In Memoriam: James Brown
In 1980 I set myself the task of reviewing every James Brown album of the '70s -- 23 by my count, many borrowed from my neighbor Vince Aletti, who'd had the sense to keep even the soundtracks. To add verisimilitude, I worked in order of release, playing each record until it sunk in, then proceeding to the next. Ten titles I judged good-to-great, but though I home-taped like there was no tomorrow, many of these I never played again.
That job I undertook was part of a book project. Now James Brown's death has occasioned another job, only this time I'm immersing willy-nilly, often streaming albums I still own only on cassette. And so it came to pass that I woke from a brief nap to hear . . . what the hell was that? At first Brown's grunts sounded African, or more African; later I decided maybe he was speaking in tongues. The track was "Time Is Running Out," from 1973's good-not-great The Payback. Seven minutes in it gets really crazy, Brown's tongues and Fred Wesley's trombone dueling over a typically locked-in groove. But it kept morphing and it kept staying the same. I couldn't believe how experimental it was, and how enjoyable.
Out of curiosity, I reread my review of The Payback. Hmmm.
I had noticed it, actually: "a horn-and-voice excursion that shambles on for 12:37," I'd sniffed. What then I'd disdained, now I loved. That's how profound James Brown is. We're still trying to catch up with him. I doubt we ever will.
Los Angeles Times, Dec. 30, 2006
Included in a set of comments compiled by Ann Powers and Geoff Boucher in the Los Angeles Times CalendarLive section, under the title "'We lost a good one, man'." The other comments were by: Ike Turner, will.i.am, Steve Harvey, Charles Connor, Marva Whitney, Cecil Brown, Alan Leeds, Oliver Wang, Steve Jackson, Chuck Philips, Nelson George. The original link we had to the whole piece is broken.