In the fall of 1968, race relations in the United States were still touchy after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that April. James Brown, who had appealed for calm during the riots that followed King’s murder, found himself both praised and condemned for his response, and wanted to make a statement that would define his beliefs.
So he went to his bandleader, saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, and told him that he had an idea for a song. “He needed some music, and gave me a tempo and a feeling,” recalls Ellis. “I wrote the music, and he came up with these words, and got some children from the neighbourhood, which was in Southern California.”
The result, Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud, was a sensation, spending six weeks at the top of Billboard’s R&B singles chart, and climbing to No. 10 on the pop side. It was, in a sense, the musical equivalent of poem “I am - somebody,” which Jesse Jackson famously recited, and in concert, Brown would unite his fans by urging “everybody” to chant the “I’m proud!” part of the refrain.
And the song’s impact wasn’t limited to American audiences.
“In some villages - in West Africa, for instance - everything would stop at five o’clock, when they would play Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud on the radio, and blast it in the streets,” Ellis says. “It was very influential.”
That influence hasn’t lessened with time, either, which is why Ellis is on the road with a show called Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute to James Brown. “When Mr. Brown died, I felt that as a tribute to him we’d say, ‘We’re still black, and we’re still proud,’” Ellis says. “So that’s the name of the project.”
The African element stemmed in part because Ellis had been working with a number of African musicians, including the Senegalese singer and guitarist Cheikh Lo, and in part because Brown’s music had such a strong African connection. “He influenced many African musicians; James Brown was influenced by African music,” Ellis says. “So we thought, ‘Let’s bring the two together and see what happens.’”
Ellis, who replaced Nat Jones as Brown’s bandleader in 1967, was on hand for some of Brown’s biggest hits, including Cold Sweat, I Got the Feelin’ and Mother Popcorn, recordings that laid the foundation for funk music. But even though Brown’s band boasted such stellar players as saxophonist Maceo Parker (who joins Ellis on the current tour), guitarist Jimmy “Chank” Nolen and drummer Clyde Stubblefield, Ellis says the groove that resulted was not the product of collective improvisation, but of James Brown’s genius.
“The improvisation was designed by James Brown,” Ellis says. “He chose who he wanted to improvise, and mostly, it was Maceo. The guitar player had a little room, and I had a solo once in a while. But most of this stuff was designed by James Brown. He decided how a song would be formed, and what would take place within the song. If he felt comfortable with it, he would stretch it out, so he could grunt and do his dances and so forth.”
The band would watch Brown like hawks, because his concept of “conducting” depended on signalling changes through bits of body English. “The band was disciplined and we could interpret his movements,” Ellis says. “If you were on a section of a song, it wouldn’t change until he did a particular movement that signalled the change. So we would just stay there and roll on.”
A similar dynamic can be seen onstage in the musical Fela!, about Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Although Ellis hasn’t seen the show, he says the resemblance isn’t coincidental. “I know Fela’s music, and he got a lot of riffs from James Brown,” he says. “And James Brown was influenced by Fela. They influenced each other.”
Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute to James Brown will play at Koerner Hall in Toronto on Saturday, Nov. 26.