Al Sharpton reviews a book about James Brown

In today’s New York Times, the opportunistic Reverend Al Sharpton reviews The One, a new book on James Brown by R. J. Smith. And of course he begins with an homage to—Sharpton:

When James Brown’s children and I brought his body back to Harlem from Georgia after his untimely death in 2006, tens of thousands greeted us in the streets upon our arrival.

Greeted us!

Predictable. What distinguishes this review is its unrelenting tedium, its attempt to draw huge lessons about Brown and the black experience. The writing is leaden:

For years, writers have attempted to tell James’s story and to dissect his complex and multilayered life. Either too naïve or just unaware of the nuances of societal challenges and cultural norms alike, they failed to fully grasp the depth of value that James and his music played in transforming American life as a whole. Going to great lengths researching and interviewing those closest to the music icon (myself included), Smith not only effortlessly highlights James’s unmatched musical career, but also provides a well-studied historical context for the basis of his artistic expression.

Myself included!

Sharpton makes James Brown something that he never was in real life—boring. He was The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and mesmerizing to watch. It’s a sign of Sharpton’s ham-handedness that he doesn’t mention even one song by The King of Funk.  Where is “I Feel Good”? “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”? And my favorite, despite its political incorrectness, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World“?

In its desire to get books appraised by celebrities rather than qualified reviewers, the Times screwed up here.

If you ever saw James Brown, you remember the cape routine. (If you didn’t, it’s too long to describe.) I always wanted to give a science talk like that, walking offstage with a minion draping me with a cape, and then throwing off the garment to return to the podium. Oh well . . .

At any rate, the dullness of Sharpton’s prose made me look on YouTube for some James Brown, and there’s a lot. Here’s an unknown gem: Brown doing a duet of “Man’s World” with, of all people, Luciano Pavarotti!

And perhaps Brown’s greatest recorded performance ever: the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, which included stars as diverse as Leslie Gore, Brown, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Chuck Berry, and the Rolling Stones. (If you can get a CD of this concert, by all means do.) His rendition of “Night Train” may be the most energetic bit of soul music ever filmed. Here’s part of it (the cape routine begins at 5:30).

You either love James Brown or you hate him. I’m in the first group.

26 Comments

  1. Posted June 3, 2012 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    Great stuff, he is so crippled by emotion he has to be helped off stage before his heart explodes, only to get a jittering revival and bounce back to the mic — many times.

  2. Filippo
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    “You either love James Brown or you hate him. I’m in the first group.”

    I gather that that statement is in the context of his music and performance style.

    Would one like/love him as a human being, considerate and respectful of others, not much afflicted with narcissism and hubris? Just curious.

    • Ellen
      Posted June 3, 2012 at 5:55 am | Permalink

      “Would one like/love him as a human being, considerate and respectful of others, not much afflicted with narcissism and hubris?”

      Could one say that of many performers/artists/creators? Or many of those who have made a high and public impact in any field? Doubtful.

      Why not simply keep admiration for thing achieved in a place apart from admiration for human qualities? You’re likely to severely limit the number of people in any field you can feel appreciation for, if they also have to meet your criteria for excellence in their personal conduct as well as excellence in their realm of expertise.

      • Filippo
        Posted June 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        Congenially noted. You’re right. I stand corrected.

        Push come to shove, I have no reasonable and appropriate cause to concern myself with a given performer’s personal behavior unless – somehow drawn to him on account of his performance prowess and charisma – I wish to somehow become professionally or personally affiliated with him, at which point I would become legitimately concerned with how the performer treated people (“duty not to speak ill of” clauses in entertainment business personal services contracts notwithstanding).

        My somehow affiliating with the performer in question most assuredly would never have happened, sharing as I do BillyJoe’s evaluation in comment 4., which I gather withstands your scrutiny since it technically appears to only address the gentleman professionally.

        Elsewhere in the comments, the Reverend Sharpton is identified as a “buffoon.” Do you consider that a professional or personal descriptor? Would you reasonably say that the Reverend Sharpton has succeeded “professionally” (at whatever exactly it is that he has done and does)? And if he is a buffoon, think about how much more “successful” he could be were he not a buffoon.

        To end, how about Donald Trump and chef Gordon Ramsey? Certainly successful in their fields. And certainly among the the most compassionate and congenial humans who have ever existed, as evidenced by their behavior, which I gather is what draws millions to their respective television programs.

        • Ellen
          Posted June 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

          At the end of all that, Filippo–your point is what, exactly? You still don’t seem to have made much of one regarding the separation of an artist’s professional output from his conduct in the personal realm.

