I Got the Feelin'
James Brown in the 60s
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The scenario was a grim one. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the black community's spiritual and political leader, had been assassinated the day before. Rioting in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Detroit, and other major cities had turned them into funeral pyres. One of the cradles of democracy, Boston, was next. Enter James Brown, who was scheduled to perform at the Boston Garden the day after Dr. King's death. In the hopes of unifying his city, Mayor Kevin White announced the show would go on.
Shout Factory has released a three DVD set "I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the 60s," containing a documentary that chronicles the events leading to the historic concert, as well as two DVDs of live performances featuring Brown and his band of renown performing at the Boston Garden and Apollo Theater. You get every slide, shuffle, slip and spin, executed at a time when Brown was in his prime. Moonwalk? Brown's sweat-spraying dance steps put Michael Jackson's ballyhooed boogying to shame.
James Brown didn't have Marvin Gaye's matinee idol looks, or the flawless bellow of The Four Tops' Levi Stubbs. For me, the ultimate soul man was David Ruffin, a drug-huffing horror show off stage, whose raspy multi-octave range was charming, aggressive, sexy and emotive - sometimes conveying all those elements within the same song. Brown was a raw screeching nerve, tough and pugnacious as James Cagney, with a genuine rap sheet under his belt. Brown wasn't so much a singer as a shouter, an R & B hurricane of boundless energy and indecipherable commands -- "Hit me!...Get on the good foot!... Gimme that lickin' stick!...Touch myself!..." Despite singing as if he was spouting in Esperanto, Brown had few peers on stage. He was Mr. Excitement, a dancing dynamo - later revered as the "Godfather of Soul." There's no mention of the drugs, spousal abuse and arrests that would mar his later years on the DVD's; instead they focus on Brown the all around entertainer, a man dubbed "Soul Brother No.1."
"I Got the Feelin'" is a visual history of one of America's
most turbulent periods. What you don't glean from the DVD can be absorbed from
the accompanying 23-page booklet. In his introduction, director David Leaf provides
his personal recollections of the 40th anniversary of the "annus
horribilis" of 1968, and his reasons for preserving the concert. Music
historian Ricky Vincent's lengthy essay provides a history of Brown from when
he was a dirt poor street thug to his triumphant concert at the Apollo Theater
and his healing performance at the Boston Garden.
DVD 1 -- The Night James Brown Saved Boston
The meat, and the reason to watch "I Got the Feelin'" is Disc 1, "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," a 90-minute documentary that chronicles the concert Brown gave at the Boston Garden the night after Dr. King's assassination.
It becomes apparent from the opening awkward promo that WGBH, which broadcast the show, was out of their element... "Presenting Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his group..." Yeah, that kind of out of step intro was bound to stop folks from rioting.
Brown wasn't as radical as Stokley Carmichael, who wanted revenge, not apologies for Dr. King's assassination, nor was he as user friendly as Brat Packer Sammy Davis Jr., who would later count the very unhip and very Republican Richard Nixon amongst his friends (eventually, so would Brown). Brown disagreed with King's belief in non-violence - "If somebody hits me, I gotta hit 'em back," but he also realized that Carmichael's radical ideas would kill more people than they would help. If ever there was a performer more likely to stoke a riot than prevent one, it was James Brown. Yet through bulldog determination, self-confidence, and most importantly, through his music, Brown kept a lid on Beantown.
"The Night James Brown Saved Boston" features interviews with historic figures who lived through the tense pre-concert negotiations and its aftermath, including former Mayor Kevin H. White, Brown's manager, Charles Bobbit, Tom Atkins, (Boston's only black councilman in 1968), and members of Brown's band. White has a keen memory of the event, and although he respected and appreciated Brown, you can still sense the tension between them: "I never met anyone like James Brown. I never saw anything like James Brown. Man, he was some piece of work." He's also honest in his assessment of a hinky moment when Brown found out refunds were being offered at the box office and the concert was being televised for free. Brown figured he stood to lose $50,000 and wanted to get paid. "What you had was two arrogant people, James and myself (facing off)," White recalls. "I told him I'll get you your money. I'll get you your money! But I don't just want a concert, I want a performance."
