James Brown - Like It Is, Like It Was (The Blues)
Today's post will conclude my two-week series of James Brown tribute posts. I have decided not to do a mini-podcast, as several have sprung up elsewhere and the "Rhubarb Cake" shows I posted links for on Christmas Day are more than sufficient. When I do the new episode of the podcast I will play a few JB tracks, and of course some JB material will always appear at various times in future posts.
One of the strongest points Rev. Al Sharpton made in his eulogy of JB on Saturday was that James came from the bottom of the bottom, born in abject poverty, but he managed to become a creatively and commercially successful artist whose music was globally-recognized. Brown never tried to forget his wretched origins or to distance himself from the Southern towns where he spent his youth. Just a few days prior to his death Brown gave out toys and food for the poor in Augusta, and his generosity was mentioned in the New Yorker piece I referenced earlier. In many ways Brown was the American success story writ large, despite the negative racial elements of it and his own later-life scrapes. He was Horatio Alger and Booker T. Washington rolled up in one, and his life story is equally as inspiring as his music.
The quiet "Like It Is, Like It Was" served as part of the Black Caesar soundtrack, fitting nicely in mood with the ballad "Mama's Dead." The alternate version of the tune featured today was unearthed for the Polydor comp Messing With The Blues, and it is a fitting way to close out this tribute. Here, the song is an after-hours chat between Brown and long-time band member St. Clair Pinckney. Brown's opening remark ("have you ever been broke and hungry? I *have* been broke and hungry") is the gateway to a long reminisce about his hard-scrabble childhood (pausing to explain to the youth what a pallet is) and how blues music reflected how it really was. He admits that he had reached a point where he lives too richly to "sing the blues like I used to sing 'em," but recognizes that he is blessed to live in a time when people like himself, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, B.B. King and others are so successful (his litany of artists is the closest that Brown, well-known for his ego and attempts to upstage his peers at any opportunity, ever came to giving other artists praise on wax). Brown's mixture of chit-chat with Pinckney and blues wailing is very effective and reminds me of how strong of an example his life story can be at a time when there are so many that are still struggling.
James Brown was an amazing musician, electrifying performer, American success story, African-American hero, and an incredible shaper of twentieth-century American culture. His influence on many genres of music and his work will endure forever. May he rest in peace.