Soul Train History Books: The Godfather of Soul Brings Soul Power to the Soul Train Stage

In the early seventies, James Brown, “the Godfather of Soul”, was a giant in the music and entertainment industry. His music made people dance, think, and, in his words, “feel good.” His concerts were sellouts wherever he played. So when he performed on Soul Train, fans and television viewers were glued to their TV sets.

Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius has said that when big-name artists such as James Brown agreed to do his show, it gave Soul Train the credibility he was looking for.

Brown appeared a number of times on Soul Train, whether it was to perform, judge a dance contest, or rap with Don Cornelius. Moreover, artists from his entourage–including Fred Wesley & The JBs, Maceo & the Macks, and Lyn Collins–also made separate appearances on Soul Train between 1972 and 1975.

Members of the Soul Train Gang recalled to their excitement when Brown walked into the studio. To have the “hardest working man in show business” within a few feet from them was a thrill. They noted that Brown was very approachable. They were able to chat with him, take pictures with him, and have autographs signed by him.

Soul Train dancer Jimmy “Scoo B Doo” Foster recalled, “James Brown was one of the few artists who came to Soul Train who was really interested in us dancers. He even sat down and ate with us and helped himself to some of that KFC.” (Laughs) He also hired several of us dancers to work with him at the Forum in Los Angeles. I remember in his dressing room he asked us questions about locking. He was definitely from that era of working his way from the bottom to the top.”

Soul Train dancer Sharon Hill Wood stated, “When James Brown was on stage, he gave 100 percent plus from his soul. He seemed like he absolutely loved what he does. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to meet him.”

“James Brown was one of the few artists who Soul Train had to do the entire show,” JBs member Fred Wesley said. “We were all very well prepared to do the show. We really enjoyed ourselves doing Soul Train.” 

JBs member Fred Thomas said, “Doing Soul Train was very exciting. It was such a big thing at the time.”

When Brown first appeared on Soul Train on a December 1972 taping, he brought along his band Fred Wesley & the JBs along with Lyn Collins, who had performed her classic hit “Think (About It)” on the show at the previous month’s taping.  Brown and his JBs performed what seemed like a discography of Brown’s classic hits including “Get on The Good Foot”, “Make It Funky”, “Soul Power”, “Try Me”, “Cold Sweat”, “Hot Pants”, and “Sex Machine.” What made these performances really stand out was that they were all done live. Artists rarely performed live on Soul Train, but Brown was one of the few exceptions. Cornelius, his staff, and the Soul Train Gang got to see a master performer and his band at work up close, to see showmanship and live musicianship in action. Whereas many people paid money and waited in long lines to see Brown’s amazing act on concert stages, the Soul Train Gang was able to see art at its finest in Metromedia Studios for free.

One of the highlights of Brown’s first appearance on Soul Train was his performance of his number one soul hit from 1970 “Super Bad”, in which popular Soul Train Gang member Damita Jo Freeman joined him on stage to dance. Freeman–who had previously performed three times with soul music legend Joe Tex on Soul Train–was a fireball of energy, vibrating, roboting, free-styling, and doing her famous trademark step in which she kicked her leg way up. Brown looked on enthusiastically at Freeman’s kinetic dance moves as she gave Soul Brother Number One some friendly competition in dance.

Brown, always focused on seeing that young people get a quality education, stated to Cornelius that he was going to do a tour of black colleges “teaching them to elevate the level of knowledge so that students can compete with anyone.”

During the Question & Answer segment, a dancer asked Brown what his astrological sign was. He replied, “Taurus”, which received many “Right Ons!” from members of the Soul Train Gang. A  dancer also asked him how he felt his endorsement of Richard Nixon’s re-election for president would benefit black people, to which Brown replied that he did so not only to help blacks but to help others because “a country cannot survive unless everyone is making it.”

Brown received quite a backlash from black people for endorsing Nixon at the time. Attendance at some of his concerts was low and some fans hung up posters at the arenas he played at referring to him and Sammy Davis, Jr., who was photographed hugging President Nixon, as “sellouts.” However, as Brown stated, his purpose in doing so was to be in a position to help other black people.

Brown ended his first appearance on Soul Train by doing his first big hit “Please, Please, Please”, and then perhaps the most important record in soul music history, “Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud.” The performance ended with many members of the Soul Train Gang climbing up on the stage dancing enthusiastically around a likewise enthusiastic Brown. Right before the song ended, Brown turned around and raised his hand in the air giving the black power salute as Soul Train Gang dancers did the same. It was one of the most powerful and most important performances not only in Soul Train’s history but in entertainment history as well.

Brown remained on the set for the second taping of that day (which featured guests The Four Tops and Otis Clay) to judge a dance contest by the Soul Train Gang. Brown remarked how proud he was to do Soul Train and how important it was in his career. At the same taping, his son, Teddy Brown, appeared to do a brief interview, telling Cornelius how he was going to school to learn law and that he was leaving “dance and entertainment with my father.” Sadly, Teddy Brown lost his life in June 1973 in a tragic car accident. When a Soul Train special entitled “The Best of Soul Train” aired on August 18, 1973, a clip of this interview with Cornelius, Brown and his son Teddy was shown in tribute to Teddy.

James Brown and Don Cornelius selected Damita Jo Freeman and Jimmy “Scoo B Doo” Foster as the dance contest winners. Coming in second were Patricia Davis and Gary Keys. In third place were Connie Blackino and Lamont Peterson.

