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Summer Rewind 2014: the King of Pop and the Godfather of Soul

The following conversation was originally posted on December 19, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

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.

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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.

Roundtable: What Makes a Songwriter?

Joie:  A couple of weeks ago our friend, Joe Vogel, posed an interesting question to Willa and me and journalist, Charles Thomson. Charles, of course, is the author of the wonderful article, “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History,” among others. So Joe’s question sparked a very lively discussion between the four of us, and you can read that conversation below.

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Joe:  Do you think the fact that MJ wasn’t a technically trained musician and couldn’t read/write music diminishes him as a songwriter? And how would you respond to critics who make this claim?

Joie:  Hmm. Joe, that’s a really good question. And it got me thinking about all of the great talents that we usually think of as prolific songwriters in our society. And so I started doing a little research on this topic and I was really surprised to learn that many of those who we bestow that mantle on never learned to read or write music either. Names like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. In fact, none of the Beatles could read music, not even the great John Lennon. And Paul said in an interview once that as long as he and John both knew what chords they were playing and they remembered the melody, they never had any need to write it down or to read it.

None of the Gibb brothers, who I think wrote some of the most beautiful music ever, could read or write music either. So no, I don’t think the fact that Michael couldn’t read/write music diminishes his talent as a songwriter in any way, and if that’s the argument that critics are using to deny him a spot on that list with the other “greats,” then I would say their argument clearly doesn’t hold water.

Willa:  And I would have to add that I don’t really understand this criticism, and maybe that just reflects my own lack of knowledge about how composing music really works. But it seems to me that the important part of the creative process is having the ideas, and a vision for how to express those ideas to an audience so they really feel what you’re trying to say. Writing notes on paper is just a way of capturing your musical ideas so you can remember them later, or share them with other musicians, and Michael Jackson was able to do that other ways. He could record his ideas into a tape recorder, or he could sing it live. There’s a wonderful quotation about this in your book, Joe, that just fascinated me:

“One morning [Michael] came in with a new song he had written overnight,” recalls assistant engineer Rob Hoffman. “We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. ‘Here’s the first chord, first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord, first note, second note, third note,’ etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed [Jackson] doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a microcassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”

I love that! To me, having that vision in your head is the essence of songwriting. To say Michael Jackson wasn’t really a songwriter because he didn’t know how to write notes on paper is like saying Jane Austen wasn’t really a novelist because she didn’t know how to type. That’s all fiddly bookkeeping kind of stuff, it seems to me. Having the ideas and being able to express those ideas passionately and evocatively to an audience is what’s important.

Charles:  Michael’s idol was James Brown, who famously could not read or write music either. It is probably no accident that Michael adopted Brown’s method, therefore, of surrounding himself with talented collaborators who could bring his vision to life based on beatboxing, scatting, humming, singing and so on, but also bringing their own contributions to the table.

Michael undoubtedly lacked autonomy as an artist thanks to his inability to read or write music. That’s not a criticism; it’s true of anyone in the same position. I’m going to risk a lynching by raising Prince as a comparison. Prince can not only write an entire composition out in musical terms, but then go into the studio and play every instrument exactly how he wants it, then put it all together. It’s undeniable that Prince, for example, therefore had more autonomy and independence as an artist.

Joie:  Well don’t worry, Charles; you are safe here as I actually consider myself a casual Prince fan. He is an amazing musician and very worthy of recognition. And I agree with your assertion that he certainly enjoyed more autonomy and freedom than Michael did.

Willa:  But was that because Prince could read and write music, or because he could play instruments? After all, when you write a score of music, it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Someone who could write music but not play instruments would still need to rely on a roomful of collaborators, but that seems like a whole other question to me.

Joie:  That’s a really good point, Willa. Prince’s autonomy probably did have a lot more to do with the fact that he is more than proficient at many musical instruments and less to do with the fact that he can read and write music. If he hadn’t had the ability to play all those instruments, things certainly would have been different.

