Sonny Knight and the Lakers, James Brown alumni offer fine Godfather of Soul tribute
By Dan Emerson
Special to the Pioneer Press
Sunday night at the Dakota, a local crew of funk and soul music revivalists joined forces with two old-school funk icons to pay tribute to the musical force of nature that was the late James Brown.
Twin Cities-based Sonny Knight and the Lakers were joined by 77-year old drummer John “Jabo” Starks, and trombonist Fred Wesley, who is 72, both of whom were key sidemen for the Godfather of Soul.
Because Starks played on many of Brown’s biggest hits of the 1960s and ’70s — either as the sole drummer or in tandem with Clyde Stubblefield — he’s been one of the most-sampled drummers on modern hip-hop and R&B recordings.
Wesley also helped Brown record a number of hits in the 1960s, and led Brown’s 1970s backup band The JBs, doing much of the group’s composing and arranging. After leaving Brown in 1975, Wesley helped George Clinton advance the “funk evolution,” as a key member of Parliament-Funkadelic.
The Lakers-James Brown alumni gigs were first proposed last summer by the band’s manager. When Starks and Wesley played Madison, Wis. in October, Lakers founder and drummer Eric Foss met them and finalized the dates. To prepare for the Dakota shows, the band put in “countless” hours rehearsing and watching and listening to live performance recordings of Brown and his band, Foss says. The Lakers’ trumpet player, Riley Helgeson, crafted arrangements for new treatments of the classic Brown tunes.
The work resulted in a suitably tight early show Sunday — Brown’s own bands were known for their military-like, musical precision — with Lakers’ vocalist Sonny Knight ably handling the classic repertoire from Brown’s peak years; he undoubtedly sang many of those tunes countless times in his own Twin Cities nightclub shows, back in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Lakers kicked it off with one of Brown’s standard show-openers from his 1980s tours, the steamrolling “Funky Good Time,” with Wesley unleashing his trademark, punchy trombone sound. The 77-year old Starks, who seems to lose a few years (or decades) in age when he sits down at the drum kit, drove the band with rhythmic crispness and vitality.
Foss, the Lakers’ founder and regular drummer, started the set off on rhythm guitar before returning to his normal spot after a couple of tunes. He and Starks meshed perfectly on the hyperkinetic “Ain’t It Funky Now,” with Foss handling the snare drum back beat and Starks playing supremely complementary fills on his high hat.
After two songs, the still vital, 70-something Knight took the stage to generate some vocal excitement, belting out “Sex Machine” and Brown’s pleading “Please, Please, Please.” On the latter, Knight showed that he can still hit the high notes with just the right amount of vocal grit.
As the set unfolded, the band faithfully re-created a number of other Brown jukebox classics, including the blistering “Mother Popcorn,” “There Was A Time,” “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat” and more.
The one element of Brown’s performances that was lacking Sunday night was backup singers. That was particularly noticeable on ballads like “Try Me” and “This Is A Man’s World,” which would have benefited from some female vocalists to provide the call-and response interplay. But Knight’s impressive ability as a ballad singer partially compensated.