A while back I reviewed a Chris Brown concert. I suppose his show was high-energy, in that there were a lot of people dancing on stage, the music was loud and people were into it. I was not impressed.
In the post-Michael Jackson, highly choreographed world of pop and R&B, I know live vocals are not exactly de rigeur. But it’s disappointing an act can tout a live experience that’s little more than a music video conducted on stage. There’s nothing live about that; there’s no risk, none of the chance-taking and danger that can, for better or worse, make a concert compelling. You don’t end up impressed by the singer’s ability to hit notes or outperform the songs vocals hear on the radio. You aren’t disgusted that the singer sounds like garbage without studio trickery. You feel nothing at all, because you feel nothing from it.
I referenced Michael Jackson for a specific reason: like the bulk of this generation’s pop stars, Chris Brown cites him as his idol and biggest influence and the music that plays before he hits the stage is MJ. It’s easy to see why; Jacko was the biggest star on the planet for their formative years. But that’s also a silly template to follow. Michael Jackson was a superstar on par with only Elvis and the Beatles in terms of global success, a child prodigy who grew into a supremely talented entertainer and melodic constructor and came into his own in during the age of MTV and music videos. It’s the combination of a talented artist coming into his own at the right time. No one can ever replicate that. Besides, trying to makes you look like a cheap impostor.
Instead, I suggest looking at the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Please Please Please himself, James Brown. I would argue that there’s never been a more successful R&B artist than JB. Sure, he wasn’t filling massive stadiums like Jackson during his peak, but the guy was consistently playing multi-thousand-seat venues over 100 dates a year into his 70s up until his death in 2006. Not a lot of performers can say that. Not many artists can claim chart-topping singles over 4 decades. Brown had “Please Please Please” (among others) in the mid-1950s, “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (to name a few) in the ’60s, “Sex Machine” and “Get Up Offa That Thing” in the ’70s and “Living in America” in 1986. That’s just an astounding amount of success.
But it’s about more than just having a bunch of hit singles. Chris Brown has those, but he pales in comparison to JB. It’s about authenticity. It’s about having so much music, so much rhythm, so much passion in your soul that you just can’t contain it.
Watch him. Look up his performance on the TAMI Show in 1964. Check out compilations of live footage or his dance moves. He never stopped moving. Even while singing, the legs are kicking, the hips are thrusting and the arms are moving. All that movement and his voice never wavers. He’s not off-key. And when he stops singing, the frenetic pace somehow steps up another notch. Splits, camel-walks, slides, dives, the dance forever known as the James Brown, no one could move like him. Not with that much intensity, not for an entire show. He wasn’t rail-thin and frail like Jacko or kind of skinny-fat like Chris Brown. James Brown was built to move, with the burly, yet lithe build of a professional dancer.
Then listen to Revolution of the Mind: Recorded Live at the Apollo, Vol. III. The band practically explodes off the screen and out your speakers. You don’t even need to see JB to feel the urgency pumping from his primal vocals. You feel every “Get on up!,” every “Hit me, come get me,” in your hips. You get off your ass and jam. It’s soul power and it’s irresistible. When he belts out, “Jump back baby, James Brown’s gonna do his thing,” you don’t even need to see it to know he’s going to do something breathtaking.
Other artists may have been bigger, but not many were realer than him. There’s an authenticity to James Brown that is lacking in so many performers. Here was a guy with multiple domestic abuse charges, drug busts and publicly erratic behavior that made him somewhat of a pop culture joke. But the rhythm and power of the performance just coursed through him all the time. There was no pseudo-tough guy posturing or second-rate impersonation of other stars. Through good times and bad, he was the consummate entertainer, moving and singing with precision and urgency.
I can look through Chris Brown’s sordid past. No one’s perfect. But I can’t look past the put-on, the wannabe tough guy that people think he is after some of his boorish behavior that also wants to be the next Michael Jackson. There’s nothing at stake there, nothing memorable, nothing worth discussing five, ten, twenty years from now. There’s so much more in just feeling it and doing your thing, loud and proud.
That’s what James Brown’s taught me at least, and who am I not to take lessons from Soul Brother Number One?