Charles:  But, if you put Michael in a room on his own, he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and got them sounding like they did on the finished albums. Take “Billie Jean.” All the key elements of the song are there in his original demo but his team of collaborators helped him polish and tighten the composition. Bruce Swedien, for instance, came up with the idea of using a special sleeve to achieve that iconic sound on the drum.

None of this seeks to diminish Michael’s ability as a songwriter. Just look at his catalogue of self-penned classics. Most pop acts never score even a quarter of the hits Michael had, let alone with self-penned compositions.

Joie:  That’s very true, Charles. In fact, 17 out of his 28 top ten singles as a solo artist were written by him. And 9 out of his 13 number one hits as a solo artist were written by him. That’s very impressive, and like you said, it is somewhat unique among pop acts.

But I want to go back for a second to what you just said about putting Michael in a room alone. Recently, I was listening to the demo version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” for another post that Willa and I were working on. That demo was made with just Michael and his siblings, Randy and Janet. And I was really struck by how close that demo is to the finished version that ended up on the completed album. That song was practically finished before he ever presented it to Quincy Jones and his other collaborators to “polish.” So, even though you’re probably correct in saying that he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and gotten them to sound the way they did on the finished albums, I tend to believe that he could have gotten them all pretty darn close.

Charles:  The “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” demo is very impressive but, as you say, he’s not in the studio on his own. He had instrumentalists in there helping him out, and although the key elements of the composition are present, they wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t had those instrumentalists there, and the overall composition doesn’t have the polish or sheen that he was able to achieve when working with his highly decorated collaborators.

Returning to Michael’s hero, James Brown:  It became fashionable for a period to strip James Brown of all responsibility for his compositions. Critics claimed he ‘rode the coattails’ of his collaborators and that without their expertise, he could never have produced the music he did. But I’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing Mr. Brown’s collaborators, from all different stages in his career. I’ve never found one who didn’t believe James Brown was a genius or who believed that any of that music would have existed without him.

When I interviewed Pee Wee Ellis, he told me:

“He was a definite collaborator, a strong influence, a leader. He had a vision that we won’t see again in this lifetime. He was the funkiest man in the world. He had more rhythm in his little finger than most of us have in our body. Just natural stuff, you know. And the way he fronted the band. If anything, the band rode on his coattails. But the band provided a platform for him to be able to do that.”

I view Michael similarly. None of those genre-defining hits he wrote could have existed without his vision, but none of them would exist as they do if he hadn’t had the right team of people around him to make his vision a reality. His inability to read or write music didn’t hinder him as long as he had people around him to interpret and bring those ideas to life.

Joe:  This is a very good point, Charles, and something I try to bring out in Man in the Music. We have this idea embedded in our culture that doing something in isolation is more admirable than doing it collaboratively (the myth of the “solitary genius”). So critics marvel at an artist like Prince who can basically take a track from conception to completion without collaborators. Not that this isn’t impressive (it is), but I would compare making an album to directing a film:  Is a director better if they carry out every single role of its creation (screenplay, camera, costumes, lighting, acting, etc.)? Or is what makes a director great the ability to bring together a creative team and guide a project with their overall vision and passion?

Willa:  That’s an excellent analogy, Joe, I think, and shifts the definition of “songwriter” to something much closer to Michael Jackson’s process. He didn’t come out of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of creating sheet music, which was then sold to a singer or musician. That’s how Neil Diamond, for example, got his start – writing songs for a publishing company – and historically, a lot of great singer/songwriters have come from that tradition. Michael Jackson came from a very different background, and his approach was much more holistic than that. He didn’t just write songs and then hand them off to someone else to produce. When he created a song, he had a vision of what he wanted the final piece to sound like, and then he guided the entire production process to achieve that vision, much like a movie director would do. So I think that comparison works really well.

