I WAS JUST THIS CLOSE
Maybe I was
ten, sitting beside a public pool when I heard WQXI first play black music. I didn't know that the Beatles and the Stones
were doing covers by black songwriters back when I was ten. I thought someone had dialed to WAOK, the black station.
It was James Brown singing, "Please, Please."
"Could anyone sing that word any harder," I thought.
Then back to back with "Cold Sweat."
"Two in a row from the man of renown, James Brown," the
DJ said. Bobby Wingo stood up put one foot beside his knee
and wiggled his foot on the cement, lost his balance and dived into the pool. James Brown had already made the crossover
in Atlanta. People knew how he danced. The songs hit me as hard as when I first heard "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
Something stirred in my mind and I was convinced that I heard this music better than anyone around me. I totally got
it. I would listen to it forever.
Fifteen years later I was playing sax in a new wave club called 688.
I was mostly playing with a ska-billy band called the Swinging Diamonds, but I was picking up gigs with other bands
and took the hired gun attitude that a sax player could get away with. I told the bandleader, "You don't want me
to play with other bands - find gigs every night."
In a recording session I was picked up by
a band called The Roys. More deeply reggae, and haunting. We were the biggest-drawing band in town at
the time. REM opened for us a couple of times. The Roys eventually got signed by Stiff Records and the
producer decided to record the band as a three piece - and I was out, just like that. Stiff folded and locked up
The Roys songs in legal bullshit and it proved that in music at any given moment anything can go wrong and all can
be lost. Like the Swinging Diamonds, The Roys teetered on self-destruction through cocaine, and a
last iota of insanity caused the band to disintegrate - the bass player went to work landscaping, no one kept in touch,
blame went everywhere. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
|The Roys (right to left): Peter Vee, Chunga, A-Roy, the author, Froggy
The Roys were booked in Chattanooga at the Municipal Auditorium by a club owner
and promoter in Atlanta. It was set to be the biggest crowd I'd ever played. We were opening for James Brown.
I'd already grown tired of opening for bigger acts, but this time I felt honored. I had these visions of standing around
a cheese platter in the greenroom talking my way into taking the job away from the tenor player in James Brown's horn section.
Maybe Maceo would welcome me after he heard our set, say even in a rub-a-dub style he could hear me testify through the groove
and could see I could plug right in, thanking me for not getting all contaminated by jazz like most horn players. My
ambition was disgusting - my imagination ran away with itself, stabbing any back in the way of my illusions of grandeur.
We got to the gig and the promoter immediately greeted our front man, A-Roy. He was wringing his hands
and clearly worried - "Fuck no man, I ain't seen him. I had radio interviews and all sorts of shit lined up and
he never showed up for anything. His camp was supposed to give me all kinds of support, but didn't. This is fucked.
Ain't sold a third of what I should've in advance."
I was enchanted by the big stage, the huge room.
Sound guys shoving monitors around, setting up mics. I pulled out my horn and started blowing, with nothing else to
do, walking around the stage, playing around what I thought should be my spot. My best playing was in sound checks,
blowing free, experimenting with set solos, rolling fingering tricks, scraping the crust off my knuckles. Sooner or
later a tech would stop me - they always did - EQing a room with white noise, giving directions from the soundboard, something.
But for a minute I could play lifting my horn in the air, unencumbered by a song or a mic stand, just playing to an ambient
The gig was not all that great. I think the room held twelve thousand and it was mostly empty, maybe
a thousand people scattered around. It was hard to tell; the stage lights were blaring and the room was dark.
All sorts of thoughts rambled through my head. I was over playing opening acts and just wanted to headline. I'd
rather play a room where I could see the crowd crushing to the stage, even if it was smaller. What the hell were we
doing opening for the Godfather of Soul when we were a white boy reggae band? Did I send in the gas bill?
All these things bumped in my mind as I stood waiting to play my parts. We finished after exerting a tenth the energy
we were capable of, walking off the stage to scattered tepid applause and a few shouts for James Brown. At that point
I hadn't even seen him. I talked with a couple of his band members earlier, but they weren't all that friendly, and
I wasn't into shoving myself on anyone. The horn section didn't even show. It wasn't even his full band.
After we quit I went backstage and was putting my horn in the case, on one knee, the case on the floor.
In that odd light made by tall curtains with blue lights drifting in slithers and gaps, James Brown stood over me. I
slowly looked up at him like he was the Colossus of Rhodes straddling a harbor. A million questions sprang in my head
about horn lines, the way he worked up tunes with his band, the fundamentals of funk - and the ultimate resource only inches
away. I froze.
"The show's out front, son," he said.
"Yes, Mr. Brown.
Good luck, Mr. Brown." I closed the lid to my case, buckled it and left for the dressing room. Of all the
things I wanted to say, I said nothing, really. In the dressing room A-Roy and Peter Vee were speaking in hushed tones
about whether or not we were going to get paid. There was no cheese platter and just a couple of Miller beers in a bowl
I told the guys I spoke with James Brown. "What'd he say?" Froggy, the drummer
"He said the shows out front."
