'The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it.' – Chinese Proverb


James Brown

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 31, 2014
Category: Soul

The Perfect Summer: England, 1911
Why Not?
Canal House Cooking: Pronto


Fleeing the world seems like a good weekend plan. If you’ve seen Chef and Lucy — both with Scarlett Johansson — then I’m thinking the movie to see is “Get On Up,” the long-awaited biopic about James Brown, which opens this weekend. Early reviews are strong. And the preview is powerful.

What’s the hook? Drive. James Brown really was “the hardest-working man in show business.” In his early 70s, he was still playing as many as 300 concert dates a year — and he wouldn’t have missed the Christmas toy giveaway he sponsored in Augusta, Georgia. The following day, he saw a dentist, who sent him to a doctor, who sent him to the hospital. Whatever ailed him didn’t seem life-threatening; after canceling a few mid-week performances, his doctor said it was fine for him to fly north for a show in New Jersey and another, at B.B. King’s nightclub in New York, on New Year’s Eve.

Instead, James Brown died.

The music business lives on hype; even a flash-in-the-pan gets called an “artist.” For “The Godfather of Soul,” there was no hype, only understatement. He was the Shakespeare of American pop music of the last half century. Without him, there would be no Mick Jagger, no Michael Jackson, no Prince. There would be no funk, no disco, no Afro-Pop. And, for sure, there would have been much less fun. [Which fun to get? To buy "20 All Time Greatest Hits" from Amazon, click here. For the best bargain --- the CD of "Live at the Apollo, 1962" comes with a free MP3 download --- click here. A close second is "Love Power Peace: Live at the Olympia, Paris 1971; to buy it, click here.]

He came onstage in tight pants, eye make-up and pomped hair. (He had two hairdressers, 150 suits, 80 pairs of shoes.) He wrote the songs. He was the choreographer. And he was a drill sergeant of a bandleader, who never hesitated to belittle — and fine — a musician who violated the dress code or blew an off-beat.

The band was legendary, but the spotlight was on Brown. Not his lyrics. Many of his songs were gibberish; their message was sex, and how better did you communicate that than grunting and shouting? His intent was to make you crazy — he didn’t care to prove he was all man if he could demonstrate that he was all showman.

So he would do splits. He’d shimmy. He’d shove the microphone away and catch it on the rebound.  He’d fall to the ground and crawl. And when his handlers would come out to wrap him in a robe and lead him off-stage, he’d fling it off and fight his way back to center stage to deliver, sobbing, several more choruses.

He was never off-duty. In prison — he got a six-year jail sentence in 1988 when, shotgun in hand, he ran into a business meeting, enraged, and then led police on a hundred mile-an-hour car chase — he was the lead singer and director of the choir. Attendance zoomed. “I had the gospel group doing routines!” he bragged. “I had them so sharp that the inmates wanted to get their autographs."

“Sharp” is the word I’d use to describe James Brown’s music. It was completely original and totally polished — what you heard had been worked on until it gleamed. From “Please, Please, Please” in 1966 right to the end, his career is a steady accretion of milestones:

Add them all up, and you get perhaps a hundred million records sold. And that was mostly before videos and the Internet. “Say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud,” he sang. Truly.


David Remnick wrote a terrific piece about Brown’s appearance at the 1964 T.A.M.I. show. Read it here. And here it is.

Short takes

“The Curse of Van Gogh”

When I met Paul Hoppe all those years ago, he was a callow young Washington lobbyist and I was a callow young journalist. Worlds collided, and we became friends. Does that compromise me? You bet. But that’s not to say I’m charmed by high-testosterone thrillers — I loathe car chases, shootouts, encounters with nasty foreigners. Happily, “The Curse of Van Gogh” features an unusual main character — Tyler Sears, a gifted art thief who is, after a jail term, eager to go straight — and 12 masterpieces in Washington’s impregnable National Gallery of Art that become his new obsession. Wait, didn’t I say he’s going straight? Yes, but that’s before he meets Komate Imasu, a mega-rich art collector who doesn’t care who he has to threaten to rip art off a museum’s wall for him. Tyler’s his patsy — he gets car chases, shootouts, encounters with nasty foreigners, and worse. Does he prevail? Better than Pierce Brosnan might. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Tom Fels: Shadow Work

When Tom Fels, my old friend from the sixties, isn’t curating exhibitions or chronicling the era we once shared (most recently, Buying the Farm: Peace and war on a sixties commune) he works in what he calls the “supply side” of the arts, in this case photography. Over the past few years he’s been making three-by-two-foot cyanotypes in a process nearly as old as photography itself, but rarely seen in recent decades. His lush, sensuous work is featured (until September 7) at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still

I can now reveal that Paige Peterson, the New York artist who became world famous for illustrating my adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol, has illustrated another book. It too has an unlikely hero: a horse that stood for 28 years, pretty much without moving, in a California field. Blackie had been a rodeo horse and a crowd-pleaser at Yosemite, but it was his late-life career as a fixture in Tiburon that’s celebrated in Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still. As a child, Paige would bring him sugar and carrots; in this book, with a rhymed text by Christopher Cerf, she feeds us quirk and whimsey. Ideal for kids who have exhausted the Dr. Seuss books and who may not be ready for Tiny Tim.

Reader Mail (Advertisements for myself)

From Paul Zengilowski

My children will turn 19 and 21 in a few weeks and the birthday gift choice falls to me. My wife and I bought them books by the bushel when they were young — some they chose, more often though, we exercised our parental prerogative. That stopped as they entered their mid-teens and felt more confident in their choices than in ours.

I’ve not bought them books in years — with two exceptions. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, was a high school graduation gift. Knowing that having the money talk with them would be fruitless, I passed on to them my financial bible. I’d read it when it was first issued and it has served to keep me mostly on the financial straight and narrow over the last 30 years.

The second exception is their birthday present for this year: The 100 Essentials. Should they read only those two books, I’m confident they’ll enter adulthood with important and foundational knowledge that will serve them well.

from Marcie

You recommended Queen’s Gambit to me about six weeks ago when I asked for the most grabable book you could think of. I loved it. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what the dark magic of that book is, but I found it fascinating — the characters, all of them, were like no others I’ve encountered. The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother was so subtle. I love that Tevis never capitulates to cliché or sentimentality. Elegant. Thank you for urging me to read it.