Monday, May 28, 2012

James Brown Month: RJ Smith Interview Part III

The final installment of our interview with The One author RJ Smith.

ICHIBAN: How in the world did James Brown have time to do everything that he did for himself AND produce the number of records he produced for other people? Do you have any insights on how involved he was in productions, or was it more of a brand name thing?

RJ SMITH: My sense is those numerous productions happened every way possible – some were cut without him being anywhere NEAR the studio. Some were built on ideas he had talked out with the musicians, or with JB stopping by the studio without being much invested in the moment. And some happened with JB at the center of the action. Then again, as Jim Dickinson once told me, sometimes the guy who brings the coffee is the one who really produces the session – you never know what is going to be the catalyst. It’s a mystery.

"Needs more . . ."
ICHIBAN: You posit in the Dancer chapter of The One that Brown was a dancer first and had to make up music to go suit his movements. Do you think that this was a conscious or unconscious process? Also, are you aware of how much Brown was exposed to African music in the 50s and 60s? Was his piling of polyrhythms something he picked up from somewhere or was it kind of instinctively sui generis?

I think Brown got the attention he craved, and the sustenance he needed to survive, first from dancing, and a little later from singing. He learned he had a mastery over audiences first by moving to a rhythm.

An amazing thing – and maybe in the end, the most amazing thing – about Brown was how he carried the lore of the African diaspora as fully as anybody ever did. I think he was listening to everything, and was influenced by all kinds of things (I’m struck for instance by how every time he was coming to LA in the late 50s/early 60s, he seemed to get paired with a mambo band. Wonder what he took from that!) I suspect he heard a lot more African sounds coming through the Cuban and Puerto Rican music – boogaloo! – around him in the streets while he was living in NYC in the ‘60s than from whatever Afro pop itself he might have heard. I think his piling of poly-rhythms has everything to do with being a profoundly responsive African-American from the South – and not just any part of the South, but South Carolina, with a very particular role in the slave trade, and a very specific and rich slave culture. The mystery of the guy is how he became this clear channel signal for the culture of the slave south – it was fragmented and outlawed during and after slavery, yet James Brown put it all together and made America feel it. I bet he didn’t even totally know how it happened – I’m sure he never would have talked about it, because his most comfortable line on Africa’s influence on him was that while, sure, he heard some overlaps, he wasn’t playing African music, he was playing James Brown music! He wasn’t going to acknowledge anything beyond his own innate genius.

JB working a postage stamp

In this age where everything is recycled from the past, how in the world is it that JB's amazing TV show Future Shock is not available as a DVD box set?

You speak wisdom. I thought the film and whatever documentation of it were in the posession of Ted Turner, who apparently would sometimes come in from a night of Atlanta partying and hang out with Brown on the set. But someone recently suggested that CNN now owns the recordings as part of the deal that Turner signed over. It kills me that this stuff is not on DVD, accompanied by a deluxe booklet with notes by Pete Relic and Questlove. Not right.

somebody hook a doctor up

What, to your mind, is the last great James Brown recording/single?

One day when I was sitting in court in Aiken, SC listening to lawyers and family members arguing about who should get what, they started complaining about the alleged disappearance of a number of masters found in Brown’s pool house. Among them was a master recording of Johnny Paycheck! How the heck could that be? Since then I’ve wondered if JB and JP did some kind of thing together. Maybe THAT’s the last great Brown recording. 

One of the great JB divas who does not make an appearance in The One is Lyn Collins. Did you hear any good stories about her?

Regarding Lyn Collins, I recall her complaining in an interview in a British magazine that Brown had installed a telephone, like a hotline, in his house so that he could be in constant communication with her and know her every movement. She said dating him was like being in prison.

