Mr. Dynamite. Soul Brother Number One. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business. Creator of Funk. The Godfather of Soul. At almost 68, there isn't one of these titles that doesn't fit musical icon James Brown like a glove.
From his impoverished upbringing he beat the odds to make it. First as a gospel singer, then, inspired by artists such as Louis Jordan, turning to R&B in the mid-'50s with his band the Famous Flames. After his debut single "Please Please Please" reached #5 on the R&B charts he never looked back as he would produce 17 chart-topping hits over the next two decades, many spilling over into the pop market.
Then in 1965 he helped restructure deep soul into a new music form known as funk that leaned heavy on urgent rhythmic arrangements, with his revolutionary hit "Papa's Got A Brand Bag."
He's earned countless awards, being one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and has had his career jump started by his film cameos - in 1980 as an impassioned preacher in "The Blues Brothers" and in 1986 performing his song "Living in America" in "Rocky IV."
But his road to stardom wasn't all a bed of roses. He was sentenced to a six-year prison term in 1988 (of which he served just over two years) for various assault, drug possession and vehicular charges. Since his release he's still managed to have minor run-ins with the law. Before his performance last Tuesday in Milwaukee ConcertLivewire's Tony Bonyata sat down and talked with James Brown in his dressing room. With the drugs and anger apparently behind him, Brown's new music is as funky as ever and is actively promoting anti-violence, revealing an upbeat, loving side towards humanity and especially children, who he is targeting his message towards.
Livewire: I understand that you've got a new song out?
JB: Yeah, It's called "Killing Is Out, School Is In." And you need to hear the lyrics to it. I'm going to tell you what you gotta do, "try romance, turn that cap around and take that gun out of your pants." Killing seems to be a way of life in school. And what we're trying to tell 'em is that a lack of knowledge and a little bit of drugs will make you blow your cool. So we put it right there where you can hear it. We don't try and dress it up and do it like the system would do it - where it might miss the kids. We want to put it to 'em back on the street, in the same language. You know what you're getting here.
Livewire: Is this song going against what gangsta rap is all about?
JB: I'm not going against anybody. I'm going to tell the truth. There's no such thing as going against gangsta rap. We're not going to try and go against nobody. Let them do what they want to do, but they see that's it's been disastrous. Whether it's gangsta rap, rock n roll or R&B or funk or whatever it is - we're against that. So whatever makes your kid go crazy and want to shoot you and shoot his brother, that's what we're against. Years ago when people were running around with sheets on their heads, nothing was said about that. They don't say nothing about The Panthers, they don't say nothing about the Ku Klux, they don't say nothing about nobody. Let's just get it straight, because I think the Panthers want to live, the Ku Klux want to live, I want to live, you want to live and we ain't gonna live 'cause we won't have no kids around, you know? They don't want 'em to have no more Klans around and no more Panthers around, 'cause all the kids will be dead. It's that simple. Are we that stupid to let this happen to us? We don't need that. We don't have a country, you know what I'm sayin,' man? They're killin' everybody. They're killin' the kids now. That's sad. That bugs me more than anything in the world. I got anything I could need. I could be a fat rat and run, 'cause I saved my money. But I ain't happy. I'm not happy with that. I made it right here. I made it with these people. And because I'm able to do something for humanity, it's my duty to do it. Not my pay - my duty! I'm so glad I got me a platform that I can fight with, that's gonna do some good. I don't need a hit record. The Teacher gave me everything I'd ever need and brought all my records that y'all was raised up on back into the fold, 'cause one time whites couldn't hear 'em. Now they want everybody to hear 'em, 'cause they made sense. So they're back in the fold. Maybe people can get their fun back and not be mad at each other and be happy, you know? And laughing and talking and huggin.' It's 'brother.' 'Brother's' back in here again. That's what we needed real bad. And that's why I'm pushing this.
Livewire: Do you think that you've gained a larger white audience over the years?
JB: Oh yeah! Oh yeah. Well, today I have a thousand white audiences to every black one I've got. The black ones love me and the white ones love me, but, unfortunately, some that would like to buy the record can't buy it. The audience is still there. If I played a free show you wouldn't be able to get nowhere close to it. We played Woodstock, biggest one you've ever seen. That was the biggest Woodstock they ever had, the one we played.
Livewire: I must say that you look great. How do you still do it - and do it so well?
JB: Well, I'll tell you, I've got God. I've got her feeding me my medicine and won't let me blow [my cool] (pointing to girlfriend Tomi Rae seated next to him), I've got him pushing some medicine down my throat, I've got Mr. Johnson to make sure my clothes are right (pointing to man at the ironing board). They got me all the water in the world, and you don't see none of that alcohol. You ain't gonna find it. You might find some champagne, but it'll be there when I leave, I'm sure. I live pretty clean. I'm 67 years old and I gotta compete against them young kids out there. I gotta keep their respect, and to earn their respect you gotta beat them doing it. You can't join 'em.
