Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From Little Richard to James Brown to Amiri Baraka

It's almost strange to say, but there's really a discernible link between Little Richard and Amiri Baraka. So much of what's written about Little Richard is over there in Rock n' Roll, and much of what's written about Baraka is over here in poetry. Still, there are links between the two, and one of those links is James Brown.

Little Richard (b. 1932), James Brown (b. 1933 - 2006), and Amiri Baraka (b. 1934) share a common generational connection; all of them came of age during really dramatic years for black folks and the nation as a whole. Recently, I was reading an interview with musician and writer Greg Tate, and he was talking about how Little Richard influenced Brown:
If you listen to Little Richard, outside of the most well known hits, if you listen to his body of work, outside of that stuff, you can hear his impact on James Brown and Otis Redding. I mean, James is screaming, and, in fact, at a certain period, Little Richard had left the area and went to LA to record, and he left behind all these performance dates, and Little Richard’s manager hired James Brown to impersonate Little Richard. So there’s a period of time when James spent a couple of weeks just screaming like Little Richard,
Tate goes on to note that Brown was "the real father of fusion—of jazz fusion—" because "James is the person who really took all of this information and this way of putting together this music from jazz, and then combining it with R&B and Soul in a really sophisticated way."

Baraka's writings and the writings about him tend to focus on his relationship to jazz, with little said about how his work relates to the fusion of gopsel and R&B and to someone like Little Richard. Still, Baraka does develop that scream in his recordings and performances, and though his scream is linked to jazz folk like Coltrane and Albert Ayler, we can also connect that far out vocal delivery to Brown.

The literary scholarship on Baraka hasn't really caught up with and accounted for his expansive discography and performance history, in part because literary scholars, understandably perhaps, tend to concentrate primarily on printed texts. But when and if we start examining the long and evolving histories of Baraka's sound, we'll discover how his works--his performed works--correspond to distinct African American musical histories.  

A Notebook on Amiri Baraka

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