James Brown always seemed like the ultimate man who invented himself. Yet even an artist as sui generis as Soul Brother No. 1 needed help to create the musical revolution that Brown unleashed in the 1960s.
Some of Brown’s most important musical support came from Eastern North Carolina, which is the essence of “Hey America!: Eastern North Carolina and the Birth of Funk,” on display at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh through February 2016. Elegantly arranged in a large display case in the main lobby, the exhibit’s artifacts include instruments played by horn man Maceo Parker and his drummer brother Melvin Parker, some of Brown’s own stage clothes and a poster for a 1967 show by one of the unsung heroes of Brown’s story, Nathaniel “Nat” Jones.
Jones, who died at age 74 last year, served as Brown’s bandleader from 1964-67, which was one of his most fruitful periods. Brown split the atom with 1965’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” presiding over the birth of a revolutionary new sound. As one of Brown’s key collaborators, Jones was instrumental in helping Brown strip soul down to its root rhythmic elements to produce funk. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and other crossover hits followed, breaking Brown out to a wide mainstream audience.
“Nat Jones’ passing last year and the 50-year anniversary of the Voting Rights Act were what inspired me to do this,” said Earl Ijames, the exhibit’s curator. “James Brown was arguably the most famous entertainment icon in history, but Nat Jones, Maceo Parker and others were very significant in helping define and bring him out. It was a transformation that happened during the civil rights movement, and it reflected his desire to be more socially impactful.”
Brown’s soul-to-funk metamorphosis was revolutionary, but Ijames’ exhibit actually lays it out as more of a gradual evolution. Before “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” funk was starting to emerge on “Grits & Soul,” a 1964 album that Jones helped to craft.
“When heard for the first time in 1964, ‘Grits & Soul’ was pretty radical,” said Ijames. “It sounded like it could be jazz, could be blues – but it was neither. Nat Jones put that B-flat chord to it, and the rhythm created funk as the sound James Brown called ‘The One.’ A new thing altogether. And then ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.’”
From a drop lick to funk
Even earlier than that, elements of funk were coalescing in Brown’s music on 1963’s “Live at the Apollo,” widely regarded as one of the greatest live albums ever. From 1962 to 1964, Brown’s Famous Flames band featured another North Carolina native, Wilson-born drummer Sam “The Man” Lathan.
A few days after the “Birth of Funk” exhibit opened, Lathan put in an appearance at the Museum of History to talk about his time playing drums behind Brown. In an animated style that alternately drew laughter and thoughtful silences from the crowd, the 85-year-old Lathan talked about the Jim Crow era of segregation, God, marriage and, of course, The Funk.
Describing what he called a “drop lick,” Lathan said he picked it up from jazz and show drummers at a young age. And it was a short step from that to funk, which Lathan called “a root that I played and did not know what I was playing.”
“The funk lick was like this, bop bom BOOM,” Lathan explained, drumming on his legs with his palms as he spoke. “That thing right here. I was playing it up here, bop bop bop, and James Brown wanted BOOM. James Brown, he had you play him. You had to keep an eye on him to follow. He also taught me to play the same thing every night, which is a technique you have to learn.”
Lathan spent two years with Brown’s Famous Flames before his wife gave him an ultimatum: Stay with James Brown or come home to your family. Lathan said Brown told him, “Success going up the ladder comes with roses, money, sickness, death, heartache and a whole lotta trouble.” Lathan gave two weeks’ notice and came home to Wilson.
But he didn’t quit music. Lathan joined bandleader Bill Myers’ long-lived R&B band the Monitors, with whom he still plays today. And all these years later, he still vividly recalls the figure Brown cut a half-century ago.
“James Brown could’ve been one of the most powerful men in America,” Lathan said. “He had four or five radio stations and a superstar TV show; that’s wire power. Control that and it’s money and power, and James Brown had that. He was a genius.”
See the exhibit
Where: N.C. Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh
When: Through Feb. 28, 2016
Museum hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
Details: 919-807-7900 or ncmuseumofhistory.org
Events at the museum in conjunction with the exhibit include a performance by Tyrone Jefferson and A Sign of the Times on Aug. 15 ($5 plus tax for non-members); and a free appearance by Melvin Parker on Feb. 11.