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James Brown's ‘Superbad’ and the double-voiced utterance1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 November 2008


JB was proof that black people were different. Rhythmically and tonally blacks had to be from somewhere else. Proof that Africa was really over there for those of us who had never seen it – it was in that voice. (Thulani Davis, quoted Guralnick 1986, pp. 242–3)

If there is any black man who symbolizes the vast differences between black and white cultural and aesthetic values, Soul Brother No. 1 (along with Ray Charles) is that man. (David Levering Lewis, quoted Guralnick 1986, p. 240)

Brown has never been a critics' favorite principally because of the apparent monotony of so many of his post-1965 recordings. But attacking him for being repetitive is like attacking Africans for being overly fond of drumming. Where the European listener may hear monotonous beating, the African distinguishes subtle polyrhythmic interplay, tonal distinctions among the various drums, the virtuosity of the master drummer, and so on. Similarly, Brown sounds to some European ears like so much harsh shrieking. (Robert Palmer 1980, p. 141)

During the 1960s James Brown single handedly demonstrated the possibilities for artistic and economic freedom that black music could provide if one constantly struggled against its limitations … He was driven by an enormous ambition and unrelenting ego, making him a living symbol of black self-determination … Motown may have been the sound of young America, but Brown was clearly the king of black America. (Nelson George 1988, pp. 98–9)

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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