Even after 25 years, Soul Brother is still No. 1


Before I started to write this account of my interview last week with soul singer James Brown, I penned a note to myself: "Don't blow this!"

So naturally I froze, like a grade-schooler stricken with stage fright, like a tongue-tied young lover, like a -- well, like a journalist besieged by writer's block.

Here's the problem: James Brown used to call himself "The Godfather of Soul, Sooooul Brother Number One." And he was. But over the years I've read retrospectives and critiques of Mr. Brown and his work. I've listened to interviews with him and watched documentaries on his music. And nobody has ever really gotten it right. Nobody has ever really captured just what it means to have been Soul Brother Number One; to have been the undisputed champ, the heart and guts and lifeblood of a music and of a time.

I asked the man himself how it felt: "Well, you know, it felt good," answered Mr. Brown in the rough-hewn, raspy voice that is his trademark. "It was just something, you know, that we felt we had to do and the people supported us."

No, no, no. It was more important than that, J.B., bigger and more complex. If the man himself cannot find exactly the right words, the task falls to me. So: Don't blow this, Wiley. Don't blow this.

Ridicule is part of what it means to have been Soul Brother Number One. Last week, I told a friend that I was about to interview James Brown on the telephone. He laughed and did the obligatory J.B. impersonation: "Eeeyow! Hit me! Good God!" And he walked away, chuckling.

We have rejected soul, turned away from it, run from it as if we were afraid of its passion and strength. Musicians today do not even play "soul music." The industry has opted for euphemisms such as "urban contemporary," "rhythm and blues," or the cheapest, easiest tag of all: "black music."

This is how bad it has gotten: I went out yesterday to get a copy of J.B.'s latest album, "Universal James," and found it filed under "rock" -- the ultimate insult. So, to have been Soul Brother Number One carries this vaguely derisive connotation, a suggestion that you were passe even in your prime.

But 25 years ago, soul music helped define African-American culture, and James Brown helped define soul music. In the summer of 1968, Mr. Brown released "America's My Home" with the lyrics, "Talk about me leaving America? Uh, uh. I like the good things, Jack!" The song almost ruined him. Young people didn't want to hear that then. Word on the streets was, J.B. had sold out.

But, a few weeks later, he came back with "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud!" Then, he did "Soul Pride" and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing" and "Ain't It Funky Now." And all those songs were anthems of self-pride and self-help and achievement and it was as if no one had ever thought to say such things before.

This, too, is part of what it means to have been Soul Brother Number One. The title wasn't given to him, he earned it -- he took it with the force of his music, the purity of his message, his refusal to stay down for the count.

"These youngsters today, man, they are making a bad mistake," said Mr. Brown, speaking of some of the hip hop and so-called gangster rap artists. "Man, they are ruining the community. Ruining it! You're supposed to get angry when things go wrong, but you don't get mad. When you get mad, you don't think. You got to think.

"I tried to be positive," Mr. Brown continued passionately. "I tried to show young people there was a way out. Today, I'm all about stopping the violence and staying in school, and building up the family structure. We've each got a duty to ourself and a duty to our community. You got to say these things. We need this message now even more than we needed 'Black and Proud.' "

I asked Mr. Brown if he thought he was a role model for today's musician. "I am," he answered sharply, "whether I think of myself that way or not; whether they look at me that way or not. Hopefully, I can always be a positive model and help people."

Being Soul Brother Number One involves this last bit also: It means recognizing the responsibility and stepping up to meet the challenge. Mr. Brown is 60. He could use a successor. But no musician today carries comparable clout.

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