The King of Pop and the Godfather of Soul

Willa: I don’t think there can be any doubt that James Brown was one of Michael Jackson’s earliest and most profound influences as a singer, dancer, and larger-than-life public figure. We’ve probably all seen clips of Michael Jackson’s 1968 audition at Motown, where he performs “I Got the Feelin'” in perfect James Brown mode – the inflections, the screams and drops, the a capella “baby, baby, baby” at the break, the spins and shuffles … even the confident way he grabs the microphone stand and slings it behind him at the opening notes. It’s a perfect imitation by an 9-year-old musical prodigy who loved James Brown and watched his every move. Here’s a clip:

This week Joie and I are very happy to be joined once again by Charles Thomson, a journalist who is probably best known among Michael Jackson fans for his insightful analysis of media bias in coverage of the 2005 trial. We have links to a number of Charles’ articles in our Reading Room, including a recent post he wrote about Michael Jackson’s participation in the 2006 World Music Awards in London, an event Charles attended, and how that event was reported in the media.

It’s fascinating, Charles, to read your first-hand account of the scene at Earls Court Arena, along with video footage you provide of the extremely warm reception Michael Jackson received there, and then compare that with the “chorus of boos” that was reported again and again in the London tabloids, and later the mainstream media as well. As you say in your post, this wasn’t a case of different observers interpreting a situation in different ways. It was “a purely fabricated story,” as you say, and that’s obvious from the video footage you provide.

But Charles, you’re also a “very passionate” James Brown fan, and you’ve even interviewed several people who knew him and worked with him, right? How did that come about?

Charles: Funnily enough, the last time I saw James Brown was less than three weeks before that World Music Awards ceremony in 2006. He appeared at the Roundhouse in London to perform a concert for the BBC. I was on Mr. Brown’s guest list and attended a pre-show press conference, where I got to ask him a question. What an honor!

Willa: Really?! You actually spoke to James Brown himself? That’s awesome! So how did you become interested in his music?

Charles: It was through Michael Jackson that I became a James Brown fan. I was roughly seven or eight when I discovered Michael Jackson and started collecting his music. My mother, who grew up listening to the Jackson 5, introduced me to his early output and to Motown in general. That’s where I developed my love of soul music.

I was always aware of James Brown, cited constantly by Michael and many others as the greatest entertainer of all time, but this was before the days of YouTube, before you could search “James Brown” and thousands of videos appeared.

Willa: It’s amazing how YouTube and sites like it have changed how we learn about music, isn’t it? It’s wonderful to have such a wealth of videos and films and concert footage available at your fingertips, but I have to admit I miss the days of going to the record store to buy albums.

Joie: Yeah, the entire music industry is in such a strange place right now. There are almost no record stores anymore. I mean, they don’t exist. I find something about that very sad. Even though it is awesome to have this wealth of music right at our fingertips, as you say, it’s just very weird to think that actual record stores – and even music sections in certain department and electronic stores – are dead.

And what you’ve just said about YouTube makes me think about my MTV rant. You know, I still think it is the height of absurdity to have a television station named Music TV whose programming has absolutely nothing to do with music anymore. And I’ve made a lot of noise in the past about how they should either change the name or get back to their roots. But the truth is, they really just need to change the name because the concept is now irrelevant since people can access YouTube and sites like it right on their laptops, tablets and phones.

Charles: It is sad that we are losing our record stores. The big HMV in Piccadilly, London, closed down recently and was replaced by a memorabilia shop, of which there are already about 10 within walking distance. It’s a shame so many people aren’t prepared to pay for good music. I always buy records by artists I like, because I want them to be able to make more.

That said, even 10 years ago – because I didn’t live in the city – my local record stores’ soul sections were rather pitiful. On top of that, I was too young to own a credit card and buy things online, and too young to travel into London on my own, where the record stores might actually have a decent selection. So for years, the closest I got to understanding why Michael loved James Brown so much was a live CD I found in a bargain bin at my local shopping mall. The power and energy of the performance was incredible but I’d never properly seen him in performance mode.

In 2004, I spotted in a newspaper that James Brown was taking part in a free concert in London and tickets were being raffled. I entered and won.

Willa: Wow, Charles, you seem to have extraordinary luck when it comes to James Brown! It’s like you were fated to cover him.

Charles: I do feel very lucky that I happened to spot that advert and happened to win tickets. Without those two pieces of incredibly good fortune, my life could have been very different. As it turned out, I only had a small window of time to see James Brown live before he passed away, so I’m glad I packed in as many gigs as I did.

That concert in 2004 was one of the first times I was allowed to go to London with my friends. I was 16. Other performers on the bill included Ozzy Osbourne and Rod Stewart, but James Brown – who was 71 – performed the longest and best set of the day. I queued for hours to get to the front and he was worth every minute. His band was mindblowing. He did his signature moves and the running man over and over again and seemed to barely break a sweat. I was hooked.

I saw him again in 2005 and then two more times in 2006. In 2005 I was right in the front row. He performed “I Got the Feelin’” with the “baby, baby, baby” breakdowns. It was unbelievable.

Willa: So he was in London a lot – more than I would have expected – and still performing a lot of shows, especially for a man in his 70s.

Charles: He toured constantly. It was pretty dependable that he would do a European tour every year. It not only kept Mr. Brown fit (and he tended to let himself go a bit once he clocked off, so it was good for him to keep working – he died during a two-month hiatus in 2006, the longest break from work he’d taken in about ten years), but there were dozens of other people who were reliant on him for their income.

For instance, the nature of his shows was such that his band had to be incredibly disciplined. They had to know probably 100 songs, and they had to be able to fall in and out of them at Mr. Brown’s whim. He would communicate with them through hand signals throughout the show. Michael Jackson did the same thing on the Bad tour, for instance, when he would signal how many “stabs” he wanted during the dance portion of “Another Part of Me” by placing discreet hand signals into his dance moves.

Willa: And apparently, some of James Brown’s hand signals to the band were fines! Each time he flashed five fingers at you, he was upping the fine. Soul Survivor: the James Brown Story talks about that about 40 minutes in. Here’s a link. That cracked me up, but it also shows just how aware he was of everything that was happening onstage with his band and background singers. If they weren’t giving it their all and meeting his expectations, he let them know it, right then and there.

Charles: Mr. Brown couldn’t put on a show the way he wanted by just hiring whoever was available as and when he felt like it. He needed his tightly-drilled band behind him – but to have that, he had to keep them working, or else they might not be there when he needed them.

Joie: That’s incredible.

