Thursday, December 28, 2006
Reflections on James Brown
When James Brown died, I posted the usual obit here. But when I got this email from my blogless friend Rob Fraim, I knew it required posting. Here is Rob's recollection of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown:
I was saddened to read of the death of James Brown. Not just because he was a true music innovator (he was), and not just because he was a great showman (which was certainly the case), and not even because he influenced everyone from Prince to The Rolling Stones to Dr. Dre (which point is undeniable.)
No, in addition to all of the accomplishments noted above, I was sorry to hear of Mr. Brown’s passing because…James Brown saved me from getting a butt-kicking in the 7th grade.
What possible link between The Godfather of Soul and a junior high school kid in small-city Virginia, you ask? Well, be careful what you ask for, as they say. Now you’ve done it. You asked and you have to listen to my story.
The year was 1970 and I was making the move from the 6th grade (translation: big shot in elementary school) to the 7th grade (translation: lowest of the low in junior high.) Now, that’s a challenging enough proposition in and of itself – as many of you likely remember. But my experience was all the more “interesting” due to a few factors:
1) I was just over 5 feet tall and weighed 140 pounds. Not exactly “height and weight proportionate” as they say.
2) This was the first year of what was, at the time, a rather hotly debated program which proponents called “desegregation busing” and opponents called “forced busing.”
As to Item #1, time and nature eventually took care of that. I grew 7 inches in the 8th grade without gaining weight and became less of a target. But remember, right now we’re talking about the 7th grade and the Growth Spurt Salvation was a long way off.
Regarding Item #2 I had no strong sociological opinion at the time on the issue. Heck I was only 12. With the passage of time I have come to recognize that there were definitely some positive effects of the busing program - not only in societal terms but also on a personal level. I know now that it was ultimately a healthy and broadening experience and that it had a part in developing some of my present viewpoints and values.
However, that is now, and back then was then, and all I knew in the 7th grade was that I was getting my butt kicked on a semi-regular basis.
The eventual breaking down of the racial barriers and the friendships that were ultimately forged were still a long ways away. The first few months of that year were tense – marked by obvious racial divisions, frequent bomb threats that led to evacuations of the school, and lots and lots of fights – which invariably came down upon racial lines.
As noted, in the 8th grade my life changed. Not only did being a lot bigger mean that I could dispense the butt-kickings myself if required, but I was just less… oh, I don’t know…tempting, to those who were in the mood to kick some little guy’s behind.
So the 8th grade was ok. But the 7th grade - yow. First day – fight. Second day – fight. Third and fourth and so on and so on – suggestions that fights were in the offing. It doesn’t sound like a big deal now – mainly a lot of “give me your lunch money or else,” some pushing and shoving, and so forth. But when you’re 12 years old that sort of thing is kind of scary.
Now if someone had found me another nice little chubby 7th grader to square off with – someone with whom a fight was more fair – hey I’d have been good to go. Black, white, I wouldn’t have cared particularly. Just give me another 5-foot tall chunkster trying to steal my lunch money and it would have been Go City. But it wasn’t little guys after me. It was big guys. Now, just go to any junior high school and you’ll see an incredible span of kids – some who look like they’re 9 years old and some who look like they should be in the NFL (or in the case of my school, on a chain gang.) And it was the homicidal defensive lineman that I was contending with (or at least that was how it seemed at the time.) And given the racial divide at the time and the enemy camps mentality that existed, all of my nemeses were black.
(If you’re wondering where James Brown comes into this and whether he rolled in, flung off one of those great capes he wore, and hollered “Please, please, please – stop beating Robbie up!” just stick with me. In a minute I’ll get to J.B. and how he saved me.)
Back then – pre-iPod and boombox days – kids often carried little battery powered radios. They were called transistor radios and if you remember that you are officially old just like me. The sounded terrible and had lousy reception and it was all AM radio, but we thought they were cool. Well, as you would imagine the radio station selection also was broken down along racial lines. The white kids played rock-and-roll and Top 40 on AM station WROV and the black kids played soul and R&B on AM station WTOY. As if skin color didn’t clue you in which group was which, all you had to do was listen and the schism was apparent.
