Ahead of the James Brown biopic Get On Up, the film’s producer, one Mick Jagger, here gives us a first-hand account of The Godfather Of Soul
The first songs
I heard by James Brown were the early singles: Please Please Please, Think, Try Me. They’re all straight-up doo-wop R&B songs. They have an intensity about them, and they are great, but they didn’t knock me out. At that time, I still preferred Bo Diddley, if you know what I mean. But then, when I heard the Live At The Apollo album [from 1963], that was a game-changer.
That was when you could hear that the guy was this amazing performer, stringing all his stuff together. You could hear that his band was super-tight, and it’s not just a ‘one single’ thing, like a lot of things in those days. There was much more to it.
If you’re in a rock band – and it’s still like this now – you do a number and it’s “Da da da… thank you very much”, there’s a bit of a gap – I have a drink of water and I might make a joke – and then you go, “OK, what we doing now?” But it’s not like that if you’re in the James Brown band. It’s, “Bam!” and then straight into the next one. No gaps. I mean nothing.
So after that Apollo album he was the hot thing. Everyone had heard about how good he was onstage. If you were an R&B fan in England, you had to have that album, and you could really tell how great he was. After that, I followed him much more closely.
LIVE, TONIGHT, IN THE FLESH
When I first saw him play, it was mind-blowing, but it was also a funny experience. I’d seen pictures of him onstage, and I knew the live album, so I had my imaginary version of what the James Brown show was like.
The first time was when I went to the Apollo in 1964 with – I read this, but I don’t remember – one of The Ronettes. Estelle [Bennett] from The Ronettes. We went to the Apollo by taxi in the afternoon, because they did, like, five shows a day. Not five full-on James Brown shows – he’s not coming on and going crazy for two hours – more like a revue. If you do an afternoon show in the day, it’s more relaxed.
First the band come on and play this rather lackadaisical kind of jazz. Then a female singer does a couple of numbers – I remember James Brown came on and played organ and went off again, which was really odd. This goes on, builds up and builds up throughout the day, until at the end he comes back on and does the actual bit that you would now think of as the James Brown show.
In the way of approaching a show, Brown – and Little Richard – were hugely influential on me. The moves – the one where he comes across the stage on one leg, I used to do that. The trick where you throw the mic forward, hit the stand and it comes back: I mean, he didn’t invent that, but he did it so fantastically well. I tried doing that and I was absolutely hopeless.
But it was more just the thing of getting the audience up. A lot of rock bands didn’t really interact with the audience much. Even now, with indie bands, some of them don’t speak at all. I’ve been to concerts where they’re just looking at their guitar pedals, and I go, “Come on, say hello… speak to me!” Whereas with him and Richard it was all about responding to the audience. It wasn’t about what you did, so much as what you did vis-à-vis the audience, involving them every step of the way. You’re always with them, exhorting them, and always telling them.
We toured with Little Richard, and to these kind of deadpan audiences who sometimes hadn’t come to see him, he’d go, “OK, everyone stand up!” and you’d think, “Oh God, he’s not going to get them…” But he would f*cking do it until he got them all standing up and they realised the fun of it. And James Brown was exactly the same. It all comes from the church, I guess. All these stops and tempo changes, going back to a song, doing a song twice… And having no breaks, just always up, up, up. I tried to talk to the band about that a few times: “God, we can’t have these breaks!” Although, to be honest, I need the breaks more than anyone!
At the TAMI show [the notorious 1964 concert in Santa Monica, where Brown, reportedly annoyed at having to support the Stones, put in the performance
of a lifetime], there were a lot of people there. I’m not saying James Brown wasn’t important – he was – but there was a lot going on.
It was the first time I met Marvin Gaye, and I was a huge Marvin Gaye fan. The Supremes were there, and I love The Supremes. Lesley Gore. It was a very eclectic mix. But I think James was obviously going to be it. I mean, some of the other performances were… not perfunctory, but James was obviously given more time by the producers, because they knew he was going to be entertainment value, rather than just a ‘promoting the single’ kind of thing.
By that point, he’d already been 10 years doing it, and he was very much part of that tradition of ‘I am the king’ and ‘Everyone works for me’. It wasn’t like being in a rock’n’roll band where everyone is supposedly co-operative. He knew people from the Forties, and by the Fifties big bands were still going, and he wanted that; to have his band in super-shiny suits and ties, to be a band leader. And that’s a lot of where the discipline comes from. You know, he was a disciplinarian, and I think he overdid it a bit, but keeping 15 or 20 people together has to be quite difficult. Keeping five people together’s bad enough.
LEARNING ABOUT HARD TIMES
I never discussed his early life with him back then. I knew the outlines: that he’d come from extreme poverty, but I didn’t really know the details. I found it fascinating as I delved into it [for the film].
His early life, when you see what happened to him and the hardships – he had serious obstacles to overcome, which had a psychological impact on him. Through not having parents that look after you, and everything being very disturbing – being hit as a kid was not rare in those generations. In particular, I think lack of education stands out.
Having no education is not a good thing for later in life, when you’re trying to articulate your point of view. He was very interested in social issues, but he had a hard time articulating those points. It’s not easy being set on from all sides: being part of the civil-rights movement, and being set on by political parties in the US to support them. Education prepares you for these things – and even then, of course, it’s not easy and everyone can make mistakes – and he had problems with that. The social issues he had to face were very real, and in the film you see the dichotomy of his views on the social issues, the American way of life, and black America.
THE GODFATHER OF SOUL… AND HIP-HOP
I don’t know what music he liked later on – I’m sure he heard the popular tunes of the day, like everybody else, but he was a person who wanted to be in the swing of things, who wanted to hear contemporary music. He loved Michael Jackson – who was obviously very influenced by him as a performer – when he was in his early pomp. There’s a clip of him with Michael, where he brings Michael onstage, and you can see he’s very pleased.
In the early, early days of hip-hop, there were James Brown screams on every record. When sampling started there weren’t any rules for it, so people just used it and didn’t credit it, but you’d always hear James Brown screaming on the early hip-hop stuff. Later on, they would sample the drum intros. Funky Drummer was the most popular, but there were lots of other James Brown drum breaks that were sampled in hip-hop records.
PRODUCING THE MAN
The film is a feature, it’s not a documentary. Even in a documentary, it’s the truth but the way you accent it tells a different story. With a feature, you can take liberties, and you should: there are so many different versions of the truth, anyway. Like the TAMI show – I can tell one version [of what happened], and Bill Wyman probably has a different version of it, and he doesn’t know my version. You know, really, you can make up whatever you want.
But having said all that, we did keep the film pretty close to what happened to James in real life. Obviously, some things are compressed, highlighted and left out, but I think it’s pretty close. The thing about this movie is, even if you don’t care about James Brown, it’s supposed to be a movie about a guy, a rags-to-riches story. It’s the rise of someone and his experiences, and how it affected him. The idea is that even if you’ve never heard of James Brown, you’d still enjoy the movie and take something from it.
Get On Up is at cinemas nationwide from 21 November
[Images: The Bob Bonis Archive/Bobbonis.com, Getty, Rex, Universal]