Back in the 1980s, I saw a Black comedian holding court and telling jokes in front of the 59th Street entrance to Central Park. Perhaps it was the late Charlie Barnett, maybe it was some other funny cat, but I remember his punch line like it was yesterday. “If Elvis Presley is king than what the hell is James Brown?” he asked. And as the mixed race crowd laughed, the sacrilegious answer that popped in my head was, “James Brown was God.”
Indeed, as the James Brown biopic Get On Up documents, that once raggedy boy from the red-dirt back roads of Toccoa, Georgia would go on to have a God-like influence over popular music from his “Please, Please, Please” days in 1956 to his last breath on December 25, 2006.
James Brown not only created great music with two of the tightest bands in show business, he served as a community leader, activist, and one of the first brave enough to “Say it loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Dabbling in all kinds of music, Brown is best known for groovastic gems like “Cold Sweat,” “Hot Pants (She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Wants)” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” but the brother also dabbled in jazz, country, Christmas songs and hip-hop.
Inspiring a wide range of artists including Prince, Michael Jackson and Kanye West, his spirit can still be heard in our post-millennial modern music. Although Mr. Brown (as everyone called him) was a terribly flawed human being, music-wise he could do no wrong. Selecting a top 10 of Brown’s best singles would be futile. Below is my selection of cool favorite clips featuring Mr. Dynamite/Soul Brother #1/the Godfather of Soul.
1. When Don Cornelius started Soul Train in 1971, he knew that “the hippest trip” wouldn’t be complete until the Godfather of Soul baptized the stage with his cold sweat. Of course, J.B. couldn’t just lip-synch his latest hit; indeed, brother Brown just took over the entire show.
2. Like many musical greats before him, James Brown found much love in the City of Lights. Performing a stirring version of his 1966 hit “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” one can rest assured that Paris had never seen anything like this before.
3. Back in 1971, The Mike Douglas Show was one of the most popular television programs in the country and James Brown was a frequent guest. His version of “Georgia on My Mind,” known primarily as a Ray Charles number, ranks with one of the best.
4. James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr. Shot in 1969, this clip from one of Sammy Davis Jr.’s television programs features America’s two top entertainers in an awesome dance-off. Although both are playful, you can tell they’re serious as a heart attack.
5. In 1964, both Brown and Get On Up producer Mick Jagger both participated in this amazing musical showcase.
6. According to actor Fred Williamson, when James Brown was approached to do the soundtrack for this 1973 gangster feature, he tried to snatch the title role of Tommy Gibbs for himself. Of course that didn’t happen, but Brown’s soundtrack for Black Caesar is one of the best to come out of the Blaxploitation era.
7. “Beat the Devil.” Telling the James Brown story as though it were the Robert Johnson story, director Tony Scott created this clip for BMW’s 2002 film series, The Hire. Featuring a great cast (including James Brown and Gary Oldman playing the Devil), it’s simply amazing.
8. James Brown in Boston, 1968. The day after the tragic assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Godfather was scheduled to perform in Boston. Although the concert was almost cancelled, instead of opting out, Brown helped bring the city together.
9. Bringing soul music to the absolute whitest kids in America, it’s a wonder there wasn’t an avalanche when James and the Famous Flames began doing their thang inside the ski lodge.
10. Rocky IV. This 1985 Dan Hartman-penned and -produced track was everywhere, including a featured segment in the latest Rocky movie. While not as classic as others tracks in Brown’s vast staple of songs, this track was a top-10 Billboard hit that brought the Godfather back to the top of the soul heap.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.