The Roots, the Crystal Ballroom, and the James Brown Connection
The Roots are playing McMenamins Crystal Ballroom in Portland on February 21st. Can you believe it? It’s nothing short of magical when such a wildly popular and acclaimed band plays the Crystal. Compared with larger stages, such as Edgefield’s outdoor amphitheater (which the Roots played in 2019), the experience of seeing a huge artist in a smaller venue like the Crystal makes the concert feel more like a house party!
Philadelphia-born drummer Questlove and rapper Black Thought formed the Roots crew in the early 1990s, when they broke musical ground as one of the first major hip-hop groups to play live instruments; merging jazz, R&B, soul, rock, funk…you name it!
The Roots not only have an extensive discography of their own, but the band’s versatility extends to past collaborations with everyone from Erykah Badu and Jay-Z to Sufjan Stevens and Elvis Costello. And for new generations of fans, the Roots might be best known as arguably the greatest house band of all time for the Tonight Show. (Host Jimmy Fallon should thank his lucky stars.)
The impact the Roots have made on current music is immeasurable, while at the same time, deeply connected to the musical lineage of their own influences, extending back to the early days of Black American soul, R&B, and rock and roll. Questlove is also a historian of music, and directed the documentary, Summer of Soul, packed with concert footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 (aka “Black Woodstock”). And he has another music documentary in the works. Questlove, Black Thought and Mick Jagger (yes, of the Rolling Stones) are executive producers of a new documentary about the Godfather of Soul, James Brown: Say It Loud. This four-part series is slated for release in 2023, coinciding with what would have been James Brown’s 90th birthday.
James Brown and his Famous Flames performed at the Crystal Ballroom several times in the late 1950s and into the mid-‘60s, when the Crystal was host to dozens of now-legendary Black R&B artists including Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, and Little Richard. As the decades march on, we’re certain that the Roots concert on February 21st will make the all-time list of the top Crystal Ballroom concerts to tell your grandkids “I Was There”.
In 1999, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, came to Portland for a one-night only performance at the Crystal Ballroom. McMenamins historian, Tim Hills, had the incredible opportunity to sit down with this musical icon in his dressing room for an exclusive interview. Check out this fascinating article from the McMenamins newsletter archives, first published in 2007. Enjoy!
Star Time at the Crystal: The Legendary Performances of James Brown
by Tim Hills
It’s the eleventh hour. There is no turning back. The past 45 minutes were nothing short of incendiary, but in many ways served only to prime the night’s sweaty, riled crowd for this moment. He pauses. His brow is wet with perspiration and his pompadour, perfect and towering just a half-hour before, now has understandably fallen. Then, with supreme confidence, the man’s hand flies up and the familiar staccato cries slice through the room with a new-found exhilaration: “PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE!!!” James Brown has earned all over again the accolades of “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and “Godfather of Soul”!
This scene, and others approaching the same intensity, played out at the Crystal Ballroom over a now legendary run from the late 1950s to the mid-‘60s, when the Crystal was THE place in Portland to catch the hottest R&B and soul acts of the era: Ike & Tina Turner, Jackie Wilson, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Etta James, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, the Impressions, and of course, James Brown. Many of the acts, notably Brown, returned to the Crystal numerous times during this period, whipping crowds into a frenzy every time. Four decades later, people still marvel at the emotion, art and antics they witnessed on the stage.
As a tribute to James Brown, who passed away at age 73 on December 25, 2006, we present the man’s own thoughts about the Crystal shows, the environment surrounding them and the people behind the scenes who made the shows happen. Brown’s recollections come from an interview done seven years ago, when he returned to Portland to perform for a private function at the Crystal. The story is fleshed out with additional research and interviews we’ve done.
“You still got that rollin’ floor, huh?” This was just about the first thing James Brown said to us during the 1999 interview, which was conducted in the Crystal’s green room, one floor below the ballroom. It’s simply incredible that a man who has performed in thousands of venues around the world would still remember the Crystal Ballroom, a place he hadn’t been inside for 35 years.
James went on to say that on the flight out to Portland for this 1999 gig, he regaled his band members with the unusual qualities of the Crystal’s patented rocker-and-ball-bearing floor. And, no, Brown stated unequivocally, he’d never encountered another one like it. That’s saying something!
James Brown believed his initial swing through Portland occurred in 1958. “I was hungry. When I made my first record, Please, Please, Please [in 1956], I was a janitor. So I appreciated everything.” His next return to the Rose City was in 1960, and after that, he was back with great regularity.
“It was a fun time,” Brown said of the West Coast tours he did during this early chapter of his career. He was doing one-nighters from Albuquerque to San Francisco, then up the coast and over to Spokane. The tour promoter handling Brown, along with many other leading R&B acts, was named Charles Sullivan, a giant of a man in stature, and reputation. “I called him Mr. Sullivan,” recalled James, emphasizing that the respect given Sullivan was well earned. In fact, everyone called him Mr. Sullivan.
For at least a quarter-century, Charles Sullivan was closely associated with the West Coast music scene. He began booking jazz and R&B acts into San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium and other Bay Area halls in the 1940s, and by the early 1960s had amassed a sizable fortune from his bookings and other ventures, including liquor stores, bars and vending machine routes.
