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Hartman : James Brown's Godson Of Soul

October 19, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

What do Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers have in common?

They are charter members of the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--and they all have gone more than a decade without a Top 10 hit.

A variety of forces might account for that drought, but one key reason is that most of these rock pioneers keep returning to the vision and techniques that originally fueled their music--and unless modified, those classic approaches simply seem dated to contemporary audiences.

The main reason James Brown, another Hall of Famer, is not on the list is Dan Hartman, a writer-producer-musician who has brought a modern edge to Brown's music without sacrificing its bite.

Hartman co-wrote and produced "Living in America," the zesty hit single that Brown introduced in the film "Rocky IV."

Hartman and his lyricist and partner Charlie Midnight have followed that success with an album, "Gravity," that dresses Brown's hot 'n' sweaty sound with an enticing array of bright and inventive touches (see the $25 Guide on this page). The result is a work whose best moments represent the same kind of artistic renewal for Brown that "Private Dancer" represented in 1984 for Tina Turner.

After seeing dozens of artists build their own hits on Brown's original approach (check out the guitar intro to Prince's "Kiss"), it's gratifying to see the real thing back on the charts.

"I think James Brown has made a lot of good records (in recent years)," Hartman said. "But it was that purist James Brown thing that he was doing in the beginning and people won't let him do that anymore because time marches on.

"That stuff is classic to me, but other people get bored with it. The challenge is to present something that is him, yet sounds fresh to listeners. That's usually hard for (a veteran artist) to do. It helps to have someone step in from outside.

"I am proud of what we did on the album. I think it does present a contemporary James Brown. It's not candy-coated. It has a lot of statement and a lot of heart."

James Brown has been called everything from Soul Brother No. 1 to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He virtually defined the brassy funk style, and his blur-of-energy dance steps have influenced everyone from Mick Jagger to Prince.

At one time, Brown could turn out hit singles as effortlessly as he could glide across the stage: 43 Top 40 records between 1960 and 1974. But the hits slowed so sharply in recent years that he didn't even have a record contract in 1982.

Brown caused some in-crowd ripples in 1984 by recording a song, "Unity," with New York rap scene hero Afrika Bambaataa, but it didn't put him back into the Top 40.

Enter Hartman, best known for his own 1984 hit, "I Can Dream About You."

The Pennsylvania native has enjoyed considerable success in pop music, but little of it reflected the soulful, white-heat passion of Brown's music.

Still, Hartman has long been a big Brown fan.

"To me, James Brown is the Elvis Presley of the R&B set," Hartman said by phone from his home in Connecticut, the day before a leaving on a business trip to London.

"He invented a form of music that everyone has sort of imitated. He certainly influenced me, which is why I was interested in working with him.

"I still remember when I first saw Brown perform. It was in my hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., and I must have been 6 or 7--the only white kid in the whole auditorium. The show was amazing: a fever pitch, outrageous, high energy. That's the way I've always thought of him."

As a member of the Edgar Winter Group in the '70s, Hartman wrote "Free Ride" and played bass on three of Winter's albums, including "They Only Come Out at Night" and "Shock Treatment."

After three years, however, the band broke up. Hartman, who gives his age only as "over 30," made one LP before entering the first of what he describes as his "Greta Garbo periods." Putting his own recording career on hold, he concentrated on production (Foghat's "Night Shift" and .38 Special's first two LPs).

After resurfacing briefly with some dance-club hits, including "Instant Replay" and "Relight My Fire," Hartman again turned to the control board, working with two artists who could hardly have been dissimilar: heavy-metal punkette Wendy O. Williams and pop veteran Neil Sedaka.

Then came "I Can Dream About You." The song, featured in the film "Streets of Fire," was a Top 10 hit in 1984 and led to several offers to write more songs for films.

Among the film makers who contacted Hartman was Sylvester Stallone, with an offer to write a song for James Brown in "Rocky IV."

Hartman didn't jump at the offer.

"We had a lot of reservations. . . . There was a request that the the song be slightly patriotic and I don't believe in being a flag waver at all."

A deeper question was whether Hartman could actually deliver a hit with Brown.

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