Brown appeared a third time on Soul Train in March 1973 to receive a special proclamation from Don Cornelius and the Soul Train Gang which read, “In tribute to James Brown to being the number one performer in soul music, we bestow upon you the title Godfather of Soul.” Brown again remarked how proud he was to do Soul Train and how important it was in his career, as well as discussing his soundtrack for the motion picture Black Caesar starring Fred Williamson. The Soul Train Gang danced to one of the soundtrack’s cuts, “The Boss”, which is among the standouts of the soundtrack.

Brown returned to Soul Train in 1974 with his JBs, as well as his featured backup singer Martha High and backup dancers Shades of Soul, Lyn Collins and Sweet Charles Sherrell. Collins did her latest single “Rock Me Again & Again & Again”, and Sherrell did his slow remake of Sam & Dave’s classic “Soul Man.”  Brown also sported a new look, having grown a moustache as he continued to “lay some more soul and funk” on the Soul Train Gang.

When Don Cornelius interviewed Brown at the top of the show, he jokingly said one of Cornelius’ familiar catch phrases, “You can bet your last money on that.” Cornelius countered by singing a line of Brown’s hit “My Thang.” Afterwards, Brown conducted his JBs in playing a medley of “All For One”, a funky instrumental from Brown’s not yet released Reality album, and “Damn Right I’m Somebody” from the JBs current album.

The Best of Soul Train, Vol. 1
Buy The Best of Soul Train on iTunes

Again, Brown did a number of his hits including “Cold Sweat”, “I Can’t Stand Myself” (actually, this version was a remake of that 1967 hit entitled “I Can’t Stand It ‘76” from his Hell album), “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, and his number one smash of 1974 “The Payback”, which really got the Soul Train Gang hyped up. Of note was when Brown extended the song’s “da-di-da-da” chorus even longer than was on record, causing Soul Train dancer Little Joe Chism and others to blow their whistles in excitement.

During an interview Cornelius asked what advice would he give for young people, to which Brown replied, “Get yourself together because before you can get anything else together, you’ve got to get me, I, yourself together.” Cornelius also asked Brown about the violence that was running rampant among blacks in inner cities. “All the things that people died for like Dr. King and all the marches were in vain if black people are going to kill each other,” Brown answered.

A 19 year old named Al Sharpton, who was then leader of the National Youth Movement, presented Brown with a “black record” (instead of the recording industry’s standard gold record) for his million seller “The Payback” because the record stated many of the things young black people have tried to say but could not musically express. “’The Payback’ is the theme of Young Black America in 1974”, Sharpton said, to which the Soul Train Gang thunderously applauded.  Brown had befriended Sharpton earlier in the summer of 1974 and had taken him along with him to this Soul Train taping. Brown was more than a friend, but a father figure to Sharpton up until Brown’s death in 2006.

Brown then sang the title tune to his latest album Hell and was joined in performance by his little daughter Deanna Brown, who showed off her dancing skills. Father and daughter looked cute together dressed in matching white outfits with blue trim.

Cornelius later interviewed Curtis Gibson, the designer of all the outfits Brown and his entourage wore; Gibson had also designed outfits for the Moments, the Delfonics, and the Independents, as well as Eddie Kendricks. Brown returned to perform one of his earlier hits “Try Me” (in a terrific black leather outfit with studs and a denim kangol with his initials embroidered in studs on the cap’s brim), which was “bluesier” than the original, adding a slower, more seductive pace by the JBs with a stunning, sensual background vocal by Martha High. Brown then tore into his new single “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” (which was played earlier in the show before a station break).  It became his third number one soul hit of 1974 that October. He closed out the show with his number hit from that summer, “My Thang.” As he left the stage, his emcee Danny Ray got on the microphone and yelled, “What a show! The Godfather of Soul, James Brown!” as Brown danced along with members of the Soul Train Gang.

Brown last appeared on Soul Train in early 1975, as he performed blues numbers with blues legends Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King. It was a classic performance.

Brown ruled the Soul charts in 1974 with his number one Payback album, his number two Hell album (kept out of the top spot by Stevie Wonder’s classic Fulfillingness First Finale), along with his three number one soul singles “The Payback”, “My Thang”, and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” Ironically, a year later a form of music Brown helped to create but one he had no huge hits with during its heyday took over big time on radio airwaves and clubs around the country: Disco. Brown still recorded albums regularly during the disco period, but his music was not heavily played on radio stations or in discos. His 1979 album The Original Disco Man (which included his classic hit “It’s Too Funky In Here”) was his way of letting people know who invented disco–or as it is more commonly known “dance music”–in the first place. Brown was also helping to keep funk music alive, which nearly got lost in the shuffle due to disco.

Without a doubt, Brown left his indelible mark not just in soul music, but in music and the entertainment industry as a whole. No other program in television history, not even Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”, gave Brown and his entourage a platform to showcase the totality of their craft the way Soul Train did. Indeed, Brown’s legendary performances on Soul Train are a time capsule of raw talent, genius, excellence, and the uninhibited soul power of the hardest working man in show business.

Check out the dance sequence featuring Damita Jo Freeman during James Brown’s “Super Bad” performance

–Stephen McMillian

As well as being a journalist, Stephen McMillian is also developing some creative projects in the entertainment industry.

 

 

 

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