Willa: I agree. I’d never thought about that before – that he had to provide steady employment for his band to keep them.

Joie: And it really explains why he was always known as “the hardest working man in show business,” doesn’t it?

Charles: His shows were stupendous. Although in later years he would fluctuate a little bit – sometimes sounding a little weak or not being able to dance as energetically as he usually did – the whole experience of his shows was extraordinary. It was like being transported back in time, or witnessing some incredible ancient ritual. Jonathan Lethem wrote a brilliant article called “Being James Brown” for Rolling Stone magazine in 2006, which included the most vivid, beautiful description of the magic and the mysticism of a James Brown show. I would advise everyone to seek it out.

More than anyone else I’ve seen, Mr. Brown was the epitome of the term “living legend.” It seemed slightly unbelievable at that gig in 2005, as I staked out my spot right in front of the stage, that the James Brown – of the TAMI show and of Boston ’68 and of Zaire ’74 – was about to appear mere feet in front of me and perform. I was convinced for a short while that I had made a boob and it was going to be some unknown singer/songwriter with the same name or something. The show was just euphoric. I’ve never experienced a gig like it since. It was dizzying. What an atmosphere.

The first thing he did after walking out and bowing was to give a few short bursts of “Make It Funky,” then throw the microphone towards the audience, catching the wire and yanking it back just before it hit someone. As it flew back towards him, he spun around 360 degrees and then caught the mic stand with perfect precision, immediately letting rip one of his trademark wails.

The show continued in that vein all night. He fell to his knees for “Man’s World” right in front of me. As he spun around during the upbeat numbers, beads of sweat would fly out across the front few rows. He did all his trademark moves (except the splits, of course) with gusto. During one song my camera started playing up and I looked down to see if I could fix it. As I looked up, I saw a microphone flying at my face and reflexively recoiled. Of course, it stopped about a foot short of my face and sprang up into Mr. Brown’s waiting palm, at which he burst out laughing. For the rest of the gig he kept coming over and flicking the microphone at me, then we’d share some laughter.

At one point he knelt down at the side of the stage, took off his bowtie and placed it in my friend Angela’s hand. She has since given it to me as I’m such a huge fan. It is a wonderful memento of what was easily the greatest concert I’ve ever been to. As I walked out after it ended, I could hear people all around me – the crowd was very young – expressing their shock and wonder at just how incredible he had been, given he was now in his 70s.

Joie: That sounds amazing!

Charles: I saw him twice more in 2006. The first gig was in July at the Tower of London – a great way to celebrate after finishing my college exams. Then, in September 2006 – just as I became a journalism degree student – he announced the BBC concert at the Roundhouse, which would become the fourth and final time I saw him live.

Willa: And that’s when you talked to him?

Charles: Yes. I had the brainwave of using my new student journalist credentials to apply for an interview. I was told he was only in town for a day and wasn’t giving any interviews, but his people invited me to the press conference, where I asked him a question about a new album I’d heard he was recording. That exchange, however brief, is one of my most cherished memories.

Willa: How wonderful!

Charles: There is a very short gif of us talking on my website. Sadly, he died less than two months after that press conference. Two years later I interviewed his former sideman, Fred Wesley, for the U.S. journal Wax Poetics. I knew Fred had been involved in that final album – which was never released – so I asked him about it. It got me wondering what had happened to those tracks, so I decided to find out. I interviewed anyone I could who was involved in the album – musicians, producers, songwriters, managers, vocalists – and wound up writing a 5,000-word article: “James Brown: The Lost Album.” Two extracts are available on my website, here and here.

It became the cover story on a magazine I published. Titled JIVE, it was my final practical project at journalism school. A thousand copies were printed. I still have some of them. You can read about JIVE here and view some sample pages here.

The James Brown article won me a feature-writing award from the Guardian newspaper a few months later, and I became a sort of go-to guy for articles about his life and work. Subsequent pieces have included an exclusive interview with his widow on the four-year anniversary of his death and an in-depth exploration of his humanitarian legacy.

Willa: I’m glad you mentioned that, Charles, because I don’t think his humanitarian work is very well known. I knew he played a concert in Boston the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and I knew that concert was credited by many with diffusing a very tense situation and preventing what could have been a destructive riot. On the 40th anniversary of MLK’s death, I heard an interview on NPR with David Leaf, the director of the film, The Night James Brown Saved Boston. Here’s a clip from that film:

I also knew he was very involved in promoting black empowerment and the idea that “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” But I didn’t know about his long history of charitable work until I watched Soul Survivor and another biography, James Brown: the Godfather of Soul. Here’s a link to that one also.

Charles: That concert in Boston was one of the defining moments in Mr. Brown’s career. It demonstrated his extraordinary significance to the black community. On the night of Dr. King’s assassination, riots broke out all over America – including in the black areas of Boston. The following day the city council was going to shut down his concert for fear it would attract rioters to the city center – the white neighborhoods – but they decided instead (without Mr. Brown’s permission) that they would televise the concert in a bid to keep people indoors.

Not only did the riots not spread – there were less reports of crime that night in Boston than there were on a regular night. The TV station showed the concert over and over again, back to back, and people stayed in all night to watch James Brown. His calming effect on the city’s black community was so incredible that other cities started asking for him. Washington immediately requested his presence, and he went there and calmed the riots too.

Willa: Apparently, this was when he became known as the Godfather of Soul. That title refers to the movie The Godfather, and it means that he was as powerful as a mafia don in his ability to control situations – only he controlled them by moving people with his music rather than threatening them with henchmen. So this idea we frequently see in Michael Jackson’s videos of music overcoming violence – like in Beat It, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Smooth Criminal, Heal the World, Ghosts, even Captain EO – we see it literally happening through James Brown’s concerts after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

Charles: The following year, Look magazine ran a cover story titled, “James Brown: Is He the Most Important Black Man in America?” The standfirst read, “Many men have gone from ghetto to glory, and forgotten. He bothered to come back.”

That was why, despite his various trials and tribulations, he retained the respect of America’s black community for the most part. The images of the crowds outside the Harlem Apollo for the public viewing of his body – no stars, no autographs, just a chance to pay respects – were unbelievable. Thousands and thousands turned out just to walk past his coffin and say a quiet goodbye. He commanded that respect because he never forgot his roots.

He refused to move away from Augusta, even though a relocation to Los Angeles would have aided his music career significantly. He gave to charities, funded a line of food stamps and handed out college scholarships at his concerts. Every year in Augusta he gave away hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys and bought thousands of Christmas presents for needy children.

