August 2, 2014

ONLY HOWLIN' WOLF COULD FOLLOW THAT:

The Possessed: James Brown in Eighteen Minutes (DAVID REMNICK, 7/30/14, The New Yorker)

Emceed--adorably, cornily--by the rock-and-roll duo Jan and Dean at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the T.A.M.I. show (the Teenage Awards Music International) was a departure from the "Shindig"-style pop programming of the time. The lineup was long and included white acts like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, the Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, and, as headliners, the Rolling Stones, but it was heavily weighted with black acts of all sorts: Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and James Brown and the Famous Flames.

The Stones had come to the States from England determined to play black R. & B. for a mainly white audience that did not know its Son House from its Howlin' Wolf. They were already stars, and the T.A.M.I. producers had them scheduled to close the show. James Brown did not approve. "Nobody follows James Brown!" he kept telling the show's director, Steve Binder. Mick Jagger himself was hesitant. He and Keith Richards were boys from Kent with an unusual obsession with American blues. They knew what Brown could do. In Santa Monica, they watched him from the wings, just twenty feet away, and, as they did, they grew sick with anxiety.

Brown, who had played the Chitlin Circuit for years, was genuinely incensed that the producers would put him on before pallid amateurs (in his mind) like the Stones. His performance, he later admitted, was a cutting contest that he refused to lose. As Brown puts it in his memoir, "James Brown: The Godfather of Soul," "We did a bunch of songs, nonstop, like always. . . . I don't think I ever danced so hard in my life, and I don't think they'd ever seen a man move that fast." It was a four-song set: the staccato blues number "Out of Sight"; an astonishing inside-out revival of "Prisoner of Love," which had been recorded by smoothies like Billy Eckstine and Perry Como; the dramatic centerpiece "Please, Please, Please"; and the closer, "Night Train," which the boxer Sonny Liston would play to get himself going in the gym.

What is there to say? If Astaire's dancing was the graceful line of black-tie seduction, Brown's was a paroxysm of sexual frenzy, a blend of Pentecostal possession and erotic release. RJ Smith's "The One" is the book to read on James Brown. (The Profile to read is Philip Gourevitch's brilliant "Mr. Brown," published in 2002, four years before Brown's death. Two veteran critics, Alan Light and Edna Gundersen, have written interesting pieces on the T.A.M.I. performance.) Smith quotes Brown as saying that the T.A.M.I. performance was the "highest energy" moment of his career: "I danced so hard my manager cried. But I really had to. What I was up against was pop artists--I was R. & B. I had to show 'em the difference, and believe me, it was hard."

This was the first time that Brown, while singing "Please, Please, Please," pulled out his "cape act," in which, in the midst of his own self-induced hysteria, his fit of longing and desire, he drops to his knees, seemingly unable to go on any longer, at the point of collapse, or worse. His backup singers, the Flames, move near, tenderly, as if to revive him, and an offstage aide, Danny Ray, comes on, draping a cape over the great man's shoulders. Over and over again, Brown recovers, throws off the cape, defies his near-death collapse, goes back into the song, back into the dance, this absolute abandonment to passion.

"It's a Holiness feeling--like a Baptist thing," Brown said of the act. 


Posted by at August 2, 2014 11:35 AM
  
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