It must have been the most unlikely duo of all time. This idea that the disciplined lyric tenor of Luciano Pavarotti, crowned “King of the High Cs”, that note that could bring you to tears, could be somehow intermingled with the raspy funk-infused blues-chantings of the irrepressible “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, would hardly have been conceived for the to-do list of any producer.
Yet Pavarotti had seen the future. For him, globalization meant that the genre of classical opera music, cloistered and exclusive for ages, would become a part of the emerging world music scene, an innovation in harmony where East meets West and seemingly incongruous music genres are fused to produce a new, universal message in sound. Since 1990 when his signature aria “Nessun Dorma” crossed over into the world of pop, the great tenor worked tirelessly to bring classic opera to the masses, performing with other pop stars through a series of concerts for charity, Pavarotti and Friends, with innumerable artistes, from Bryan Adams and Tom Jones to Barry White and Ricky Martin.
Yet no other collaboration has so captured the aesthetic of perfection in incongruity as this electrifying duet performed with James Brown in Pavarotti’s hometown of Modena in the spring of 2002. From the sighing strings of the violins mimicking the “bel canto” of the tenor, the steady blues rhythm of the keyboard artist, to the dramatic drummer and the hypnotic swaying and melodious harmony of the backup singers, comes an orchestration of sound that holds all enraptured in the unmistakable magic and an incredible fusion of synergies.
“It’s a Man’s World” was first performed by James Brown in 1965 and though its title may offend the ear of most women today, he confessed that the expressed caveat makes it stark reality. “But he’s nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl…he’s lost in the wilderness, lost in bitterness.” And just what is Pavarotti singing? For the curious, the Italian lyrics and a rough English translation are provided:
L’uomo rincorre il potere ma
Lui non sa
Che il grande limiti ad essere come si parrà
Nel palmo stringe un’idea che non vive
Che nella sua fantasia
Se non si accorge che poi
Nulla ha più senso te
si vive solo per sè
“Man runs after power but
He doesn’t know
The great limitations he places upon himself [?]
In his fist (selfishly) he keeps an idea
An idea that is alive
Only in his fantasy;
(still) he runs…
And he doesn’t see that
All this makes no sense
If you live all by yourself” (or only for yourself)
Perhaps the dual message of the great tenor was that in addition to man being nothing without his woman, true greatness is not derived from merely achieving the accoutrements of fame and fortune, as in “living only for yourself”, but in making the gifts and talents available to others, as he did approaching his end.
Throughout the performance, JB remains faithful to his flamboyant funk, while the maestro is riveted to the intense discipline of his own craft, yet you can’t mistake their smoldering passions that explode at the climax, when true to form, Pavarotti ends on a perfect and divinely controlled high note, and Brown delivers a last dose of that high-octane, sandpaper-soul-deep exultation, with a flourish of strings and the clash of cymbals to cap a totally unforgettable experience.
Both performers were nearing 70 years old when they hit the stage together, and they have now crossed over the bar, Brown’s rasp forever stilled on December 25, 2006, with the passing of the tenor nine months later on September 7, 2007. Their collaboration may have been novelty, but both have earned their places in the pantheon of the greats, and their legacies will echo into eternity.
This performance is available through the magic of Youtube, and can also be found on the DVD James Brown: Soul Survivor (a PBS “American Masters” special from 2003.)