SEATTLE — James Brown has seen some history. When his first
single charted, Jim Crow segregation was alive and well. His songs threw a
beat behind the Black Power movement. And yet, no recent era in America has
been more perilous than the present, the 69-year-old said.
“We at the lowest time that we’ve been since I’ve been born, as a nation —
the lowest time,” Brown said Friday in his dressing room before a
show at the Paramount Theatre.
The man known onstage as the Godfather of Soul often sounds offstage like
the fretful great-grandfather he is. His solution to society’s ills, among
which he counts school shootings and gangsta rap, is, as you might expect, more
music — preferably more James Brown music. And short of that, more of
every kind of music.
“We got to now barter our thoughts and our love with each other,” said
Brown, sitting back on a couch, dressed in a red-striped black suit, with
silver-tipped brown cowboy boots. “Country music gotta get with rock
music, rock music gotta get with the hip-hop, the hip-hop gotta get with
the jazz, the jazz gotta get with the country, and the country gotta get
with the opera. We gotta all become a part of each other.”
In the 1960s, Brown commanded the pop charts with groove-laden hits such as
“I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” By the
early ’90s, samples from his records provided the backbeat for untold
numbers of hip-hop songs, including Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.”
But in recent years, Brown’s been a fixture on gossip pages. Last month,
two daughters sued him for back royalties, claiming they helped him write
25 songs as children. Earlier this year, he successfully fought a sexual
harassment lawsuit brought by a former employee. In 1991, Brown was paroled
after two years of a six-year jail sentence that followed an interstate car
chase and gun threats.
Throughout it all, however, he’s maintained his reputation for exacting
control onstage. Before the show at the Paramount, he spent an hour with
his 16-piece band refining segues and “If I Ruled the World.” Brown sang
guitar parts for a young player, took over the drums himself, laid down
lines on the keyboards to illustrate his demands. The band swallowed the
criticism without a word of protest.
“You’re missing a whole lick,” Brown said.
“It’s not as big a mistake as some other mistakes, but it’s still a mistake.”
“What you got is good, but …”
During the night’s set, Brown left most — but not all — of the fancy
footwork to two Britney-esque dancers. The old-fashioned revue packed in
past glories such as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” and “Get Up
Offa That Thing (Release the Pressure).”
If he’s tired of singing the tunes, it hardly showed. Brown seemed most
engaged by directing his band. Even as he was walking off under the cape
draped over him by the show’s MC, he was flashing hand signals to one of
Brown ignored his most recent album, this year’s The Next Step,
which includes “Killing Is Out, School Is In” — featuring the instruction
to, “Try romance, turn that hat around, and take that gun out your pants.”
He did, however, lead the crowd through a sincere take on “God Bless America.”
Before the show, Brown said he’d like to work with Snoop Dogg now that the
gangsta rapper has vowed to lay off pot, but the two have nothing planned.
“We got to get our music back,” Brown said backstage. “We get our music
back, we won’t have so much problems. And our music has to say something,
other than what you’re gonna do to somebody, whether you’re gonna off
somebody, how you’re gonna whack ‘em.
“We used to use music to get in our car and go off in the woods with our
girlfriends. They don’t know what to do with music now. They make music to
go fight and kill people with. We used music to make love by.”
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