For Soul Brother Number One, the toughest sacrifice was deflating his chemically cooked hair. The interim Afro was pure torture: "It was like givin' up somethin' for Lent," he said. "I wanted people to know that one of the most prized things I let go of was my hair. It was a real attraction to my business. But I would cut it off for the movement."
As his interviewer and hopeless fan, I knew James Brown for about a quarter of a century – much of it sleep-deprived. Hanging with JB was a life-altering, if challenging, adventure. He would call when he hit Manhattan, stop his limo across from my apartment and pop out to hold up traffic until I was aboard. You never knew who was going to be inside: Muhammad Ali. JB's father, Joe Brown. Leon Spinks. A comely Bride of Funkenstein. A new wife. And nearly always, "Rev," as he called Sharpton.
The star had taken Sharpton under his wing when the preacher was a fatherless teenager. Few failed to notice the timing: It was shortly after the 1973 auto-crash death of his own nineteen-year-old son, Teddy. Born in Toccoa, Georgia, where his father struggled to feed him by singing gospel in churches, Teddy was JB's oldest child and greatest hope. He was going to college.
In all the times I saw them together, Brown and Sharpton were gleeful, affectionate co-conspirators, shoring up each other's agenda on endless antic road trips. Running with Mr. Brown could induce the same orgy of emotion as his shows: laughter, tears, disbelief – and moments of genuine terror. Nights on the town were funky. And fraught. It was excruciating squirming with members of the Brown entourage in a pricey and very white hotel dining room as a disdainful waiter tried to humiliate JB with blather about the petits champignons in the veal Marengo. But it was divine when our leader sent the waist-coated roach scuttling, defeated, with a polite but firm response: "I don't eat toadstools."
If you were in his mental Rolodex you were perpetually on call: At 3 A.M., the phone would ring, and the singular rasp would ask: "Aw, you sleepin'? It's James. Lissen. I been thinking . . ." The incessant verbal sparring, on everything from racism to "blackroeconomics," could be maddening and exhilarating. Often I hollered myself hoarse over the roar of Mr. Brown's heavy-duty hair dryers; the man spent more time in rollers than Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Sometimes we couldn't talk at all. In the latter years, the Godfather's repeated falls from grace were heartbreaking; PCP-fueled rampages, domestic violence, car chases, the televised mug shots, more jail time and the awkward post-prison explanations and denials.
If I ever came within a light-year of understanding James Brown, it was in deepest "Georgia-lina," as he called his sanctuary: Augusta, and Beech Island, South Carolina, across the Savannah River, where he made his home. Despite the mantle of urban cool, despite a brief New York residency in the Sixties, with the white-carpeted castle in Queens and the black lawn Santas, he insisted, "I am country. I stayed country. Couldn't do nothing about it, if you want to know the truth. And entertainers like me, from the South, you meet up on the road and you could tell if a guy was missing something. I used to talk about being homesick with Otis Redding."
Of all the material goods he won and lost – the private jet, the fleet of cars, the suitcases bulging with cash, the 500 suits, the 300 pairs of shoes – the thing James Brown clung to most tenaciously was his home and the ability to walk the streets around it with uncompromised ease.
"Now Elvis, he got so far away from it, he couldn't do that. He told me he'd ride around Memphis, around the streets he come up in, all alone at night. Ride around on his motorcycle when he was sure the rest of the world was asleep, just kind of haunting them places he hung around as a kid. He was a country boy. But the way they had him livin', they never turned off the air condition'. Took away all that good air. You get sick from that."
He was inconsolable when Elvis died, stared down at the bloated face in the coffin and through tears asked the King, "How you let it go?" In the darker days, after disco had Latin Hustled him off the charts and the personal demons got top billing, JB would admit that he let a lot go himself: wives, a viable family life, fortunes and, for some spells, his freedom and good name. But he was resolute about the real estate: "I have the one thing which means somethin' in this world, which God gives to no man. Yet man sells it. I have land. For my kids. They need a place where they can pick up dirt and let it go through their fingers and say, 'It's mine.' As far as man's law, that dirt belongs to them, and I feel good about it."
This, he admitted, he learned from his father, who, after one of his son's declines, got his boy back in the dirt to knuckle chickweed out of the lawn since they could no longer afford a gardener. Black yardmen and their families grew up on the land, Joe Brown reminded him, "but didn't have no address." Holding title to some red clay was more comfort than all the royal appellations he could invent.
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