example - in the musically somewhat funky song ‘Jah Jah gonna get you’ by the Twinkle Brothers, from their album Rasta Pon Top (1975). It has a groove similar to many of James Brown’s tunes.. Funny how lead singer Norman Grant even seems to include some James Brown-ish “screams” into the vocals, but that may be coincidence..

Smith in his biography on Brown also mentions how the record presses of King Records - used for James Brown songs - were after King Records was sold, shipped off to and bought by interested parties in Jamaica: so there is also a musical “hardware” connection.

Interestingly, Smith also wrote that the entire subject of James Brown’s influence on reggae is worthy of a lengthy essay by itself. I for one would be very interested in reading such an essay, which could be written for instance by a reggae historian like David Katz, or by others. Most of what I know about it I wrote in broad lines in this essay you are reading right now. There is probably enough to unearth on this matter for a more detailed study.

In any case: overall I found R.J. Smith’s 2012 biography ‘The One : the life and music of James Brown’ to be a good read: as informative as it is entertaining.

The One : the life and music of James Brown: RJ Smith. – 455 p. – New York : Gotham Books, 2012. ISBN: 978-1592406579