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 the players.
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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