It’s that special time of the year when I commemorate the life of the main man. Typically, I spend a couple hours on Christmas listening to music reflecting his accomplishments. It adds a tinge of sadness to this otherwise festive day. I think about how he left us far too soon. I’m referring, of course, to Mr. Dynamite himself, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. James Brown. This past Christmas marked the ninth anniversary of his passing.
While listening to his music on Christmas Day, I thought about how much he and his various bands influenced me as a musician. I’m sure many people are surprised to read that I’m a James Brown fan. I’m sure many more are shocked that I’ve been inspired by his music. After all, when I started playing bass guitar in the 1980s “Hair Metal” was the dominant musical form. A steady barrage of eighth notes (many on open strings) spewed forth from my cassette player. Understandably, I got bored. I sought out other musical genres. After stints with Classic Rock, Blues and Jazz, I discovered “the funk”; first through Motown Bassist James Jamerson and then through James’ many back-up bands.
In the course of my musical journey, I also taught myself how to play the guitar. When I played I mentally journeyed to Madison Square Garden in the summer on 1974. I’d take Jimmy Page’s place during The Song Remains the Same recording. Other times, when Mom and Dad left me home alone, I cranked my amp and travelled to Leeds University on Valentine’s Day 1970 and jammed with The Who.
When I matured musically, I started playing more challenging pieces; at least ones that would challenge an Irish-American kid from South Jersey. Following a love affair with (loud) Classic Rock, then Blues (played loudly) I graduated to R & B and Soul. That’s when I first encountered The Godfather’s music.
As Christmas Day dawned, I hadn’t seriously approached the guitar in months. I hadn’t played bass in at least a year. I yearned for a “Christmas miracle” in seeing if I could remember some of James’ cuts, let alone play them well. I took my Telecaster out of its gig bag. I stared at it for a while. It beckoned as if saying, “Try Me.” “Please, please,” it seemed to say. “I got the feeling” I should.
I was “bewildered.” My memory surprised me. (In addition to being a musician in my youth I drank like one, also.) I still recalled the chops to such tracks as “Lickin’ Stick-Lickin’-Stick” and “Mother Popcorn.” After a few run throughs I thought, “ain’t that a groove”? I never would’ve thought I’d say “I feel good” about my playing.
I wanted to focus on my guitar playing, but the lure of the bass was “out of sight.” James had an ear for talent comparable to Miles Davis. He worked with a host of gifted bassists among them Bernard Odum, Charles “Sweets” Sherrell and Sam Thomas, “Bootsy” Collins took the instrument to a new level. I didn’t have anything to “think” about. I had to tackle the simulated live version of “Give It Up or Turn It Loose.”
I told myself that I’m not in the same class as Bootsy. “I know it’s true.” “I don’t mind,” I thought. “It may be the last time” I try to play this song. Bass is a fun instrument. That’s what’s important. It didn’t matter if I was “super bad”. Sure enough, as fast as Bootsy’s riffs were, I pounded them out of my P-Bass.
I figured I’d paid the proper homage to my idol and wanted to avoid “doing it to death.” I put my guitar and bass away and went back to enjoying the Holiday Season. I’d managed to give a decent tribute to the man and musicians who gave me great direction along my musical journey. It was a funky Christmas miracle; and people it was bad.