MARCH 1966 …James Brown hits London!
“I know there are a lot of soulful fans in this country,” James Brown told Record Mirror’s Dave Godin during his three-day, first ever UK visit. ”So I guess it’s just a matter of time before the others get the message.”
As late-’65 Top 30 success Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag and rising new single I Got You (I Feel Good) suggested, the word was getting out about soul’s most explosive performer. Now British fans would get to experience the James Brown show up close on a Ready Steady Go! TV special, and at his debut UK gig at north-east London’s Walthamstow Granada.
Brown, already a road-hardened entertainer of 10 years standing, had flown into Heathrow on Thursday March 10, to be greeted by press snappers and soul fans. Later that day, Melody Maker reported, Brown arrived an hour late at a welcome reception, posed for pictures, and then left to record I Got You for Top Of The Pops (this mysterious performance was never broadcast). The following day he filmed a truncated version of his show for the Ready Steady Go! live special at Associated Rediffusion’s Kingsway studio, with three ad breaks. Producer Vicki Wickham admitted that she and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg were nervous when the singer declined to rehearse, but that the soundcheck and other preparations were smooth.
Reactions to the broadcast, which like so much other vintage music TV gold was not preserved, differed. “He just couldn’t produce the sound,” RSG! presenter Cathy McGowan told BBC Radio 1’s Story Of Pop in 1974.
“It was terrible, I mean it was really awful… a disaster.” Other naysayers included the Daily Mirror, whose March 12 edition reported on angry viewers’ misunderstanding of JB’s routine for Please Please Please, where he appeared to suffer complete physical and emotional breakdown and was wrapped in a cape and led off-stage before repeatedly erupting into life again: “Pop Singer’s Mock ‘Fits’ Shock Viewers” ran the headline. Writing in 1975, late soul scholar Cliff White spoke for many fans when he retorted that James “was quite magnificent [on RSG! and] stirred reactions that had lain dormant since the heyday of rock’n’roll… judging by the hysterical backlash you’d have thought he was some kind of revolutionary, bent on smashing the status quo. In a way, you’d have been right.”
Next stop was Walthamstow on March 12, with shows at 6.30pm and 9pm, support from Doris Troy, and attendees including Dusty Springfield, Charlie Watts, Eddy Grant and the Love Affair’s Steve Ellis. Peter Jones of Record Mirror reviewed the second performance, listing songs including Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Prisoner Of Love, I Got You, Night Train, The Last Time and Please Please Please, and noting the contributions of the allsinging and dancing accompanists The Famous Flames. He saved his hyperbole for Brown’s energetic performance, writing, “His leg movements used up about as much energy as a featherweight in a 15-round boxing match… he screeched, howled, yelled, hollered, ranted, raved and occasionally sang.”
Again, the show went undocumented. A furnace-like live performance of Brown and band filmed that June 25, in Jackson, Mississippi as part of the civil rights action the March Against Fear gives a flavour of what might have gone down at these lost UK shows. There are meaty grooves, tight horns and percussive screams and pleading from an
“I scream in the right key! It makes a difference.” JAMES BROWN
ultra-dynamic, showbiz-cognisant frontman: the version of new single It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World is particularly raw-nerved, while the Please Please Please cape routine is fully enjoyed. It’s little wonder that RSG! viewers unused to such strong meat were so alarmed.
There was another date at the Brixton Granada on March 13, with Barbara Lewis supporting. A seriously impressed Chris Welch from Melody Maker conducted an interview in the dressing room as JB’s coiffeur put curlers in his hair. “It’s a fusion and a feeling,” said the singer, declaring that his music was immune to categorisation. “I scream in the right key! It makes a difference… in the show we all know each other very well and what we’re doing. I can just move a muscle in my body and it means a chord.” He also discussed racial discrimination in America (“it’s like being buried”) and British groups, concluding, “My favourite band is James Brown.”
JB left immediately to play a midnight show at the Olympia in Paris on March 14, an unstoppable force for another 40 years. Remembering that first visit to Britain, Cliff White later quoted a letter from an unnamed friend describing the Walthamstow show. “I had the pocket ripped from my jacket and was hurled bodily along the stage, bouncing on my arse (most painful) while sporadic fighting broke out between police, ambulance corps and some of the crowd,” wrote the anonymous fan. “By far the greatest performance I’ve ever seen.”