Other political and historical figures show up in news clips or in interviews, including a taciturn President Lyndon Johnson calling for calm, Robert Kennedy announcing King's death to his constituents only months before he too was assassinated, and radical nutbag Stokely Carmichael, urging blacks to "get guns and retaliate for this execution." But it's the comment of an unidentified black man on the street that best sums up the atmosphere in Boston in 1968: "Patrick Henry said give me liberty or give me death. I been catching more hell than Patrick Henry ever seen."
Dr. Cornell West, a professor of black history at Princeton, still seems to have a chip on his Afro the size of a mesa for Caucasians and needs some sort of sensitivity intervention, while David Gates (a columnist for "Newsweek," not the singer for the pop group Bread), is a candidate for electro shock therapy. Maybe it would help him speak above a hushed monotone. Gates was one of a few white dudes at the concert, warned and threatened to stay away, and he speaks as if he was at a tiddlywinks marathon.
The most pleasant surprise is Reverend Al Sharpton, a personal friend of Brown's. Removed from the arena of self-promotion, the right Reverend tosses out insightful and humorous sound bites as if they were communion wafers. Commenting on Brown's controversial single, "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," Sharpton says, "We could be black now. It was the ultimate emancipation. James Brown gave black America its bar mitzvah."
The effect of Brown's anthem to black pride, "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," is a crucial part of the documentary. Prior to "Say It Loud," many black were still distrustful of Brown. (Must have been the processed 'do.) He'd openly opposed Dr. King's beliefs and was chided by the Black Panthers (who called him "Sold Brother No. 1") for endorsing Hubert Humphrey for president. "Say It Loud" made blacks beam and made whites scream. "Imagine," a rednecked friend of mine said to me, "if someone wrote a song called 'Go fly a kite, I'm white and I'm right.'" He had a point - which was driven home years later whenever I heard the irksome ballad of the Confederacy, "Sweet Home Alabama." Nobody likes a braggart. I had a problem with "Say It Loud" because it simply wasn't one of Brown's best efforts. The 32 school children Brown bussed in for the session (now that's ironic) sound more like four or five, and bear a not too flattering resemblance to the Barkays goofing around with "Soulfinger." (Guess it's always been hard for me to take singing school kids seriously.) Another problem with the song was given the level of destruction in Watts, D.C. and in Detroit, place where blacks were destroying their neighborhoods, I had to admit I wasn't exactly proud to be black in '68, and I certainly didn't need a song to remind me to keep my head up. But a lot of folks did, so "Say It Loud" was a huge hit on black radio stations. It did contain at least one killer line: "We'd rather die on our feet, than live on our knees."
The documentary unearths a side of Brown we've forgotten existed, and that's Soul Brother #1 as a political activist. "The Night James Brown Saved Boston" documents his post-Boston excursions to L.A. and D.C., where Brown, the dropout, ex-convict, and self-made man addressed cameras with the oratory skills of Cicero: "In Augusta, Georgia I used to shine shoes on the steps of radio station RDW, but today I own that radio station. You know what that is? That's black power."
An added attraction is listening to Dennis Haysbert's sobering narration. The first DVD also contains extended interviews with Sharpton, West, Bobbit and band members Marva Whitney, John "Jabo" Starks and Fred Wesley. There's also lively panel discussion about the film, featuring Dr. Robert Hall, a professor of African American studies at Northwestern University (and an appreciative fan of the Godfather of Soul), Bobbit, and filmmakers David Leaf and Russell Morash. Bobbit gets much of the attention in the extras, and he's a font of amusing memories. He fondly recalls ingratiating himself with Brown despite his fifty dollar suit and eight dollar pair of Buster Brown shoes, and reminds us that the singer stressed education as the best route to empowerment for blacks.
DVD 2 - The Boston Concert
James was no superhero, but the night after Dr. Martin Luther King's death he performed like one. The second disc contains the April 5th concert in its entirety in grainy black and white, beginning with Tom Atkins introduction and Mayor White's impassioned plea for peace: "All of us are hear to listen to a great talent, James Brown. But we're also here to pay tribute to one of the great Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King. Twenty-four hours ago, Dr. King died for all of us...black, white, so that we can live together in harmony and peace."
Following Mayor White's speech, Brown starts out with a shriek, launching into "That's Life!" Yeah, the frivolous single popularized by Frank Sinatra. Given the magnitude of the moment, the line "Ridin' high in April, shot down in May," was ironic.
