You are going to read a ton of stuff over the couple of weeks about what kind of titanic presence James Brown was in 20th Century Music. And that stuff is absolutely correct. So I want to discuss another aspect of the man’s career. James Brown was one of the first American artists to understand — and more importantly, harness — the power of the mass media to brand himself in the public mind.
I would argue that while James Brown was a ground-breaking musician — and make no mistake, he was as important as Miles or Marley or Dylan or The Beatles — “James Brown” is an all-time icon: a bigger-than-life figure who will now be bigger-than-death.
In a day where even the humblest indie musician has a website and a MySpace page, the way that James Brown transformed himself into a gigastar for the ages is equally as awesome as “Cold Sweat” or “Sex Machine.”
He did it by branding himself, almost nearly from the start. But, in the end, there were two that stuck. The two unique selling propositions that will be in every single obituary you read, see or hear about the man: “James Brown, The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business!” and “James Brown, The Godfather of Soul!”
Sheer genius, both of them.
It doesn’t matter whether Brown came up with or allowed himself to be called “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” It doesn’t matter whether or not he was: I mean, how do you actually rate that? Is there some kind of show business work scale? Or Top Ten List? And how much would it suck to be the Second Hardest Working Man in Show Business? I mean, it’s not like Avis, who famously owned up to being Number 2 by branding themselves as trying harder. Because if you tried harder, then you wouldn’t be only the Second Hardest Working Man in Show Business, now would you?
Of course, nobody ever thought to ask those questions. The point is the all-inclusive genius of that phrase. After all, the one single American myth that everybody pretty much buys into is that hard work brings success, therefore, the hardest working man in any field should be the most successful. So when he became successful, it was only natural: he was, after all, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
And note that he wasn’t just the hardest-working man in Soul or the hardest-working man in Music. Nope: James Motherfucking Brown was the hardest working man in all of Show Business! He worked harder than Lucille Ball and Jimmy Stewart and Jerry Lee Lewis. He worked harder than Willie Mays and Walter Conkrite and Norman Mailer.
Sure, you could choose to go to a film; watch the television; listen to the radio; see a play; see another concert; watch a ball game; go to a magic show; watch a stand-up comic or a mime or go to the circus. But why even bother? It doesn’t matter: compared to James Brown all of those others are just slackers and posuers. They will not work nearly as hard as he does for your entertainment dollar.
It was a great crossover move because who wouldn’t want to see a performance by the hardest working man in all of Show Business? It’s right there: he’s going to give more than anybody else you’ve ever seen!! How can you resist that? You can’t.
And it came time to prove that to the mass audience — on the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964 — Brown proved more than up to the task, wiping the floor with the more straightforward pop acts like The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones, and crossed over into the mass consciousness once and for all. For the next decade he performed one of the all-time great tricks: tossing single after single onto the upper reaches of R&B and pop charts while transforming himself into his last, and greatest brand, “James Brown, the Godfather of Soul!”
This, of course, was his best branding effort of all: after all, if they ever did come up with the work-ethic rating system, you could be displaced from the top of the hardest-working charts, but once you’ve become Soul’s Godfather, it’s a lifetime thing. Think about it: Kings of Rock and Pop can be toppled by coups; the Only Band That Matters today doesn’t matter tomorrow; The Boss gets fired; but being a Godfather is a lifetime thing like a Supreme Court Justice or President.
Best of all, as The Godfather of Soul, you only have to take responsibility if Soul’s actual parents pass away!
Of course, in James Brown’s case, he became the Godfather of Soul by making Soul an offer that it couldn’t refuse. You know, all of those singles that sounded like nothing else had ever sounded before, and nearly everything has sounded like since.
The beauty of those singles, at least listening to them now, is how spontaneous and improvised they sound. What with all of the exhortations of “take it to the bridge!” “louder!” “hit me!” it must of seemed like Brown was in your local AM station at that very moment making these songs up right then and there. Which is, of course, ironic, given his legendary control freak tendencies.
Of course, once you’ve established your perfect brand, that’s pretty much it: After Brown’s amazing streak petered out, he really had nowhere else to go, so he essentially accepted his lifetime role as the Godfather of Soul, popping up again every few years with another collaboration or compilation or reissue. That’s fine, he had done enough, hadn’t he?