HARTMAN : JAMES BROWN’S GODSON OF SOUL
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.
He recalled, “The funny thing is the film people made it clear that they wanted a Top 10 single--and I didn’t know if that was possible. I think of the Top 10 these days as sort of whipped cream and vanilla--and I worried that Brown would be too strong for radio.
“I said that if I write something for James Brown, it would be too organic ever to be in the Top 10. I had too much respect for him to water down his style.”
Eventually, Hartman and Midnight came up with a concept they thought would work. “Living in America"--more a celebration of pop culture than a pro-America salute--was sent to Brown, who reacted favorably.
Hartman first met the singer at the New York session where the song was recorded.
“The session was great . . . not difficult at all. The thing that struck me the most was that he asked me to be right next to him when we did the vocals to show him how we intended the song to be sung. That’s something you’d never expect from an artist of his stature.
“He said, ‘Now when I do it, I’m going to do it like James Brown, but you must have had something in mind when you wrote it and I want to know what it was.’ ”
Things went so well at the session, Hartman said, that Brown asked him and Midnight to work on Brown’s next album--even before the single was a hit.
Rather than rush out an LP, Hartman and Midnight spent seven months writing material for “Gravity.”
Hartman also co-produced Little Richard’s “Great Gosh A’Mighty,” a single from “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” that was a mild hit earlier this year.
But he made it clear he doesn’t plan to work with every member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, Hartman feels it’s time to begin work on his own recording career again.
Hartman finished a solo album several months ago, but he has decided to scrap it. He felt it was too conventional musically.
“I’ve decided to make some more experimental type music rather than ‘pop records’ for the next few years,” he said. “I want to change my own personal direction to one a little more aesthetic and a little less accessible. My values have changed since the ‘I Can Dream About You’ LP.’ ”
Who inspired this change?
“Peter Gabriel,” Hartman replied enthusiastically. “He deserves credit for breaking new ground, making musicians more aware of how much more pop music can be. People who are making straight pop records are stepping backward. I want to be one of those who is moving forward.”