Most music industry professionals would agree that James Brown was one of the most electrifying entertainers in the world, black or white. His celebrated album, Live at the Apollo, released in 1963, sold well over a million copies and held its own on the Billboard Pop Chart for over a year. Live was indisputably, according to music critic, Dominique Leone, Brown's "first hit album and remains his biggest seller."
How could this happen during a post-segregation era defined by widespread white resistance to black progress, a period when blacks in general, and black men in particular, still had few rights that "any white man was bound to respect." Well it happened because James Brown, like so many successful black entertainers who prevailed in the face of white hatred, knew that he had something special, he had the feeling, he was super bad, didn't take no mess, and, what is more, was a beneficiary of change that had finally come. Brown's resolve in the face of systemic discrimination compelled him to ignore Syd Nathan, President of King Records, who admittedly "never wanted this record made."
In 1956, Brown was signed to King subsidiary, Federal Records, for $200.00. Nathan, a liberal entrepreneur in his own right, had established Federal, financing "his own recording studios, pressing plant, and distribution network." By this time, the James Brown Revue was already in
demand although Brown had never recorded with the band. Brown was, however, allowed to record "Mashed Potatoes" with the band under a pseudo-name, Nat Kendrick and the Swans, and on another label. At the same time, Brown was not doing well on the Federal Label even though his regional hit, Please, Please, Please (1956) had brought him national recognition. Brown ultimately satisfied Nathan and Federal execs with his second hit, "Try Me." As a result, between 1956 and 1960 the James Brown Revue or Star Time, as the show was often called, along with its hardworking front man, won James Brown the undisputed titles of "Soul Brother #1," "Godfather of Soul," "Mr. Dynamite," and "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business."
In the fall of 1961, Brown ran in to Lewis Hamlin, Jr. an old friend whom he'd known from Macon, Georgia's Tindall Heights Housing Projects where Little Richard, Otis Redding, and Gladys Williams lived and performed. Hamlin was teaching at Tompkins High School in Savannah, Georgia when Brown offered him the position of Band Director. Hamlin accepted and began his 4 year stint with Brown. At the time, Brown did not have the academic training and talent that Hamlin brought to the organization. As a result, Hamlin ultimately became Brown's Band Director, Chief Arranger, Lead trumpeter, and literally Mr. Dynamite's main man. James Brown and the Famous Flames, under the direction of Lewis Hamlin, toured all over the country gaining a reputation for being a well dressed, well rehearsed outfit with the funkiest horn section around. They were HOT!
By 1962 Brown was convinced that he needed to showcase the band with an unprecedented live recorded performance. Nathan simply "refused" to finance the venture, insisting that no one really wanted to hear a black man scream for extended periods of time. Brown, according to reliable sources, "personally funded the recording of his Wednesday night show at the Apollo on October 24th, 1962," Hamlin's birthday by the way. What has not been reported is that Brown used money due to musicians to finance his dream, a later source of conflict between the star and his supporting cast of musicians. Brown was convinced that the timing was perfect because he and The Famous Flames had been in New York for a week, and had established an impressive Harlem following on and off stage.
As they say, the rest is history. Live at the Apollo became what has been described as an "instant hit." The album did two things (1) for the first time a long playing recording by a black artist was "played in its entirety on some R&B stations during evening hours," and (2) the excitement and collective experience of the live show was made available to individuals and families across race, class, and gender. Live signaled the beginning of the movement of black entertainment into the living rooms of white middle class America. On this recording, The Famous Flames under the director of Lewis Hamlin Jr., insists Leone, offered a "lesson in speed, endurance, and shared inspiration... The horns, led by trumpeter, Lewis Hamlin, maintain[ed] a faint bond to Count Basie while at the same time handing Brown the razor-sharp precision he demanded. Between each declaration of passion, the horns serve[ed] an upturned figure, just enough to hold the audience in their place...."
The original version of Live was, in 2004, re-mastered and released on Polydor Records in an expanded format that included a 20 page booklet, essays, photos, and FULL CREDITS. Credits are important for this discussion because only after Hamlin's death, in 1991, was he given printed credit for having been the Music Director and Arranger on a project that changed the course of black music in general, R&B in particular. It should be noted that the Music Director/Arranger is the driving creative and organizational force behind ANY music project: live or studio recorded.
