How James Brown’s Music Taught Me That Creativity Is Work

Photo credit: Lam Nguyen

Sergio Lopez is an author, columnist, and historian. His work has been published in Teen Vogue, America, Geez, and Hanif Abdurraqib’s 68to05. He graduated Yale University and currently attends Duke Divinity School, and he proudly serves his hometown as City Councilmember. Read more of his creative work here or follow him on Twitter @LopezForCA.

Whenever I need some inspiration to get to writing, I look to music. So I was thrilled when I spotted a new James Brown record I’d never seen before, 1966’s Handful of Soul. Its bright red cover, featuring a grinning James Brown, was held together by yellowed Scotch tape; a name scrawled in one corner in ballpoint pen attested to the fact that this record had been loved. I got home, took the record out of its sleeve, placed it on my turntable, and dropped the needle. The horns proudly announced the arrival of Brown’s band, guitar and bass locked together to lay down the groove, and flawless drumming formed the foundation. Then I waited for Brown’s distinctive voice—and kept waiting, all through the first side of the record. Grabbing the cover, I finally read the fine print on the back: “Handful of Soul, featuring James Brown—on the organ.”

I felt, personally, like I’d overpaid just a bit for the record, considering he wasn’t even featured as a vocalist—but curious about the unusual find, I started doing more research on Brown, his life, and his work ethic.

James Brown rose up from working in the fields of Georgia in the hot summer sun. Where he came from, what you did was work—something Brown and his childhood friends never forgot. While music was his craft, it was also his job—and he took that work seriously, putting out over the course of his career fifteen live records, fifty-nine studio albums, and one hundred and forty-four singles. He took the same approach to his live shows, telling members of his band, “if you’re performing for ten people or 10,000, you perform the same way. You don’t slack off, ever.” Marketing materials in the mid-60s began billing him as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” That discipline helps account for his rise to the pinnacle of his craft—because sometimes there’s no better practice than simply working.

Reading about Brown, I wondered what it would look like to rethink my own relationship towards work and my creative practice. I had grown up dreaming about what it might look like to be a writer, and in the years since I had read plenty of pragmatic tips and advice before from other writers—to always write at a particular time, or to reframe expectations to just get some words down on paper each day. But I was less interested now in these practical aspects of creating than in thinking about the spiritual dimension behind work—the ways in which work can confer dignity and purpose to those who participate in it. The concept, for me, also implied a relationship—the idea that work was ultimately meant to be produced and consumed by an audience, at which point it was no longer solely the property of the artist.

The Handful of Soul record, I learned, was actually a bit of a side hustle for Brown. Starting in 1964, the Godfather of Soul had been involved in a legal dispute with his longtime label, King Records. Since his contract banned him from performing as a vocalist on another label, Brown immediately turned to a smaller label, Smash Records, to release a series of instrumental albums of mostly cover songs of hits, giving him a stream of income while he dealt with his legal issues. These instrumental records—I soon had to have more—have the feeling of a production line; Brown’s band was unmatched in the business, but these records consist mostly of covers rather than James Brown originals, and they were turned out at a rapid pace, with four releases in 1966 alone. James Brown and his band the Famous Flames, I thought, could probably record these albums in their sleep. 

But as I listened more closely, I found an important lesson that lay hidden in the vinyl grooves: the immense skill and experience that went into each track on the album. On each and every record he put out, Brown set the highest of standards for himself and his band, practicing each part ruthlessly and relentlessly, locking in those rhythms and grooves until nothing else could get through, nothing but his signature sound, with all the precision of and power of a locomotive. 

While this could easily have been a fallow creative period for James Brown, in some ways it ended up being one of the most important for his artistic development. That’s because, although few of these cover instrumentals will make anyone’s list of top ten James Brown recordings, they were essential to his development of funk—perhaps his greatest musical impact. In 1966, when Handful of Soul came out, James Brown had gotten funky, but he was still a couple of years from truly laying down the funk—the tightly woven blend of guitar, bass, and drums he invented and for which he has forever earned a place in the pantheon of true originals, one of the most creative and singular artists America has produced, influencing everyone from 1970s funk groups to rap and hip-hop artists who took those sounds as the foundation for countless freestyles. That history traces its way back to these instrumental cover records, where, if you listen closely enough, you can hear James Brown on these instrumentals developing new creative ideas, drawing out a beat or a groove for as long as possible, stretching the sound to its limits—working out the beginnings of what would become his signature sound, and one of the defining sounds of the 1970s. The realization demonstrated for me how no work is wholly without value or purpose, as it’s often precisely when we quit overthinking and simply create that we are most free to progress and grow.

Reframing my relationship toward creating and work allowed me to let go—to not just dream of being a writer but to actually become one in my own mind and practice. I found it easy now to sit down for an hour and simply write. I’m grateful to be able to write, but it’s still work—and there’s dignity and honor in any kind of work.

And when I do find myself stuck for the right word or sentence? I can just switch on the turntable and spin Handful of Soul.