James Brown Born: May 3,1933-Died: December 25,2005 Part Six
Before James Brown appeared on stage, his personal MC gave him an elaborate introduction accompanied by drumrolls, as the MC worked in Brown’s various sobriquets along with the names of many of his hit songs. The introduction by Fats Gonder, captured on Brown’s 1963 album Live at the Apollo album, is a representative example:
So now ladies and gentlemen it is star time, are you ready for star time? Thank you and thank you very kindly. It is indeed a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time, national and international[ly] known as the hardest working man in show business, the man that sings “I’ll Go Crazy” … “Try Me” … “You’ve Got the Power” … “Think” … “If You Want Me” … “I Don’t Mind” … “Bewildered” …the million dollar seller, “Lost Someone” … the very latest release, “Night Train” … let’s everybody “Shout and Shimmy” … Mr. Dynamite, the amazing Mr. Please Please himself, the star of the show, James Brown and The Famous Flames!!
Concert repertoire and format
Brown and MC Danny Ray during cape routine, BBC Electric Proms ’06 concert
James Brown’s performances were famous for their intensity and length. His own stated goal was to “give people more than what they came for — make them tired, ’cause that’s what they came for.'” Brown’s concert repertoire consisted mostly of his own hits and recent songs, with a few R&B covers mixed in. Brown danced vigorously as he sang, working popular dance steps such as the Mashed Potato into his routine along with dramatic leaps, splits and slides. In addition, his horn players and backup singers (The Famous Flames) typically performed choreographed dance routines, and later incarnations of the Revue included backup dancers. Male performers in the Revue were required to wear tuxedoes and cummerbunds long after more casual concert wear became the norm among the younger musical acts. Brown’s own extravagant outfits and his elaborate processed hairdo completed the visual impression. A James Brown concert typically included a performance by a featured vocalist, such as Vicki Anderson or Marva Whitney, and an instrumental feature for the band, which sometimes served as the opening act for the show.
A trademark feature of Brown’s stage shows, usually during the song “Please, Please, Please”, involved Brown dropping to his knees while clutching the microphone stand in his hands, prompting the show’s longtime MC, Danny Ray, to come out, drape a cape over Brown’s shoulders and escort him off the stage after he had worked himself to exhaustion during his performance. As Brown was escorted off the stage by the MC, Brown’s vocal group, the Famous Flames, continued singing the background vocals “Please, please don’t go-oh”. Brown would then shake off the cape and stagger back to the microphone to perform an encore. Brown’s routine was inspired by a similar one used by the professional wrestler Gorgeous George, as well as Little Richard.
Brown performs a version of the cape routine over the closing credits of the film Blues Brothers 2000 and in the film of the T.A.M.I. Show (1964) in which he and The Famous Flames upstaged the Rolling Stones. The Police refer to “James Brown on the T.A.M.I. Show” in their 1980 song “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around”.
As band leader
Brown demanded extreme discipline, perfection and precision from his musicians and dancers – performers in his Revue showed up for rehearsals and members wore the right “uniform” or “costume” for concert performances. During an interview conducted by Terri Gross during the NPR segment “Fresh Air” with Maceo Parker, a former saxophonist in Brown’s band for most of the 1960s and part of the 1970s and 1980s, Parker offered his experience with the discipline that Brown demanded of the band:
You gotta be on time. You gotta have your uniform. Your stuff’s got to be intact. You gotta have the bow tie. You got to have it. You can’t come up without the bow tie. You cannot come up without a cummerbund … [The] patent leather shoes we were wearing at the time gotta be greased. You just gotta have this stuff. This is what [Brown expected] … [Brown] bought the costumes. He bought the shoes. And if for some reason [the band member decided] to leave the group, [Brown told the person to] please leave my uniforms ….
— Maceo Parker
Brown also had a practice of directing, correcting and assessing fines on members of his band who broke his rules, such as wearing unshined shoes, dancing out of sync or showing up late on stage. During some of his concert performances, Brown danced in front of his band with his back to the audience as he slid across the floor, flashing hand signals and splaying his pulsating fingers to the beat of the music. Although audiences thought Brown’s dance routine was part of his act, this practice was actually his way of pointing to the offending member of his troupe who played or sang the wrong note or committed some other infraction. Brown used his splayed fingers and hand signals to alert the offending person of the fine that person must pay to him for breaking his rules.
Brown’s demands of his support acts were, meanwhile, quite the reverse. As Fred Wesley recalled of his time as musical director of the JBs, if Brown felt intimidated by a support act he would try to “undermine their performances by shortening their sets without notice, demanding that they not do certain showstopping songs, and even insisting on doing the unthinkable, playing drums on some of their songs. A sure set killer.”
Education advocacy and humanitarianism
Brown’s main social activism was in preserving the need for education among youths, influenced by his own troubled childhood and his forced dropping out of the seventh grade for wearing “insufficient clothes”. Due to heavy dropout rates in the 1960s, Brown released the pro-education song, “Don’t Be a Drop-Out”. Royalties of the song were donated to charity used for dropout prevention programs. The success of this led to Brown meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House. Johnson cited Brown for being a positive role model to the youth. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Brown provided a free citywide concert in Boston to maintain public order (over the objections of the police chief, who wanted to call off the concert, which he thought would incite violence). A lifelong Republican like his best friend, Ray Charles, James Brown gained the confidence of President Richard Nixon, to whom he found he had to explain the plight of Black Americans. He was also harassed by J. Edgar Hoover and the IRS, probably because Hoover thought it “dangerous” that a young “Black radical” had the ear of the president.
Throughout the remainder of his life, Brown made public speeches in schools and continued to advocate the importance of education in school. Upon filing his will in 2002, Brown advised that most of the money in his estate go into creating the I Feel Good, Inc. Trust to benefit disadvantaged children and provide scholarships for his grandchildren. His final single, “Killing Is Out, School Is In”, advocated against murders of young children in the streets. Brown often gave out money and other items to children while traveling to his childhood hometown of Augusta. A week before his death, while looking gravely ill, Brown gave out toys and turkeys to kids at an Atlanta orphanage, something he had done several times over the years.