The new issue of NME is dedicated to lost musical legends.
James Brown was a sheer force of nature. I remember seeing some old colour film of him dancing to ‘It’s A Man’s World’ in a TV studio when I was about 12 or 13. It was before punk and in the footage, he’s dancing on one leg and doing his knee slides wearing his black suit and pointy shoes.
It was out of this world. He must have looked liked he came from another planet when people first saw that. I used to go to a lot of Northern Soul nights in the early 1980s in places like Scarborough and Doncaster and ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ was a big tune for us then.
The way he sings is like an early version of rapping. It’s very conversational and it feels like he’s talking directly to you a lot of the time. And the actual sound of his voice was just primal.
But it was more than just his music that was important, it was his social impact too. He started doing at a time when black and white people couldn’t have a coffee in the same place. But he made black people feel beautiful with songs like ‘(Say It Loud) I’m Black And I’m Proud’. It’s one of the strongest messages there’s ever been in music.
That sense of conscience went into hip-hop too and so without James Brown, there’d be no hip-hop. He’s got the funk too- James Brown is not the most sampled artist in hip-hop for nothing. The Stone Roses were mad into James Brown. We actually wrote ‘Fools Gold’ over ‘The Funky Drummer’- we had it playing on a porta-studio and Reni had to learn how to play that beat.
I’ve heard some great stories about him over the years. I particularly like the one about him driving round Harlem in the late-1960s and giving out mink coats to the homeless people there. I also had a friend who used to be session bassist for Simply Red and they were on tour in New York during the mid-1980s. He said he was out in Harlem and went into a bar and saw this oldish guy tuning up the piano and it was James Brown. Apparently he used to take it upon himself to go into bars and tune up pianos all the time.
It was so typical of him to die on Christmas day – it took the shine right off my Christmas when he died but it was so like him to go out with a bang by upstaging the big JC. Never mind JC, that day was all about JB.