What better way to celebrate Labor Day than to mention the hardest working man in show business. For a time he was everywhere it seemed during the ’60s, touring small towns with his band while masterminding his shows, costume designs and writing songs. He had developed the title hardest working man sometime during the ’70s when he was building the core of his formidable legacy.
For those of us who grew up during the ’70s and ’80s, we may have taken for granted the opportunity to see and hear some of the great legends of rock and roll evolve. While I was a kid much of what I remember of James Brown’s music was experienced through Soul Train appearances, film roles and the occasional scratchy 45.
By my pre-teen years that same music found new life as samples for the emerging rap music scene. In all those proceeding years James Brown himself seemed muted. His style of raw funk had long fallen out of favor as disco had come and went with Brown sitting mostly on the sidelines (with a few notable exceptions).
As the ’80s progressed Brown’s legendary dance and funk groves continued their half-life as samples, exposing a new generation to his explosive funk. A collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa,”Unity” announced his return to the studio in 1984. Then the tributes became genuine interest as Brown would appear in a string of films (as himself) and on the popular TV show Miami Vice. In one of his film appearances in Rocky IV , he also made major contributions to the soundtrack. His electrifying 5 minute performance of “Living In America” was one of the highlights of the film. The song became his first top 40 pop hit for nearly a decade when it reached #4 in 1985.
The album that followed, Gravity was a chance for Brown to show that he was just as relevant to popular culture as a maker of new music as he was as the source of samples. There was certainly enough musical muscle to make it possible. Gravity would be produced by Dan Hartman, who also played multiple instruments during the recording. His influence lent the album a strange mix of Browns classic signature grunts and screams with a slick contemporary style production.
That contemporary sound came courtesy of an all-star cast gave the album an infusion of rock, blues and even a touch of tango. With Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitars, Steve Winwood on synthesisers and backing vocals by Alison Moyet, Brown was sounding as fresh as ever, or as possible under the circumstances. He was a legend after all and his brand of vintage funk still had its fans. To many Brown’s music was all about looking back and Gravity was no exception.
Still, it was James Brown trying to catch up to the now (or then). In the video for “Gravity”, his self-made attire might have been cool in 1973, but by 1986 was certainly out of style. The big blonde haired backup singers looked as they were part of a drag troupe, fueling the many parodies of Brown that were very popular at the time.
The fact that he would spell out G-R-A-V-I-T-Y was always a point of humor for me, underlining the GED-like simplicity of his songs. With VH-1 and MTV showing videos for both “Living In America” and the title song, Brown was back in the public consciousness again, this time without any help from Eddie Murphy or Saturday Night Live.
There were other songs like the tango flavored “How Do You Stop” that made the top 10 R&B chart, capping a string of three successful singles. Gravity would be the first in a series of moderately successful albums released during the next few years. By the turn of the century, Brown’s audience for his new recordings would gradually get smaller as The Godfather of Soul would slide back into legendary mode.