Some sudden celebrity deaths are shocking to me: Elvis, Bing Crosby, Joe Strummer all fit the category. The hold on life, even for the talented - those larger than life - is but a slim strand. The Godfather of Soul's passing from heart failure related to pneumonia stopped the Christmas frenzy just now - when I got the news through my feedroll (don't we always these days) from Jason's blog that James Brown was dead. MSNBC says Brown initially felt better and even talked about playing New Year's Eve in New York. He was only 73 and seemed younger, still did the moves when the lights went on. Chervokas has the first-hand memories (mine are recorded, alas) so I'll let him tell it:
Of course James Brown was a titanic musical figure, one of the giants of 20th century music, up there with Louis Armstrong and Igor Stravinsky. He invented funk. It wasn't a single handed invention--the crackerjack musicians of the James Brown Show had a lot to do with it--and of course funk had roots in funky blues, the rolling music of New Orleans, and centuries old Yoruban music of West Africa. But in 1965, with the release of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," Mr. Brown did something new--orchestrating a drum beat across the whole band the way Duke Ellington spread his Debussyan chords across the brass and reeds.
"Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" sounded radical in 1965, but it was still more or less a straight R&B record with rhythmic horn vamp. Over the next few years things got more intense, with the music stripped of chord changes entirely. The breakthrough came with "There was a Time." The song evolved from the out vamp of the group's live arrangement of a forgettable mid 1960s hit "Let Yourself Go." In performance the out vamp came to dominate the song, soon stretched out to seven minutes, with Brown improvising his autobiography over the furious pump of the music. Although my favorite version of "There Was a Time" can be found on the fake live 1970 classic album Sex Machine, you can hear the development of the song in the Let Yourself Go/There Was a Time performance from Live at the Apollo Vol. II.
But the overpowering influence of funk on world music in the latter decades of the 20th century sometimes obscures the influence of Brown's early years as the greatest soul singer of all. Like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Brown did things that other singers couldn't go, so his influence as a singer is not all that deeply heard today. But the first generation of hard rock singers stole everything from James Brown.
UPDATE: Ah what the hell, here's a TV video up top of Sex Machine cut in with Soul Power from (I'm guessing) around 1970-71.