James Brown. Jerry Lee Lewis. Bo Diddley. These three members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, all in town for shows this week, are among the most influential pop figures of the last 35 years--famed not only for their songs, but also for their wild stage acts.
Which is important. 'Cause the road to--and from--stardom has been rocky indeed, and each of these undeniably talented gents has had to survive on the strength of live shows.
It ain't easy competing with your own legend. Audiences remember your hits--just the way they heard 'em on the radio--and you'd better deliver, even if you've played these tunes what seems like 5,283 times since the day they were recorded.
Small wonder most performers wind up on autopilot: Show me to the stage, show me to the bar, show me the way to the next gig--and not necessarily in that order.
To do anything more takes a tremendous amount of inspiration, perspiration and--quite bluntly--raw ego. It's no accident that these three characters are arguably the most self-referential performers on the planet.
Tuesday at the Palomino, Lewis amended the lyrics of his songs to include the words Jerry Lee Lewis or the Killer , his nickname, no fewer than 33 times over the course of a 90-minute set. Think about it.
The following night at the same club, Diddley--whose humility has long been documented by such autobiographical compositions as "Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger" and "Hey Bo Diddley"--nearly matched Lewis with 26 self-references, despite a first set that ran 10 minutes shorter than Lewis'.
In contrast, Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre, Brown only managed to name-check himself three times within a 90-minute set, but then JB pays his longtime emcee Danny Ray to scream, "The Legend of Soul--James Brown!" a couple of dozen times an evening.
Less quantifiable, but equally telling is the false modesty with which Brown and Lewis cloak themselves by pausing to thank-God-for-giving- ME -the-oppor-tunity-to-play-for- you . Although both men are genuinely devout, the cosmic hierarchy at work here looks something like this:
James Brown or Jerry Lee Lewis
Flatworms and Humans
Diddley doesn't go in for that, but then Lewis was the only one who didn't bring members of his immediate family on stage either. While Diddley called his two daughters up to play drums and sing backups on one number, Brown not only had his sister on stage singing backup vocals but also brought his wife out of the wings to waltz with him while the band segued from "Prisoner of Love" into "Love Me Tender" and back.
Lewis, however, did raise the family issue. Turning to the crowd after his first two numbers, he cocked an eyebrow and slow-drawled, "Hi, I'm Jimmy Swaggart." (The TV evangelist is his cousin.)
And when one of the local rockabilly kids climbed on stage to be-bop during "High School Confidential"--only to be swiftly booted off for having the nerve to even attempt to steal the Killer's spotlight for even a minute--Lewis shot a glance in the offender's direction and sneered, 'That's my son.' "
He amended this with, "Well, he might be" and proceeded to dive headfirst into another round of barroom country weepers, which along with R&B standards and radical interpretations of Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Al Jolson's "Mammy" and a zonked-out, slowed-down rearrangement of his own "Great Balls of Fire" filled out the space between the hits.
Obviously, Lewis makes the set up as he goes along, giving his backup band fits and allowing an ever-changing look into the soul of the man who has been a renegade symbol since he came roaring out of Ferriday, La., three decades ago.
Speaking of soul, Brown, the self-proclaimed godfather of the idiom, might be stretching the seams of his self-designed suits a little tighter these days, but his rough-hewn, racked 'n' cracked vocal tone should last longer than the warranty on a 1987 Volvo.
Although his once-nonstop dance routines are reduced to about 10 minutes of breathtaking effort these days, he still manages five full splits to go along with the two costume changes, the six scantily clad showgirl-dancers (apparently on loan from "Solid Gold") and the customary, if abbreviated, caped theatrics on "Please, Please, Please."
Musically, Brown and his 12-piece, tuxed 'n' tailed band--led by veteran sideman/alto saxist Maceo Parker, who himself got name-checked at least 50 times--burned through megahits and genre favorites from the full spectrum of his 30-plus-year career: R&B ballads, soul smashes, proto-funk monsters. He also did three tunes from his latest LP, including the comeback hit, "Living in America," which--never one to mess up a good thang--he performed twice.