Being James Brown: Rolling Stone's 2006 Story

Page 10 of 12

This is a child who ate "salad we found in the woods" in his first years, a child who was sent home from school — in the rural South — for "insufficient clothes" (i.e., potato sacks). This is a teenager who was nearly electrocuted by a pair of white men who whimsically invited him to touch a car battery they were fooling with. This is a man who, during his incarceration in the 1980s, long after he'd drowned his nightmare of "insufficient clothes" in velvet and fur and leather and jeweled cuff links, was found to be hiding tens of thousands of dollars in cash in his prison cell, an expression of a certainty that society was merely a thin fiction covering a harsh jungle of desolation and violence, and if James Brown wasn't looking out for James Brown, no one was.

His, then, is a solipsism born of necessity. When it most mattered, there was nobody to jump up and kiss James Brown except himself. His "family" is therefore a trickledown structure, practically a musical Ponzi scheme, and anyone willing to give him his best is going to be taken for as long a ride as he can take him on. Gamble with James Brown, and he will throw the shaved dice, until, like the Moonglows and Wilson Pickett, you are forced to understand that you are dealing with a street man. And much as in the cases of Duke Ellington or Orson Welles, James Brown's ability to catalyze and absorb the efforts of his collaborators is a healthy portion of his genius.

And discipline is good for the child, after all. When James Brown sings, as he does, of corporal punishment: "Mama come here quick/Bring me that lickin' stick" or "Papa didn't cuss, he didn't raise a whole lot of fuss/But when we did wrong, Papa beat the hell out of us," it is with admiration, and pride. Though his band consents to call itself his family, the structure bears at least an equal resemblance to jail-which is where James Brown was more likely to have absorbed his definitive notions or authority. So when his musicians begin to bristle under his hand, they find themselves savaged for their "betrayals" — for daring, that is, to risk subjecting James Brown to further experience of abandonment. This explains what I encountered in Augusta: The band James Brown has gathered in 2005 is the vanishing endpoint of his long struggle with Byrd, Maceo, Bootsy, Pee Wee, Wesley and all the others; a band more inclined to coddle his terror than to attempt to push him to some new musical accomplishment, however tempting it might be.

James Brown is in his mid-seventies, for crying out loud. What more do you want from him? What's really special about James Brown is how undisguised, how ungentrified, he remains, has always remained. Most anyone else from his point of origin would long since be living in Beverly Hills, just as his peers in the R&B and soul genre of the Fifties and Sixties smoothed down their rough edges and negotiated a truce; either went Motown, meeting the needs of a white audience for safe, approachable music, or else went jazzily uptown, like Ray Charles. Whereas James Brown, astonishingly, returned to Augusta, site of his torment, and persistently left the backwoods-shack, backwoods-church, Twiggs Street-whorehouse edges of his music raw and on view. His trauma, his confusion, his desperation; those are worn on the outside of his art, on the outside of his shivering and crawling and pleading onstage. James Brown, you see, is not only the kid from Twiggs Street who wouldn't go away. He's the one who wouldn't pretend he wasn't from Twiggs Street.

Today is Fred Wesley day, and everyone's excited. The studio is more populous than before: For unclear reasons, today is also family day. James Brown's wife, Tommie Rae Brown, a singer who is a part of the band's live act, has brought along their five-year-old son, James Brown II. Then appears James Brown's thirty-one-year-old daughter, Deanna, a local radio talk-show host. Deanna has, variously, sued her father for royalties on songs she claimed to have helped write when she was six years old and attempted to commit her father into a mental institution; lately, they're on better terms. Also on the scene is another son, whose name I don't catch, a shy man who appears to be in his early fifties, and with two sons of his own in attendance — James Brown's grandsons, older than James Brown II.

These different versions of "family," with all their tangible contradictions, mingle politely, deferentially with one another in the overcrowded playback room, where James Brown and Fred Wesley are seated together in the leather chairs. Wesley, his red T-shirt stretched over his full belly, is a figure of doughy charisma and droll warmth, teasing and joshing with the children and with the room full of musicians eager to greet him. His eyes, though, register wariness or confusion, as though he's trying to fathom what is expected of him here, a little as though he fears he may have wandered into a trap.

James Brown, startlingly, has abandoned his three-piece suits today for an entirely different look: black cowboy hat, black sleeveless top, snakeskin boots and wraparound shades. What we have here is the Payback James Brown, a dangerous man to cross. I wonder whether this is for Wesley's benefit, or whether James Brown just woke up on the Miles Davis side of the bed this morning. James Brown is giving Wesley a listen to "Message to the World," plainly hoping to please him. Wesley nods along. The two of them slap hands when the song comes to James Brown's references to Maceo and to Wesley. The smile James Brown shows now is by far the warmest and most genuine I've seen from him.

Next James Brown commands Howard to play an instrumental track for Wesley, a shuffle that James Brown calls "Ancestors." Wesley listens closely to "Ancestors" once through and then says simply, "That makes all the sense in the world, Mr. Brown. Thank you very much." He fetches his trombone, in order to lay a long solo over the shuffle. I gather that, once again, a track is to be unceremoniously slammed together before my eyes.

The entire band, as well as the many family members, lingers to gaze through the sound room's long glass window at Wesley as he plays. Wesley makes a rollicking figure there, his red T-shirt and gleaming trombone spotlit in the otherwise darkened studio. The band members I've come to know seem both exhilarated and tired; these long sequences of not playing are wearing on them, but Wesley is a genuine inspiration. Hollie, meanwhile, is troubling over the track's changes, trying to anticipate the next crisis: "Ask him if he wants me to transpose that keyboard, just so he'll be in D."

Wesley concludes and re-enters the playback room. Next, James Brown enters the studio to lay a "rap" over the top of the track. The moment the boss leaves for the soundproof chamber, the band members laugh with admiring pleasure: "Damn, Fred, you come in here and just start blowing, man!" They're thrilled at his on-the-spot facility. "Just went with those changes, never heard them before. I told him. 'It goes up a half-octave' — bam!"

Wesley laughs back: "What could I do — damn! Shuffle in F."

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