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My Two Minutes with James Brown

12/29/2006 10:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was a cool and rainy early spring evening in 1985 at the legendary Lone Star Cafe on NYC's 5th Avenue, where the slogan was, if I remember correctly, "too much is never enough." I was still a kid, just starting out as a guitar player, and had worked the night before with the great Texas blues guitarist Albert Collins. This was probably the only reason I got into the Lone Star that night, which was without a doubt one of the most memorable of the club's history, because James Brown was the headliner and the club, no bigger than a Korean deli--which it in fact sadly would become a few years later--was packed to the gills with the creme de la creme of the NYC music scene.

The distance between the front of the stage and the bar was exactly three rows of people, and I was in the third row, on a stool at the bar, five feet from the hardest working man in show business. I grabbed that seat because the most beautiful woman I'd ever laid eyes upon was sitting on the next stool, and as luck would have it, she wound up being my wife less than a year later (Because I was a regular at the Lone Star, I had perhaps the best pick-up line of my life to use on her. "Wanna meet James Brown," I asked her as she stared at me incredulously. "I'll take you up to the dressing room after the show." But that wasn't the most amazing thing about the night. Instead, it was the energy and perfection of Brown's music.

In fact, it's impossible to describe how much energy James Brown put out that night. I've been lucky to work with some of the greatest artists in the world, and JB had more energy, more rhythm, more power than all of them put together. I learned so much about being a musician--in fact, about being a teacher--from watching the way Brown worked the crowd, and as important, his own band. The stage of the Lone Star was, at most, 10 feet wide and 7 feet deep. It was a tight fit for the four or five piece bands that normally played there. James Brown had, if I remember correctly, a 13-piece band on this stage, and they didn't just play, they danced and twirled and moved as if they were performing uptown at Madison Square Garden. And he controlled them with gestures so small--a finger here, the twitch of his head or even eye brow--that if you weren't a musician and standing a few feet away you'd think the synergy they achieved had come from the Devil himself.

Despite the cramped conditions, JB had zero tolerance for mistakes. At one point someone in the horn section messed up a note while trying to do the complicated dance moves that accompanied the show. JB shot him a look that sent a chill down my spine. I can't imagine how it made him feel, although I suspect his band was used to it.

When the show was over I took my new friend up to the dressing room on the third (or was it fourth?) floor of the building. It was a musician's paradise. Everyone had hung out in this room. Not too long before JB, I had the chance to sit in with former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, and then Ben E King. Dr. John would regularly stop by, and the greatest country artists of the 1970s and 1980s also left their mark. But while the band was lounging around the dressing room JB was no where in sight. So I took a chance and made my way down stairs, past the stage and then down another set of stairs that led to the manager's office, where you'd go to get paid if you were lucky. And sure enough, standing in the office was the Godfather, having a very good time. I didn't want to intrude but once I made eye contact I felt compelled to pay obeisance to the master. He was clearly surprised to see me, but gracious nonetheless, offering some words of encouragement to a young musician who realized after an evening spent, literally, at his feet, how long the journey would be before one could reach the level of musicianship exhibited by him and his band (Brown's talent and charisma were clearly beyond the reach of mere mortals).

As I backed up the staircase, eyes riveted to the figure drenched in sweat whose hand I had just shaken, I knew that from that night forward James Brown would be the gold standard for judging, not just talent, but devotion and commitment to one's craft and/or cause. Ironically, given his enormous (and well justified) ego, listening to JB taught me and myriad other musicians that playing a deceptively simple guitar, bass or saxaphone lick could be more rewarding than the most ear-popping and self-aggrandizing solo. Most important, his lack of tolerance for amateurism, the universalism of his spirit and music, and the sheer positive energy they conveyed, offer important lessons for the myspace-youtube generation, Now that he's gone, it's up to everyone who was touched by James Brown's music to pass the lessons on to the next generation.