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C H A P T E R T H R E E JAMES BROWN Self-Remade Man My story is the Horatio Alger story. It’s an American story, it’s the kind America can be proud of, but yet if you tell it in detail, if you tell all the things I fought to make it, it’s like the Satchel Paige story. James Brown Brown represented the political black man, the successful black man, the sexual black man, the relentless black warrior that was “Black and Proud,” and as the song says, “ready to die on our feet, rather than be livin’ on our knees.” Brown grabbed hold of the jugular vein of black aspirations and would not let go. Rickey Vincent James Brown published two autobiographies, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul (1986) and I Feel Good (2005).1 These books are in many respects quite different, but the narrative Brown tells remains largely the same. That story is, as Brown himself has called it, “the Horatio Alger story.”2 More accurately, it is what we misremember as the Horatio Alger story, since, unlike Alger’s novels, Brown’s narrative attributes nothing to luck or the kind intervention of a patron. Brown portrays himself as a self-made man, and the only real credit he gives to anyone else is to God, from whom he says he received directly all the education he needed. But Brown’s story is also more complicated , because it is not the simple story of a rise out of poverty into wealth and success. He didn’t just succeed but repeatedly reinvented himself, successfully remaking his persona at least three times. Thus Brown’s story adds to the traditionally American bootstrap myth, a story of self-fashioning that goes back to Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman but that here entails a far more protean self that emerges in the repeated re-creations of his public persona. Brown’s success, as we will see, could be measured in many ways, but what may be most remarkable is that Brown made himself a star, a peer of Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. This is a startling achievement, given the lack of precedence for black stardom. In the late 1950s, before Sidney Poitier made it to the top of the box office, there had not been a black movie star. James Brown: Self-Remade Man 47 Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and other jazz performers had attained signi ficant popularity, but their reputations were restricted to the realm of music . None had, like Frank Sinatra or Elvis, managed to become multimedia stars. Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry were genuine stars during the 1950s, but racism limited their ability to define and, especially, to rede fine themselves. That’s one reason, perhaps, why none of these performers developed significantly after the 1950s, even though Berry continued to have some hits and Richard remained a well-known figure. This chapter looks at the way in which James Brown managed to circumvent these limitations to produce successive reinventions of his persona. From “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” to “Soul Brother No. 1,” and “the Godfather of Soul,” Brown successfully redefined himself to fit different musical and cultural moments . It would be a mistake to see these changes as mere adaptations to the market, for they enabled Brown to participate much more directly in political struggle than did most other black performers. Brown changed stardom not only by integrating it but also by becoming briefly a widely recognized African American leader. Brown thus made stardom political in a more direct way than Bob Dylan would. Ray Charles and Sam Cooke are usually listed as black artists who attained pop stardom prior to Brown, but the key word here is “pop.” Both of them existed on the margins of rock & roll as a cultural practice; Charles “emphasized adult passion” and attracted an older audience, while Cooke “gracefully walked the line between pop and schlock.”3 Both men would significantly influence rock and soul without ever being in the mainstream of either. What they shared with Brown was the use of gospel music as the basis for R&B and an unusual degree of economic and artistic control. Their careers entailed radical changes of direction, Charles moving with impunity among different genres and Cooke risking his gospel stardom to sing R&B. Cooke’s career was tragically cut short, so we will never know...


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