With last year’s release of the critically acclaimed biopic Get On Up, followed by the HBO documentary Mr. Dynamite, the legacy of James Brown continues to be acknowledged and celebrated around the world eight years after his death. Brown called Augusta, Georgia home, as do a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and a former member of Brown’s band who have joined forces on a new album to honor the Godfather of Soul and keep his spirit alive and well.
With a vocal styling that’s part gospel, roots and R&B, a catalogue of introspective songs and a love of interpreting the music of artists like Van Morrison, Greg Hester has been known as a powerhouse singer in Georgia and the Southeast for the past two decades. When he considered organizing a James Brown tribute concert after the passing of his musical hero on Christmas Day in 2006, Hester says that “Keith Jenkins” is the only name that came to his mind.
Keith Jenkins was only 20 years old when he joined Brown’s band, The Soul Generals, as guitarist in 1994 and he recorded and traveled the world with the singer until his death. “Playing for James Brown is something that only a few people in the world will ever really know,” says Jenkins, who served as technical adviser on the set of Get On Up and played himself on the big screen.
“I called Keith out of the blue one day,” explains Hester. “[He] and I both grew up in Augusta, but I had never met him before. I saw him play in a House of Blues video and knew that I wanted to meet him one day. I spoke with Keith after Mr. Brown’s passing and asked him if he would help me with a tribute show in Athens. He said ‘yes,’ and we clicked instantly. We have been like brothers ever since.”
With various musical connections among them, Hester and Jenkins successfully produced a tribute show in Athens in 2007. Afterwards, the pair not only continued to perform together, but began to organize their next collaboration: a James Brown tribute album.
Beginning in 2008, Hester and Jenkins summoned a wide variety of artists and friends to join them at Eric McConnell’s East Nashville studio to honor Soul Brother No. 1. Over the next seven years, many more sessions were held in Nashville, Augusta, and Atlanta with McConnell engineering all of the tracks that would eventually become Soul Brother, Where Art Thou.
Hester hand-picked the vocalist for each song while Jenkins focused on recapturing the essence of Brown’s music. At Hester’s invitation, guest vocalists Shana Morrison (singer/songwriter and daughter of Van Morrison), Ivan Neville of the legendary New Orleans family, Raul Malo of The Mavericks and John Popper of Blues Traveler contributed to the album.
Jenkins was able to reunite former members of the James Brown Band including Fred Wesley, Hollie Farris, Waldo Weathers, Fred Thomas, Ron Laster, Erik Hargrove, Mousey Thompson, Spike Nealy, Danny Ray, Jeff Watkins, Amy Christian and Kelly Jarrell Gordon to record the music they know and love. Jenkins recollects, “It was great to have Fred Wesley, the band leader of the JB’s from the 60s and 70s playing with Hollie Farris, the band leader from 1976 until James Brown’s death. To my knowledge this is the first time they appear on record together.”
When deciding on tracks for Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?, Hester and Jenkins intentionally omitted some of the most popular hits and focused more on songs they felt Brown’s fans would appreciate, eventually recording 22 tracks in all. The album begins with “Try Me” and showcases Hester’s full range of vocal allure with his deep and sentimental crooning style. Southern rock icon Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie brings his down home charm to the track and also appears on “I’ll Go Crazy” with John Popper, who ferociously plays the harmonica like a lead guitar. “There Was A Time” features Atlanta cult hero Col. Bruce Hampton who adds his signature freewheeling style to the project while Athens-based folk singer/guitarist Caroline Aiken appears on “Soul Power.”
Hester is joined by Raul Malo for a beautiful rendition of “It’s A Man’s World” and he shines again in the ballad “I Don’t Mind” with Georgia’s Chris Unck. Unck, who has worked with Butch Walker and Lisa Loeb, adds his rich and smooth vocal texture to Hester’s unadulterated grit. Drivin’ N Cryin’s roots rocker, Kevn Kinney appears alongside Hester on “Lickin Stick” with the two indulging in some raunchy-add-libbing fun, mimicking Brown’s flamboyant screams and moans. Brown’s former emcee and cape man, Danny Ray also appears on the track.
Jenkins, who also serves as Musical Director of the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils in Augusta says, “In our own little way, Greg and I just wanted to give something back to Mr. Brown with the album. We want to show appreciation not only for how Mr. Brown affected the people that knew him, but for the gift of his music that he gave to the world and all the good feelings that he inspired.”