James Joe Brown Jr., May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006.
(Photo: Associated Press)
How do you write about a sound words can’t describe? A bodily spasm that cannot be characterized? An unintelligible grunt?
It seems stupid to even try to explain Brother James’ sound in words, because words – no matter the writer, no matter how descriptive – are insufficient. In an ideal world, under the best of circumstances, I’d just play an unending loop of Brother James and that insistent, unapologetic, even violent sound. Let you hear it, feel it, snort it up your nose, inject it in a vein. Let your lips curl into a sneer behind it, get your pelvis all loose and hyphy.
But then some lawyer would send us a cease and desist letter that talks about various and sundry violations of Title 17, how such a tribute could result in a maximum penalty of $100,000 per infringement, yadda, yadda, yadda. So for the sake of legally protecting this publication and the company that owns it from overly aggressive copyright enforcement, I can’t sample the most sampled musician of all time.
My admittedly selfish grief aside, that sucks. Instead, I’m left with words.
Let me make it plain: Brother James played gutter, mongrel music. It was scientific and methodological in its jagged, raw, filthy nature. I respected Motown; I felt Brother James. Most of Brother James’ music, if you reduced it to “proper” notation, you’d see two, maybe three chords, tops. But from those two chords, the gutter would rise. Two chords, twenty minutes. Damn.
And with gutter as conduit, that sound made us think things, say things, do things we otherwise would not – could not – express. That sound was the coffee can of chicken grease on a still smoldering stove, burnt flour crisps swimming on the bottom. It was a mangy dog stopping to piss on a pair of expensive loafers. It was hocking a loogie in the street, the phlegmatic byproduct of lungs coated with virus.
That sound was the pre-orgasmic ugly face; swollen ankles when your sugar is too high; Omar and Brother Mouzon blasting away Stringer Bell; and the stench of Katrina.
And while making us get down and dirty in the in the gutter, Brother James allowed us the freedom to rejoice, exclaim, testify, liberate. Stripped of pretense, manner, and all that bourgie bourgie nonsense, we could shout as he shouted, squeal as he squealed, grunt as he grunted. Shit felt good, too.
“We gonna take it HiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiYA!!”
Given the impact of that sound, the title “Godfather of Soul” somehow seems wanting. Sure that sound was soulful, but to me, “soul” doesn’t get your face all scrunched up and make your body do things in public you’ll later deny, deny, deny.
And this is but one of many dichotomies of Brother James and his sound of music. His sound wasn’t processed, yet his ‘do was. The songs seemed embarrassingly simple, yet were meticulously and elaborately orchestrated. Easily, he was as integral to modern music as Elvis Presley or the Beatles, yet his records never earned nearly the same level of “popular” success. He was from the South, but his was the soundtrack for Harlem, Watts, Newark, Detroit, and D.C.
And despite my complaints about copyright restricting access to Brother James’ sound for the purposes of this article, few artists’ work (and sound) have been as blatantly copied as his. None has been sampled more: it would not be exaggeration to claim that Clyde Stubblefield’s sinful backbeat on “Funky Drummer” has been sampled whole (and reinterpreted in smaller, less decipherable pieces) more than any other song ever recorded. Brown – and Stubblefield – should have earned millions on that track alone. It is reasonable to argue that copyright should have protected Brother James’ work more aggressively that it seemed to, and ensured greater compensation to him while he was alive.
Yet much of what Brother James provided us goes far beyond copyright’s protection of creativity. The Web is sure to be filled with tributes, remembrances, and replays; in most circumstances, the copyright to those materials will be held by people and institutions other those who are creating and posting the clips. Certainly, the copyright owners have a right to restrict access to and use of Brother James’ sound clips, video clips, his image and likeness. But I hope such owners can, now and in the future, acknowledge Brother James’ unique place in America’s cultural pantheon, and refrain from the sort of selective and crassly commercial protection that has restricted access to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But in the end, that sound was – and will remain – the thing that keeps Brother James relevant for me. Not even the performances do it for me like that sound does it. And ever the showman, Brother James went out like a star: he left us on Christmas Day, bowing down with the cape draped over his shoulders for the last time as folks opened presents.
Having left us, Brother James takes the show even higher, elevating the gutter so spirits and ancestors can ponder that most fundamental of questions: ain’t it funky? Now Jesus Christ Himself can hear, feel, and smell that sound, getting down in D, funky D, dog D.
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