One notable glitch is that the original broadcast is missing part of the visual for Tom Atkins' introduction and Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World," which is too bad because it's the best of three renditions offered in the 3 DVD package. You can't see all of it, but at least you can hear it!
An interesting note, later revealed by band member Marva Whitney, is that there were no dead spots in the show - the music literally never stopped. Brown seldom took a breath or a moment to towel off, but if he did, saxophonist Maceo Parker and company continued riffing. One song blended into the next without end, making Brown's set list a long medley of hits. And hits are what you get, including "I Got the Feelin'," "Cold Sweat," "Please, Please, Please," "Try Me,' and "I Got You (I Feel Good)."
Tensions rose near the end of the concert when enthusiastic fans climbed onstage to get to Brown's side. Brown's personal goons handled the initial imbeciles. Spying the Boston police spoiling for a fight, it was Brown to the rescue - again - when the stage got too crowded with non-essential personnel. Listen to Brown brusquely calm the crowd and you see another example of his assertive command of the stage.
As a result of Brown's incendiary performance, Boston was
spared the violence that engulfed other cities. In fact, Tom Atkins notes,
Boston was quieter than it would have been on a normal Friday night because
everyone was at home watching James Brown.
DVD 3 -- "Live At the Apollo '68"
The Apollo performance was recorded in March, 1968 and subtitled "James Brown: Man to Man" for TV. There are a few horizontal age lines and several technical glitches, including some rough edits. But Brown is in full soul brother mode. Many of the songs would remain part of Brown's set list a month later for the historic Boston concert. You can quibble that two DVDs featuring virtually the same set list is duplicitous, and you won't get an argument from me, but James earlier performance at the Apollo may actually be better because he doesn't have the 300 pound gorilla of keeping the peace on his shoulders. And it offers you a chance to see James in sweaty living color. His processed hair wilts like road kill run down by the National Guard, but -- take me the bridge! -- The man can move.
The show starts off with Brown seated on a stool, casually opening with the ballad "If I Ruled the World." Again, James really isn't so much a singer as he is a showman, wringing emotion from the lyrics as he sits alone in the spotlight. "If I Ruled the World" is the only song not duplicated at the Boston concert, and offers the viewer a glimpse of Brown the balladeer. "Get It Together" is one of those classic horn squad riffs associated with Brown, where he could be singing the instructions on a bottle of aspirin and not only wouldn't know it, you wouldn't care. "You may have fast feet, but you ain't hip to the business in the street," was all I could decipher. But any song where James gets to call on saxophonist Maceo Parker is worth a listen. Another topper is stretched-out version of "I Got the Feelin'" with an elongated intro in which James checks the audience's temperature, asking them (you guessed it), if they've got the feeling. "...Good Gawd, you got the feelin'. Can't stand myself here!" James replies. J.B.'s verbal skills may provide fodder for comedians (remember Eddie Murphy's hilarious "James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub" skit?), but his hoofin' is as serious as a three valve heart attack.
In addition to the complete Apollo Theater concert, DVD 3 contains a segment with Brown walking the streets of Harlem and Watts, commiserating about his hopes for black America - its brotha James the philosopher! Despite his inarticulate speech of the heart, Brown's comments show he deserved to be listened to - then and now.
The Apollo Concert DVD bristles with bonus performances including, a clip of Brown on the T.A.M.I Show taped in 1964, and a pair of songs recorded at L'Olympia in Paris. Brown throws his body into caterwalling high gear as he stomps out a version of "Out of Sight" on the T.A.M.I Show, his pompadour looking like an angry wasp's nest. James is in a cold sweat for a rendition of "I Got You (I Feel Good)" lensed at L'Olympia on July 14, 1968, and gives a sweaty performance of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" taped on November 25, 1967. Although this version of "Man's World" rambles a bit, you'll love the way Brown creates sexual tension between himself and the crowd through his grunts, pleas, starts, stops and regression into a semi-fetal position.
It's good to remember that James Brown was more than "UHHHH!" and "Hit me!," that he was an activist, a self-made man, and too many, a hero. So get down with your bad self and check out "I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the 60s." Good Gawd ya'll.