Saturday, February 17, 2024

James Brown: Say it Loud, on A&E

We constantly hear stories about some fading rocker demanding a Republican candidate stop using their music at rallies. We don’t they just play James Brown? He would certainly get everybody up on their feet and it would be hard for his heirs to object, considering how much heat he took for endorsing Richard Nixon. In fact, he still comes in for kneejerk criticism in the four-part James Brown: Say it Loud, which airs Monday and Tuesday on A&E.

Origins do not come much humbler than that of James Brown. Initially, it looked like he was stillborn, but there was still a little life left in him. He grew up amid grinding poverty in the segregated South Carolina, where he was sentenced to prison at the age of sixteen. After his release, he joined Bobby Byrd’s Famous Flames, where talent for vocals, dancing, and overall showmanship shined.

More than anyone else, James Brown developed funk out soul. He was arguably the most famous entertainer in the world, who became a mogul much in the same way Jay-Z is today. Indeed, Brown was explicitly a vocal advocate of “Black Capitalism,” which drew him to Richard Nixon. One talking head after another talks about Brown’s endorsement like it was an unforgivable sin (Nixon won with over 60% of the vote in 1972, so Brown was hardly the only one supporting him).

Yet, Brown’s message of economic self-reliance made the Godfather of Soul a natural conservative. Seriously, why aren’t GOP candidates grooving to Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s “I’m Payin’ Taxes, What Am I Buyin,’” which Brown produced on his own record label?” (It’s also a great name for a band, isn’t it?)

Regardless, director-co-writer Deborah Riley Draper and her interview subjects do a nice job thoroughly chronicling Brown’s music as well as the messy drama of his life (which nobody sugar-coats, including the domestic abuse and second prison stretch). Notable on-camera commentators include jazz musicians Christian McBride and Tia Fuller, as well as former J.B.’s Bootsy Collis and Hollie Farris. Plus, there is also Sir Mick Jagger, who also executive produced (after previously producing
Get On Up and Mr. Dynamite).

Jazz fans might wonder if
Say It Loud will cover Soul On Top, the big band jazz album Brown recorded under the direction of Oliver Nelson. As a matter of fact, they do, but they get to it late in the fourth episode, when McBride reflects on producing a concert late in Brown career that re-interpreted those classic standards.

Despite the biases of some talking heads, there is a lot of good stuff in
Say It Loud. It will definitely give viewers an appreciation for what James Brown built, lost, and then built back up again. This is a great American story. It is also rather amazing to finally see some arts and entertainment back on A&E. Who could have expected it? Recommended for fans of funk, soul, disco, jazz, and sampling, James Brown: Say it Loud premieres Monday (2/19) and Tuesday (2/20), with two episodes each night, on A&E.