Joe:  I’m glad you brought up James Brown, Charles, because I know you have done a lot of work on him, and there are certainly a lot of parallels. I found the same sentiment you found with Brown’s collaborators when speaking with MJ’s collaborators. They didn’t feel his reliance on musicians, producers, and engineers diminished him as an artist at all. All of them talked about how involved he was at every stage of the creative process, but also how he would give them space and freedom; they talked about creative chemistry and how magic often occurred in the act of collaborating. So you’re absolutely right that he may have lost something in autonomy, but he also gained something in unexpected synergistic inspiration. I think Michael picked some of this up from Quincy Jones as well, because Jones (who came with a background in jazz and film scores) was brilliant at assembling dynamic teams and getting them to work well together.

Now, to follow up on reading/writing music, I wanted to get all of your thoughts on something. Why do you think Michael often told people that learning to read/write music might ruin his creativity?

Joie:  Well, I don’t know much about songwriting but, I would imagine that if you were constantly worried about whether or not something worked “technically,” then it would sort of suck the creativity out of it. And not only that but, it would probably suck the joy and the heart out of it as well. You would be so worried about getting it right technically that you would be in danger of losing that creative flow – that magic. And we all know Michael was all about the magic. So I think his comment about fearing it would ruin his creativity was valid. And I think I read somewhere where Paul McCartney once voiced a similar concern so, it’s possible that the two even spoke about it.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting question, Joe. I can tell you’re a good teacher! To be honest, the fear that learning to write music will diminish your creativity doesn’t really make sense to me. After all, it doesn’t seem to have hindered Mozart or Beethoven or Bach too much. Musical notation is simply a way for musicians to communicate with each other, and whether you express your musical ideas through singing into a tape recorder or writing notes on paper shouldn’t make much difference.

But I agree with Joie. If I had to guess, I would imagine that fear had something to do with calculating the beats per measure and getting the key signature right and making sure it “worked ‘technically,'” as you put it, Joie. I know that when talking about dancing, he said sometimes he would watch dancers perform and he could actually see them mentally counting the beats. And he said that just doesn’t work. You have to practice and practice and practice until the steps become ingrained in you, so when you’re performing your focus is on feeling the music and expressing the ideas and the emotions of the music through your body, and not on the technical details of “one, two, three, slide.”

And I imagine he felt the same way about learning to write sheet music. It takes years to become proficient enough at it where it becomes second nature and you can do it without counting the beats in your head, so to speak. In the meantime, it would just get in the way of feeling the music, and why bother with that when he already had very effective methods for communicating his ideas to other musicians?

Charles:  It’s an interesting point about whether technical knowledge hinders creativity and the person who springs immediately to mind, once again, is James Brown. Lacking a lot of technical expertise, in my opinion, helped Mr Brown. He spoke time and again about how his music was all about the feeling.

Several of James Brown’s biggest recordings contain mistakes, but he didn’t care because for him it was all about the energy. More often than not, he would release the first take, even if it contained errors. “The first take is God,” he would say. “The second take is man.”

Willa:  What a great quote! Though it also highlights a difference between Michael Jackson and James Brown. Michael Jackson didn’t hesitate to record 50 takes, if that’s what it took to get the sound he wanted.

Charles:  In the documentary Soul Survivor, several of Mr. Brown’s collaborators said that on a technical level, a lot of his music was ‘wrong’:

“You cannot count [it], you cannot write [it] because it violates all musical rules… Things as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4 – if it doesn’t work with what he’s doing, then he may go 1, 2, 3-and-a-half.”

Mr. Brown, when told his music was ‘wrong,’ would reply, “But it sounds good. God gave you those ears. Are you gonna argue with God’s ears?”

Fred Wesley, one of Mr. Brown’s arrangers, has spoken in the past about how embarrassed he felt when fans used to come up to him and tell him how much they loved the track “Pass The Peas.” Wesley felt the track, on a technical level, was garbage. But that song is still loved around the world today. Prince regularly plays it at his concerts. It’s often the biggest crowd pleaser at any Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, or Pee Wee Ellis gig. Wesley may have found it technically unspectacular, but it touched people. It got inside them, made them smile, made them move.

