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Rediscovering Brother James

He was frightening, dangerously different and brilliant all at the same time. It’s why he was The Godfather Of Soul and Soul Brother Number 1. He was also totally unhinged and probably why he was the Groove Master and the bad mofo that he was.

I am sitting here watching “Get On Up”, a movie about the life and turbulent times of James Brown with Chadwick Boseman megawatts meganificent as The Man.

The non linear editing, the brilliant cast, of course the music, and the way the story has been structured is very very clever. The fact that Mick Jagger is a co-Producer adds to my fascination and respect for James Brown- and Jagger whom I have always been pretty ambivalent about.

Even during a courtesy handshake when the band was in Hong Kong for the Harbourfest can of worms in 2003 and the band somehow being paid six times more their usual asking price, Mick Jagger came across as a bit of a plonker.

Getting back to James Brown, the man was an innovator and iconoclast just as were the great Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye. All were troubled human beings and this came out in their music.

For James Brown and Sly Stone, it was all about The Groovergy. Don’t know if they ever made any music together, but, man, it would have been something special if they did.

Marvin Gaye, he had a different groove going on- smooth, sexy and with that sweet amazing voice.

Don’t for a second think I have forgotten Curtis Mayfield and how much, especially James Brown, inspired and influenced everyone from Michael Jackson to Prince. The great Quincy Jones drilled this into me.

From almost the start of “Get On Up”, there’s a discussion about The T.A.M.I Show and Brother James being coerced into performing on the same stage as some new white boys on the scene from England called the Rolling Stones.

The Stones would close the show and which Keith Richards has said was one of the worst mistakes the band made. No one followed James Brown. No. One.

I remember watching the documentary of the show several times and couldn’t wait for the Stones to come on. I just didn’t get James Brown, his music and all those theatrics. Plus, he was a Black man and watching a movie of this show in a cinema in Hong Kong somehow missed a cultural beat.

Being in an English language secondary school, many of us had just been introduced to the ‘look’ and sound of Brit Pop, mainly the Beatles, the Dave Clark V, the Stones, Kinks, Animals and Herman’s Hermits.

These were who we wanted to be. They were cool. Black artists were still out there on their own- definitely in Hong Kong. I don’t think even Hendrix was ever really “accepted” in Hong Kong. Maybe some of us liked what he wore and forced ourselves to like “Hey, Joe”.

For a few days, myself and a friend followed a guy around who, for some reason, we were led to believe was Hendrix. The more he denied that he wasn’t Jimi Hendrix, the more we insisted that he was.

As a junior reporter for the Hong Kong Standard newspaper, my exclusive interview with this guy as “Jimi Hendrix” made the front page.

Then came the vague retraction when a rival newspaper mentioned how I had been had. “Jimi Hendrix” was actually a black serviceman on R&R in Hong Kong who was also a left handed guitarist, had jammed at some club in Kowloon, was a loved fan of Charlie Christian, dressed funky and kinda resembled Hendrix. Whoops.

As for not being a fan of Black music, maybe it was that whole British colonial pukka upbringing and the Hong Kong Chinese at the time not accepting “them”.

What’s mercy mercy mercy me good is that these feelings didn’t last long.

One has to thank Berry Gordy Jr and his Motown imprint with music from the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops and others singing the Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook for that.

Include the Phil Spector Wall Of Sound experiment that was the Ronettes and the television pop show Shindig where white kids danced to the music of black musicians for tearing down those walls.

What a strange surreal pillow trip it’s been for me- going from growing up in Colombo as an only child in a household where my Dad played records by Errol Garner, Ella, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Julie London, Eartha Kitt and Benny Goodman etc.

It was then arriving in Hong Kong and being introduced to the music of the Shadows, Dick Dale and the Deltones, the Beach Boys and solo singers like Brenda Lee, Bobby Rydell, Lesley Gore, Del Shannon etc. It was whitebread American Pop.

A bit later on, listening to the local band called the Mystics with lead singer Michael Remedios performing at the Scene discotheque in the basement of the Peninsula Hotel was one of the first times having that sweet soul music get into me.

Hey, this was Hong Kong and I wasn’t at the Apollo.

Hanging out at places like The Purple Onion, I heard the hits of Sam and Dave, the now grownup Stevie Wonder, “In The Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and Otis Redding singing about “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”.

In the beginning, however, there was James Brown.

He sang about being a Sex Machine, how it felt good and weird s*** many of us didn’t understand at the time with words that could have been anything, but we finally got it. Kinda.

We finally understood his erratic greatness. We finally got into his groove and just what a strange mofo he was, the demons he inherited and never ever was able to exorcise.

It’s an ongoing lesson about an artist often misunderstood because those were the cards he was dealt and he just went with the flow even if it was going over the precipice.

Get on up!

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