Funk Under Fire (Literally)

Years ago I remember being spellbound by a Mojo feature article that interviewed several of the musicians in The Famous Flames who had toured Vietnam with James Brown in 1968 and played for a large number of very grateful soldiers right in the heart of the war zone.  I quickly devoured this piece – and then filed it away with my other 20 years or so of music magazines … into the abyss.

Recently, in the course of researching SW Ohio’s glorious contributions to the history of funk and soul, I got to thinking — “Sure would be nice to put my hands on that article about that harrowing time James Brown and his band did a musical tour of Vietnam in 1968.”  Fortunately, I got the urge to try an Internet search, and lo and behold – “July 2003” would be the Golden Ticket.  One minute later, after a trip to the archives, I had the July 2003 issue of Mojo in my hand.  What on earth had I been waiting for all this time?

Hats off to James Maycock, who tells this incredible story where music and politics would intersect spectacularly, with lives being put on the line in a moving demonstration of the American credo, E Pluribus Enum.  How fascinating to find out, for example, that James Brown had offered to take his entire 22-piece band orchestra to entertain the US troops in Vietnam on his own dime – and yet the federal government, surprisingly (or not), said no.  James Brown would eventually lobby LBJ himself at a Presidential State Dinner in May, 1968 — a direct consequence of Brown’s own heroic intervention in Boston in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination that kept untold numbers of people safe at home and out of harm’s way due to his insistence that his group’s live performance on April 5, 1968 be locally televised.

JB & Boston Mayor, Kevin White – Boston Gardens – April 5, 1968

James Brown & Mayor Kevin WhiteMaycock reveals the political machinery at work:

“The trip was the outcome of James Brown persistently pushing the US authorities for offical consent to tour.  ‘I’d been trying for a long time to get the government to let me go over there.  I offered to pay all my expenses.  But for some reason they didn’t want me to go.  I don’t know if they thought I would be too political.’  Like an increasing amount of the American public, Brown was also conscious that a disproportionate number of Afro-Americans were being drafted.”

JB’s stylist, Marva Whitney, grappled with vietnam’s heat & humidity – to no avail

James Brown in Vietnam-bb

Thus arranged (or so they thought), Brown’s 22-member ensemble began their musical tour in Korea, with the understanding that the whole orchestra would press on to Vietnam.  But with the escalation of hostilities, Brown was given word that only a 6-member musical crew would be allowed to continue at that point.  How moving then to discover that, while most of the group was only too happy to bow out of the tour, Tim Drummond (a “playing cat” as Brown would characterize him) immediately jumped at the chance:

“I said, I want to play Vietnam, because I want to show people back here that black and white can get along.”

Ultimately, Brown would carry out his musical tour of Vietnam with these six band members:   Clyde Stubblefield (drums), Tim Drummond (bass), Jimmy Nolen (guitar), Maceo Parker (saxophone), Waymon Reid (trumpet) & “esteemed funky diva” Marva Whitney.  As the writer points out, “Bob Hope retreated to the safety of Bangkok in neighbouring Thailand after each of his shows, but as Drummond points out, ‘We were in the thick of it.'”

By way of illustration, Tim Drummond would recount:

“So we come in 20 feet off the ground where the Viet Cong were sleeping.  They only moved at night … Right were we had just [crash] landed, here comes the Viet Cong who were coming after the plane.  We’d woken them up.  [The US] were bombing the Viet Cong, who were coming after the plane thinking we’re still on it.  That was a real toe-tapper!”

Marva Whitney describes the preceding “white-knuckle emergency crash”:

“The pilot said, ‘Everybody get out!  And I mean move it!  We’re in the marshes, the doors open, no time for a ladder.  Would someone give me a helping hand?  Forget it.  It was every man for himself, including me.  I had to jump from the plane.”

Clyde Stubblefield (out of view), James Brown & Maceo Parker

James Brown in Vietnam-aa

Being in a war zone meant having to be ever alert and strategic in your actions – Drummond describes one particular situation:

“In my hotel room, the window was facing the president’s palace.  It had a sign on it saying, ‘Don’t open the blinds with the light on behind you at night, you will be shot as a sniper.'”

These seven musicians (appointed honorary Lieutenant Colonels for this tour) would play three performances a day, often in the sweltering 120+ degree tropical heat.  According to Drummond, “That was the best the band ever sounded, stripped down like that.  Oh, we got tight!  Man, I wish we had recordings of that [stuff]!  We were smoking!”

Among the funk highlights in the band’s set:  “Get It Together“; “I Got the Feeling“; Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and a particularly key track from pop’s peak year – “Let Yourself Go“:

James Brown & the Famous Flames     “Let Yourself Go”     1967

[Check out Brown instructing 2nd drummer, John “Jabo” Sparks to hit an accent on the snare each time JB emits a grunt (*note: video since removed – above mix differs).]

James Brown 45-aJames Brown 45-b

Brown claims that it was Hope himself, interestingly enough, who would clinch the Vietnam tour at the May, 1968 State Dinner:  “[He] told some of the USO people, ‘If you’re going to get anybody to perform for the troops, James Brown is the man.”  The sad joke at the time was that “Armed Forces Radio Network offered two kinds of music:  country and western.”  Soul offerings were rather limited at the military PX — says Maycock:

“Prior to Brown’s 1968 visit, the United Service Organisations had brought over to entertain soldiers were generally insipid country and western troupes.  Drummond admits, “We’d call them ‘Tex Nobodies’ – meaning they were country singers who hadn’t made it!”

Compared to previous USO offerings, these shows were clearly a huge deal for the soldiers – Drummond says they easily outdrew Bob Hope (over 40,000 at one show, he claims).  According to Brown, “Dug out of the side of a hill, around the rim, at the top, tanks were pulled up like at a drive-in.  Guys were sitting in their hatches looking down on the show.”

And yet the surreality of the bitter warfare, coupled with the rampant drug use among the soldiers, would induce serious cognitive dissonance amongst the musicians.  Maycock writes:  “Indeed, the musicians were understandably uptight, although they concealed their feelings from JB.  Marva:  ‘They weren’t going to let the boss man see.'”  Maycock writes that Whitney remembers “some GIs just wanted to touch her hand.  Others confided in her.  Marva says, ‘The fellas with the less education were put on the front lines — “We’re in trouble over here!”  They would say that.'”

Several months after returning home, Whitney would be completely thrown by an unexpected moment of post-traumatic stress:

“I’m walking down New York City, shopping.  All of a sudden, I start shaking and can’t stop.  I’m going into shock.  I know it.”  Brown himself would later say, “I don’t know how I made it.  God was carrying me all the time, it was like footprints in the sand.”

James Brown in Vietnam – courtesy of Corbis

James Brown Performs for American Soldiers in Vietnam

One final quote from Maycock’s riveting piece of history that underscores music’s special ability to nourish the soul and bring people together in peace and fellowship (from Vietnam veteran/musician Dave Gallaher):

“Tim Drummond being there did more good than anyone might realize.  Because of the hostilities that had developed racially, I think James showing up with a white musician put everyone on a little bit of notice about cooling out.  Showing that a white man could get in there and play that music.  I think it was very timely.”