Thursday, December 28, 2006

Dennis Chambers has a James Brown story.

Dennis Chambers is one of the world's top jazz drummers, but he built his reputation playing funk. P-Funk, to be precise. He joined George Clinton’s traveling circus before he was 20 years old, and his powerhouse chops soon boosted the energy level of what was then the greatest road show in black music.

Few people know that Chambers, at the age of 13 (!), was invited to join the James Brown band. Here’s how he told the story to funk historian Larry Alexander in a 1997 interview:
DENNIS CHAMBERS: What happened was, there was a place called the James Brown Motor Inn in downtown Baltimore. James came in for some strange reason – 'cause he owned it, he owned the place. But he came in there. I was playing with a band that was playing all cover tunes of James Brown stuff.

I'm in the bathroom. I'm standing there washing my hands, and this guy standing next to me is picking his hair out, looking into the mirror and singing. I was like, “Man, that sounds great. It sounds like James Brown!” But he was singing in a low tone. Then he sang something at full volume, like he was practicing. I looked at him again, I was like, “That is James Brown!” And I started talking to him.

I said, “Mr. Brown, I'm a big fan of your music, I'm playing at your club here, and we happen to play your music.” He said, “Oh yeah? That's nice, kid.” I said, “Well, you know, it would be great if you would come in and check us out.” He said, “Yeah, maybe I will, maybe I won't.” He never looked at me. He just stood there picking out his hair, still singing. I asked him what was he doing there in town, and he said he had to take care of some business.

I come out of the bathroom, and I go and tell the rest of the fellas. “Guess what? I just saw James Brown.” “Right.” “I'm serious, J.B. was in the bathroom!” “Sure, right.” “Well, check it out. Go in the bathroom and see for yourself!” Nobody went.

So somewhere in the middle of the show, the second or third set we were doing, an entourage of people came in and sat somewhere in that room in the dark. After we finished playing, some big goon came over and said, “Mr. Brown requests your presence at his table. He wants to talk to you.” “Really?” I looked at the rest of the guys. They were in shock. They were, like, mouths open. “He wants us?” “No, he just wants him to come over to the table.”

So I go over to the table, and he still didn't look at me, he's still picking out his hair. “Hey kid, you sound great. How old are you?” “Thirteen.” “Wow, that's fantastic. That's great. What do you think about, you know, would you like to play with me? Play in my band?” “Hell yeah” – that's what I was thinking to myself. “Yeah, but I'm thinking about school – how would that work out? I may have a problem with my mom. She might not want me to go…” And I gave him the phone number to the house to talk to my mother, or have his manager talk to my mother.

And he wouldn't offer a tutor, which I thought was very weird. Because at that time, James was advertising, you know, “Stay in school, don’t be no fool.” He wanted me to go on the road, but he wouldn't offer a tutor. So naturally, I couldn't do it. My mother wouldn't let me go.

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