Although Hamlin was able to speak with reporters, researchers, and producers prior to his death, he would never hear his name called or see it listed as a major contributor to what many musicologists and historians insist was a "symbolic transformation of R & B into Soul..." While Hamlin's "forgotten" status highlights a major professional and historiographical problem, it also presents an opportunity to get it accurate. There is no doubt that Brown and Hamlin shared philosophical differences regarding the style of the horn arrangements. For example, Hamlin was leaning towards jazzy orchestrated funk exemplified by Basie and Ellington, while Brown simply wanted the funk and to, occasionally, give the drummer some.
The tension between these two geniuses is most obvious in the one song that they wrote and recorded together, "The Thing in G." In the intro, Brown apologizes to his grassroots audience for experimenting with Jazz. "This is a kind of new thing," says Brown, "I'm not gonna be formal, gonna be real, down to earth, soulful. You see I've never cut a jazz tune before... We gonna cut this thing we call The Thing in G because you see we're not jazz cats, we're just startin', so we'll start by kickin' it off."
Brown 's support and participation appears to have been an attempt to appease his main man, Lewis Hamlin, a man, whom first-hand accounts confirm, he both admired and resented and one who leaned towards the "Big Band" sound. Brown gave Hamlin no credit for his role in the creation of this piece, but then he rarely gave published credit to anyone in his organization although many were deserving and never compensated.
The murky rise of James Brown to stardom also reveals that the Civil Rights Movement was not just about boycotts and protests, it was also about the MUSIC: melody and lyrics. Both were carefully constructed to inspire a sense of what was possible in a world of systemic racism. The dance-ability of the music allowed for a positive release of anger and frustration; joy and happiness. Songs such as Say it Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud, flipped the script on racist white Americans. Even though these compositions were written and performed by a violent, middle school drop out with a prison record, the creative impulse displayed by these songs spoke to the joy and pain of ordinary people. For all intents and purposes Brown was a social critic who "had the feeling." Indeed, Brown was a self-made, self-ordained musical genius, and the people's Ambassador of Soul.
Brown's rise on the streets must also be appreciated in the context of protest in academe. The 1960s was a moment of historical revisionism, a time when scholars, black and white, sought to prove false the racist rants of Columbia University Professor, William Archibald Dunning, who insisted that "blacks had made no significant contribution to modern civilization..." The Dunning Thesis, as it is un-affectionately called, was accepted in large arenas of the academic world well into the early 1970s. Black scholarly protests were accompanied by black students who demanded a more accurate and inclusive history in Black Studies Departments run by black faculty. While black essentialism may be problematic, the times required that black scholars rewrite the history that had for centuries been distorted in order to establish and maintain white supremacy. The 1960s signaled a historiographical surge, an ideological shift, and a watershed moment whose time had come.
The Brown-Hamlin black experience also illumines the professional tendency to deny, minimize, marginalize, and exclude the work and contributions of others. It reminds us that this propensity is not white, black, or Brown: it is a human flaw-tendency that displays the highest level of professional disrespect and ungratefulness. All of humanity benefits when we acknowledge and celebrate excellence wherever it shows up.
We are all history makers, and all the time making history. We have a moral duty to search for and find truth wherever it may lead and in so doing, provide a context for each generation to be better at truth-telling that their predecessors. We at the BRONZeTONE Center are grateful for all the historians, musicians, producers, researchers, studio engineers, and record company executives who were committed to finding and writing Lewis Hamlin, Jr. into the mix. This "forgotten man" as Brown sax-player, Sinclair Pinkney describes him, now has a well-earned and righteous place in the James Brown story whether individuals choose to include him or not.
So we say thank you Lew. He remained silent as he went unsung. His family, friends, students, and fellow musicians understood that it was his love for the work that allowed him to keep it moving, to create beautiful arrangements, to direct on the downbeat: always on the ONE. Lew's creative energy sustained him in moments of sadness because for him the gift was in the giving. Lewis Hamlin Jr. kept his music playing and accomplished what Ralph Waldo Emerson advised, "do your work, and I shall know you, but do your work." Lew did his thing until the very end, and this is why we appreciate and celebrate his legacy---- NOW.