With a scratchy, husky voice defined by its piercing shrieks and guttural groans, James Brown didn’t own the most beautiful pipes in music.
While he wrote songs that touched on just about every aspect of the human experience ? love, heartache, joy, pride, even revenge ? few listened to his music for the lyrics. In fact, his often incomprehensible singing style may have been the most mimicked aspect of his persona.
And though he was an amazing dancer, his moves were far from choreographed ? they had a raw, unpolished aspect that seemed to be devised as his propulsive beats unspooled.
Perhaps that’s what made Brown so captivating, so riveting ? that raw emotion that characterized every aspect of his career, from his vocal style to his frenetic dancing. Brown was an explosive force who managed to redefine and reimagine music with the sheer power of his one-of-a-kind sound.
There are plenty of superstars in the entertainment galaxy, but only a select few have had the ability to transform an art form. Brown was so dynamic, he did it several times over.
Those classic rap songs on your iPod? Many would not be classics without that sample from a James Brown beat.
Michael Jackson’s confounding dance moves? He got his inspiration as a child while watching Brown (even Mick Jagger borrowed from Brown’s dynamic stage showmanship with his trademark struts).
Those funky horn arrangements and shrieks that define many a Prince song? They defined Brown’s music years before.
Though soul music was around long before James Brown came on the scene, it was never the same after he arrived. His electric delivery made a love song a full-on testimonial delivered with the fervor of a sermon. His intricate horn arrangements inspired many imitators.
Brown earned his title “Godfather of Soul,” but he was never limited to one genre. He inspired rockers, his funk was part of the early seeds of a disco movement and his oft-used spoken-word delivery made him a forefather of rap.
While his music seemed to have a combustible, unrehearsed tone, he was a consummate professional who carefully orchestrated everything, from his shows to his songs. He wasn’t known as a songwriter, but he wrote or co-wrote most of his hits. The empowering lyrics to songs like “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” and “The Big Payback” show he was about more than yelps and moans.
Brown kept pushing until the end. In an interview with The Associated Press three years ago, Brown appeared a bit tired. He hinted that he might nearing the end of his performance years, citing a litany of medical problems weighing him down.
But a question about retirement was quickly shot down, and the always genial Brown made it clear that despite his aches and pains he was still the hardest working man in show business.
“Things are going good,” he told this reporter in 2003, “and all I got to do is just hold up.”
And he did, almost until the end. He was scheduled to perform a New Year’s Eve date at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York’s Times Square.
Over the next few days, there will be pages and pages written in tribute to James Brown in an attempt to compose a final epitaph for the man and his music. But just as Brown’s music defied categorization, there may never be enough words written to adequately describe Brown or the impact he has had ? and continues to have ? on generations of musicians worldwide.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.