Not Playing the Background

Out of all the great black American talents, the ones who have arguably fared the best are the singers and musicians.  While it may only be a fraction of what they deserve, they have at least received some small measure of the respect, recognition and renumeration due them as the architects and originators of the successive waves of sound that have colonized the entire planet: including spirituals, blues, ragtime, jazz, gospel, rock, soul, funk and hip-hop, to name only the best-known.

Black American music, moreover, has proven resistant to deracination.  No matter how lovingly adopted or blatantly appropriated it may be by other cultures, it tends to retain an ineradicable whiff of its origins.  The reason, perhaps, lies in the way so many of its artistic DNA encode various forms of resistance to the virulently anti-black racism that has marred so much of American history.

Previously we examined Janelle Monae’s “random minor note” and traced its origins to the recovery of the pre-tempered scale in W. C. Handy’s popularization of the blues.  This week, we take as our subject the “hardest working man in show business,” the “Godfather of soul,” and one of the key architects of the funk sound, James Brown.

James Brown’s earliest big hit, and one of his most iconic, is called “Please Please Please”:

Now, the interesting thing about this song, is it is based heavily on an old blues song called “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”  But there’s an important difference.  The lead part sung by Brown is based on the background part of the earlier song.  The former lead vocal part is now sung by the background singers.  It’s this inversion that makes the song fresh and new, a break from the blues.

But it’s also a philosophical statement.  In contrast to the great blues musicians, so often and so easily pushed into the background –often by white British musicians who idolized them while simultaneously arrogating their music, typically with very little credit given –Brown was determined to take his own place at center stage.  In the above video, you can very clearly see that Brown has no intention of being upstaged by anyone, certainly not the Rolling Stones (who were given the unenviable task of following Brown’s   performance).  He would not play the background.

Brown’s later hits followed a similar pattern of elevating an overlooked and undervalued musical element, and making it into the main event.  For instance, the unique sound of “Sex Machine” is actually the sound of a musical vamp, an interlude between songs, where the band would keep a single musical figure going repeatedly while the singer took the chance to talk directly to the audience.  But Brown was the first person to think you could take that and make a whole song out of it (an approach that foreshadowed, and perhaps influenced hip-hop’s adoption of the break beat as the whole show).  Once again, the part that others had treated as a throwaway was treated by Brown as something worth its own attention and admiration –the same kind of respect he demanded for himself.

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