James Brown, of course, is the hardest working MAN in show business. Few dispute that, especially those who had the opportunity to see him in concert. He worked that stage hard, giving it everything he had in true throwback entertainer style. But in reading Damon Wood’s Working For The Man, Playing In The Band: My Years With James Brown his backing band deserves a lot of r-e-s-p-e-c-t as well. Wood, one of two guitarists in the Soul Generals, spent nearly eight years on the road with Brown, who was a well-known taskmaster. Not only were there two guitarists in the band, we learn early on that there were two of everything — bass, drums, backup singers — as it insured Brown he’d never lose a gig, in case he lost a musician. In the end, it was always the “gig” that ruled James Brown Enterprises.
And those gigs were many, and demanding. Wood, a young, long-haired rock guitar player from Vegas, had previously played with Jimmy Van Zant, got the gig by virtue of playing in a Brown protege (and girlfriend’s) band. He got the call to go to Greece, and was on a plane to Thessaloniki at 6 a.m. the next morning, with a Les Paul, a stack of plane tickets and a change of clothes (Brown’s bands would all have “uniforms,” in this case, tuxedos). Typically, those “rapid fire” European jaunts might be nine festivals in 10 days, across the UK, Germany, Monaco, Belgium, and France, and then back to England, Scotland, and Germany. American tours weren’t much easier, and the band was required to go via a twenty year old Greyhound bus. Seniority could get you a full (two seat!) row, but other than that it was get on the bus or get fired. Aside from the relentless schedule, the band travelled only with their instruments. The all-important amplifiers were provided by the venue. Ask any musician how they feel about playing out of someone else’s amp, let alone what was, essentially, a rental. They also ironed their own tux’s before the show. And, most importantly, they had to learn the boss’s “hand signals.” Damon has enlisted many former band members to help tell his story, and on this point they are all in agreement — focus on James because you never know what he’s thinking, or what’s coming next.
Brown was a perfectionist, and looking tight and playing tighter was the standard he held the band to. Wood’s biggest transgression might have been being caught in a hotel hallway after a gig in shorts with an open beer. “Mr. Brown” – which is what virtually everyone in the organization called him — was not pleased. Throughout the book, in good times and bad, being fined and getting bonuses, Wood always showed respect and affection for “Mr. Brown.” The man sometimes referred to as “Games Brown” was another story. While he wrestled with the singer’s mood swings, it’s clear Damon knows how much he learned as a musician, and grew as a guitar player and, eventually, a bandleader while playing in the Soul Generals. This is a musician’s tale, albeit one working within what was essentially a corporation by the time he joined, and Damon has written an essential backstory to one of the greatest live shows on Earth. Warts and all.
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