Well, we had a very successful couple of days in Sam’s Brooklyn lair. Let’s recap some of what we accomplished:

1. We fixed the refrigerator.
2. We discovered the pomegranate phone.
3. We explored the In and Outs of Steak and Shake.
4. We put Robert Palmer in another compromising situation.
5. We listened to my rant about Nilsson Schmilsson.

And that’s just what we blogged about. Here are some other tidbits:

Sammy got some new studio foam in the mail, so his vocal booth is now in full effect. I don’t have a photo, but if you can imagine stuffing three queen-sized egg crate mattress pads into one of those little “peanuts” jars that that shoots out a spring painted to look like a snake, and then opening the jar in a small windowless closet in a Brooklyn apartment, then you have an idea of what it looks like. Very post-modern.

In all seriousness, though, we are excited for an opportunity to do some group vocals in there, and maybe some horn recordings. His new studio is coming along, and despite my bragging about the legend he has watching over him, he has yet to move the photograph into the new room. I fear for our music until he has done that.

jbLast night, Wrall and I indulged in one of our favorite things: watching James Brown concert footage. A few years ago, DW picked up a very poor quality bootleg of “The Night James Brown Saved Boston.” That was when, on April 5, 1968, James Brown had a concert at the Boston Garden that was broadcast to televisions across the city via WGBH.* We have always been particularly fond of the 1968-1971 era of James Brown, which spans from “I Got the Feelin'” to the departure of the original JB’s (Bootsy and Catfish and all them.) We were very excited to watch any footage we could of this era, even if that meant watching something that appeared to have been a camcorder-ed television, itself replaying an old VHS tape. Well, Wrall recently got a DVD set that includes this concert in WAY higher fidelity, a documentary about the night, and another concert from 1968.

*I don’t even have to look up the date, because I know it happened the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Between Mayor Kevin Brown’s White’s insistence on police forces NOT cracking down on minor instances of violence and protest in the city in the wake of that tragedy, and James Brown’s concert, which kept attendees and home viewers alike focused on something positive, Boston avoiding the riots that affected so many cities. Mayor White also arranged for the television broadcast at the last minute, which may or may not have stirred considerable controversy with James. I haven’t had an opportunity to watch the accompanying DVD documentary about the night, but I’ll report back when I do.

I won’t go into complete detail about the video now, because I’m planning an entire post dissecting and savoring all of the glorious moments.* What I will say is that we can’t help but be floored by James’ energy, emotion and pinpoint control within his show. He has the band staring at him throughout the show, afraid that he will fine them–or worse–if they miss just one cue. It seems like he’s making it up as he goes along–his dancing is erratic, incredible, and impossible to follow–but I wouldn’t put it past him to have every single movement choreographed down to the exact position of his pinkie finger.

*We’ll discuss such things as the fear in Clyde Stubbefield’s eyes, James’ zippered corduroy vest, and frequent trips offstage to fix his hair. That, and the music.

The man has talent; that can’t be denied. He has also the drive*and creativity to turn that talent into something, and that’s what separates him. We have all heard the stories about his life, and can agree that he probably made some questionable decisions. I’m not here to talk about the man on the level of a man, but on the level of a musical and cultural innovator.

*“The hardest working man in show business” doesn’t refer exclusively to his playing 400 shows in 250 days. It’s the fact that was willing to rehearse the band, and keep on them to meet his lofty standards, that he could reach the level of success that he did.

Like most success stories, though, James Brown didn’t have it easy. He came from poverty and crime and had to work against stereotypes and negative public perceptions about what he should be. His ability to surprise people with what he actually was, is something special.

Someone like Justin Timberlake, as much as we love him, should be a success. He’s a talented singer, dancer, comedian, entertainer. He’s good looking. He doesn’t have to battle racism on a daily basis. His career has been nurtured by the best in the business. I’m not saying that he had it handed to him; by all accounts he has worked as hard as anybody*, but with all of his assets, we should expect him to do what he’s done. James comes from a different background, and his ability to rise out of the challenges of his youth only strengthens his story.

*Well, maybe not as hard as James Brown…

Some would argue that James’ background helped his career, perhaps by forcing him to focus ever harder, or by learning how to be tough, play the game, manipulate situations and be the ultimate taskmaster for his band. That may be true, but it oughtn’t detract from the emergence of a remarkable music.

It’s appropriate, and no coincidence that we are watching these tapes again in the wake of an historic week. With the inauguration of President Obama the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day*, we can’t help but think of remarkable drive and talent overcoming mountainous barriers. Obama is in a position, with his intelligence and compassion, the office that he holds, and our hope in him, to do some truly remarkable things.

*I definitely heard it referred to as MLK Day Jr. a couple times; that’s pretty funny.

A friend showed me the 1996 New Yorker interview with Barack and Michelle, and it’s inspiring to see that there is a distinct thread that leads from then until now. Michelle says, “There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear. There is a little tension with that. I’m very wary of politics. I think he’s too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism.” The fact they’ve gone from that to President and First Lady in less than thirteen years is inspiring, scary, amazing, a cornucopia of conflicting adjectives.

I’m not sure how this went from a simple recap post to another misty-eyed moment of mush, but James Brown will do that to you. Barack too. Oh yeah, and stay tuned, because as Maceo says in the Garden video: “Keep in mind: James Brown will be back!”

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