Livewire: It's been quite a while since you've played Milwaukee, hasn't it?
JB: Milwaukee was overdue for something like this. I'd like to say you've got a nice club here. This is a nice place. The kinda show that James Brown is gonna do, is where you sit down and enjoy yourself and you get that old feeling back and everybody's happy. You really need a decent place in Milwaukee to see some clean, first-class, wholesome music. I know that they're going to see that by the way it's set up here. Its good that everybody's getting a piece of the pie [referring to the profits going to the native American tribe that manages and runs the casino.] I'm part Apache and Aztec myself. My daddy's nickname was Coochi, which is called Cochise. And I've got pictures of Geronimo that look identical to all my kids. I didn't pay no attention at first, but that's what it is. I got the head full of hair and I got all that. His [hair] was hangin' down like mine be hangin' down in the mornin'.
(laughs) Livewire: Of all the different titles you've gained over the years is there one that you feel best sums up James Brown?
JB: Well, actually for titles and the purpose of it, The Godfather of Soul, because it means that I stayed with the music and never left the music. I don't want to bring America no old sins back. I wanna bring her new blessings. When you see the show you'll see there's one person that stood by his guns. When you see that show there ain't no 'almost tired' or 'I don't feel good.' I feel just like I felt when I was 25-years old when I do that show. But when I finish and I may fall over (laughs.) I'm gonna make sure that everybody has a great time. Whatever our problems are we won't be thinking about them tonight. There won't be no problems tonight. There might be some problems tomorrow getting out of bed! (laughs)
Livewire: Your new single sounds like a return to your heavy funk.
JB: It is heavy funk, but it's also telling the young people 'killing is out, school is in,' not 'school is out, killing is in.' They got it in reverse. Here's what you need to do [again quoting the lyrics from the song], you need to try romance, turn that cap around and take that gun out of your pants. Killing is a way of life in school. I know you've got a good heart, but what you really need is to learn that a lack of knowledge and a little bit of drugs will make you blow your cool. You're dealing with all these negative things that are gonna make you sicker.
Livewire: It's a strong message.
JB: It's probably the best message we can have right now. Hey man, let's face it, you got children and they're afraid to go to school. I mean what is happenin'? You gotta go to work and take care of your family and do things, and your wife's gotta do things. And now you gotta worry about things like 'I wonder if the kids are gonna be safe on the streets. I wonder if my wife is gonna be able to get 'em to school and not get hurt herself.'
Livewire: Do have grandchildren yourself?
JB: I have great grandchildren! So you know how I feel! I feel for yours too. I feel for all our kids. When we look at kids we don't see the Spanish or Japanese or German or Chinese or white or black. We just see children.
Livewire: Is this single part of a new album?
JB: Yes, the album will be out...we'll I don't really know when.
Livewire: What's you take on modern music today?
JB: Well, there is no music, that's the problem. They left with the shambles of what has happened from 'Papa's Bag' [referring to his groundbreaking hit "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag"] and all the groove I got. They took some with the rap and some with hip-hop and tried to divide James Brown into a lot of different ways. But I don't mind, as long as you use me. I'm like Bill Withers 'use me 'til you use me up.' As long as you use me positive. Gospel will always be in. I'd love to see jazz come back.
Livewire: Ken Burns certainly helped give jazz a shot-in-the-arm with his great PBS series earlier this year.
Livewire: Is there any particular musical style of yours - soul, funk or R&B - that you feel closer to?
JB: Well, since '65 it's been all me, so whatever I play is me anyway. That's the patent. It's James Brown. It's all me. But it's me in a sense of this time. It's a part of all of us. It's part of your life [pointing around the room], your life and James Brown has been in y'alls life. So it's not James Brown's music, nobody owns no music. The music is the ear that y'all let it be a part of. That's the dance, you know? It's what makes you solid. Let's face it, the way music was written, you tip-toe. On 2 and 4 you tip-toe through the tulips and that kind of thing, and the soul is gone. The country and western people want to break out and be playin' funk, boy! They know that other thing is wrong, but their tryin' to respect their daddies and moms. And those white kids on guitars playin' the blues - they go crazy! (laughs) They wanna play so hard!
Livewire: How would you like to be remembered 100 years from now?
JB: Well, I tell ya, I don't like to change things. There's some things that say it so well that you don't need to change it. It's right there. I just wanna be remembered like Dr. King - a man who wants to help somebody.
Livewire: Thank you very much, Mr. Brown. It's been a real honor.
JB: Thank you. We're gonna have a great time tonight!
Before James Brown passed away on Christmas Day of 2006 he and his sister, Fannie Brown, had been working on a music project for a few years. The project was a series of songs that would reach out to today's youth and change their minds - to stop the killing and have self respect. James and Fannie wrote several songs and had not yet released them before James died, so one of the last things James asked Fannie to do was finish what they started and get the songs out to the world.
For more info on this project go to: http://www.godsisterofsoul.com