Oh, and those moves. Brown’s spins, splits, shuffles and knee drops became the vocabulary of the pop music movement from Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson, Prince to Bobby Brown. Hits like “I Got You (I Feel Good),” or “Please Please Please,” or “Cold Sweat” wouldn’t have needed impressionistic music videos; performance clips convey their power.
Popular music in the ’60s was mostly about the triumph of sensation over propriety, and nowhere was this victory more celebrated than in Brown’s music. His singing, his moves, his music all embodied a belief in extremity and feeling. He was a one-man liberation army against the forces of personal repression.
“Say it Loud” was, of course, a radical political track, and Brown reveled in his platform as an agent of change. He remained duly proud of the fact that after the King assassination in 1968, he suggested that his Boston concert that weekend be televised, and city officials credited the telecast with stemming the riots faced by other cities. On the other hand, Brown was unpredictable; he endorsed Richard Nixon for president in 1972.
Brown’s peak lasted nearly two decades, several lifetimes in popular music, and although he struggled—often lamely (no, I’m not a fan of “Living in America”)—to maintain some contemporary relevance in the ’80s and ’90s, he continued to be the hardest working man in show business setting the standard for great performers introducing classics to new audiences. He took on every performance of “Hot Pants” or “Get on the Good Foot” as if they were songs he’d written that afternoon and couldn’t wait to sing them.
He maintained such a rigorous performance schedule that it shocked everyone when he passed away of congestive heart failure in Atlanta two years ago. He had already been cleared to play a New Year’s Eve gig in New York. From his hospital bed, he was still referring to himself as “the hardest working man in show business,” and no one doubted him. Soul Brother No. 1 may be gone, but his music can still stop people in their tracks.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.