          And since I wasn’t acquainted with Brown on a personal level–nor, presumably, were you–his professional output is all that interests me here. As it does with most other creators and artisits whose works I take an interest in.

          • Ellen
            Posted June 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

            That should be “artists”. Apologies for the typo.

  3. daveau
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Back in the late 70s, I had a friend who was telling me how he saw a Springsteen concert where Bruce got all exhausted and couldn’t go on, and they put a cape over his shoulders and started to walk him off the stage, but Bruce just couldn’t let his fans down like that, so he mustered up the energy from somewhere, threw off the cape, and played another 45 mintes, plus encores. My friend bought into it completely. I had to break his heart by telling him that not only was it a bit, but it was James Brown’s bit.

    James Brown: one of the great performers.

    Al Sharpton: one of the great buffoons.

    • daveau
      Posted June 3, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

      Mintes are even longer than minutes, so it was quite a feat…

      • gbjames
        Posted June 3, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        I thought a minte was five sixths of a minute.

        • daveau
          Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

          You are correct, so it must have been 54 minutes. For a guy who was totally exhausted. Wow!

  4. BillyJoe
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    I hate him – well, his music (if you can call it music). Personally I can do without tonsils, guts, and sweat spilled all over the stage. Fortunately for him, not everyone feels the way I do.

  5. daveau
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    What James Brown rarely gets credit for, is his cover of Cowboy Jeb and his Tumblin’ Rootie-Tootie’s toe tappin’ song: “Father Has Purchased a Distinctive Satchel.” Kudos to Jebediah.

  6. Posted June 3, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    You can see Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger , etc. stagecraft in his work.

    Interesting how his upper body doesn’t move while his feet are goin’ 100 mph – a la Fred Astaire.

  7. Ken Pidcock
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    I listened to a story about T.A.M.I. show and rented the video based, in part, on this supposedly remarkable James Brown performance. I was singularly unimpressed. The Supremes, on the other hand…my god, that countenance.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted June 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Wow! The TAMI show. First date I ever had – I must have been 14 – we went to that as a matinee (it wasn’t my first choice, but whatever that was, her mother informed me that it wasn’t approved by the Catholic Decency League). The only thing I remember about the show was JB, and I wasn’t impressed either.

  8. chascpeterson
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Not a fan of JB’s patented vaudvillean stage-bit showmanship (nor Sharpton’s).

    As for the music, though, yes, please. Let’s hear it for the band.

    • Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      Hear, hear (for the band). I miss the days of larger ensemble sax & brass (in an R&B context). There are too few passing the torch there (pretty much for economic reasons). A couple of exceptions:

      Christ West, and Afroskull. (track down their albums “Jazzmanic” and “To Obscurity and Beyond”, respectively).

    • Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      …and because I’m a collector of novelty and weirdness/depravity, here’s a couple more bits of J Brown:

      Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto (“Hitch up your reindeer… UUHHH!”)

      …and on the twisted side, JB dissing a reporters questions, probably high as a kite.

  9. Nal
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Do you have Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag in stereo?

  10. Pray Hard
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Seriously, you expected something more and or different from Al Sharpton?

  11. Mary Gnusader Canada
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Amazing….James Brown and Pavarotti! Sharpton…..boring and uninteresting. Great choices Jerry

  12. Dave
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I’m not a huge fan of the kind of music that James Brown made, but it’s definitely obvious that the guy was an incredible talent. This performance is pretty powerful. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sDYCVF6guI

  13. jpetts
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a link to Bo Dudley doing Mama’s Got A Brand New Bag:

    • jpetts
      Posted June 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm. Just discovered that putting in a bare link to YouTube embeds!

  14. Mike Yonts
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I got to see JB live in 1985. He was showing his age by then, but still managed to do the splits and pop back up—once! I remember the band being incredibly tight, and they seemed to be able follow him perfectly, vamping if he wanted to talk to the audience, and then hitting a chord hard on the merest signal from him.

    He had a way of being incredibly hip and incredibly square at the same time, in his rather dated-looking tuxedo, using the theme song from the TV show “Entertainment Tonight,” of all things, as an interlude between his timeless hits. It was definitely one of my favorite concerts of all time.

    He was a huge influence on people like George Clinton, who in turn helped to spawn rap, which spread to the farthest corners of the world. Looked at that way, James Brown has a credible claim to being the most influential musician of all time.

    And yes, his personal life was evidently a mess at times. It’ll be interesting to see what this biography makes of it.

  15. MadScientist
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Brown was a thug, but was also one of the great American entertainers.


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