To promote the James Brown biopic that opened Aug. 1, Get on Up, executive producer Peter Afterman called jazz bassist and big-time Godfather of Soul fan Christian McBride to ask if he had any ideas. McBride said he would think about it and a few minutes after hanging up, placed a call to the Hollywood Bowl about booking a James Brown tribute concert.
McBride, who worked with Brown in 2006 on a big band concert at the Bowl, has created a dozen-strong alumni band that includes Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley, Danny Ray, Clyde Stubblefield, Jab’o Starks and Mousey Thompson to perform Aug. 13 at the Bowl. D’Angelo, Aloe Blacc, Angelique Kidjo and Bettye LaVette will handle the vocals.
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“James Brown was such a singular performer and had a sound that was so his own,” says McBride, 42, who was too busy to consult on the film, which grossed an estimated $14 million in its opening weekend, according to Universal Pictures. “If you get a singer to do a James Brown tribute it can come off dangerously close to Karaoke. I don’t want it to be that.
“As long as we get some good singers who understand the spirit we don’t have to worry about it — the goal is not to sound like James Brown.”
McBride’s goal with the concert is simple: “I hope people can understand what a singular music vision he had. So completely different from what Ray Charles had, what Sam Cooke had, what different jazz musicians had. His whole concept and outlook was so dramatically different from all of them, but he was a very avid listener. He knew what everybody was doing.”
The reason Brown’s music resonates with audiences today, says Pee Wee Ellis, saxophonist and Brown’s bandleader from 1965 to ’69, is it “hits people in the right places. It’s from the heart through the heart. It’s long lasting. It will last forever because it’s real.”
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McBride, a bandleader whose early sideman days were spent with Freddie Hubbard, Joshua Redman and Bennie Green, has assembled a band of Brown alumni who, coincidentally, are former jazz and blues players. Ellis worked in jazz before and after his four-plus years with Brown; trombonist Wesley worked with Count Basie in addition to Brown and George Clinton; Clyde Stubblefield has had an active career in jazz since 1970; and drummer Starks was in Bobby “Blue” Bland’s band prior to joining the JBs in 1965 and with B.B. King after leaving in 1975.
Once hooked on funk, though, it’s not always easy to go back to jazz. “No matter how good I play jazz,” says Wesley, 71, “people say let’s hear some of that funk. So I just resign myself to being the greatest funk trombonist out there.”
Starks, 75, was part of a two-drummer line-up with Stubblefield in the ‘60s. “Playing the funk for James Brown was a completely different from the way I had played,” he says, remembering playing with the original JBs and then with Bootsy Collins after the original band quit. “Bootsy brought a different drive and I adjusted to the way I played. It rejuvenated James Brown — (the songs) had a fire, that tenacity.”
Each of Brown’s former band members, none of whom was consulted for the film, said working for Hardest Working Man in Show Business was equally funky.
“When you got with James Brown, it was five, almost six shows a day,” says Starks. “You would go to the theater, a place like the Apollo, at nine in the morning and it would be two o’clock in the morning the next day when you were leaving. You would come off after you finish one show, change uniforms and there was already another line of people waiting to fill up the theater again. You came off, rested as much as you could and went right back at it. It was grueling.”
Stubblefield, who has worked as a jazz drummer since his 1965 to 1969 stint, said it grew old in a hurry. “I got tired of (Brown’s) ways. It was too harsh, the way he treated the musicians, people and everything.”
But for Wesley, who left in 1969 and returned as band leader from 1971 to 1975, says there was a valuable trade-off. “I bought into his theory of doing music that had never been done before. It was an education, a revelation to me of how to create new music. ‘Say It Loud’ was definitely a different thing for me — I just couldn’t understand how that was going to work. But it did work.”