To the black kids, James Brown was The Man. James had moved from his earlier, more melodic (though always with a fantastic beat) work to his intermediate stage – which he himself later described as much more rhythm-driven. And there ain’t no dance tune like a J.B. dance tune.
And on top of that he was singing about two things that resonated with his fan base at Ruffner Junior High School. He sang “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” – which touched the consciousness of the black kids, and he sang about “Hot Pants” and being a “Sex Machine” which was sure to get the appeal to just about any teenager. The white kids by and large weren’t paying attention yet (stubborn refusal to like black music) but the black kids were loving some James Brown.
And so was one chubby little white kid.
I’ve written here before about my long-time love of the blues and how from the time I was a tyke the blues just hit me where it counts. Well, rhythm and blues is just another step from there and soul music and funk are just harder hitting versions. So I liked what I heard.
Well, one young teacher – in a naïve attempt to bring down the walls – decided to have a discussion period in class one day about what the kids liked and didn’t like, TV shows, food, music, etc. Sort of a gather ’round the campfire, make S’mores, and get-to-know-you kind of deal. I think she thought that we’d all see how very much alike we really were after all doggone it, and end up singing “Kumbaya” and having group hugs. (This was 1970 after all.)
Of course, it didn’t work. I can’t remember what the first round-the-room poll was, but this discussion was going nowhere. Then she said, “Well, let’s ask everyone their favorite radio station and their favorite group or singer.” Oh Lord, did she not see where this would go?
Inevitably it was like this:
White kid: WROV – The Beatles
Black kid: WTOY – James Brown
White kid WROV – Led Zeppelin
Black kid WTOY – James Brown
Then she came to me. “So Robbie, what’s your favorite radio station and performer?”
Me: “WTOY and James Brown.”
You know in the cartoons when a surprised person does the back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth thing with his head – complete with eyes all bugged out? That was the reaction in the room. Not so much from the white kids, who just sort of looked at me in confusion. Instead, the double takes were from the black kids.
Now, the storybook end to this story would be that everybody got up, joined hands, got misty-eyed and sang a rousing chorus of James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).” However, after a momentary pause the preference poll resumed and predictably, went right back to original pattern of black-white-black-white/James-not-James-James-not-James. My variance was but a brief, bright ray in the ongoing struggle that continued after that, and continues to this day.
But after class several black kids caught me in the hall.
Them: “Do you really like James Brown?”
Me: “Yeah, he’s cool.”
Them: “He’s the baddest.”
And interestingly enough, the butt-kickings eased off after that. And, true item – I saw one of the lunch-money stealers heading my way one day and saw another kid stop him and tell him to leave me along. His rationale? Honest to goodness: “Nah, he’s all right. He likes James Brown.”
As I look back on integration/forced busing now I can see both the positives and negatives in the idea. The debate raged back then and if busing were an issue now the debate would continue. It wasn’t much fun at the time, but as I mentioned before I think there were some long-lasting positive results in terms of bringing down barriers and so forth. I’ll spare you the “some of my best friends are black” line that often rings so hollow - although if you were to meet my brother-in-law and my two nephews, or the folks I go to church with, or if you were to show up at my house in my lily-white neighborhood and meet my son’s friends who are hanging out at the house I think you’d get my point.
Can I credit James Brown with all of that? Not really. Back then I just liked his music.
But I can thank Mr. James Brown for one thing. I got noticeably fewer butt-kickings and managed to keep a lot more of my lunch money thanks to him. So artistry and talent and showmanship aside, I appreciate him for that.
And with all due respect to Gerald Ford, who also passed away recently and who by all accounts was a fine man, he was nowhere to be found in 1970 at William Ruffner Junior High School and offered precious little relief to a certain beleaguered 12-year old. No, that particular job required more soul, more funk, more James.
“Going down to the crib
Let all hang out
Where soulful people knows what it's about…
Said the long-hair hippies and the Afro blacks
They all get together across the tracks
And they party!
Oh, on the good foot
You know they dance on the good foot
Dance on the good foot”
-- James Brown – “Get on the Good Foot”
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