James Brown Blows Away the Rolling Stones in 18 Electric Minutes (1964)

On a recent road trip through the Deep South, I made a pilgrimage to several sacred shrines of American music, including obligatory stops in Memphis at the garish Graceland and unassuming Sun Studios. But the highlight of the tour had to be that city’s Stax Museum of American Soul Music (“nothing against the Louvre, but you can’t dance to Da Vinci”). Housed in a re-creation of the original Stax Records, the museum mainly consists of aisles of glass cases, in which sit instruments, costumes, and other memorabilia from artists like Booker T. and the MGs, Sam & Dave, The Staples Singers, and Isaac Hayes. One particular relic caught my attention for its radiating aura of authenticity—a battered first pressing of James Brown’s 1956 “Please, Please, Please,” the song that built the house of Brown and his backing singer/dancers the Famous Flames—a song, wrote Philip Gourevich, that “doesn’t tell a story so much as express a condition.”

“Please, Please, Please” was not a Stax release, but the museum rightly claims it as a seminal “precursor to soul.” Brown bequeathed to sixties soul much more than his over-the-top impassioned delivery—he brought to increasingly kinetic R&B music a theatricality and showmanship that dozens of artists would strive to emulate. But no group could work a stage like Brown and his band, with their machine-like precision breakdowns and elaborate dance routines. And while it seems like Chadwick Boseman does an admirable impression of the Godfather of Soul in the upcoming Brown biopic Get on Up, there’s no substitute for the real thing, nor will there ever be another. By 1964, Brown and the Flames had worked for almost a decade to hone their act, especially the centerpiece rendition of “Please, Please, Please.” And in the ’64 performance above at the T.A.M.I.—or Teenage Awards Music International—at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, you can see Brown and crew for the first time do the so-called “cape act” (around 7:50) during that signature number. David Remnick describes it in his New Yorker piece on this performance:

…in the midst of his own self-induced hysteria, his fit of longing and desire, he drops to his knees, seemingly unable to go on any longer, at the point of collapse, or worse. His backup singers, the Flames, move near, tenderly, as if to revive him, and an offstage aide, Danny Ray, comes on, draping a cape over the great man’s shoulders. Over and over again, Brown recovers, throws off the cape, defies his near-death collapse, goes back into the song, back into the dance, this absolute abandonment to passion.

It’s an act Brown distilled from both charismatic Baptist church services and professional wrestling, and it’s a hell of a performance, one he pulled out, with all his other shimmying, strutting, moonwalking stops, in order to best the night’s lineup of big names like the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, and the Rolling Stones, who had the misfortune of having to follow Brown’s act. Keith Richards later called it the biggest mistake of their career. You can see why. Though the Stones put on a decent show (below), next to Brown and the Flames, writes Remnick, they looked bland and compromising—“Unitarians making nice.”

via The New Yorker

Related Content:

Every Appearance James Brown Ever Made On Soul Train. So Nice, So Nice!

James Brown Saves Boston After MLK’s Assassination, Calls for Peace Across America (1968)

James Brown Gives You Dancing Lessons: From The Funky Chicken to The Boogaloo

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness



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by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

  • Andre

    Everyone knew his name where I grew up in the Philly projects. But few got to see him. All I can say is, he earned every accolade ever given him. Before Lebron became the King of basketball, James was and is the King of soul.

  • samm

    Check out Michelle Obama in the crowd with 2:00 remaining in the video. She doesn’t seem so impressed.

  • Dee Brown

    I saw Little Richard do the “cape act” around 1953/4 in San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium. He was part of a Rhythm and Blues Review…many acts such as Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon. Don’t know if Richard started it but James definitely adopted it as his own, refined it, and made it iconic.

  • Joly MacFie

    It never struck me before, but you can see James Chance doing his own wacky version of the cape act at the end of this video http://youtu.be/KhRi2EtCVZY

  • simone gad

    wish i had seen this live. incredible amazing performance. very moving. i did see a beautiful young woman in a black coat towards the end watching-didn’t know it was michelle obama. james brown-a brilliantly talented entertainer-king of soul-ahead of his time. i’m also a big marvin gaye fan. love them both. so glad i was able to watch this wonderful clip.

  • Mariapia

    Great James Brown! Amazing!

  • Pete Shanks

    I actually disagree. I think what we see here is the true emergence of the Stones (who hadn’t even recorded Satisfaction yet) as charismatic stars. Despite Keith’s opinion, what I see is Brown at his theatrical best (which is fabulous), but the Stones refusing to back down — Keith in particular stamping and rocking, and dragging the band along with him, and the final effect is a kind of brash who-cares streetwise no-bull rock’n’roll. Historically, of course, Jagger then proceeded to work bits of Brown’s act into his own, and the Stones became their own kind of theater. But this is the moment when they made it. Much as I love him, I think they made James Brown look just a wee bit out of date.

  • John Mize

    I’d always heard that James Brown blew away the Rolling Stones, but that isn’t what I see here. I don’t think Jagger and company were intimidated at all. Maybe they were just too young to notice or care.

  • Connor McKinnon

    If you think the Stones held a candle to this James Brown performance you’ve got to be deaf, dumb and blind. And the thought of James Brown looking “out of date” in 1964 is laughable. Get a clue.

  • Lorne Brown

    For those of you who are falling for the Michelle Obama “sighting” gag, please remember that this is 1964 and Mrs. Obama would be a toddler, at best, at this time.

    Also, with respect to the Stones holding their own or making James Brown look anachronistic, you Rolling Stone fans are trying too hard. Just accept the fact that James was a much more dynamic performer. Even the Stones themselves were fully aware of this. They have even told us so, several different times. That is not a knock on the Stones. Mick was clearly influenced by what he’d just seen James do as he appears to be emmulating his moves in the first song. That doesn’t last very long, however. The Stones had nothing to be ashamed of, however. They simply didn’t have the same theatrical chops as James in 1964.

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