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James Brown Is Comin' To Town
Here's What's In His Funky Santa Bag
by psychologist, Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, aka Dr. BLT
Beloved Phantom Tollbooth Visitors: For the free, one-song "soundtrack" to this article, from my free mp3 jukebox, simply strike the link below:
James Brown is Comin' to
Few musicians/entertainers have had such a profound influence on music as James Brown, especially in the categories of funk, R&B, rap, soul, and (believe it or not), gospel. If singers were Santas, Mr. Brown's bag would always be full of funky gifts. He has, in fact, gifted the world in unfathomable ways with his feverish, fiery stage presence, his unmatched sense of rhythm, and his musically genius mind. And though some would say that he squandered them, this "Godfather of Soul" has certainly got the goods. And the style in which he delivers such goods is nothing short of spectacular.
He was born in 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina. He was an only child. His parents separated when he was four and from that point on, he was raised by his aunt in a brothel in Augusta, Georgia. He dropped out of school in seventh grade so that he could begin to help support his poor aunt by picking cotton, shining shoes, washing cars, and about anything at all, just to make a few bucks so that his aunt could make ends meet. When it came to crime and music, he was never a partner in crime or a partner in rhyme. He always took the helm. His criminal history dates back to age 16, when he was involved in an armed robbery and was also found breaking into a car. He started out serving his time in county jail, and then completed his term doing hard labor on farms.
He dreamed about being a boxer and a baseball player before he ever dreamed of becoming a musician. Everything changed when he met Bobby Byrd, a man who played piano in honky-tonk bars. Shortly thereafter, he joined Bobby Byrd's group, The Gospel Starlighters. That group eventually adopted an R&B style, and became The Flames. Things really began to take off for Brown and the rest of the group in 1955, when they got signed by what was then considered a major label---King/Federal Records. After a string of hits, it became clear who the star of the group was---you guessed it: James Brown! In 1963, he released what is considered to be one of the greatest live albums of all time: Live at the Apollo. It spawned another string of hit songs for Brown, including Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, I Got You (I Feel Good), and It's A Man's Man's Man's World. It also made him a force to be reckoned with in the often fleeting record industry. Soon he was living large, with his own private jet, a luxurious villa, four radio stations, a restaurant chain, a castle, and a music publishing house. In terms of commercial success and all of the accoutrements that generally accompany it, James was on top of the world. But his shadow followed closely behind.
Mr. Brown shifted away from pop to a harder, more intense form of funk as he approached the mid to late 60s, but the hits kept coming. Songs like Cold Sweat, I Got a Feelin', Mother Popcorn and Santa is Definitely Here to Stay kept him on top of the charts throughout the 60s and well into the 70s.
Then his band began to fall apart, with most of the members leaving him for George Clinton's bands, Parliament and Funkadelic. Enter Saturday Night Fever. When disco entered the scene in the mid-70s, James Brown's commercial success began to wane. If that wasn't bad enough, he was slapped with a 4.5 million dollar bill from the IRS for back tax. If that wasn't bad enough, he found himself in the middle of a radio station bribery case. Then his marriage fell apart and his son, Teddy was killed in an automobile accident. If he wasn't so actively involved in so much his own demise, he could have called himself Job.
The 80s were a little kinder, and a little gentler. It started with a small part in the cult movie, The Blues Brothers. His music career began gaining steam from that point on. He surprised everyone in 1986 with his international TKO top ten hit song, Living In America, the theme song from Rocky IV. That was a good year for Brown. He was also inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame that same year, and he was fortunate enough to see three more of his songs land on top the R&B charts before the decade was through. In 1988, he was accused of assault and battery on his wife, and in 1989, in the middle of trying to sort the alleged domestic violence issue, he became involved in a high-speed car chase. He was subsequently convicted of illegal possession of drugs and firearms, aggravated assault and failure to stop for the police. Count your blessings, Glen Campbell.
In 1991, Brown was released, and so were two more of his albums. Since that time, he has delivered some stunning, critically acclaimed live performances and he's released several CDs, including his 2004 releases, 70s Funk Classic Collectables and Give It Up or Turn It Loose Pazzazz.
During the course of his career, he's earned much more than a bad reputation for his criminal activity. He's earned Grammies, including Lifetime Achievement Award; titles, such as of "The Godfather of Soul" and "Mr. Dynamite," and respect from music critics all over the word. In the world of rap and R&B, everybody wants to sample James Brown.
Now, you may call the man I am drawing attention to during this Christmas season the king of all bad Santas. And though he has occasionally delivered lumps of coal, and he has arguably squandered some of the gifts God has given him by glorifying sex instead of God. And while he has occasionally squandered his gifts while drunk or high, it can be argued that, on the whole, he has delivered more wonderful gifts than lumps of coal. Still, you may wonder why I would actually write a tribute song and a corresponding article drawing attention to a man who has had so many personal problems, and has committed so many crimes. Are you forgetting that I'm the one who had so much childhood faith that, as a 4-year-old child that I prayed that Satan would accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior? Of course that was a bit of a stretch, but I don't think any of us should give up on James Brown. When I think about criminals, I think about the Other Man on the Cross, the criminal on the cross beside Jesus. When that criminal turned to Jesus in a moment of utter humility and suffering, Jesus had mercy on his soul. He said, "Today you will be with me in paradise." I cannot see inside the heart of James Brown to determine if he has repented of his bad behavior and turned his life over to God, and I haven't heard anything about such a conversion. However, while I have never served time in prison, I was born a prisoner to sin and I have sailed on the same ship Brown has sailed in---the one labeled, "Sinner in need of salvation." I've made waves on that ship too, though never as rhythmic as the ones James made.
I look for redeeming value in every individual, and what I can say is this: In addition to a plethora of pumpin', jammin', funkin' grooves, James Brown has been exceedingly generous in many other ways. He has distributed s myriad abundance of Godfather gifts from his Santa bag: For one thing, he has been observed on many occasions donating his time, money and talents towards fighting poverty, disease and drug and alcohol abuse. Moreover, he has looked and consistently still looks for every opportunity to proudly stand up for the rights of African-Americans. Many ghetto children who would have other wise grabbed a gun, ending up being inspired by his music, and opted to grab a guitar, a saxophone, a drum set, or, as Beck puts it in a song, "two turntables and a microphone."
So now you know why, when
I describe James Brown, I call him "Santa" and not "Satan." Now,
if you're expecting Santa this year, and James Brown shows up in town instead,
show him a little respect for his good deeds, and for the music he has
delivered on millions of soulful, spellbinding vinyl LPs, cassettes, 8-tracks
and CDs, and for the electrifying performances he has delivered.
If he is nothing else, he is passionate.