Saturday, June 10, 2006
Gettin' on the good foot: James Brown @ BB King's
Dapperly dressed in a white suit, James Brown's personal emcee Danny Ray held the mike and crowd in his hands. Ticketholders in the overstuffed BB King's in New York's Times Square were anxiously looking forward to the 73-year-old funk pioneer doin' his thing.
Brown stood in the wings as they chanted his name. Wearing a red jump suit and boots, he smiled for VIPs. I went over to shake his hand. His eyes, which seemed almost closed, peered at me curiously. Then they widened. He suddenly recognized me and gave me a quick hug.
"Where's the red-headed booger?" JB asked me, laughing. Then he was gone. Moments later, he magically appeared on stage, doing a modified one-legged camel walk to "Make it Funky."
James Brown's band the Soul Generals are sho' nuff funky. For the next 20 minutes they pounded out a series of classics, from "Get Up Offa That Thing" to "Doin' It to Death." For funk fans, this is as good as it gets. Brown exhorted his blue-suited players to solo, calling them one by one - saxophonist Jeff Watkins, guitarist Keith Jenkins, trumpeter Hollie Farris, drummer Tony Cook.
Then the show started taking detours. A jazz-blues instrumental was followed by a weak version of "Hold On, I'm Coming" by Brown's red-headed wife, Tomi Rae. She's his Patti Scialfa or Linda McCartney; at worst, a distraction. Two more jazz tunes found Brown comping on keyboards. Then he offered a brief tribute to recently passed soul stars Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett and "brother Ray Charles."
During Brown's penultimate misogynistic ballad, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," there was a commotion in the crowd. Apparently someone fainted. Brown muttered about getting the patron assistance. After six uncomfortable minutes went by, Brown grimaced, "Don't worry about the show, I'll give you that," then directed the band to kick into "Livin' in America," his nationalistic anthem with dancing girls draped in American flags.
The Godfather of Soul hit his stride again on a clever version of "I Got You," which morphed into "Out of Sight," and then a dance vamp, "Rock Your Body." The band broke into the greasy riff of "Sex Machine." Brown asked the crowd, "Can I count it off?" Big cheer. "Can I count it off?" Another cheer. "One, two, three... Get up, get on up/Stay on the scene/Like a lovin' machine." Horns pierced and guitars chinked as the entire band - all 11 players, 5 backup singers and 2 dancers - began the wild final ritual of every James Brown show. "The way I like it is the way it is/You got yours, don't worry about his."
This went on for more than 15 minutes. At 10 pm, the man in red left the stage; he would not return for an encore. Eighty minutes of intermitant soul music seemed to satisfy people who paid $80. They filed out humming funky licks with a hop in their step. After 50-plus years in show business, James Brown is still its hardest working man.
Backstage, I hung out with the band. They filled me in on Brown's physical condition. "His knees aren't good," Farris said. "Plus he has diabetes." But that doesn't stop the show from going on. "We'll be playing a lot of festivals in Europe this summer." The last two stops on this current tour are tonight at the Eastman Theater in Rochester, NY and tomorrow at the Citerion Theater in New Bedford, Mass.
I should explain the "red-headed booger" remark. Back in 1979 I interviewed Brown for the now-defunct Soho News. He loved my cover story portrait of him. From 1979-1984, I was privileged to interview him many times. Years have passed and Brown still always welcomes me warmly. To him, I'm the red-headed booger, whatever that means.
Go see James Brown if he comes to your town. There are very few American musical legends left. Despite the stiff price and short set, you won't regret it. Just don't be late: the first 25 minutes are the best.