The Rant 1328 

Frankie Valli and James Brown Hit the Big Screen

There are a couple of new music-related movies in release, one of which I've seen and the other I intend to. The film version of 

Jersey Boys is going to have to go a long way to match the brilliance of the the play,

and its cast that came to the Orpheum in 2010. So we put that one off for a bit. But I was lucky enough to see the new

James Brown biographical film Get On Up, and without stepping on the toes of the Flyer's film critic, may I just say - "GOOD GAWD!"

Readers of these posts know that Christmas in my house is also James Brown Memorial Day, when we put fresh batteries in the Walgreens dancing James Brown animatron and listen to him sing "I Feel Good." In Get On Up, Chadwick Boseman as James Brown was so incredible, he reminded me of the first time I saw the real James Brown at the North Hall of the old Ellis Auditorium in 1964.

click to enlarge James Brown - ELEFTHERIOS DAMIANIDIS | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Eleftherios Damianidis | Dreamstime.com
  • James Brown

I had previously purchased the album James Brown: Live at the Apollo, and when I put it on the turntable, my head exploded. You can imagine my anticipation in seeing him live. I had good seats up front and was among the few Caucasoids in attendance. In the Jim Crow south, it was exhilarating to see an African-American entertainer perform for an all-black audience, and what made James Brown unique was his uncompromising blackness. Whenever someone says to me in reference to the bad old days, "I was the only white face in the place," I like to reply, "That's funny, I didn't see you there."

The opening acts were done, the house lights went down, and the announcer said, "Are you ready for star time?" The crowd screamed in response. The words "Here he is, the hardest working man in show business: James Brown and the Famous Flames," had barely left his mouth when I was slammed to the floor by what felt like a grand piano landing on my back. The audience was screaming, I was on all fours, feeling for my glasses on the grimy floor, and a woman weighing at least 300 pounds was looming over me saying, "I'm sorry, honey."

In her enthusiasm for "Mr. Dynamite," she had leaped up and fallen on top of me, knocking me to my knees. She helped me up and was apologetic as I tried to gather myself. Later in the evening, she became my dance partner. I saw the Apollo LP performed in its entirety, including a whip-sharp band that never stopped and the signature "cape" routine, where James made at least seven returns to the microphone, drenched with sweat.

When the band broke into "Night Train," the crowd went berserk until the Flames and James finally danced into the night and the lights came on. I looked around, and thousands of people were still sitting stunned in their seats, exhausted like me. It was the best show I have ever seen. I never got over it. He must have had the same effect on a lot of guys like me, because after appearing in Knoxville the following year, suddenly every white college boy in the south was trying to slide across the dance floor on one leg.

The last time I saw Brown perform was at the opening of the Hard Rock Cafe in Dallas in 1986. The place was jammed when my old compadre and Hard Rock founder Isaac Tigrett grabbed my arm and said, "Come with me." I was sidetracked for two seconds saying hello to some friends and saw Isaac disappear between two swinging doors. When I caught up, a beefy security guard stopped me. Despite all my protestations and heavy name-dropping, I realized this guy was not going to allow me to pass, so I made my way up to a spiral-staircase leading to the second floor, then stepped carelessly and broke my foot.

Hours later, when I was seated on the patio with my leg elevated, Isaac reappeared and said, "Where were you?" When I began to explain, he interrupted me with a laugh and said, "You just missed getting high with James Brown." Which is the perfect segue into my next fable concerning Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, those "Jersey Boys."

In my waning college years in Knoxville, when the football team still wore leather helmets, I was in a psychedelic/country/soul band called Rich Mountain Tower. Our manager was bringing some local promoters to a campus club to hear us play, but by the last set, they were still no-shows. To kill time, we broke into Canned Heat's "Fried Hockey Boogie," a 20-minute song where everyone with an instrument takes a solo. The promoters arrived right in the middle of the drummer's turn.

To my baffled amazement, they booked us to open for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, provided we play "Fried Hockey Boogie." The final night was at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis where I gathered with some old friends for a post-gig soiree in our rooms at the old Downtowner Motel. Our "after party" was in high gear when there was a loud knock on the door. The room was cloudy with marijuana smoke and this was 1970, so the door was opened very gingerly. Our manager announced, "I brought someone to see you," and there stood Valli in a full-length, ranch mink coat, still wearing his stage makeup, his hair immaculate.

I'd been a fan since "Sherry Baby," so I admit to being a little star-struck. Valli took a seat on the bed and chatted, very casually, with the assembled hippies. When the inevitable joint came around, and he took a hit and turned to pass it to me, the thought did occur that I was smoking dope with FRANKIE FREAKING VALLI! He stayed and talked music with us until the morning hours. I'll never forget Valli's kindness and perpetual "hipness." James Brown might have called him "Superbad."

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