Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown [Exclusive Interview with Tour Manager Alan Leeds + Preview]
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
You may think you know the “Godfather of Soul,” but you have no idea what a complicated, conflicted man James Brown was.Â Charting his journey from rhythm and blues to funk, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James BrownÂ features rare and previously unseen footage, interviews and photos, chronicling the musical ascension of â€œthe hardest working man in show business,â€ from his first hit in 1956, to his iconic performances and more. Directed by OscarÂ winner Alex Gibney and produced by Mick Jagger, thisÂ documentary was made with the unique cooperation of the Brown Estate, which opened its archives for the first time.
IÂ had the opportunity to speak exclusively with tour manager Alan Leeds, by email. He gave me a little more insight into the sound of James Brown as well as his lasting legacy.
TV GOODNESS: How did James Brown come to be known as Mr. Dynamite?
Alan Leeds:Â “In the very early 1960â€™s, a press agent tabbed Brown ‘Mr. Dynamite’ due to his electric stage performances and the name stuck.”
TV GOODNESS: Can you talk a little aboutÂ the evolution of James Brown’s sound? He got his start in gospel and it evolved from there to soul and funk.Â
Alan:Â “Brownâ€™s earliest records reflected his basic influences, Gospel quartets and Doo-Wop groups such as North Carolinaâ€™s The ‘5’ Royales. The majority of his early hits were of the ‘Gospel Blues’ format, ‘Please, Please, Please,’ ‘Try Me,’ ‘I Donâ€™t Mind’ and ‘Lost Someone.’ But a stage show requires dynamics and a variety of pacing/tempos, particularly for a group (The Famous Flames) who were also known for their acrobatic choreography. Upbeat dance tunes like ‘Think,’ ‘Night Train’ and ‘Shout And Shimmy’ fit the bill. As tastes changed in the mid-1960â€™s Brown focused increasingly on dance material while accumulating an increasingly talented and creative band of musicians. Together they happened upon a formula that has become known as funk, ie: ‘Papaâ€™s Got A Brand New Bag’ and ‘Cold Sweat.'”
TV GOODNESS: Can you talk about his band and how that evolved over the years? I know it was such an important part of his sound.
Alan:Â “Brown always sought out the best musicians he could afford, often jazz trained players who aspired to jazz careers. James was secure enough in his talent to allow bandmates like Alfred â€œPee Weeâ€ Ellis, Nat Jones, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Clyde Stubblefield and John â€œJaboâ€ Starks to contribute ideas freely. The composite of their influences became the James Brown Sound.”
TV GOODNESS: James Brown was a loner because he was abandoned at such a young age by both his parents. A lot of people think that’s part of the reason he was such a tyrant when it came to his music. Is that a fair assessment?
Alan:Â “Brownâ€™s turbulent childhood taught him that he couldnâ€™t trust ANYONE. After all, he was basically abandoned by his own mother â€“ if you canâ€™t trust your mother, who can you trust? That translated to an insecurity that played itself out in all of his relationships, business, social and romantic.”
TV GOODNESS: James Brown was a truly amazing performer. And he talked about the fact that he had to be because he wasn’t light-skinned with good hair. Can you talk about that?Â
Alan:Â “While Brown was not the traditional matinee idol type, the innate sexuality in his performances allowed him to compete with handsome singers like Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson and Chuck Jackson who were known for their sexual appeal. The complicated issue of color within the black community is outside the parameters of this discussion but suffice it to say that Brownâ€™s early success refuted the pre-Black Is Beautiful stereotypes.”
TV GOODNESS: James Brown’s music has such a lasting legacy. His influence can be heard in many artist’s music today and quite a few performers – Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Janelle Monae – have said what a big influence his music was. What do you think hearing that would mean to him?
Alan:Â “Iâ€™m sure Brown would appreciate hearing such but I believe he recognized his influence quite early on and that nothing since would have surprised him. He knew he had ‘changed the game’ of R&B/soul music in the 1960â€™s and his innovations and contributions have been evident throughout all of pop music ever since.”
TV GOODNESS: James Brown was an important figure in the civil rights movement – first as a uniting figure, but then a lot of people turned on him when they thought he sold out to endorse Nixon for his second term. How big of a role did politics play in his life and how important was it for him to be active in the civil rights movement?
Alan:Â “Brown was rather apolitical in the strict sense â€“ neither Democrat nor Republican (he variously supported both Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard Nixon), he was essentially a conservative except when the subject was race. Iâ€™ve always felt that he tended to support the candidate he thought would win, essentially so he could maintain access to major politicians. As to the Civil Rights movement, as a black entertainer bucking the Jim Crow system, his very existence inevitably intersected with the movement. He wasnâ€™t just fighting for the black community at large, he was fighting for HIMSELF.”
TV GOODNESS: What do you think James Brown would say his legacy is – both musically and as a man?
Alan: â€œ’As a man’ is actually correct. He viewed his career and performing as a JOB. While assured that he was, in fact, an artist, even a genius of sorts, he never forgot that performing was his escape from a Jim Crow era life that otherwise held little promise. From the time I met him in 1965, he made it clear that his struggle was to be recognized simply as a MAN â€“ not a singer, not a black man, but a MAN. I believe in his mind, coming from what he came from, THAT was his most satisfying accomplishment.”
TV GOODNESS: If people only take one thing away from this film, what do you want it to be?
Alan:Â “That James Brown was a serious, dedicated professional with an uber work ethic and commitment to be the BEST at whatever he did. And that, along the way, he virtually broke down doors that contributed to the riches and career control that young black artists can achieve today. In many ways he was the Jackie Robinson of the soul music industry.”
Edited for space and content.
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James BrownÂ premieres Monday, October 27th at 9/8c on HBO.
All images courtesy of Emilio Grossi/HBO.
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