Willa: That’s true. According to the documentaries I watched, he was very generous in giving back to help people in need in the communities that had supported him, especially Augusta and Harlem. And he was committed to promoting education, such as through his “Don’t Be a Dropout” campaign.

Charles: But like Michael Jackson, his humanitarianism extended beyond his actions and into his music.

Willa: Yes, as you point out in your article, James Brown saw music as a way to improve the world – to “take these kids to a better life and a better place,” as you quoted from his induction speech into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame. We definitely see that idea carried forward by Michael Jackson as well – that music and the arts can lift people up and inspire us to make the world a better place.

Charles: Bootsy Collins – James Brown’s bassist for a short time in the early 1970s – released an album about two years ago which included a tribute song called “JB – Still The Man.” It was a collaboration with Reverend Al Sharpton, who eulogized Mr Brown over a James Brown-style instrumental.

Willa: Here’s a video – from YouTube, of course! – and it looks like it was uploaded by Bootsy Collins:

Charles: One segment of the song goes:

Every time an artist goes in a studio and sings for a cause bigger than themselves, that’s James Brown. He’s still The Man. Every time we use our art and our music to lift those that are down at the bottom to look toward the top and dream for a better day, I know that James Brown is still The Man.

James Brown’s catalog is filled with socially conscious anthems – from “Don’t Be a Dropout” to “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin’” to “The Funky President.” Even his Christmas songs were socially conscious: “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” He recorded music with humanitarian goals even when he knew it would make him unpopular. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” cost him a lot of airplay and a lot of contracts.

Willa: I didn’t realize that. That’s something we see in Michael Jackson also: the panther dance in Black or White was criticized for being too angry, “The Lost Children” was criticized for being too sappy, “Little Susie” was criticized for being too depressing, and “They Don’t Care about Us” was almost universally misunderstood and criticized as anti-Semitic. But even though he was heavily criticized for those songs and videos, he refused to stop trying to reach out through his music.

Charles: The humanitarian theme in Michael Jackson’s self-penned output was there right from the Jacksons days, with tracks like “Can You Feel It” – a funky track, designed specifically to pack out dance floors but also carrying a strong, positive social message. That’s textbook James Brown. But you’re right: he, like James Brown, also recorded humanitarian material in the knowledge that it might attract criticism. Can you imagine a less commercial song to release in the grunge era than “Heal The World”? A less “current” track in the mid-90s than “Earth Song”?

Willa: Exactly. He was in touch with musical trends, but his focus was always on creating work that is important and timeless, meaning it will last and be relevant even after current musical fads have shifted.

Charles: His more antagonistic, socio-political material was also steeped in James Brown influence. “They Don’t Care About Us” consists largely of a recurrent, abrasive drum track with staccato lyrics. Sure, lots of artists have recorded songs like that over the years – but it was James Brown who Michael cited as his greatest influence at any given opportunity. And when he sang lyrics like, “Black man, black male, throw the brother in jail / All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us,” was the sentiment that far removed from James Brown’s “We’d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees”?

Michael was raised on a diet of political music, of course. At 11, he was colleagues with Marvin Gaye during the recording of “What’s Going On.” He sat in on the recording of Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life, which included tracks like “Black Man.” He covered Sly Stone’s “Stand,” and Jermaine Jackson’s book revealed that a young Michael loved George Clinton’s Parliament / Funkadelic – no surprise since Michael had George take part in his 2003 documentary The One.

But as I said above – it was James Brown who Michael consistently cited as his greatest influence, so it would be rather naive to ignore the massive similarities in not only their humanitarian work, but their humanitarian and socio-political output.

Joie: I have to admit that this is all very fascinating to me. I have never really been a “fan” of James Brown in the true sense of the word. I mean, there are several of his songs that I can honestly say that I love, but I was never into him enough to bother with diving into his entire catalog of music or researching his history and humanitarianism.

But as a black child, I knew growing up that James Brown was an incredibly respected and well-loved human being in the black community. Among older black people – and I shouldn’t say “older” really, I just mean my parent’s generation – James Brown was like a hero. He was someone who had been in the trenches with them and had gone through the whole civil rights fight with them, and he could do no wrong. When James Brown sang “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they sang that line loudly with him. He was, as the song says, “the man.”

Charles: As an aside – it’s interesting that “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” is rightly considered one of the most important songs of Mr. Brown’s career, but is almost exclusively talked about in terms of its lyrical content and its socio-political impact. I would urge anyone to set aside a few minutes one day to put on some headphones, turn “Say It Loud” up really loud, forget the lyrics for a little while, and just listen to the composition. It is one of the most incredible rhythmic compositions you’ll ever hear, complex but at the same time universally appealing. Even without the lyrics, it sounds almost militaristic. It’s like a call to arms. It was co-written with Pee Wee Ellis and is an incredible achievement.

Willa: Wow, I’m really going to have to go back and listen to it more carefully.

And it’s interesting to me that we were all first exposed to a different aspect of James Brown, and came to him through a different route. Charles, your first impressions were from listening to his music on CD. Joie, yours were from hearing your family talk about him as an important cultural figure. And mine were watching him as a dancer and performer on Soul Train. I babysat a lot in junior high and high school, and there weren’t many TV channels back then – just the three big ones and a few UHF ones that didn’t always come in very well. I’d be sitting in the dark in someone else’s house, trying not to creep myself out with all the odd sounds an unfamiliar house makes at night, and I always loved it when James Brown came on because he made me feel brave. For one thing, he was so energetic he completely changed the atmosphere – the house didn’t seem so empty when he was there. And he was fearless! He’d grab that microphone like it was a live thing and whip it around like he was wrestling a snake with his bare hands. You just couldn’t feel scared when he was on.

Joie: Energetic and fearless. I love that, Willa. Those are great words to describe him, I think.