The San Francisco-based promoter stood well over six feet and weighed more than 250 pounds. “Walrus-like” is one apt description of the man. Adding to Sullivan’s already formidable physical presence was a typically well-stocked money belt, which he wore discreetly underneath his coat.
“That man was like a dad to me,” James said of Sullivan, crediting him with teaching the young performer about business and personal dealings and, more generally, about how to get things accomplished. Sullivan was a sharp businessman, and by all accounts he was fair. He worked hard for his money, doing most of the legwork himself. After he booked a series of acts into the ballrooms, armories and clubs all along the coast, Sullivan drove his Cadillac to each city and town. He nailed posters to telephone poles in the Black neighborhoods and schmoozed with the local radio DJs and record store owners, providing them with promotional records in exchange for free advertising of the upcoming acts. Come the night of a show, Sullivan himself handled box office ticket sales and otherwise watched over the evening’s events to ensure the concerts went smoothly.
A primary reason Sullivan hustled so much on his own was that the racial climate of the time didn’t allow him much choice. White America often was largely kept from attending his shows by peer pressure or city ordinance, while mainstream media—newspaper and radio—generally refused to cover the events or run advertising for them.
James Brown, of course, knew firsthand about the prevailing inequities of discrimination and segregation, having grown up in Georgia. Like other performers before him, though, he didn’t expect to find such conditions in the West, and especially Portland. In the ‘40s, the great jazz trumpeter Marshall Royal described Portland as the worst city he’d encountered outside of the Deep South. James Brown echoed the sentiment: “My problem was, the white kids loved me, but the system didn’t want you to get together…Seattle wasn’t quite as bad, but it was really rough here.”
For Sullivan’s Portland shows, which almost always were staged at the Crystal, he worked promotion with a pioneering local African American disc jockey and all-around media mogul named Fitzgerald Beaver. “Eager” Beaver, as he was known on his radio program, was also associated with a regional Black newspaper and co-owner of the landmark Portland record store, Bop City Records.
James Brown named Eager Beaver as someone who did a lot in the Northwest to provide opportunities for performers like Brown, as well as help build a bridge between the races through his popular R&B radio program and dances he sponsored in Portland and Seattle.
One of Beaver’s DJ colleagues in Portland was Jimmy “Bang Bang” Walker. In fact, Bang Bang was a multi-media entrepreneur similar to Eager Beaver. Bang Bang took over an established Black community paper, The Northwest Defender, in 1962. Among the paper’s regular features was a column on the local music scene in which R&B dances held at places like the Crystal Ballroom were previewed and reviewed. Then, in the mid-‘60s, Walker became a DJ for KGAR, working in the station’s satellite location at SW 10th and Burnside—just a few blocks east of the Crystal. From that compact studio, Bang Bang was able to interview a number of the artists prior to their performances at the Crystal. He remembered great on-air chats with James Brown and others.
The point being is that the success of James Brown and all of his R&B contemporaries relied heavily on a largely unheralded group of dynamic and resourceful behind-the-scenes people like Sullivan, Beaver and Walker who understood the local situation and could work within, or usually around, the system to get the word out and ensure a good show would result.
And good shows almost always were the result at the Crystal. “Not loud, but powerful.” They were “like a revival meeting,” and some even embodied “Pentecostal holiness.” These are descriptions made by those who witnessed the extraordinary performances of the late ‘50s and ‘60s. No one, however, dazzled audiences more consistently than James Brown. To get a sense of what one of his Crystal shows was like, cue up his legendary 1963 album, Live at the Apollo, recorded right in the middle of the period in which he was barnstorming the Crystal.
His signature show closer at the time was his first hit song, “Please, Please, Please.” For this routine, Brown dropped to his knees, seemingly drained of all his strength. One of his backup singers or stage hands approached him, draped a cape around his quaking shoulders and began helping him off stage. After a few unsteady steps, Brown stopped, suddenly rejuvenated, tossed off the cape and started singing once more. This was repeated until the crowd neared a state of delirium. Then, the consummate performer made one final, grand exhibition and was carried off.
At one of Brown’s Crystal performances, the routine was altered a bit, providing Dick Bogle with a great story. In the early 1960s, Bogle, a future Portland city commissioner and, at the time, a city police officer, worked some of his off-duty hours as a security guard at the Crystal. Bogle recalled that James Brown arranged with him and his partner to help with the show’s finale. To the delight of that night’s crowd, the two security guards, not the Famous Flames bandmembers, dragged the soul man’s limp body from the stage.
As James Brown’s popularity and crossover success skyrocketed, notably after the release of his 1964 million-selling slab of proto funk, “Out of Sight,” his audiences and the number of musicians in his touring band increased significantly. By ’65, his 18-piece ensemble was too much for the Crystal’s modest-sized stage, so a show scheduled at the Ballroom for June 20, 1965, had to be relocated to the nearby, cavernous National Guard Armory.
But for a time, the Crystal hosted one of the most influential musicians of our era. As the man himself told us in 1999, “I went against the grain…and I was able to bring a lot of people together. I changed the music. Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Strauss to Brown. The last 35 years of the 20th century was James Brown.”
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