Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What the Godfather of Soul Meant to Me

Vernon Reid, solo artist and founding member of Living Colour

''I would tell you that in discussing James Brown, thinking of him as the 'Godfather of Soul', while convenient and familiar, is a very shallow way to appreciate what he did. It's much easier to underestimate what James Brown did than to overestimate it. I mean, he literally changed the form of the music! Funk music as we understand it starts with James Brown. We always had groovy, danceable R&B prior to that, but if you think about the evolution from 'Please, Please, Please' to 'Super Bad,' it's extraordinary because the whole time, he was paring away elements to get to a pure, truly African-American music. He's a true American minimalist.

''I think lyrically he gets short shrift because no other artist synthesized the dynamics of the male-female sexual relationship like James Brown. The song 'Sex Machine' is outrageous because it literally brings to mind the mechanics of sex but it's ambiguous and says nothing. It's up to you to picture what a 'sex machine' is.

''He exemplified the notion of 'call and response' and his 'call and response' was with an entire community. So when he [says] 'Say it loud,' it's deep. That song, 'Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud,' is a totem of a social movement; it's as powerful as [Marvin Gaye's] 'What's Going On.'

''He's a giant in American music, and as an entertainer, he's unbelievable! When you think about the arrests and the things like that, the unfortunate thing is that they overshadow the enormity of what he accomplished musically. He had a tumultuous life but in the balance of things, he gave much more than he took.''

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