Willa: He really was – extremely energetic and fearless. I remember going to see a laser light show at Stone Mountain, Georgia – gosh, 30 years ago – back when lasers were still pretty rare. It was the first laser light show I’d ever seen, and they played some classic James Brown songs while the laser traced an outline of a dancing James Brown on this huge rockface. It was frenetic! You got the impression even the laser was having a hard time keeping up with him. …

And of course, Michael Jackson learned to imitate that high-energy dancing from an early age, and then incorporated it into his own unique performances. He liked to vary the tempo of his concerts and include ballads and other quiet moments, but he could definitely turn up the dial and execute those quicksilver spins and shuffles when he wanted to. Here’s a clip of him from 1983, performing in classic James Brown style with his mentor looking on, and be sure to watch the spin. It’s incredible. He does three-and-a-half revolutions, I think – they’re so fast I can’t even count them. I don’t think an ice skater can spin that fast with skates on. Here’s the clip:

I love James Brown’s reaction! You can tell he got such a kick out of it. And here’s another clip 20 years later, from 2003, with Michael Jackson honoring his mentor once again:

So James Brown was an important figure in dance who had a tremendous influence on Michael Jackson, and he was a musical innovator as well. For example, in the tribute song you mentioned earlier, Charles, “JB – Still the Man,” Al Sharpton says,

He changed music as we know it … He literally changed the beat, to a 1 – 3 from a 2 – 4. He taught the world to be on the 1. That’s why he’s still The Man. Cause every time I hear a hip hop record on the 1, that’s James Brown.

That’s also discussed in Deep Soul: the Uprising of James Brown. Here’s a clip:

So his music was very rhythmically driven – as his drummer said, “it’s like a dinosaur walking” – and it was extremely important culturally as well as artistically. Deep Soul declares that “funk was defiantly black music.” As music critic Rickey Vincent explains, “Funk, it was a way to sort of signify that you’re celebrating everything about your raw life. You know, we’re trapped in these ghettos, but we got a lot of raw style.” This gets back to what Rev. Sharpton was saying also – James Brown is The Man both culturally and creatively.

According to his biographer, Bruce Tucker, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was like nothing that had ever come before. The “New Bag” is funk – the birth of funk. He moved the beat from the upbeat to the downbeat, added synchronicity, and invented a whole new genre of music.

Charles: Funnily enough, “Papa’s Bag” is often cited – including by Mr. Brown himself – as the first example of funk, but Brown experts look further back to tracks like “Out of Sight,” which had a pounding beat and an almost hypnotic rhythmic motif. In fact, “Papa’s Bag” doesn’t even have a 1-and-3 beat. Mr. Brown would often talk about coming up with the song in 1965 and stumbling on 1-and-3, but “Papa’s Bag” has a very clear 2-and-4 beat. His long-time manager Charles Bobbit told me a few years ago that Mr. Brown did this on purpose because, even decades later, he was very protective of his methods. According to Mr. Bobbit, he would refuse to enter into serious discussion of his work on most occasions, confiding in those around him that, “Them cats just wanna know where I’m coming from.” What actually spikes on the 1 in “Papa’s Bag” is the horns, not the beat.

Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Charles. I’ll have to listen again with that in mind and see if I can hear what you’re saying. You know, my understanding of music is pretty pathetic, actually, and it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on in James Brown’s music, especially, because it is so complicated and so funky and so different.

But I’m really blown away by the idea that James Brown and his band created funk, a new genre of music. I used to think that music just evolved slowly over time, but the more I learn about music history, the more I realize that isn’t true. Every so often an incredible talent appears like a comet that changes the course of music, and then those innovations are gradually assimilated, and then another comet appears.

Bill Monroe invented bluegrass. It didn’t exist before him. That’s just astonishing to me. Southern Rock as we know it did not exist before Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett teamed up for their version of “Hey Jude.” And funk as a genre of music did not exist before James Brown “literally changed the beat,” as Rev. Sharpton says. And then I think Michael Jackson took that to a whole new level, inventing an entirely new genre of art. …

Charles: I don’t think Michael Jackson did invent a new genre of music. I can’t think of any sound or method he created that wasn’t already there. James Brown’s music sounded completely new and revolutionary. Michael Jackson’s just sounded incredibly good.

The three central tenets of funk were (1) the one-and-three beat, (2) the prominence of the bass and the drums and (3) the emphasis on rhythm over melody. Funk emerged in the early 60s. The last huge musical revolution had been rock & roll in the 50s, which was predicated almost exclusively on the two-and-four beat. Of course, one-and-three had been implemented here and there – but nobody had made a point of it; James Brown adopted it as his modus operandi. Additionally, he put the bass and drums at the front of the compositions, whereas they typically took a backseat to guitars. Thirdly, he gave his band the directive, “Play every instrument like it’s a drum,” meaning no melodic flourishes at all. Everything had to be rhythmic. The combination of those three elements constituted a completely new way of making music.

Conversely, Michael Jackson always worked within existing genres. Most of his early solo material fell comfortably within the genre conventions of soul, disco and traditional R&B. Off The Wall had a fair amount of jazz in it, too. The Bad album mostly sounded like typical 80s synth-pop with forays into genres like gospel and rock. Dangerous also explored those two genres, as well as classical and, of course, its overriding New Jack Swing sound. And so on and so forth.

What Michael Jackson did was to work within those existing genres – albeit sometimes fusing them in unusual ways (for instance, he was one of the first pop stars to start using guest rappers) – but to create his music to such a high standard that it set the benchmark for all of his peers. Did the Bad album constitute a new way of making music? No. But he made damn sure that of all the synth-pop albums recorded in the late 80s, it was one of the absolute best and would become one of the most enduring.

He was a perfectionist, meticulously recording dozens of songs per album, leaving years between releases, to make sure whatever he put out was the absolute best it could be. In this sense, he and Mr. Brown were very different. Mr. Brown would record entire albums in a matter of hours and largely hated retakes. Even if he or his band made mistakes, he would often put out the first cut rather than fix it. His saying was, “The first take is God. The second take is man.” It was all about the feeling for him.

One track with a mistake on, for instance, is “It’s a New Day.” Towards the end Mr. Brown starts singing the wrong line and has to quickly correct himself and rush out the right line as an afterthought. It’s noticeable, but the groove is so incredible that you don’t care. It just adds to that fantastic live and improvisational sound he cultivated.

I think both his and Michael Jackson’s methods were equally valid, but it’s an area where their music differed. Elsewhere, of course, Michael’s music displayed huge influence by James Brown. Perhaps the most immediately obvious similarity is their shared use of vocal tics like “ow” and “huh” throughout their recordings. James Brown explained the phenomenon in a 2005 interview with Jonathan Ross: “I used my voice like an instrument.” Michael took it that one step further, of course, and actually beat-boxed parts of his own songs.

While I don’t think Michael Jackson created any music genres, that’s not to say he wasn’t extremely influential. One area where his impact cannot be questioned is the music video. Nobody could deny his enormous influence on that art form. It could be argued, too, that Michael Jackson created a new genre of live performance – but the problem was that he did it so well that nobody who has since emulated it has been able to do it justice. By virtue of his colossal talent, Michael unwittingly set an impossible standard for his students and ultimately inflicted on us an endless parade of useless, fedora-fondling imitators – Usher, Chris Brown, etc – who I rather wish would just give up and go away, if I’m perfectly honest.