If James Brown had played by the technical rules, we may never have encountered funk music. Without funk, we may never have heard disco or hip-hop. James Brown broke the rules and changed the world. Twenty years later when Michael Jackson spent all that money on the Thriller video, everybody thought his brain had gone soft. He too broke the rules and changed the world.

Maybe Michael saw the rules of writing music as oppressive. If he didn’t know what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.

Joie:  I love the way you put that, Charles! “If he didn’t know  what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.”  That is a very profound way to put it.

Willa:  I agree.

Joie:  And you are so right about James Brown. Without him, funk music may never have existed and then the whole landscape of the music scene might look very different today.

Willa:  You guys, I feel like I’m having a major light bulb moment. This is so fascinating to me. And Charles, I think I’m just now starting to get what you’ve been saying. You aren’t just talking about plunking down notes on a page. You’re talking about being trained in the “rules” of the Western songwriting tradition and internalizing those rules – and James Brown broke the beat, and broke the rules of that tradition.

I was talking to a music professor a long time ago – maybe 15 years ago – who liked to compose songs at a keyboard that was connected to her computer. She showed me this software she had where she could play a song, and the software would take what she played and automatically generate the sheet music for it. It was really cool. You’d think there’d be a lot of tweaking and clean up to get it right, but there really wasn’t. It was pretty clean. She said there’s something satisfying about handwriting notes on a staff, but it can get tedious after a while and this software let her generate sheet music as easily as playing. She could just focus on the music, and then the sheet music would magically be there when she was done.

I’ve been thinking about her throughout this whole conversation and thinking, this is no big deal. If you’re working with musicians who can play by ear, then you don’t need sheet music. If you’re working with a classically trained cellist, for example, or someone who really wants sheet music, then just buy some software or hire a grad student to jot down the notes. Either way, it’s no big deal.

But of course, that music professor was thoroughly steeped in the Western songwriting tradition, so everything she composed just consciously or unconsciously fell within the conventions of that tradition. The computer had no trouble recognizing the structure of her music and placing the notes and rests on a staff exactly where they should go because everything she played fit within the rules of what it expected her to play.

But what does the computer do when James Brown comes along and throws a time warp in the middle of a measure? I’m having this really funny mental image right now of a computer whirring and beeping, trying to crank through a James Brown song.

Joie:  Willa, you are hilarious. I swear, you crack me up sometimes! But you’re right; it does paint an amusing mental picture – this computer having a nervous breakdown trying to keep up with James Brown’s grunts and non-verbal vocalizations. That’s hysterical!

Willa:  That’s funny, Joie! It’s like James Brown’s computer is imitating James Brown – the hardest working computer in the music lab. All the other computers are sedately working through Mendelssohn and Brahms, and the James Brown computer is rocking and popping. And can you imagine what it would do if it were plotting out a song in 4/4 time and suddenly hit a measure with 3½ beats? It would blow its little circuits.

Joe:  I just want to add to this discussion that part of the dismissal of Michael Jackson as an artist, in my opinion, has to do with this White, Eurocentric understanding of music and an ignorance (or dismissal) of African-American aesthetics. Some of this has to do with what we’re talking about:  deviating from established forms/techniques. What James Brown did is not unlike the “swing” and improvisation jazz musicians injected into traditional melodies. These were deviations from long-established traditions that took time for people to acknowledge as legit. For a long time, it was considered a very low-brow form of entertainment. This is often the reaction to artistic innovation.

Willa:  Absolutely. We see this over and over again. When the novel was first developed, it was considered “low art” and serious drama, poetry, and essays were “high art.” Then when movies were first introduced, they were considered “low art” and serious novels were “high art.”  Today, music videos are considered “low art” and serious feature-length films are “high art,” though Michael Jackson’s videos clearly challenge that.

