Three Minute Record: James Brown and the Famous Flames, "Night Train"

are you ready for star time?

Three Minute Record: James Brown and the Famous Flames, "Night Train"

Welcome to Three Minute Record, the offshoot where I write about songs Bruce Springsteen has covered. You can read more about this project and why it exists here.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is star time. Are you ready for star time?

Thank you and thank you very kindly. It is indeed a great pleasure to present for you at this particular time, nationally and internationally known as the hardest working man in show business, the man who sang "I’ll Go Crazy" –

Thank you and thank you very kindly. It is indeed a great pleasure to present for you at this particular time, nationally and internationally known as the hardest working man in show business, the man who sang ‘I’ll Go Crazy’–

"Try Me!"
"You’ve Got The Power!”
"If You Want Me!"
"I Don’t Mind!"
Million-dollar seller “Lost Someone!"
The very latest release, “Night Train”!
Let’s everybody “Shout and Shimmy!"
Mister Dynamite, the amazing Mister "Please, Please, Please" himself, the star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!

The one and only time Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed James Brown’s version of “Night Train” was at the Fox Theater in Atlanta on September 30, 1978. It was supposed to be the penultimate night of the Darkness On The Edge of Town tour (a third leg would get added later) and it was the night of yet another Darkness-era FM radio broadcast, sending the show bouncing off the satellites. That may be the reason for the appearance of this song in particular, letting Bruce shout out a number of cities and locales. “Night Train” shows up right after “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” during which fake snow fell from the skies and then needed to be cleaned off the floor (you can hear Bruce calling for a broom), but with a radio broadcast, you can’t have dead air, and playing a song versus just going into a story or a rap meant you weren’t going to lose the people on the other side of the dial.

The original “Night Train” wasn’t a standard, but it was a well-known song that many r&b groups included in their repertoire in the 50’s when it was first released. James Brown began performing his version of it when Brown recruited saxophonist J.C. Davis to be his bandleader. “Night Train” was one of Davis’ specialties, and under his tutelage, it became a centerpiece of the show: the band could stretch out and improvise, adding snippets of other popular songs. James Brown loved it so much he’d sometimes call for it a second time in the same show, rapping over the melody while Davis took a solo.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedMiami Florida Atlanta Georgia Raleigh North Carolina [delicious horn riff]

The rest of the cities recited went up along the Eastern Seaboard in an orderly, geographic fashion -- Washington, Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston -- but the last one was always: “Don’t forget New Orleans home of the blues!”

When JB and the Famous Flames did “Night Train,” the cities that got shouted out had a purpose: they were either cities on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the well-traveled route that black entertainers took to the venues that would host them in the days of Jim Crow, and even after that. But Brown would also shout out cities with radio stations that played black music, hoping that the mention of the city on the record would get them some additional airplay. This was not a revolutionary tactic, but it was a very smart one. As R.J. Smith notes in his fantastic biography of James Brown, The One, “A black broadcaster in a place like Montgomery [Alabama] was a power broker among people whose power was limited.”

But why “Night Train”? Yes, he needed to make sure there was no dead air while they cleaned the stage up from the popcorn snow. He could have played literally any song in his catalog or anyone’s else’s for that matter. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had absolutely no history playing “Night Train” before, and never played it again (at least according to all known sources). James Brown was born in Georgia and called it home for many years; he is definitely one of the better-known musicians from the Peach State. “Night Train” also features a prominent saxophone line -- it’s more of a band and dance number than it is a vocal showcase -- and while the E Street Band may never have performed the number live, there’s zero doubt that every single member of the band knew the song and most of them likely played it in their cover band days, or they knew it well enough to fake it competently. Clarence Clemons was not faking the solo; he knew that shit. (Or maybe he didn’t; I believe that the Big Man was likely one of the most talented people on the planet in terms of pretending he knew how to do something he didn’t actually know how to do. Either way, it works.) The least competent person on the stage is actually Bruce, who gets the Atlanta part down, but then routes the train in a geographically unlikely fashion:

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedAtlanta, Georgia! Dallas, Texas! Miami, Florida! Comin’ through to Houston!

While that makes no sense geographically, it makes a lot more sense once you know that those were in fact some of the cities where the radio broadcast was airing. It was both a polite and a strategic shout-out: maybe it would make the station re-air the show or talk about it the next day, and it’s dumb to think that Bruce Springsteen felt like he needed to do something like this, but it’s not that he didn’t -- we’re just still coming out of the Lawsuit era -- and he would have seen it as a nice nod to history and tradition and the cultural lineage of the E Street Band. It was a matter of pride back then, it’s still something important to him now, given the content of Only The Strong Survive. Even if Bruce Springsteen never played another soul or r&b cover again, it’s something that once you lay claim to it, never goes away.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedLadies and gentlemen, are you ready for showtime? CHORDWelcome to Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater! CHORDI’d like to introduce to you right now a young man He was Born in the USA! CHORDArrived here tonight in his Pink Cadillac! Winner of the Academy Award! He brought you great hits such as Dancing in the Dark! CHORDBorn to Run! CHORDHungry Heart! CHORDI’m talking about Mr. Badlands, the Jersey Devil himself! The man who paid the cost to be The Boss! The hardest working white man in show business! Let’s hear it for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band!

This was how Bruce opened the show at the Apollo Theater on March 9, 2012, the opening show of the Wrecking Ball tour. The intro would last another few shows before being abandoned, but he’d made his point (even if he should have gotten someone else to do the intro. It should not have been the actual star!). I was immediately reminded of those 1976-ish intros for Steve:


It is fun to hear these moments, look for them in the past, recognize them when they happen contemporaneously. And they matter because it is another layer of continuity with what happened before, with what inspired these musicians to choose the life they did to be in the place where they are then paying tribute. It’s not just about influence, it’s about alliance and community and fellowship. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, everything is based on what came before it. It is about what rock and roll meant and still means outside of the miasma of corporate capitalization that touches everything now. Rock and roll was considered dangerous in its infancy because it was a force that couldn’t be controlled. It appealed to a certain group of misfits and weirdos and malcontents because it made them feel alive and electric and coming through the radio when they knew that there were thousands of other people like them listening to it all at the same time.

When I was young and listening to the radio and thinking about how many other people were doing the same thing at the same time was like being part of this universal breath that was reassuring, encouraging, empowering, comforting. You were not alone! You were not the only person who cared about this. It was rebellion in that it was a glimmer of hope and a force that could give you courage to find your space on this planet. Every time a band plays a cover or makes a reference to some kind of stage business it is because of all of that. It is tribute, it is celebration, it is an in-joke, it is staking your claim at the same place, the same art, the same space. It is saying, I am here and we are part of this and we are essential to the continuation of this art form, of this method of expression, of this mode of revolution. And the beautiful thing is that you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it or appreciate it or take it in, all you have to do is be there and you are connected to everything that came before. It’s important to get it right. It’s important to remember it.

And all of this explains exactly why Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played “Night Train” in Atlanta on the Darkness tour.

Why Patti Smith Matters will be published in German translation later this week by btb Verlag. I spoke with Radio Bremen earlier today about the book’s release, which you can hear on Radio Bremen 2 on September 29 during the morning hours. (It will only be about five minutes.)