Willa: Hmmm … Well, I really like some of the new “fedora-fondling” performers who are following in his footsteps, though I agree they aren’t him. But that seems like an unfair standard! Someone like Michael Jackson is very rare indeed. …

And actually, when I said Michael Jackson created a new genre of art, I wasn’t referring to his music so much as his visual art, particularly the way he challenges how we “read” his face and body – and more generally, how we “read” race and gender and sexuality and nationality and identity and all those divisions we construct between ourselves and others. I don’t think we as a culture have even begun to understand this, which I see as his most revolutionary and important work.

But I do think he was innovative in his music as well, on many different fronts – for example, the way he juxtaposes different genres of music within one work to create a type of meaningful dissonance. Lisha McDuff talked with us about this in a post about Black and White, and then Susan Fast joined us for a post about his genre crossing more generally in both his recorded music and live performances. That’s an entirely new way of constructing music, and of thinking about how to convey meaning through music.

And like James Brown’s creation of funk, this new approach to composing music is important culturally as well as aesthetically since Michael Jackson often juxtaposes “black” and “white” genres in a way that subverts established racial hierarchies. For example, in her analysis of “Working Day and Night” from the Dangerous tour, Susan Fast told us, “Metal (the white genre) ‘serves’ the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.” That’s a subtle but powerful reversal.

Charles: Some of those genre-melding experiments were more successful than others, in my opinion. Personally, I think “Black or White” is a bit of a dog’s dinner and is often remembered more fondly than it might otherwise have been on account of the video being very good.

Willa: Oh heaven’s, Charles … “a dog’s dinner”? I’m speechless …

Joie: And I’m a little bit scandalized. While “Black or White” has never been one of my very favorites, I love the message of the song, and I certainly wouldn’t call it “a dog’s dinner.” But I have to admit, I love your British vernacular!

Willa: You’re being awfully diplomatic, Joie. …

Charles: His use of orchestral/classical musical was often very impressive, such as juxtaposing a haunting choral introduction with the hard, funky body of “Who Is It.”

That’s a very good point about the “Working Day and Night” performances. “Working Day and Night” is one of my all-time favorite Michael Jackson songs – whether on the album or on stage. Most of my favorite Michael Jackson songs are built on layers of rhythm, in the James Brown tradition. I found it very strange in later years that Michael would talk so often about how “melody is king,” given that the majority of his most popular material was rhythmic: “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night,” “Wanna Be Starting Something,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” etc. I’m looking forward to Susan’s book about the Dangerous album.

Willa: I am too! It’s supposed to come out this summer, I think, and I have a feeling it might go a long way toward changing critical opinion about Michael Jackson, the Dangerous album, and his work more generally – especially his later work, which has been terribly undervalued. Susan let me read a rough draft, and it’s fantastic! I was blown away again and again by her insights. I highly recommend it.

Well, thank you so much for joining us, Charles! I don’t always agree with you – a “dog’s dinner” indeed! Joie and I are going to have to work on you about that – but it’s always wonderful to talk with you.

And this feels like a very appropriate time of year to talk about James Brown. He died on Christmas Day seven years ago, and apparently Michael Jackson visited the funeral home and held a private vigil for him throughout the small hours of the night. A couple years later, after his own death, WRDW-TV out of Augusta carried a news segment about it. And while I hate to direct anyone to the New York Daily News, they actually ran a more in-depth article about it three weeks later.

According to Charles Reid, the funeral director, Michael Jackson showed up around midnight and stayed until dawn. He kissed James Brown on the forehead as he lay in the casket, and then curled a lock of hair on his forehead so it looked more like him. And he talked about how much he meant to him: “‘How important Mr. Brown was to him,’ Reid remembered. ‘What an inspiration he was.'” There’s something very touching to me about this – the image of Michael Jackson quietly holding vigil for the man who had meant so much to him for so many years.

Charles: Michael’s attendance at James Brown’s public memorial was his first public appearance in the U.S. after his trial. I think that is very significant and speaks volumes about his love for Mr Brown. I thought Rev. Al Sharpton’s introduction to Michael’s brief eulogy was very smart: “Even though he knows they’re gonna criticize him, Michael says he don’t care what they say. Michael came for you today, Mr. Brown.” Of course, that’s exactly what the media did the next day, mocking Michael for kissing his mentor on the forehead as he lay in state. Interestingly, Michael’s own memorial – and even his own coffin – were modeled on Mr. Brown’s. The teacher/student relationship continued right to the end.

The similarities between the aftermaths of their deaths didn’t end there. Michael was commemorated with a ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in the days after he passed away, attended by Rev. Sharpton. That’s another tradition which appeared to begin with Mr. Brown’s death in 2006. Rev. Sharpton gave a speech at an Apollo memorial to James Brown, which is far less-known than his shorter eulogy at the subsequent arena memorial Michael attended. While not definitive, I think that Apollo speech perfectly encapsulates the monumental importance of James Brown. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye. If I may, I’d like to end our discussion by posting that eulogy, as we approach the anniversary of his death:

Willa: That’s beautiful – warm and funny and powerful. And thank you again for joining us, Charles, and sharing your deep love and respect for James Brown.

Charles: Thank you for inviting me to take part in this discussion, which I have enjoyed enormously. Given the passion and the frequency with which Michael cited James Brown as his “greatest inspiration,” his life and legacy are rarely discussed and little-known in Michael’s fan community. I hope that people will seek out some of what we have discussed here – various documentaries and recordings – and he will acquire some new fans. Michael loved him for a reason. He was a true king.


About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on December 19, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. Thanks again ladies, and Charles, for another interesting discussion. You continue to bring enlightening and informative discussion with your blog.

    I can’t say that I’m a big James Brown fan, but the older I get the more I find his music and his band incredible. I really can hear the influences on later music. There is a great live recording that was made at the old Atlanta civic center from the 1960s which is really good.

    And Willa, having grown up in Atlanta and still living here today, I know the Stone Mountain laser show very well from my childhood.

    Thanks all and Happy Holidays.

    • Hi Destiny. The Stone Mountain laser shows are an institution, aren’t they? And it’s funny – I know there were a lot of different elements to it, but the only parts I really remember are the James Brown songs.

  2. I admire James Brown quite a bit and don’t want to take anything away from his well-deserved praise in this article. Michael really did love and admire him. But, Willa and Joie, thank you for handling with diplomacy the rather shallow, surface view of Michael Jackson provided by Charles Thomson here. It was really quite annoying. “Dog’s dinner” to describe “Black Or White, indeed.

