James Brown: I Feel Good!

The Reeducation and umpteenth Resurrection of James Brown

James Brown in the Netherlands.
Michel Linssen/Redferns
June 27, 1991

'ANEEEEMALS! A-NEEEE-MALS!" The Parisian press is un peu upset, rising up off its black-jerseyed rump, craning to see Le JB over a nasty, elbowing pack of New York paparazzi. Ze aneemals are jockeying for the first photo op of postprison James Brown. They're all here – the tabs, the glossies, the news weeklies – throwing blocks that Lawrence Taylor would admire. The press conference is to announce a cable pay-per-view concert on June 10th, but the main draw is curiosity. Brown was released from a South Carolina halfway house on February 27th, having served two and a half years of a six-year sentence for aggravated assault and refusing to stop his pickup truck for police, the result of a 1988 incident near his Beech Island, South Carolina, home. Throughout the cavernous Time Warner auditorium, the questions buzz like so many blowflies around a juicy roadkill: How's he look? Izat his wife – the one we saw in the Enquirer with all those bruises? Has he even got a band? Can he still dance?

JB has not even appeared yet, but the energy in the room is . . . bizarre. Butch Lewis, a fight promoter known for wearing shirtless tuxes and rhinestone bow ties, has taken the stage. Lewis, who is one of the event's organizers – along with Time Warner and Black Entertainment Television – has promoted dance cards for such heavyweight Masters of Destruction as Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks. But even he is no match for zese aneemals.

"Down! Aw, come on, ladies and gents, GET DOWN."

No way. They've spotted Smokin' Joe Frazier! Michael Spinks! Look, making his way along the side paneling, Brown's longtime friend and aide-de-camp Rev. Al Sharpton, his famous Jamesian 'do haloed by the flash lightning. "Halellujah," says one dashikied scribe, "the Round Mound of Sound." With Sharpton is activist-lawyer C. Vernon Mason.

The Time Warner suit at the podium stares with some disbelief at the snapping and tearing in the pit beneath the stage. His mega-corp has laid it on lavishly for the occasion – coffee and top-tier danish, carpeted risers for the video cameras, python-fat cables to pump out all this heady PR juice. Of all James Brown's comebacks during his thirty-five-year career, this pay-per-view ballyhoo is by far the noisiest and best underwritten.

In addition to this event, to be held at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles – with special superstar guests like M.C. Hammer – Polydor has just released Star Time, a mammoth, boxed Brown retrospective. And there's a documentary, James Brown – The Man, the Music & the Message, directed by Thomas A Hart Jr., which had gala New York and L.A. premières, cable air time. NBC has signed the parolee for a guest shot on the sitcom Amen, and Brown's new consortium of lawyers is deep into negotiations for a regular spot on M.C. Hammer's planned music-talk show, as well as shopping for a new record deal and booking dates for a summer tour.

So much, after so little. Just a scant two and a half years ago, all James Brown seemed to be able to manage was getting arrested. Until this chilly day in March, the most anyone had seen of Soul Brother Number One was the ghostly, shimmying hologram dancing opposite M.C. Hammer in his "Here Comes the Hammer" video. Now – mon Dieu! – James pandemonium.

He's baaaaack. There, charging out of the wings with that bandylegged strut, looking very much his superbad old self in a gray three-piece suit and red silk tie, hair pumped, shoes shiny as the fender of a hearse at send-off time. And once he's tamed the lensmen ("Have some RESPECT, please!"), JB is fielding questions.

"Mr. Brown, what do you have to say now about living in America?"

"I better not answer that."

"Mr. Brown, how did you survive in prison?"

"The Lord. I called on Him, all day. Every day."

"Will you be working with any of the new rappers?"

"I've been on the records ENOUGH." The Godfather grimaces and sings a line from his I'm-the-original rapper song: " 'I'M REAL!'"

"Monsieur Brown, have you ever considered retiring?"

In the back, someone is hollering: "HE CAN'T. NEVER. WE NEED JAMES BROWN MORE THAN EVER."

The Godfather grins, throws out his arms.

"I'll never outlive the Sixties."

You must remember his extreme exits, circa '65. And if you never experienced one, surely you've heard. James Brown's step-offs are the stuff of every child's rock & soul primer. With the Famous Flames crooning, "Please don't go," with emcee Danny Ray tenderly raising Brown's limp form from the stage, Pietà-style, and wrapping a lamé cape around the drenched shoulders, James would toss it all off, spring back to his feet and do it to death all over again. Down again, up, through a second cape, down, up, a third – the Godfather's exits had more stages than a Saturn rocket. What it boiled down to, 350 nights a year in damn near as many cities, was this: Just when you thought he was finished, reduced to a pool of sweat on the floorboards, James Brown ROSE UP, roared back. Clean. Bad. Fiercer and faster. It was nothing short of a resurrection – appearing nightly.

Nobody was hollering "Don't go" in December of 1988, when JB was escorted off to State Park Correctional Facility, near Columbia, South Carolina. This time, the Exit was neither smooth nor clean. The Godfather looked haggard and disoriented on the news footage. Those closest to him feared that he might die in prison – especially if he had to serve the full six years.

He didn't think he'd be there a month. James Brown has long had plenty of friends in high places, including the last four Republican White Houses. But nobody wanted to touch this one. While he was rehearsing his R&B inaugural extravaganza for George Bush in January of '89, Lee Atwater, the recently deceased Republican party chief, told me that he had been approached but there was nothing he or his boss could do. Atwater would visit Brown in jail, say he felt for the man, but, hooee, Brown was tied up with that Al Sharpton, who was tied up with That Tawana Thing and, shoot, the Godfather would just have to do his time. A damn shame.

Rev, as Brown calls Sharpton, settled down with his African American-activist power Rolodex. William Kunstler told him it was a lost cause; so did other legal experts. Sharpton says he called the NAACP, "all the black organizations," and found no one willing to protest the severity of Brown's sentence. Then he went to black entertainers. He won't speak their names into a tape recorder, but he says he begged the Biggest – including certain billion-dollar Motown babies JB once dandled on his scarred knees at the Apollo Theater. Could they just visit James once, keep his spirits up? Didn't they know that when Little Willie John landed in prison, James visited him, campaigned to get him out? Didn't they recall that when John died in jail in 1968, James dedicated a whole album to him (Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things)? Now this was JAMES BROWN, father of them all, in trouble. JAMES BROWN!

The most Sharpton got was "I'll get back to you." Nobody did. Fearing his own name might conjure too many negatives, Sharpton had Melba Moore make some calls – with the same results. The alleged drug problems, the domestic disputes, the photos of bruised wife Adrienne (Alfie) Brown in the National Enquirer, the celebrated ego tantrums, it was all too much. "I think it was the controversy around the case," says Sharpton. "I think some managers said it was too hot."

So nobody went, not even most of the twelve people on Brown's regular visitation list. That first year, before the promoters and record companies started coming around, was an agony of solitude. Jesse Jackson stopped by once on his way to see his mother in Greenville. Atwater showed up. And Sharpton and Brown's wife were there as often as possible. Brown said nothing, but Rev could tell it hurt. "He's there TWO YEARS," says Sharpton. "Not one, not even the old-timers, came. Nobody. The only one that spoke up was Little Richard. It really showed me how scared a lot of these guys are – how controlled this corporate-image thing has become."

So what happened when the door closed on the Godfather and that big quiet came down? Herewith, the reeducation and umpteenth resurrection of James "Butane" Brown.

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