James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, lay in state today in his gold casket in Harlem's Apollo Theater. This Saturday, former U.S. President Gerald Ford will receive a state funeral in Washington, D.C. That's about as much connection as I can safely draw between these two figures and their coincidental passing. I confess I was aware of President Ford long before my funk became the P funk, being 6 years old in the summer of '74 when Nixon took flight from the White House lawn. I have an irrational fondness for tricky Dick, whose staff saw fit to get him to answer my Kindergartner's letter that March asking how Watergate was going. I vividly remember being on Sutton's Island in Maine with my parents crowding the telescope to watch Nelson Rockefeller sailing out on the bay and into the Vice Presidency, though I was more impressed by the red sails of my Uncle Rob's Genevieve appearing like a pirate near sunset with her bearded, collegiate crew.
James Brown came later in my life but had a more profound, personal impact than Gerald Ford. As a fine singer who does not play an instrument, I found myself at the periphery of the garage bands I longed to join. I became a loyal roadie for the bands of lifelong friends, taking the lead in late night jam sessions but never the front man on stage. All that changed in my senior year of college, when in addition to writing a thesis on "Race and Faulkner's Native American Subjects" ; living in a tower room of a dormitory at a women's college; managing a student owned pizzeria in the basement of another dorm at my own college; brewing Iron Pig Mega-Stout; and rebounding from the end of a long term relationship, I got the Funk.
The previous spring, I had been in the cast of a superb production of Godspell, and among the many things that made that show special was its outstanding rhythm section. George Rush, bassman supreme and a fellow a capella singer, approached me afterward to see if I would like to sing in a band he was putting together. This was not your average late 1980s R.E.M. / Deadhead / pre-grunge guitar-geek affair. No, this was the Hiram L. Weinstein All-Star Memorial Funk Project (featuring the Subsonic Analog Horns), and we were going to drop da bomb on the vanilla suburbs up and down the Main Line west of Philly.
I was all over this idea, but having been on a musical progression that was very stuck in classic rock and British folk, I required a crash course in James Brown. George made tapes and I listened, bug-eyed, to the likes of "The Payback", "Doing It To Death", "Licking Stick", and "Soul Power", and unlearning everything I thought I knew about singing (which as a classically trained vocalist took a lot of deconstructing). It wasn't just the command he had over those driving licks and horn hits - Maceo and Fred and the rest - or the funky, funky drumming of Clyde Stubblefield that set his sound apart. It was the way the man owned a stage that kicked it stratospheric. Mumbling cross legged around a mike stand just wasn't going to cut it. If I was going to deliver this stuff, it had to be at nothing less than a full tilt jungle boogie.
There were 15 of us in Hiram that inaugural year. George had all this back story about the name of the band - Hiram being the son of the late, great Lester Weinstein, an electric mandolin player who was supposed to have died in a bizarre feedback accident - but only George had any real credibility, having another gig going with a blues band called Gutbucket that played gigs in Philly. The rest of us had reasonable talent but a lot to prove. In addition to me there were three other vocalists (2 of each gender), a six piece horn section, 2 on drums and percussion, lead guitar, keyboards, and bass. We were college kids from Haverford and Bryn Mawr, plus a couple of long haired suckas from the communal hippie house where George lived. We practiced all fall and had our debut at the December Snow Ball.
You should have been there. Hiram hit the stage like a runaway soul train and flat out tore the roof off the sucka. We did "I Got You" , "Give Up the Funk" and "Sex Machine". We did Tower of Power and Parliament. We did some Jackson 5 and Walter "Wolfman" Washington's "You Can Stay (But That Noise Got to Go)." We did "Respect" and "Fishbone's "Party at Ground Zero"." It was glorious. Far freakin' habit forming.
We had gigs every week and packed the house every time. I sang "Brick House" at Bryn Mawr and watched ultra-radical lesbians in combat boots surrender gleefully to the beat. We headlined a "Rockin' Down Apartheid" benefit with an even bigger funk band from St. John's College, a behemoth called "Two Fettered Apes" (see Brueghels painting, right, for reference) with 26 members, two rhythm sections, and a band leader who looked like Scooter from the Muppets and wore a scarf like Dr. Who. Their most memorable song - I hesitate to say "best"- was an original called "Mammary Gumbo."
Thanks to James Brown, I got the feeling. Hiram became a Haverford College institution, with more than a decade run before (maybe) the last time. I went off to Africa with a different set of mixed tapes than otherwise and turned on a whole bunch of isolated Namibian school kids to something other than Celine Dion - though they did know Michael Jackson, post Mo'town. I knew enough to call the local radio station in Worcester, MA during my grad school years and be not only the fifth caller but the first four as well and secure two tickets to Maceo Parker's New Year's Eve show that year in Newport, RI. At my wedding, with my oldest friends sitting in on guitar and base, I delivered my beloved a righteous version of "Brick House."
My glory years have a soundtrack that is 98% funky stuff and James Brown has a lot to do with that. Take it to the bridge, JB.