Forget Dylan and Elvis. James Brown was the most important American popular musician ever.

Bringing out the dead.
Dec. 26 2006 5:34 PM

He Made the World Funky

An appreciation of James Brown.

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The relentless groove was Brown's specialty, and he proved its pleasures were as profound, its mysteries as rich, as any that art has to offer. He worked hard to refine his craft. Earlier this year, critic and occasional Slate contributor Douglas Wolk gave me an extraordinary collection of MP3s he'd compiled of nearly every single ever produced by James Brown. Listening to these hundreds of songs by dozens of artists, it becomes clear that Brown is a bandleader and musical auteur on par with Duke Ellington. Like Ellington, he presided over a steady cast of players (including, among other greats, bassist Bootsy Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley, and drummer Clyde Stubblefield), composed to their strengths, and kept pushing the music into new territory. Listen closely, with a good pair of headphones, and the thousand pointillist details of Brown's genius open up to you: the shifting accents and registers, the variations in dynamics and attack, the disconcerting spaces and silences, the beats piled atop beats. But, of course, that genius is never more apparent than when the headphones come off and you lose yourself in the steamy blur of a packed dance floor.

A subtler, often overlooked achievement is the words that Brown wrote and sang. He was capable of writing traditional pop lyrics, but by the late '60s, straightforward narratives and confessions were largely replaced by a surreal flow of catchphrases and exhortations that gushed out over the inexorable beat: "Give it up or turn it a loose"; "Gimme some air!"; "Take it to the bridge!"; "Mama, come here quick/ Bring me that lickin' stick"; "Hit me!"; "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud"; "Sometimes I feel so nice/ Good Lord!/ I jump back, I wanna kiss myself"; and, passim, "Unh!," with which Brown proved, again and again, that in pop music, sound is sense, and that a single well-placed, wordless guttural can carry more meaning than a thousand poetaster's stanzas. Of course, in between grunts, Brown slipped in some worldly wisdom. To wit: "Get up offa that thing, and shake 'till you feel better/ Get up offa that thing, and shake it/ Sing it now!" In other words: Dancing is joy's end and its means. As philosophies of life go, it's not too shabby, and it's the best user's guide to James Brown records that I know.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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