After 40 years, I still vividly recall the first time the music of James Brown stopped me in my tracks.
I was 8 years old and wandering up the long hallway in our apartment on Chicago's South Side. I heard the funky sounds of "Say it Loud, (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" coming from my brother's bedroom at the end of the hall. It was 1968, and it wasn't uncommon to hear great music coming from the bedrooms of my teenaged siblings; in fact, back then you could just turn on the radio and hear great music, a stark contrast to today's stations which champion songs of savvy marketing over sonic genius.
I poked my head gingerly into the room, hoping I wasn't interrupting anything. I wasn't; it was just my brother, Phil, and two of his best friends, Roger and Otha. When I asked who that was, Roger grabbed the 45 off the turntable, spun the seven-inch vinyl disc on his finger like a basketball and said "It's the Godfather of Soul." Otha just smiled and said "Soul Brotha No. 1." My brother took the traditional route and answered "that's James Brown."
I was happy to hear the nicknames, I knew lots of Jameses and several Browns, but that music was singular. Roger put it on again.
For many performers, a hit like "Say It Loud" would be a career peak; for James Brown, it was just another day at the office. Brown had dozens of hits and that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of his significance. He died on Christmas Day two years ago, and we'd be remiss if we didn't commemorate his legacy.
James Brown is the most influential figure in popular music history. His singing, dancing and music left an indelible imprint on American culture, and his spirit defined a pivotal moment in American history. I bet a lot of people were stopped in their tracks by his music. It happened to me—as they say in Chicago politics—early and often.
"Say it Loud" was one of many of Brown hits during an unprecedented run from the late '50s to the mid '70s that changed pop music. Most of them are collected on the 1991 compilation Star Time. He went from invigorating hip-hop to creating state-of-the-art rhythm and blues to inventing funk. He helped launch the careers of Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Bootsy Collins and many, many others.
What had intrigued me so much about the music was the beat. It wasn't one and TWO and three and FOUR, which is where the emphasis falls in most popular music. In Brown's music, the progression was ONE and two and THREE and four. That little innovation became the cornerstone for his precise beats, turn-on-a-dime horn sections and a music that still feels fresh and contemporary today, 40-50 years after it was made. It is impossible to imagine hip-hop without the sample from Brown's "Funky Drummer."
Brown's vocals were inimitable. He sang each song as if it truly were his last. His trademark screams are a cornerstone of pop and its influence spread far and wide with surprising speed, from fellow soul singers like Bobby Womack and Leslie Wilson to rockers like Robert Plant and Steven Tyler. The passion unleashed in every guttural James Brown vocal is something that nearly every singer must understand and address.
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.