  3. I speak at length in this discussion about Michael Jackson’s art – his innovation of the music video, his obsession with raising the bar for quality, how nobody has ever been able to match his performances, and the minutiae of his recordings and what influenced them. I overtly praise numerous songs. Yet, I say that I don’t like one song, and I am verbally attacked. How absurd.

    The commenter ignores all of my praise for Michael Jackson, all of my in-depth analysis of his musical output – not to mention the fact that I’ve spent years writing extremely positive articles about Michael Jackson for no money – and instead characterises my entire attitude towards him by the only criticism I make in the whole blog post… then describes me as ‘shallow’.

    Irony defined.

  4. To Willa, Joie and Charles, Merry Christmas and a creative, peaceful 2014 plenty of enlightening conversations!

    Charles, I have to state that I’ve been following your superb articles on Michael Jackson concerning the appalling abuse he went through, as well as about his output. On behalf of all those who care for justice, the least I can say is a huge THANKS, perhaps never enough, because an innocent man was almost crucified due to bias and greed. These articles deserve frequent reference, Michael needs this.

    About James Brown’s influence over Michael I believe it is fair to say that one’s teachers do deserve credit, it helps carry on the legacy and helps set a model to be emulated or developed upon. We all start from somewhere.

    Happy holidays!

  5. Guess I’ll have to check out for myself, about myself, why for the first time in years I come away from an entry on this wonderful blog…annoyed, very annoyed. There’s more than enough of that in various other sites. New experience here. Learned a bit about James, tho, and that is good.

    • Hi TinaB, Charles, layne4.

      I can understand your reactions, TinaB and layne4. Michael Jackson has been attacked so horribly and so consistently for so many years that I now feel an instinctive response to rush to his defense whenever I hear anyone say anything the least bit critical of him. And I probably shouldn’t say this, but whenever I hear a critic (like Jon Pareles) say something snarky about him, my first reaction is to assume they either aren’t very smart or are so blinded by their own need to look “cool” that they can’t see what’s going on. (Don’t they get it? Don’t they understand what he’s doing? Don’t they see how important and revolutionary it is?)

      But it is true that – like you, Charles, and probably most of us – some of his work speaks to me stronger than others. And sometimes that shifts over time. As I’ve mentioned before (like in this post), the You Rock My World video used to make me very uncomfortable – so uncomfortable I’d hit the “skip” button whenever that song came up on the car stereo. But as I learned more about it, I came to like it more and more, and now I like it a lot.

      And I think it’s perfectly valid to discuss that honestly, as Charles has done, and discuss why some songs just hit us the wrong way or don’t really “work” for us somehow. (Though really, Charles – a “dog’s dinner”? I don’t even know what that means … Does it mean, like, leftovers? that “Black or White” is composed of a lot of different elements that at first glance don’t seem to go together? I would agree with that, especially the “black” rap (which, interestingly, is performed by a white vocalist) and the “white” heavy metal riffs (which are performed by a black guitarist). But actually, I’ve come to see the way he brings together those seemingly disparate elements as part of what makes “Black or White” so brilliant.)

  6. Another great post! I loved it! Thank you so much!

    “I hope that people will seek out some of what we have discussed here – various documentaries and recordings – and he will acquire some new fans.”

    I definetly will! It happend so many times thanks to Michael and the engagement in him as a person, his music, art and cultural influence that I came to know other mindblowing icons. That sort of transforms Michael more and more into a very normal human being amongst others, while you can’t help but realize how special he was at the same time.

    “I found it very strange in later years that Michael would talk so often about how “melody is king,” given that the majority of his most popular material was rhythmic”.

    To me it’s like German author Jochen Ebmeier described in “Michael Jackson the phenomenon” (I’m afraid there’s no English translation of the book as far as I know – you would love it because of it’s approach from the perspectives of cultural studies and music history), like there are many interwoven layers of rhythm in his songs, which make them pieces so complex and quite sophisticated while an often simple melody really rules over those rhythms. Like melody was the girl all the rhythmic boys try to catch attention from, sort of competing with each other. 😀

    • “To me it’s like German author Jochen Ebmeier described in ‘Michael Jackson the phenomenon’ … there are many interwoven layers of rhythm in his songs, which make them pieces so complex and quite sophisticated while an often simple melody really rules over those rhythms.”

      Hi Julie. That’s a really interesting way to look at it. I do agree that much of Michael Jackson’s work is rhythmically driven – in fact, Michael Jackson himself has said in interviews that his songs often started with the rhythmic elements. He once said he spent an entire week on the bass rhythms of “Billie Jean” and getting that just right because it’s so important. They form the foundation. But then a “simple melody really rules over those rhythms,” as you say – or as Jochen Ebmeier says.

      And you’re right – I’d love to read his book! An “approach from the perspectives of cultural studies and music history” sounds fascinating. I hope there will be an English translation available someday.

  7. I missed it during the discussion, but I’ve just spotted that the story about how Mr Brown became known as ‘the Godfather’ isn’t right. The Boston concert was in 1968 and ‘The Godfather’ didn’t come out until 1972.

    As far as I know, the first time Mr Brown was called ‘The Godfather of Soul’ was by Jet magazine, when he recorded the soundtrack to the gangster movie ‘Black Caesar’. I have a copy of the magazine. I think that was in 1973.

    • Thanks for the fact-checking, Charles. Does the Jet article say why they call him the Godfather of Soul? Is it for the reasons we discussed in the post?

      • Willa – I’ve just dug out the magazine. It’s the April 5, 1973, edition of Jet. Mr Brown is the cover star, with the headline: ‘James Brown’s Film Music Makes Him Godfather of Soul’. However, there appears to be no explanation as to how they arrived at the title in the actual article.

        It speaks a little about how he has bucked popular music trends by remaining in the business for 15 years and how his new album (the Black Caesar soundtrack) is breaking some of his own sales records. It also talks about how he’s trying to help other acts break into the industry and may ease off of his own career to make way for younger artists.

        So I guess it’s the combination of being a leading figure in the industry, being a mentor for younger performers and having just broken his own sales records with a mafia movie soundtrack. That’s assuming it is the earliest use of the phrase – but it’s the earliest I’m aware of.

        • Charles, here is a copy of the magazine on Google books:

          hope this link works for everyone!!!!