You talk about this prejudice against new art forms in your Atlantic article, Joe – specifically new music genres in the U.S. – and show there’s not just a bias against new forms, but also some deep-seated racial biases as well:

Historically, this dismissal of black artists (and black styles) as somehow lacking substance, depth and import is as old as America. … It was a common criticism of spirituals (in relation to traditional hymns), of jazz in the ’20s and ’30s, of R&B in the ’50s and ’60s, of funk and disco in the ’70s, and of hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s (and still today). The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

And as you show so clearly in your article, this pattern clearly extends to Michael Jackson as well. He was so innovative on so many fronts, and he had to fight this two-pronged bias against Black innovators throughout his adult career.

Joe:  So, I think this informs how Jackson has been received and misunderstood. He often fuses Black and White styles in fascinating ways (see “History” and “Will You Be There,” for example). But he is rooted in the African-American tradition. That is why it’s a mistake for critics to judge his music against artists like Dylan or Springsteen or Bono or Costello (all critical darlings), because Jackson isn’t that kind of artist. It would be like expecting Langston Hughes to write poems like Robert Frost. It’s not that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t poetic; it’s that he is communicating in a different way.

Part of his greatness is in moving beyond words (as the spirituals, and the blues and jazz do); it is his non-verbal vocalizations — his cries, his exclamations of joy, his gasps, his scatting, his beatboxing, his ability to become the music. In fact, even when using language he often twists and contorts words, or delivers them with such freshness, nuance and intensity that lines become more than the sum of their parts. Stevie Wonder once said that Jackson had an amazing capacity to “read” a lyric. In other words, he had the ability to inject ordinary words with something far deeper. Music is ultimately about expression and communication, and for me, his songs (and performances) convey far greater emotional range than most artists.

Joie:  I agree with you, Joe. Michael is all about the emotion and the intensity. It’s always right there just beneath the surface in every video and live performance, on every track of every album. You don’t seem to get that kind of raw emotion with most other artists.

Joe:  Another thing that makes Jackson great as a songwriter is that he had this incredible ability to communicate across every barrier that typically divides people (race, gender, sexuality, language, culture, class). He was constantly fusing. Rock and R&B, hip hop and pop, gospel and classical. He was simultaneously accessible and challenging, simple but multi-layered. He brought Beethoven to the masses, and street music to the suburbs.

Joie:  I think that’s a beautiful thought to end wtih, Joe. And Willa and I want to thank you both for joining us in this conversation!

Next week, Willa and I will be delving into Dancing the Dream, Michael’s book of poems and essays, so be sure to come back for that discussion.

Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?

Willa:  This week Joie and I wanted to dance with one of those elephants in the room and address the recurring criticism that Michael Jackson wasn’t “Black enough.” We’re not talking about skin color. We’re talking about the criticism that began way back in the 1970s and 80s, when critics would look at his penny loafers and his public persona and say he wasn’t doing enough to embrace his Black heritage.

Joie:  OK, this is a hard one for me. Not because I don’t know where I stand on this issue but, because this question makes me a little angry for a couple of reasons. One of them is that it’s a question that has been leveled at me on more than one occasion. I had a very middle-class upbringing and the schools I went to in the 1970s and ’80s were a pretty good mix of Black and White. But because I chose not to strictly hang out with only the other Black kids and instead had many friends who were White, suddenly I was trying to be a White girl. And this criticism came not just from other Black kids, but from one of my own siblings as well. Never mind the fact that I had more in common with the kids I chose to hang out with than I did the kids who looked like me. That, apparently wasn’t the point. But here’s the thing… I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either.

My nephew, whom I adore, recently graduated from Morehouse College. It’s an all Black, all male campus (its female counterpart, Spelman, is just across the road). I asked him what he thought of this “Black enough” question and I have to admit I was a little saddened by his response. Saddened because he said that even on an all Black campus, there were guys who had to endure this same criticism – either because of the way they dressed (like fitted clothes instead of baggy or relaxed hair instead of natural) or who they dated (White girlfriends instead of Black). Well, by that standard, there are any number of Black people out there – both male and female (myself included) who are just not Black enough anymore! Why, oh why didn’t someone tell me that by relaxing my hair and entering into an interracial marriage that I was selling out my race! Oh the shame!! Guess it’s a good thing I’m a firm believer that we all come from the same race – the Human one!

