December 27, 2006


Godfather of Soul, and C.E.O. of His Band (KELEFA SANNEH, 12/27/06, NY Times)

Most of all, he was an old-fashioned, hard-driving bandleader — which is to say, an anomaly. In an era of rock stars he often seemed like the second coming of Cab Calloway; the old big band had gotten smaller, but the man in front had only grown. [...]

He was black and proud, he was a sex machine, but he was also a brilliant conductor, known for coaxing great performances out of the singers and musicians behind him. That, most of all, is what Mr. Brown did. [...]

In this sense the bandleader was also a brand leader: in the 1970s, especially, “James Brown” was not just a star, but an executive, a producer, a franchise. His name (sometimes his face too) on the record label meant you were getting a James-Brown-approved product. And if you went to see the J.B.’s, the backing band that morphed into a terrific stand-alone group, you were also seeing a reflection of Mr. Brown, even if he was nowhere near the building.

Bandleaders have always (of necessity) been businessmen too, but Mr. Brown was wise enough to be unembarrassed by the echo. There was a hint of corporate precision in the way he led those musicians onstage: each wiggle of the hip or flicker of the hand was an urgent memo from top management; each post-show conversation was a performance evaluation. Even his political program reflected this obsession; his vision of black power was in large part a vision of black spending power, and he saw no reason why a black nationalist shouldn’t also be an eager (and successful) black capitalist.

The musician as executive: this is the not-quite-new notion that defines the current musical era.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2006 8:05 AM
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