"Well," said A-Roy, "lets go out front."
night he was not the hardest working man in show business. He played for about forty minutes with a five-man band -
didn't give an encore, didn't give a shit. We got paid five hundred bucks, a hundred a man. The promoter
said he didn't give James Brown much more than that. He said he had to pay him with a check to his father because of
all the IRS trouble and that Brown had simply said, "God'll take of the rest," got in his limo and drove off.
vivid memory of getting close but no cigar was drummed up by the PBS special that aired Wednesday night about James Brown.
In the special surprisingly articulate promoters and managers spoke about James Brown with realistic admiration, cutting through
to the person more than the persona. Coming up shining shoes and buck-dancing for the GI's in Augusta (called "Disgusta"
by most people who end up at the army base), poor, eighth grade education, learning piano in the church while he was sweeping,
watching the preachers laying down the word in that rhythmic delivery - all hit exactly home for me and what I saw as
a Southerner. I knew before the broadcast that would be the way it would be told. What surprised me was J. Edgar
Hoover going out to keep him down in his program to crush subversives. Crush the black leaders, especially after "I'm
Black and I'm Proud" was taken as an anthem by the Black Panthers. Dan Akroyd's comments about Brown being pursued by
the IRS, crooked lawyers, mismanaging his money - losing his radio station finally drove him mad, or close enough to mad.
then there was his taste in drugs. PCP - a horse tranquilizer. I can describe the buzz as being on the verge of
losing control, but thinking you still have it. The one time I tried it in college I couldn't remember how to piss,
just couldn't make my muscles work and I really, really had to go. He did it a lot. "Poppa's got a brand new bag
of PCP" was the joke going around.
An engineer I know did a session with James Brown. The basic tracks
were laid down and all Brown had to do was record the vocals, and there was even a scratch for those. The engineer was
psyched to be working with a legend, he told me. Brown came in with his entourage to hang out in the control room and
went to the microphone. "Then," said the engineer, "it was terrible, he couldn't do it, he couldn't even sing
to the track. We went back over and over again and finally he said 'de gubment agents has stolen the melody off a dis
tape' and kept saying it over and over again."
The manager said, "Please clear the room, Mr. Jones" and the engineer said; "Come
on everybody, let's go."
The manager came out later and said Mr. Brown will be rescheduling
this session at a later date and everyone left. I wondered if the manager was the same guy who would drape the cape
when J.B. just couldn't leave the stage cause he had to sing one more time. That was right before his tires got shot
out in South Carolina, which is just across the border from Augusta. I was in a soul band horn section at that time,
playing four James Brown songs a night, which is a lot for one artist.
It was always a life's ambition
to actually play with James Brown. I think I've performed twenty of his songs, and a few like "Sex Machine" and "Cold
Sweat" I've played hundreds of times. I've listened to everything he's recorded, I think. I honestly think he
changed the world a little. Changed my world anyway. Not the same way as monster players like Charlie Parker or
Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin, but in this primal way like his music had soil in it. There is a certain trance involved
to playing the parts, and it is the most solid foundation for an extended solo.
An interesting point made by
one of his music directors, a trombone player, was that his music was never written - just couldn't be unless maybe after
it was recorded. You had to just feel it. The players he kept were the ones that could understand what he wanted
them to do. He'd shake his hands (a lot of band leaders "sing" with their hands, punching out melody contours in thin
air) and sing the line and say it goes right there, and then the guys would try to give it to him. He's say "That's
it" and then they'd record it and have to go back and learn it for the show by listening to the tapes of what they'd
A device he pulled in his playing was watching him direct traffic. There are usually three
or four figures for the horn section to keep track of in a James Brown tune. Cues like take it to the bridge
are called out. There is one where in "Sex Machine" he would point to the left for one section and point to the right
for another, changing up the song differently each show. He had to be watched like a hawk, or he'd trip you up and it
would be a five dollar fine. I saw him in Atlanta trip up his drummer and shout "Fi dollah, fi dollah!" and
the drummer just shook his head and smiled - "Got me."
My nephew is a drummer, a Berklee grad playing in a cover band in
Boston. He said he tried to play some James Brown tunes but they didn't get the people up. He was surprised and
figured it was just a northern thing. "Maybe they don't get it up here, cause I know I got the deep pocket."
Yeah, maybe. Maybe it's the guitar player, I thought. Maybe it's putting it right exactly there, for the whole
band... or maybe there's just too much winter and not enough sweat.
And James Brown can take it hot. I think that's the lasting
impression I have of him, and the reason I hold him in such high esteem. He could grab the pan no matter how hot, how
hard, however many things were hurled against him. The guy could just work like nothing nobody had ever seen.
You go try to sing "Please, Please, Please" like that. Damn if it won't make you sweat.