Willa:  Joie, that sentence, “I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either,” really caught my attention. Because what exactly is the underlying issue here? I do understand the fear that a group’s cultural heritage will be lost. I really do get that. My grandfather’s grandmother was Potawatomi, but except for a few quilt squares they made together when he was a child and an old sepia-toned photograph, I have no access to my great-great-grandmother or to that culture. That’s all completely lost to me. If I’m filling out a form and have to check a box to identify myself, I check White. Even if I’m allowed to check more than one box, I still only check White. Genetically I’m a little bit Potawatomi, but culturally I’m not, and it would feel presumptuous to me to claim a connection to a heritage I know nothing about. I really regret that that heritage has been lost to me, but at this point it has.

At the same time, I find it very troubling when commentators, especially White commentators, criticize Michael Jackson or President Obama or any Black public figure for allegedly not embracing a more-traditional Black identity. For one thing, it assumes there’s only one definition of Black and that everyone who is Black should conform to it. I know if I were shopping at the grocery store in jeans and a t-shirt and a man came up to me and told me I needed to embrace my femininity, I’d be pretty taken aback by it – and a little offended, frankly. What right does he have to impose his ideas about what’s feminine onto me? I get to decide for myself what’s feminine and what isn’t, or whether or not I even want to be feminine, whatever that means, and I think most people would agree with me. 

Yet somehow it’s OK for White commentators to impose their definition of what’s Black onto Michael Jackson. And generally when they say that, it doesn’t feel like it’s expressing concern for Black culture. It feels like a put-down, of a really manipulative and insidious kind.

Joie:  That’s because it is a put-down. But here’s what really bothers me about this issue, Willa, and it’s something that you just touched on. And I would like for all of those doing the criticizing to really pay attention and understand this:  what is a “traditional Black identity?” Because the truth is that whatever your response is to that question will undoubtedly be a stereotype. There is NO SUCH THING as a “traditional Black identity.” There are as many different “kinds” of Black people as there are shades of Black. We come from all walks of life, from all social and economic backgrounds – contrary to what the media would have you believe! And why is it that if I’m listening to Rap music and talking in slang, that’s OK but, if I’m listening to Heavy Metal and speaking articulately, then I have lost touch with my heritage? In my nephew’s words…. why are we allowing pop culture to be the measuring stick by which we decide who’s “Black enough?” In order to really be Black you have to wear certain clothes and listen to/sing certain music and date certain people and speak a certain way? That’s just plain silly. And that line of thinking that insists all Black people must conform to a certain stereotype is, in a way, its own weird form of internal, self-imposed racism. I don’t understand that thinking at all. I mean, if all Black people went through life taking this view to heart, how much beauty and wonder would the world be deprived of because of it? Would there even be a Michael Jackson for us to discuss then?

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, YES! Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough. And so are Darius Rucker and Charlie Pride, for that matter! Whoever said that music has to be color-coded? Who said that our Black public figures had to fit into some imaginary stereotypical pigeon hole in order to be seen as valid? Why can’t we simply take pride in the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the greatest, most celebrated entertainer of all time, beloved by millions the world over? Why can’t we take pride in the knowledge that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the most influential musical innovator in the world; he never followed the trends, he set them! Why can’t we just celebrate the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – is responsible for the biggest-selling album in history? He will forever be known as the one and only King of Pop. A Black man did that! A proud, beautiful, strong, hard-working Black man did all that and so much more! Why can’t we just celebrate him instead of accusing him of not being “Black enough?”

