We’ve mentioned the Queen of Country Music and the King of Rock and Roll round here lately, so an appearance from the Godfather of Soul seemed a little overdue.
The Godfather of Soul was James Brown. He wasn’t just the Godfather of Soul, though. James Brown more or less invented funk, as we know it, too.
And he was the unwitting “patient zero” of hip-hop as well. Many of his early records would later be sampled to provide the beats, the rhythms, the bass-lines and the horns which underpinned the tidal wave of new music emerging from the inner cities in the 1980s.
Hip-hop would go on to dominate the record industry of the 21st century, but much of its early rise to prominence was on the back of samples from James Brown records.
Rolling Stone magazine awarded James Brown the title of “the most sampled man in the music business”. His records “Funky Drummer” and “Funky President” were particularly popular sources of samples, but everyone from the Beastie Boys to NWA to Dr Dre to Run-DMC and Tupac took a little bit of James Brown with them on their journeys to stardom.
His immense influence on the music industry was recognised again by Rolling Stone in their listing of the 100 Greatest Artists of all time.
James Brown came in at number sever, beaten only by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elvis in his impact on the music business.
Perhaps an even greater measure of his stature is that James Brown appeared higher up the list than Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Ray Charles…great artists all.
But none of those greats could put on a show like James Brown. He was renowned for the energy and intensity of his live appearances. As a bandleader he had a real skill in selecting the best musicians and making sure they gave everything they had to give night after night on the road.
Working in James Brown’s band was an intense process, not for the faint-hearted. But then I don’t imagine working for anyone whose creative output played such a pivotal role in the development of three different musical genres would be an easy ride.
After falling out of favour a little in the mid-1970s, James Brown’s career stalled. Ironically his work had never been more popular in the discos, nightclubs and street corners where dance music was going through its evolution from the slickly-produced disco sound of the 1970s into the rawer street sounds of the 1980s.
But in terms of chart performances and awareness from the general public, the late 1970s were a quiet time for the Godfather of Soul.
Of all the things you might have expected to revive his career, a long-running Hollywood movie franchise might not have been your first guess.
But that’s what happened. In 1985 Rocky IV came out, and with it the track that gave a new lease of life to James Brown’s career… “Living In America”.
Although very much in the James Brown style, one of the more unusual features of “Living In America” is that it wasn’t a song James Brown had written himself. A hugely talented composer, most of the James Brown hits you can think of were written by him.
Instead, “Living In America” was written by Dan Hartman (who’d had a solo hit with “Instant Replay” — a UK Top 10 and Billboard Top 30 record in 1978) and award-winning songwriter and producer Charlie Midnight.
If you remember Rocky IV, you’ll no doubt remember this was a US v USSR-themed boxing film starring Sylvester Stallone. Looking back it seems a little overly jingoistic, but at the time it channelled the popular mood. Rocky IV was one of the top-grossing films of its time…and I can assure you that wasn’t for the quality of its acting, so clearly something else was going on.
“Living In America” is a song which paints a picture of the freedom enjoyed by people living in the USA…
Super highways, coast to coast
Easy to get anywhere
On the trans-continental overload
Just slide behind the wheel
How does it feel
When there’s no destination that’s too far
And somewhere on the way
You might find out who you are
The contrast with life in the former Soviet Union at the time couldn’t be starker. America was a land of plenty. A land of freedom.
People born the wrong side of the Iron Curtain would be kept under the firm control of the state a big longer. It wasn’t until 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, that East and West started to move closer together.
For the ordinary people of eastern Europe, even a car was an unaffordable luxury at the time, never mind a super-highway, coast-to-coast, to drive it on.
“Living In America” is a joyous song. It picks up on the way free people can jump into their cars and head off wherever they wanted, any time they liked. That must have seemed impossibly carefree to the millions of people living under the yoke of Soviet control in the mid-1980s.
In fact, it probably feels impossibly carefree to many people today. It might not be the government which is trying us down, but it’s hard to imagine too many people leaping in their car at a moment’s notice on a whim any more.
There’s jobs to work at, bills to pay, medical bills on the rise and lower job security than ever. Decades of corporate downsizing and the growth of the gig economy has made even “good” jobs a lot less secure than they used to be. People are keeping their heads down and trying not to cause waves.
So are we are free as we were 30 or 40 years ago when Rocky IV first hit the silver screen? I’m not sure we are.
We might not be getting told what to do by an un-elected totalitarian regime like the old USSR. But if we can’t jump in our cars at a moment’s notice to drive coast-to-coast on a super-highway, maybe we’re not quite as free as we’d like to think.
At the time of “Living In America” it felt like salvation was just around the corner. Peace, hope and tolerance was within our grasp.
Looking back, that may have been the high water mark for peace, hope and tolerance. I certainly don’t see nearly enough of any of those things in my daily life at the moment.
But I haven’t given up hope. I firmly believe in the inherent goodness of humankind and I hope that one day we might find the peace, hope and tolerance every human being on the planet is searching for.
Sometimes we find what we want when we’re not looking for it.
We find love just after we’ve given up hope of ever finding it.
We find the peace we’ve been looking for in the end, but only after we get to the end of a few years riding an intense emotional roller-coaster.
We find tolerance for people who are different to us just after we give up being afraid of them.
As James Brown sings…
You may not be looking for the promised land
But you might find it anyway
I’d go further than that.
It’s when we’re not looking for it…or, in some cases, not recognising it when we do find it…that everything we’re looking for finds us.
You can’t chase some things. They’ve got to find their own way to you. That’s just the way it works.
Then you get to feel the joy…
Living in America, eye to eye, station to station
Living in America, hand to hand, across the nation
Living in America, got to have a celebration!
Here’s the Godfather of Soul, the inventor of funk and the midwife of hip-hop…it’s Mr James Brown with “Living In America”…
(Just bear in mind the video uses clips from Rocky IV in it, or you might think this is one of the oddest music videos you’ve ever seen…)
If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent the last few minutes in the company of one of my favourite songs.
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4Y5yjzs9FFw5qIgfZBd43I