          • That’s a really interesting article! Thanks for recommending it, Charles, and for tracking it down and sharing it, Destiny. A lot of what James Brown said seems exactly right to me, and I wish he had been able to produce and promote feature-length films the way he hoped to. That’s something Michael Jackson saw as very important as well. Films do seem to be a primary way we as a culture pass along our beliefs and perceptions, and it would be fascinating to see what James Brown or Michael Jackson would have added to the conversation, and how their voices and visions would have differed from what we typically see.

            I also thought it was interesting that the article began with this image:

            Ever since its development over the past 40 years as a major industry, the popular music field has been characterized as a selfish mistress who uses her lovers, and when all their energies and talents have been spent, discards them without shame or remorse. …

            That’s a metaphor we frequently see in Michael Jackson’s work, though with a bit of a twist – for him, it seems to be his audience – a global audience who sometimes loves him and sometimes hurts him – who’s the “selfish lover.”

  8. Hi Willa

    there is of course another definition of a ‘dog’s breakfast’!! How about something that is a mixture of all things good and wholesome with which the dog starts his day with delight and relish and much tail wagging, and which continues to nourish and sustain him all day until the next meal.

    Sounds like a good definition of what we fans get from Michael’s music anytime of the day, but for me partiularly at the start of each day??? more British humour for you.

    Wishing you all a wonderful festive season and 2014, and for my part a continuation of this fantastic blog.

  9. Charles said — “I don’t think Michael Jackson did invent a new genre of music. I can’t think of any sound or method he created that wasn’t already there. James Brown’s music sounded completely new and revolutionary. Michael Jackson’s just sounded incredibly good.”

    He may not have invented a new genre of music, but he created music that was uniquely his — not just better than anyone else’s but different from everyone else’s. There’s popular music and then, there’s Michael Jackson. He stands alone. At the top. No one else sounds like him; and he sounds like no one else.

    I am no musicologist and I can’t define exactly what it is he does, but to me he is a musical alchemist.

    And, I love B or W.


  10. Black or White is a very deceptive song. It’s the kind of simple, sing-songy ditty that can only be written by a master, like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. But if Charles Thomson doesn’t like it that’s okay – nobody likes everything!

    James Brown was a star on the ‘chitlin circuit’ years before white America discovered him. My sister attended a black college in the South in the 1960s, and she spoke in awe of how everything stopped when James Brown came to town. He played to huge audiences of all black fans, unseen and all but ignored by the white establishment. James Brown did not homogenize his music in order to cross over; his white fans had to come to him.

    Articles about Michael Jackson almost always mention the allegations against him. It’s interesting that your piece makes no mention of James Brown’s brushes with the law, including numerous arrests for violence against women. One could argue that his troubles have nothing to do with his artistic output. It’s a shame that Michael rarely catches that break.

    • And white fans did come to black performers —

      I remember when Ray Charles came to Memphis in 1960 or 61. Although the auditorium was filled, my boyfriend and I and another couple were the only whites there. I was really surprised. But, we were there and we were welcomed!

      In the still largely segregated South, music was one place where both blacks and whites did start coming together. In terms of music, Memphis in the late 50’s early 60’s was a great place to be — and wonderful black clubs abounded with great musicians who welcomed a small but ardent white audience. And for white kids, being in on the best black clubs to go to was a mark of ultimate coolness. Also, with Stax records drawing talent to Memphis, artists and groups who became world famous were playing at high school and college parties and proms. And a DJ named Dewey Phillips who had a show called Red, Hot, and Blue, played both black and white music and was basically the only DJ anyone listened to also did a lot to promote black music to white Memphis teens. He was also playing a lot of music by a young white man named Elvis.

      The shared enjoyment of music brings people together at a very deep and emotional level. I think Michael was very much aware of this. He is still bringing us together.

      • And to continue my little self-indulgent stroll down memory lane —

        The first rock song I remember was Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets (white). I was in the 8th grade and hated hated hated it, and it was everywhere. Then Chuck Berry (black) came out with Maybellene and it was everywhere and I loved it. It was the first 45 record I bought (I had classical LPs). Then there was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters (black) and their songs Work with Me Annie and Annie Had a Baby. Soooooo goooood. And I can’t leave out Little Richard, especially Good Golly Miss Molly. What a great song!

        These black artists were all beloved by white teens in the racist South in the 50’s. I can attest to it. I was one of them. And, I hated white rock and roll. I didn’t even like Elvis — and it was hard to avoid Elvis in Memphis in the 50’s. I never thought about my very early musical tastes before this discussion, because I never was thinking about the race of the artist. I just liked something or didn’t. Music can be very subversive, can’t it. Michael was very aware of that.

        Also, I’m the one, like Caro, who was mainly listening to classical music, which I continued to listen to beyond my teen years almost exclusively until I discovered Michael. Now I also love Al Green and Marvin Gaye and the Chi-Lites and the Stylistics — especially the Stylistics — and the Staples Singers and….the list is wonderfully long and rich and full.

      • Thanks Eleanor, and VC, for your comments.

        Not to get off topic, but it is really interesting to see the intersection of race and music in America and the exporting of American music around the world and those reactions. I’m a little younger and missed growing up in this period, although I do know all the music. I’m a child of the 80s and Michael represents my middle and high school years.

  11. Thank you very much for this interesting article, Willa, Joie and Charles!

    I particularly enjoyed reading how Charles dicovered James Brown through MJ.
    That’s very similar to my own experience.
    I began listening to MJ as a young child, then went on a musical journey back to his roots, during which I developed a great love for soul music.
    To me, it’s Marvin Gaye rather than James Brown, but I nonetheless have to thank MJ for ”crossing over” and bringing awareness of black musicians to predominantly ”white” countries like my own. My guess is that the global spread of Motown in recent years owes much more to MJ than anyone has publicly acknowledged.

  12. Armond White, an Afro-American film and culture critic, has a wonderful essay on Black or White in his “Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles” (available thru his website A snippet: “Black or White proves that when Jackson reconciles the larger meanings of art and contemporary politics, no one can touch him. He’s already charmed the world; Black or White shows he has the courage to shake it up.”

    • That’s true, Stephenson. Armond White’s essay on Black or White is excellent – in fact, I need to go back and read it again. And didn’t he recommend it for best picture of the year? Not just best video, but best film, period?

  13. Thanks so much, Willa and Joie, for another engaging post! And also thanks, Charles, for all your insight and information. I’m sorry to arrive late to the party, but I have a few observations here.

