Of all the self-promoting labels James Brown has appropriated in his career, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” is probably the most apt. People think it refers to the intensity of his live performances — the hoarse screams, the manic, stuttery dance steps, the buckets of perspiration — but the work he puts in onstage is nothing compared to the work he puts in off of it. Brown’s reputation as an innovator is based not on cultural tsunamis waiting to happen, but rather on his obsession with being a star.
If you consider the shape that pop music has taken over the last three decades, Brown is arguably as influential as those artists credited with laying the foundation. But Hank Williams, Little Richard, Elvis and Chuck Berry are all considered iconoclasts; their artistry came from inspiration, not professional calculation. It took JB more than a decade to arrive at his signature sound, and he wouldn’t have got there had he not been a revue-style singer; not a solo artist so much as the central figure in a show featuring many elements. He was never as good a vocalist as Ray Charles. His dancing was never as wild as Jackie Wilson’s. He’s never written a soul ballad as moving as Otis Redding’s. He was, and still is, mainly a bandleader.
When JB invented funk, he knew exactly what he was doing, paring the rhythmic half of rhythm and blues down to the bone and then adding lean muscle. He drove his employees mercilessly toward this end, and though that may not sound as romantic as John Lennon and Paul McCartney reinventing pop while playing strip clubs in Hamburg, the results are every bit as significant; more so, if you believe, as JB himself does, that hip-hop would not exist without “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or “Funky Drummer.” So if you’re not planning on going to see him celebrate his 50th year in show business this weekend because he can’t dance as well as he used to, just remember it was always the show that made him a star — and he can still play a mean organ.