I've also seen lots of claims, which may have some accuracy, that Brown would paradoxically put out those records by proteges like Lyn and Marva [Whitney] and Bobby [Byrd], but should they start to take off, he'd start calling radio stations and tell them NOT to play the records. In other words, he was pretty okay with these folks feeling indebted to him, by putting out their records, throwing them some money. But if their records started stealing attention from him, he would have to intervene/knock them down - and being the producer, distributor and erstwhile check payer for various folks, he had lots of means at his disposal . . . But I have heard claims specifically about Lyn's version of "Think About It", that when it started heading for the top ten (r&b, I guess), JB began working the phones, calling his DJ connections and telling them to cool their action. How you prove that I don't know, but it seems somewhat plausible.

"I don't care how good it's doin'! I've got
money - now I need love! Shut it down!"
And, lastly, is there a particular song that you wanted to fit into The One that for one reason or another didn't make the cut, and what do you want to say about it?

I wrote out several thousand words on "The Grunt" [a 1970 JB produced instrumental by the Collins kids' version of the JB's], particularly its relationship to 18th and 19th century Cincinnati and how that town was known as Porkopolis. The abundant slaughterhouses used to dump trucks full of spare ribs into the river because they didn't know they tasted good. Wild dogs used to own downtown Cincinnati at night, wild dogs with pieces of meat in their maws scaring the shit out of visiting European ladies and forever shaping their impressions of Ohio and America. I couldn't find the right place for it in the book, but anyway "The Grunt" launched that particular jag. Something about "The Grunt" just leaves a man to thinking about pig flesh and wild dogs. It's that good. 

Special thanks to Mr. Smith for taking the time to chat with us about Soul Brother #1. The One can be found at the usual retail and online outlets, for instance here.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

James Brown Month: RJ Smith Interview part 1

RJ Smith's James Brown biography, The One, was published in March by Gotham Books. James Brown's life is so large and complex that making sense of it is a lot like staring directly into the sun (which is why we've taken such a scattershot approach to celebrating it this month on Ichiban) but Smith manages to hit all the major points (the music, the ego, the dancer, the ego, the politics, his disturbing relationships with women, the ego, his dictatorial relationship with his bands, his worldwide social impact, the drugs, the ego) in a compelling and fascinating way.  In this e-mail interview Smith discusses some of the more obscure parts of the book and some of the events and people from JB's life that there was just no room to fit into The One. The interview ran longer than a JB single from 1969, so we're splitting it up into three parts, just like Hot Pants.  Catch the first flipside tomorrow!

ICHIBAN:  What inspired you to spend this much time writing about James Brown? Was there an initial point of revelation that connected you to him as a subject matter? 

RJ SMITH: The first connection I had with him was when I was growing up in Detroit in the late 60s and early 70s. That of course was Motown country, and Top 40 radio was laced with bubblegum, “The Sound of Young America” and local garage rock and then ... you encountered ... the scream. That scrofulous shout that just shredded everything on the air. I don’t even remember what song I heard first, or any song at all, I just remember the noise of his voice, and I was interested.

After that, well he just seemed more interesting, and confusing, and larger than life than about anybody else I can think of in life. I mean this guy just talked and talked and talked, and he kept getting more mystifying while he kept speaking these deep truths in broken poetics. What kind of life was this? If you are gonna live in somebody’s head for four or five years, may it be as interesting as this one.
talkin' loud and sayin' somethin'
ICHIBAN: Your technique of grounding the various eras of James's bands by focusing on the drummers really tied the disparate elements of his career together. When did you decide this was the way to go?

RJ SMITH: There were so many amazing musicians in that band, how do I give them credit without overwhelming the story I’m trying to tell? You need this CNN crawl across the bottom of the page flashing all these folks names as you read about the records. But then, if I start naming people, it’s hard to do it part way, there will be reader’s who quite rightly ask, where’s Sugar Pie DeSanto, where’s Country Kellum, where’s the Dapps, right? Reasonable questions, but there’s so many great players – they need their own book. I started thinking about the drummers as a way to at least symbolically nod in the direction of the whole unit, and then the more I thought about rhythm at the core of his sound, and Southern-if-not-New Orleans rhythms in specific, the more reasons I had for focusing on the drums.

