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James Brown: Soul Brother No. 1 (1933-2006)

The story of a Georgian who rose from poverty to become a cultural icon, as told by the people who knew him best



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You're fined

By 1965, James Brown was a star. His hits included "I'll Go Crazy," "Out of Sight," "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)." These were records that redefined R&B music because they marked the birth of funk. Powering that shift was Brown's rhythm section, which was anchored by a succession of three of the world's greatest drummers: Bernard Purdie, Jab'o Starks and Clyde Stubblefield. They all learned early on about Brown's reputation for fining band members.

Bernard Purdie: You'd make a mistake while he was singing, and he'd turn around and say, "Ten dollars." He accused me of making a mistake, so I got fined. But it wasn't me that made the mistake. I was so mad, I said to Brown, "I'll do your records, but I ain't going on the road with you because you were wrong for what you did."

Jab'o Starks: I was playing with Bobby "Blue" Bland. And every time we'd play on the East Coast, James would send his people to see us. And they'd always come up and ask if I wanted to play with James. But I liked playing with Bobby Bland, and I'd say "no." Then I had my first child and started looking at it more in terms of a business. And when they came and asked again, I said "yes." I joined in 1965. I was about 22 years old. Before I took the job, I told James, "Now, I don't pay fines. If you ask me to play something a certain way, I'll play it just like you told me to play it. But if I'm paying fines; that's not me having to pay them but my family." And he looked at me and said, "You know, nobody's ever told me that before and I respect you for it." He knew I was more mature than the others because I'd been out with Bobby Bland for all those years.

Clyde Stubblefield: The difference between playing with Otis Redding and James Brown? I didn't get fined when I played behind Otis. I'd get fined when I played behind James. When he threw his hand up, with all the fingers going up, that's $25. He'd do that four or five times. That's $100. When I started, I was making about $250 a night, paying my own hotel bill, food and cleaning bill. I had a family living at home to support, and I'd get fined!

Bernard Purdie: Two years after I quit, the hits had stopped coming, and they called me to do a session. We set up the band and we ran through arrangements, and he got there and walked into the vocal booth. When he did that, I got up and left. I'd told his bandleader, "I want you to forgive me because tonight, I'm going to show my ass." And [Brown] came out. "Where's Purdie?" He found me and apologized. We went back in and cut "Cold Sweat" [See Editor's note at bottom] and about four other songs that became million sellers.

Birth of funk

"Cold Sweat" is the quintessential James Brown record. It has riveting horn lines, a dramatic stop-and-go at the end of the bridge, a droning one-chord riff, a hot sax solo from Maceo Parker, and a drum solo by Purdie. By this time, a Richmond, Va., student and part-time disc jockey named Alan Leeds had met Brown and, two years later, would join the traveling show as tour manager. And Wayne Cochran had not only built a show around the music of James Brown, he'd dyed his hair white and piled it in a huge pompadour and became known as "the white blue-eyed soul brother."

Wayne Cochran: James started out playing R&B. When I began to imitate him, we got the Live at the Apollo album and learned every song, and we'd play every song on that album as our floor show. But with "Cold Sweat," it began to change -- it became more funk than R&B. And he wound up doing pure funk music. Really, he wasn't the Godfather of Soul, he was the Godfather of Funk.

Alan Leeds: "Cold Sweat" was one of the songs where James Brown reinvented the vocabulary of music. Jerry Wexler [vice president of Atlantic Records] told a writer that "Cold Sweat" just screwed everybody up, that it made every musician have to go back to the drawing board. Every musician in the world was saying, "Holy shit, how'd he do that?" Very few figured it out.

Quelling a riot

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