James Brown And The Famous Flames - Cold Sweat - Part 2 (King 6110)
Cold Sweat - Part 2
When I got the news on Christmas Day that The Man Who Never Left had indeed left us, it hit me like a ton of bricks. He represented more to me than even I realized. A part of the American cultural landscape for over fifty years, his death hits hard, man. Like Sinatra or Brother Ray, his was an instantly identifiable image, a twentieth century media icon... but even those comparisons don't do him justice. Perhaps Soul Brother Number One said it best himself when he told his protegé Reverend Al Sharpton, "There are two American originals, Elvis and me... Elvis is gone, and I've got to carry on."
Rather than attempting to sum up The Godfather's incredible life and times in this space, I thought I'd try to share with you what he meant to me...
Like a lot of suburban kids growing up in the 1960s, I listened to the AM radio. I had this white plastic box with a big gold dial on it next to my bed, and I tuned in every week for the 'countdown' of the top 21 by the 'WMCA Good Guys' (I actually used to write them down in a little notebook, and compare numbers with rival station WABC's 'survey'). Anyway, in the summer of 1965 (when I was 11), cutting through all of the Beatles, Beach Boys and shiny Motown came this primal scream of a dance number called Papa's Got A Brand New Bag. Even at that tender age, I knew something was up. I had no idea what Papa's 'bag', might be, but I knew that I dug it. When the opening yelp of I Got You (I Feel Good) shook the little white box later that year, I was ready. James Brown had arrived in suburbia.
I didn't know it at the time, but Brown would win a Grammy that year (Papa's Got A Brand New Bag was named 'Best Rhythm & Blues recording'), and was very much in the public eye. I remember watching his performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in May of 1966, and trying to imitate his unreal dance moves (without much success). The song that hit the top ten that summer, It's A Man's Man's Man's World, (which would go on to become one of my all-time favorite deep soul masterpieces later on) was a radical departure from the style I had come to associate with James, and failed to capture my 12 year old imagination, I guess.
I do remember hearing about Brown's and Vice President Humphrey's Don't Be A Drop-Out campaign and hearing the song on the radio, but hey, I was still in 7th grade. This was right around the time my older sister started bringing home albums like Freak Out and Are You Experienced, and the little white radio wasn't getting the play that it used to.
As I entered high school myself, I began sneaking in to 'the Village' and hanging around places like the Fillmore East, trying to act cool. Like I mentioned back in my very first post, it was on one of these forays that I found the actual record you're listening to now. It was lying there on the cement in front of the fabled Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place. How it got there is anybody's guess. When I took it home and played it, it was like a message from outer space... like barely noticed tribal drums growing louder and louder through the mist of scratchy vinyl. I had no idea. Something was happening out there that I had missed out on. Something big. I must have listened to that 45 a thousand times back there in the ninth grade and, as you can see, I'm still listening to it.
As Larry Grogan says in his remarkable article, The Genius Of James Brown, "If Out Of Sight was the first shot at Lexington and Concord, Cold Sweat was the Declaration of Independence." It still stands as a groundbreaking piece of music, and marks the emergence of 'funky drummer' Cyde Stubblefield's breakbeat that is still echoing today.
As bands like the Talking Heads and the B-52s began to cite James as a major influence (specifically Jimmy 'Chank' Nolen's guitar work) in the late 70s and early 80s, I began to, finally, pay attention. I bought vinyl on the streets. I would go see The James Brown Revue whenever they came to town. Places like the Lone Star Cafe, Roseland and The Blue Parrot gave me a chance to get up close and personal with the brute force that was still emanating from The Hardest Working Man In Show Business. I was blown away.
More than anything else, it was the precision of the band, the discipline of the rhythm section that just knocked me out. This was around the same time that Polydor was releasing all of those great Cliff White re-issues, like Ain't That A Groove and Doing It To Death, and I was soaking it all in. I learned a lot back then, not only about music, but about the 'mantra' like groove that can take a simple repetitive guitar pattern and bring you to another level entirely. There is power in JB's music, man, and anybody who knew me in those days can tell ya, I was a disciple!
I would see James at Radio City during the Living In America tour in 1986, and, although it wasn't my favorite tune, I was glad to see him getting all that exposure through Stallone and Rocky IV. The next time I would see him was at Jazz Fest in New Orleans in May of 1988. It was a disaster. We waited hours for him to show up, and when he did he could barely speak, much less sing. Within four months he had been arrested after his infamous two state car chase, and the world found out about his drug dependence. When he was sentenced to a six year prison term in December, I thought it was all over.
After he was paroled in 1991, James gradually started getting out there again, and soon was performing over 50 dates a year. Things in my own life started to change about the same time, and once the kids showed up, my days of carousing in the clubs were put on hold. James beat prostate cancer in 2004, and was touring again early this year. He had played the weekend before the Ponderosa Stomp in Memphis, and the local folks I spoke with down there said he was fantastic... I was sorry I missed him.
Somebody handed me one of these outside the Aretha Franklin show I told you about last month. I looked down at it, and all of these memories came flooding back... like any real New Yorker though, I immediately thought 'New Year's Eve's a tough night to be in Times Square, man', and I figured I'd catch him the next time he came to town.
I will be going to see him at the Apollo tomorrow.
Long live Mister Dynamite.