I guess the real reason this question upsets me is because I find it extremely insulting that it is never asked of anyone else. No one ever asks is Jackie Chan Chinese enough or is Robin Thicke White enough? I mean really, let’s just look at that for a minute. Robin Thicke is a very talented singer with a really wonderful voice. But he sings R&B and he kind of talks Black and he is married to a beautiful Black woman so, I don’t know…. I think maybe he’s sold out his White heritage. Is anybody worried about that?

Willa:  That’s a really interesting point, and one I’d never thought about before. I’ve never once in my life questioned if I was White enough, and I’ve never felt I had to rein myself in or second guess myself or limit myself in any way to conform with my racial identification. I can wear my hair straight or permed or even in dreadlocks, I can have French toast for breakfast and sushi for lunch and fish tacos for supper, I can fall under the spell of a book by Toni Morrison or Leslie Marmon Silko or Maxine Hong Kingston, and it’s simply not an issue. Because I’m White and belong to the “dominant” culture, I can explore other cultures as much as I want and it doesn’t threaten my identity in any way. And no one ever questions that. I could be accused of appropriating someone else’s culture, which is a whole other issue. But I’ve never had to deal with the kinds of external criticisms or internal self-doubts you’re talking about.

Maybe that’s what Michael Jackson was referring to in the rap section of “Black or White” when he wrote, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.” I believe Michael Jackson resisted anything that led us to limit ourselves, including our age, gender, nationality, sexuality, or racial identification. As you said, he “was plenty Black enough” – he was a direct heir of James Brown and Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis, Jr., and was very proud of that – but he reserved the right to define for himself what it means to be Black.

Ideally, everyone should have that right of self-definition, of defining for ourselves who we are and who we want to be. Artists tend to experiment with that right of self-definition more than most people – and no one pushed that right of self-definition further than Michael Jackson did. He absolutely refused to be boxed in by other people’s expectations of him. If he wanted to wear red lipstick, he did. However, that resistance to cultural expectations has a long history as well. Josephine Baker and James Baldwin severely challenged the cultural roles laid out for them, but that doesn’t in any way suggest that they didn’t respect their Black heritage. Instead, they were extending it, and creating a new chapter in the history of Black culture. And as you described so well, Michael Jackson boldly created a whole new chapter all his own. 

I think Michael Jackson was a transformative cultural figure who profoundly influenced how we as a people perceive and experience the differences that segment and divide us – differences of race, gender, age, religion, nationality, sexuality – and I believe he was the most important artist of our time. Not the most important Black artist. The most important artist, period. No artist since Warhol has challenged and changed us the way Michael Jackson did. And ironically, he accomplished that, in part, by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.

Joie:  Wow. I love the way you put that: “…by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.” You’re so right. And I really believe it was his goal to unite the world – all races, all colors, all nationalities – through his gift of music. He once told reporter Sylvia Chase:

“When they’re all holding hands, and everybody’s rockin’ and all colors of people are there, all races… it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that!”

The awe in his voice as he said those words to her is so real and so reverent, you just know that he truly is moved by the sight of it. You can feel it in his voice and I believe that he really felt what he sang in “Black or White”:  “If you’re thinkin’ of being my brother / it don’t matter if you’re Black or White.” I believe those lyrics really spoke to him and were important to him. I think on the surface, it was seen by most people as a sweet,”can’t-we-all-just-get-along,” yeah unity type of song but, really it was a very serious message that he was trying to get across to us all. It really doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White, and all of the judging and the labeling is only serving to keep us all down. Is someone Black enough? White enough? Chinese enough? Puerto Rican enough? That’s not even a valid question. Certainly not one that anybody – of any race – should ever be asking of anyone else because only the individual can answer that question. Only I have the right to ask if I’m Black enough just like only you, Willa, have the right to ask if you’re White enough. And only Michael Jackson had the right to question whether or not he was Black enough. And I think he answered that question for us over and over again both in his art and in the causes he chose to support, like the United Negro College Fund and the Equality For Blacks in the Music World conference.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcY1f9ja6NQ