    We know that Michael Jackson used to get angry whenever he watched Mr. Brown’s performances on the TV and they cut away to closeups of his face, because he wanted an uninterrupted view of his footwork! You’re very right, Charles: Michael admired James Brown for good reasons. And I find it particularly striking that you were so moved by James Brown’s performances at a time when (I would have thought, perhaps erroneously) many people of your generation would consider him a “golden oldie.”

    I don’t know nearly as much about James Brown as I’d like to, but the ideas you’ve all expressed here have prompted me to learn more. I’ve been delving into a few books I had around, including an anthology of reviews and articles called “The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing about the Godfather of Soul.” In this book I found the essay by Jonathan Lethem that you mentioned, Charles (“Being James Brown”); it must have been published in Rolling Stone just months before Mr. Brown died in 2006. I love what Lethem says here:

    “To be in the audience when James Brown commences the James Brown Show is to have felt oneself engulfed in a kind of feast of adoration and astonishment, a ritual invocation, one comparable, I’d imagine, to certain ceremonies known to the Mayan peoples, wherein a human person is radiantly costumed and then beheld in lieu of the appearance of a Sun God upon the Earth. For to see James Brown dance and sing, to see him lead his mighty band with the merest glances and tiny flickers of signal from his hands, to see him offer himself to his audience to be adored and enraptured and ravished, to watch him tremble and suffer as he tears his screams and moans of lust, glory and regret from his sweat-drenched body—and is, thereupon, in an act of seeming mercy, draped in the cape of his infirmity; to then see him recover and thrive—shrugging free of the cape—as he basks in the healing regard of an audience now melted into a single passionate body by the stroking and thrumming of his ceaseless cavalcade of impossibly danceable smash Number One hits, is not to see: it is to behold.

    “The James Brown show is both an enactment—an unlikely conjuration in the present moment of an alternate reality, one that dissipates into the air and can never be recovered—and at the same time re-enactment: the ritual celebration of an enshrined historical victory, a battle won long ago, against forces difficult to name—-funklessnesss?—yet whose vanquishing seems to have been so utterly crucial that it requires incessant restaging in a triumphalist ceremony….”

    This somewhat hyperbolic description is one of many Lethem offers us in his essay—they’re wonderful to read, and spot-on when you think about what Mr. Brown achieves in his performances. They also echo my feelings (and probably the observations of many MJ fans) about the alchemy that happens when Michael performs.

    So I often find myself searching for what specifically might link James Brown’s and Michael Jackson’s performances: a technique, a set of dance moves, a vocal tic or pattern. In the end—and with the exception of a few instances, like the Motown audition—I don’t think it’s anything as specific as that, but rather a transformative energy, a spirit that grips both these men and causes them to turn the atmosphere inside out, as if they are in contact with something beyond themselves, something through which a superabundant energy flows.

  14. So these thoughts also drew me toward the concept of “duende,” something I’d meant to research further in my musings about Michael Jackson. “Duende” was a term made popular by the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia-Lorca, who meant it to refer to something far and away beyond technical mastery—in fact, it points toward something that might be called “the sublime” (if we understand it to mean a certain combination of both beauty and terror).

    I have a small book of Lorca’s writings called “In Search of Duende,” translated and edited by Christopher Maurer. In his introduction to the book, Maurer writes:

    “The notion of duende (from duen de casa, ‘master of the house’) came to him from popular Spanish culture, where the duende is a playful hobgoblin, a household spirit fond of ruling things, breaking plates, causing noise, and making a general nuisance of himself. But Lorca was aware of another popular usage of the term. In Andalusia people say of certain toreros and flamenco artists that they have duende—an inexplicable power of attraction, the ability, on rare occasions, to send waves of emotion through those watching and listening to them. …

    “At least four elements can be isolated in [García Lorca’s] vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that “ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head”; who brings him face-to-face with death; and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca’s lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to a God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call ‘ángel’), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; he or she has to battle it skillfully, ‘on the rim of the well,’ in ‘hand-to-hand combat.’ “

    “To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca’s words, “a sort of corkscrew that gets art into the sensibility of an audience…. the very dearest thing that life can offer to an intellectual.’ The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende: ‘it dilates the mind’s eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable…. There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal, and this is characterized by a remarkable time-distortion effect which is frequent in nightmares…. A friend of mine, emerging from Seville’s bullring after Curro Romero’s last great triumph there is 1966, put it like this: ‘Time moved like that for me once before—when I was in a crashing car.’ “

    * * * * *

    Throughout his essay “Play and Theory of the Duende,” Lorca calls forth some rich metaphors to distinguish between an artist’s muse, angel, and duende He writes:

    “There are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass.”

    Again, this seems redolent of what both James Brown and Michael Jackson were capable of achieving, and what they have in common.

    • Hi Nina. Your comments about the “duende” were fascinating – something that extends beyond the muse or the sublime or the “force” working through the artist, almost to a type of religious frenzy or ecstasy, yet with an element of the diabolical – maybe shades of the Trickster?

      I was especially interested in the idea that “to a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort.” It’s almost like speaking in tongues, where an evangelical Christian will begin to speak in an unknown language that is not a language, or rather is more than a language, that is then comprehended by both the speaker and listeners though none of them have ever heard that language before.

      I feel like I keep using religious metaphors to try to grasp this idea, even though I’m not a very religious person, but it seems to me that there is something very similar about the feelings of ecstasy – of being transported outside yourself – that people sometimes experience through both religion and art. In fact, I don’t think it’s coincidental that most art up through the Renaissance was religious art. But duende seems to be expressing something more than that, and I’m having trouble getting my mind around it. Fascinating! I’ll have to learn more …

  15. Yes, Willa–I’m having trouble getting my mind around it too, but I think our cultural context makes it difficult to ponder. Lorca was living in a part of Spain (Andalusia) in the 1920s, where some religious practices and beliefs (I gather) would have been woven into daily existence to a much greater extent than we’ve experienced in today’s secular society—especially in the US. Also, he mentions (in connection with bullfighting) that Spain is the only country to make death a spectacle—and the duende, in Lorca’s vision, takes place in the full presence of death’s spectre. The performer, rather than denying its omnipresence, grapples with the fact of death.

    So I don’t have any answers to the question of duende and how some people have been able to harness it—but I’ve been deeply interested in exploring it (in spite—or maybe because—-of my background as a profoundly irreligious person.

    And Willa, Harriet, and Lisha, thank you so much! Another fascinating discussion this week (I’ve been starting to read your book, Harriet). I mean to respond to some points you’ve all raised here, once I’ve had a chance to mull some things over….

  16. The mutual love, admiration and respect between Michael and James Brown is heartwarming to witness.

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