The Classical James Brown
Noel Holston - 10/24/2014
Mr. Dynamite, a documentary about James Brown produced by Mick Jagger and directed by Peabody Award winner Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa), premieres on HBO Monday, October 27, its goal in part to increase respect for the Georgia-raised R&B legend.
It’s not, however, as if Brown never got his propers. This is the performer-composer whose sobriquets included not only “Mr. Dynamite” but also “Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother No. 1” and “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” He was taken seriously not just by adoring fans but by serious musicians.
Doubt that? No less a classical-music personage than symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas won a 2007 Peabody Award for his public-radio radio series, The MTT Files, that prominently included an installment titled “We Were Playing Boulez, But We Were Listening to James Brown.”
“When I was in music school, I was part of a crowd of adventurous young musicians,” Tilson Thomas says in that program. “One day, I heard this song, James Brown’s Cold Sweat. This music completely knocked me out. I wanted to share it with all my classical music colleagues. And it turned out all the hipper ones already knew the music. We were all amazed by the level of energy, the attacks, the precision, the syncopation, the wonderful empty spaces. The amazing singing. In those years, we were playing Boulez and Stravinsky, but we were listening to James Brown. From the first day I heard James Brown’s music, I waited anxiously for each new song he would release. He became a hero of mine.”
Tilson Thomas and Brown years later became acquainted. The conductor discovered he and Brown were on the same record label.
In April 2006, eight months before Brown passed away, Tilson Thomas visited the R&B legend at his home and recorded an interview that would be included in an MTT Files broadcast.
A few excerpts:
Tilson Thomas recalls hearing Brown for the first time on Baja, California, “border blaster” XERB-AM. He asks Brown if he remembers the station.
JB: I remember the station, because I helped to get it functioning — with Wolfman Jack.
MTT: The Mighty 1090!
JB: That’s right!
Tilson Thomas asked Brown about his use of space in his music and about his first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” in 1956.
MTT: One of the things I love about the song is, you leave great spaces in your music. A lot of people try to fill in all the spaces. ... I can’t [sound like] you, but the “I-I-I” — the tension you make us feel between those words — how did it happen? How did you get to that?
JB: The only thing I can say is, it was spiritual. ... I went to Africa, trying to find myself there, and I didn’t see me there, but I saw a lot of great things I came from there. I went to India, where my mother’s from. ... [Also] Geronimo is one of my ancestors. ... My dad was named Coochi. That’s Cochise. That’s the bloodline. But the space, the Indian dances, the pain, the struggle, the emptiness. The same thing with Africa. I represent the spirit in a cage that’s a hostage by man. That’s what I represent.
Tilson Thomas also asked him about the incredible tightness, the precision, of the recordings.
MTT: If I’m a bass player ... are you gonna suggest to me something I can do?
JB: If I’m arranging songs, I’m not gonna suggest, I’m gonna tell you.
MTT: [Laughs.] That’s what I wanted to hear.
JB: I don’t let nobody suggest nothing on my stage. It’s like an assembly line. Any man, he don’t have to know anything about that car. Put this bolt right here. All they gotta do is do what I tell them. I’m structuring it. Exactly. And over my head is God—he’s structuring it.”
To hear the whole program, by all means visit the Peabody Awards Collection Archives and request call number 2007015ENR or visit American Public Media’s page for The MTT Files, program 7.