Rock and Roll Heaven IV: The Language of Soul

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by Ed Davis on July 15, 2014

(The following continues my rock and roll coming of age in southern West Virginia in the 1960s. In September, 2014, my novel The Psalms of Israel Jones, set inside the world of professional rock, will be published by West Virginia University Press.) 

“I’d lick the sweat off James Brown’s balls.”

The Shot Heard ‘Round Town…

The above declaration about a famous singer’s genitals was made before witnesses in the late spring of 1967 by a Hamdenite who will remain unnamed, shortly after the concert immortalized in this poster. It set off a furor that led to a schism in Hamden’s Church of Lost Souls and Holy Rockers, where I spent all of my free time. But this meditation on language and culture will be more about peace than about war, more about love than hate. And while it isn’t about writing, exactly—my usual topic—it is about language. And hero worship and the spirit of art.

The Approaching Flames

Like all teenagers, my fellow Hamdenites and I were products of our culture. We may not have had today’s social media (I didn’t even have a telephone), but we had radio, TV and jukeboxes—plus, we saw the occasional live concert, sometimes life changing, like the one hyped above. Herman’s Hermits did play in Bluefield about the time “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” came out, but they didn’t even start a brush fire compared to the inferno unleashed later on that year by the Godfather of Soul.

“You Say You Want a Revolution?”

After “the hardest working man in show business” played a packed Bluefield Auditorium with his 18-piece band The Flames on Friday, April 14, 1967, Hamden’s was never the same. Battle lines were drawn as we again fought the Revolution, Brits against Patriots. The incendiary remark above was the shot heard ‘round the world—at least my world of rock and roll loyalists.

That such a comment as the one quoted above was made in the segregated, homophobic bastion of southern West Virginia in which I was raised shows the tornado speed of change in the tumultuous sixties. On the surface the remark just shows one guy’s obsession (maybe unhealthy) with his musical hero, but I think he managed to say a whole lot more, if unconsciously, about sexuality, race and the power of art to leap boundaries.

Briefest History of Rock

By the sixties, Elvis, the Stones and even the Beatles had co-opted (okay, stolen) black music and repackaged it into something white audiences could handle (de-sexed, or at least toned way down). Little Richard was too fruity, Ray Charles too country, Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson too pop, and the girl groups too bubble-gum for the likes of the working-class Hamden’s crowd. And let’s face it:  if you weren’t about thirteen (as I was when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan) and female (all that screaming), you had to sneer at those collarless suits and Cuban-heeled boots and look for something else with a lot more hoochy-coochy and a lot less cutesy:  drama, showmanship . . . soul, man.

James-Brown_1973And who better to deliver it than a black ex-con and former gospel singer with a voice that sounded like he’d been working on the chain gang in a Georgia swamp while wrestling alligators? Joyous pain is what I hear now in the late, great J.B.’s legendary voice. “Please Please Please” gave James and the Flames their first big hit in the late fifties, but 1965’s release of “Papa’s Got A Brand-New Bag” and “I Feel Good” were stunning rebukes to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Brown’s songs soared up the R & B then top 10 pop charts, paving the way for other hits like “This Is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, “as Brown became second only to Elvis in hit records even before he and the Flames ignited Bluefield.

Shock Therapy

Several Hamdenites were waiting outside the door of the Bluefield Auditorium before the concert started. My friend and old Red Coats/Kentucky Gentlemen guitarist Tony Cline, looking back forty years later in a 2007 Bluefield Daily Telegraph article, said, “The band let us come in and listen to their rehearsal . . . [They were] great, and during the show, Bobby Byrd got everything going for when James Brown came on. . . . He put on a great concert when he was here.”

Talk about understatement! What Tony fails to capture is the anointing, the laying on of hands and altar call that his comrades if not he himself must’ve experienced that fateful night to prompt the shocking pronouncement with which I began. I’d once seen Brown perform in a rock movie. After exertions that would’ve given Bruce Springsteen a hernia, the singer pretends to collapse mid-scream and be led off by backup singers who lay a boxer’s robe across his shoulder. But before he reaches the wings, Brown heaves off his mantle and lurches back to the mic to shriek one more verse, one more chorus, deliver one more salvo of pleasurable pain. Brown’s dance moves—including incredibly crisp spins, turns and splits—even give the great Michael Jackson worthy competition.

Seeing Brown’s show live must’ve been like electro-shock therapy. Hamden’s congregation was ablaze by the time I arrived the day following the concert. The outrageous remark about the singer’s scrotum had by that time been unalterably uttered, grossing out as many as it galvanized, and the war was on. For months afterward—indeed, until I abandoned Hamden’s for Concord College—there were plenty of insults passed between the Disciples of Soul and the Hardcore Anglophiles. But no more memorable verbal displays of adoration than that first one.

The Pleasure of Pain

But back to language. There are certainly a lot of other ways to make your devotion to a hero known—why were the words chosen so naked, so erotic, so . . . queer? (We didn’t say gay then.) The easy answer is that Brown’s music was so sexual—even before “Cold Sweat”—but for a red-blooded, apparently straight West Virginian to make such a claim in public!? As strange as it sounds even to me now, I don’t recall that anyone considered the speaker homosexual, or the remark particularly sexual (outrageous, yes). Maybe it was because Brown was, first and foremost, a musician, and so was the speaker.

I think the remark had more to do with race than sex.

Not only was the claim “I’d lick the sweat . . . ” made about another man, but a black man, during a time in which racial lines were shifting fast. The changing culture we were being exposed to through music was moving us beyond the limits of our segregated and often racist upbringing; I’d like to believe that the statement was a full recognition of J.B.’s humanity, something like:  I love this guy, and the joy he gives me makes me want to make love to his pain that is so much greater than that of an entitled white man.

The Gift

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that everyone who heard that outrageous declaration of love and admiration has remembered it to this day. But while my colleague was talking very much about an extraordinary musician every bit as unique as John Lennon or Elvis Presley, he leaped the racial and sexual divide to say something about the humanity of the other. That’s a real gift of art and spirituality, showing a budding devotion to something bigger than oneself, something felt by all the music men at Hamden’s.

At least that’s my take on it today, making me wish that I could personally thank the Hamdenite who had the balls to say what many felt; and thank Brown for singing it.

Photo of James Brown by Heinrich Klaffs [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Roger Cozart July 16, 2014 at 3:20 am

Being a former Hamdenite, I can vouch for the accuracy of this series of well written blogs. Thanks for sharing.

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Bill Vernon July 17, 2014 at 12:32 am

On your “…Language of Soul”: Beautiful description and account of the James Brown concert in Bluefield, which is where our friend Tom Turnip Smith tried out for a major league baseball team just a few years earlier. Ed, you had me going all the way up to your paraphrase, when you said, “I’d like to believe that the statement was a full recognition of J.B.’s humanity, something like: I love this guy, and the joy he gives me makes me want to make love to his pain that is so much greater than that of an entitled white man.” The standard English, middle class white paraphrase got me laughing because of its euphemistic and dried-out-raisin way of expressing, or naming but not expressing, the emotions involved. Okay, yes, the meaning could be what you say. An interpretation occurring to me is that Brown’s screaming, over-the-top collapsing, sweat-inducing theatrics unleashed your white friend from the bonds of privilege and middle class morality so that he responded to Brown’s exaggerated performance with one of his own, verbally twisted though it may have been. In other words, he said, “God damn, I wish I could do that (or something like it)!”

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