Give (some of) the drummers some!
Jabo Starks, Clyde Stubblefield, Melvin Parker, Clayton Fillyau
How do you view JB's artistic career arc?  Modern consensus seems to make the 60s a long slow build to the apotheosis of the early 70s with the Bootsy version of the band, and that was the artistic peak. But in the 70s, critical consensus put his peak more in the late 60s, but this was before the importance of funk music was really understood.  I guess my question is: Is, say, Sex Machine a more radical artistic breakthrough or amazing piece of music than, say, Live at the Apollo?  

Probably – this is the baby boomer divide with JB, whether you think Live at the Olympia is better than Live at the Apollo. That early 70s outpouring with Bootsy and the other iterations of the JBs and assorted projects of this era is singular. Those funk records are so deep, and Brown was just popping them out like beads of sweat, it’s pretty unprecedented. It was this whole new genre of sound for a while that mostly had only itself to refer to, and then it started touching other musics. We still haven’t gotten to the bottom of this era. I sure would love to hear rehearsal tapes, or to have been a fly on the wall when the JBs got together in the studio – how did they talk to each other, how did they establish a bass line, etc? It seems so complicated and hard to assemble, but they had to be laying it down pretty quick and on the fly.

What says you, Ichibunnies?

Syd Nathan [head honcho of King Records and frequent JB financial sparring partner] and James Brown would have probably made one of the great comedy duos; their relationship seems so contentious and codependent.  I was surprised to learn that Brown was a pallbearer at Nathan's funeral - were they closer than their antagonistic reputation lets on?  Did they have a genuine friendship or was it strictly business? And did Nathan EVER like anything JB did, besides make him money?

There’s a great story Syd’s nephew told me about James putting a Mezuzah around his neck whenever he had to get something from Syd, because who knows, it might help somehow. Syd never totally saw talent on its own terms – money shaped his view of a great many things. But I am sure he understood how special James was. He had to have. Syd liked the way “No” sounded, but at some point he learned that telling James “No” lead to great things down the road. Doesn’t a great comedy team need contrast? These two were like Redd Foxx and Slappy White together, but with two Redd Foxxes! They were so much alike, I think they totally UNDERSTOOD each other and fed off the mirror image they found in their competitor.  Part of what encouraged Syd to stick it to James every chance he got was that he felt he had to keep the guy in check. When Charles Spurling told me he was hired in the late ‘60s at King (besides his considerable musical value) to be pure thug muscle to push back at James, it totally made sense.

SYD NATHAN: Give the drummer some . . . money!

The stories in The One about tent show culture and its influence on Brown in the 50s was very interesting, particularly the contrast between the Daddy Grace religious version of a travelling tent show and the Esquerita/Little Richard nascent drag-queen version.  Do you have any more anecdotes about either or both of these traditions and what JB took from them? 

Hats off to The Hound there – he’s really blazed the way in chronicling the whole gay tent show masquerade culture in the South. I keep telling my academic friends there’s a lot to write about here, but so far nobody’s dug in. I wish I understood better the sexual identity dynamics of this phenomenon. How did James Brown become not quite a part of this scene, but cognizant of its stars – Billy Wright, and of course Little Richard, probably others too – and how did he think about the queer undertow (and text) of this scene? The “Man’s Man” dressing like Little Richard, and walking down the same streets of Macon. How did that play itself out in daily life, and what did people say about Brown, and what did Brown do when he heard it?

As for Daddy Grace, any chance I can take to write about him I will totally go for it. The guy is one of the great American stories, and I am convinced he had a crucial imprint on funk (through the drumming and bands in his church) that has yet to be fully understood. So many cool things happen in tents, we definitely need more tents in America today. 

Tune in tomorrow for James in jail, the Dapps, Bobby Byrd, "There Was a Time" and the return to the Ichiblog of Soul Brother #? - Mr. Joe Tex!