Al Green wrote the most glorious song in the world.
Love and Happiness is the beautiful insanity of cherry blossoms. Love and Happiness is poetry, fear, hope, weakness, strength, violins and big fat funk beats. I have a version of it on a CD, Al Green’s Greatest Hits, an incredible release by Motown Records.
On the booklet that came with the CD is the Motown Records logo. The logo features a map, and on the bottom part of the map, leading south out of Detroit, is a highway called I-75. My daughter and I are now northbound on I-75. We’re going to a concert: James Brown.
The show starts with Funky Good Time and the crowd is a smiling big fat body, clapping and shaking. James Brown is a wildfire of greatness. My daughter’s on my shoulders waving her arms. Without missing a beat, James Brown pulls her up onto the stage. The two of them boogie around and the crowd goes even wilder. The song finally ends and my daughter skips to the side of the stage. She waves at me, her happy eyes as big as saucers. James jumps into Say It Loud- I’m Black and Proud. Detroit chants it right back.
Funky, funky minutes pass by. Then, in the midst of Please, Please, Please, James Brown collapses! A man rushes onstage and covers Mr. Brown with a blanket! My daughter’s hand freezes over her mouth. James is unconscious. The troubled band slows down, slows way down… what to do, what to do? Fear and worry fill the summer air. People gasp. You can hear the cars on the highway and the quiet of the neighborhood. James is a lifeless crumpled heap.
Then, like secretive doctors, the guys in the horn section nod at each other. They start radiating whispery, jazzy notes of soul. The trumpet sounds like a light house, the drummers sound like waves. The backup singers are a sunrise.
His hand twitches!
The angels with guitars slowly play bittersweet riffs, like medicine, and the horn section is now the grace of God and… yes! Yes! YES! James is given the gift of life! The drums become heartbeats and the band starts pumpin’ and James is up and the blanket’s a robe! The funky medicine gets stronger! The robe’s a cape! James Brown kicks the mike stand! The stand lands in his outstretched hand! The band drops into the biggest baddest groove in the universe and Mr. Brown picks up where he left off! He gets his good foot up... homework gettin' done! OUTTA SIGHT! Men stare and dance and the women whirl like they’re in a trance. Detroit sheds tears of joy and James takes us even higher. He lets the groove get there, get there, get there one more time and then, with a sideways stuntman acrobat ballet body snap, he stops the world on a dime…and then THE scream from THE GODFATHER, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh…. 1, 2, 3, 4!” I Feel Good! Bigger than life, all three drummers pullin' out the joints! My daughter’s up there, smiling and spinning.
That was the movie I played in my head as we drove up I-75.
Al Green’s Greatest Hits was the first CD I ever bought and James Brown Live at the Apollo was the second.
Yes, CDs in Japan were expensive but James Brown is James Brown and Al Green is Al Green. My wife and I needed some soul music. We were living in Tokyo and Tokyo can be soulless. Those CDs were better than gold. Now, 13 years later, I am bringing our daughter to see James Brown.
Even if I had a James Brown CD in the car, I wouldn’t play it. She’s happy with whatever’s on the radio. She knows James Brown like she knows Richard Nixon.
We start walking across the dusty parking lot outside the Michigan State Fair. The empty Detroit skyline is big on the horizon. I sense, but cannot see, the empty car factories. The little house that was the home of Motown Records is somewhere near.
Five bucks and we’re in. She gets her face painted. We get tossed around on octopus rides with lots of little flashing light bulbs and heavy metal music. Hot dogs, blue ribbon pigs and prizewinning carrot cakes: this is the American Midwest.
I’m nicely surprised to discover that Little Richard is also on the bill. Little Richard talks and sings and talks some more. We roll our eyes when he starts his second encore. Little Richard talks a lot. I prepare myself for two possibilities: the first is like the movie I imagined coming up I-75. The second is a collision of boredom, hypothermia, claustrophobia, cotton candy-fueled adolescent bad temper, whines and crying.
Little Richard finally waves good night. We work our way closer to the stage. We wait. She yawns and looks cold. We wait some more.
Finally a large group of beautifully dressed people come on stage- the Soul Generals and the Bittersweets. They play snippets of JB classics and the announcer, Danny Ray, starts building excitement. Lights flash! “Star Time!” James Brown marches out, smiling but serious, with perfect hair and mirror shoes.
Boom! Make It Funky begins. The crowd goes wild. The song ends and James starts talking to Motown like he’s catching up with an old friend. He becomes wistful, sounding like a concerned favorite uncle as he describes “all the good times and the eras full of bad nothing…You gotta do it for yourselves you know.” He kicks into Living in America. She’s tired, but my daughter sings along. Is she enjoying this? The song ends. Everything becomes quiet.
James steps back from the mike! An instrumental? A man who had been singing backup smoothly steps up to the mike. James barely moves his hand: the band gets ready. James silently mouths 3-2-1 and then… a magical guitar riff floods my soul….
“We’re goin’ up front,” I tell my daughter as I lift her onto my shoulders, “and then we’re goin’ home.”
James Brown’s band is playing Love and Happiness. James is grooving slowly in his golden suit. He sees my daughter on my shoulders. His smile brightens even more and, for a moment--for one sweet moment, we are all in a groove.