'Elvis, how you let this happen? How you let it go?"
In his swank, flower-banked Manhattan hotel suite, I remind James of what he said over the coffin of his old friend. The night after Elvis died, an unmarked police car had sped the Godfather through the throngs outside Graceland to the bier of the only solo singer who had charted more records than he had. James was brokenhearted. And he couldn't believe Elvis had blown it so badly. How you let this happen?
"Aw, you remember too much." James is tired, but he is in a playful mood, says he feels like talking. In the near decade and a half I've known him, I've come to realize that actually trying to interview the man is like attempting to navigate the Mississippi in an inner tube. Sometimes his conversation roars, sometimes it trickles – and for long stretches it can get mighty muddy. But it always keeps rolling. You'd best just hang on.
Seems like old times, James is saying, and it does. Here we sit in yet another pricey set of rooms – the Plaza this time – surrounded by the cologned eddy and swirl of yet another entourage. All day, since his 4:30 a.m. call for the Today show, people have been asking James Brown: How did it happen? All day, he's been fast on his feet, boogalooing past the queries on domestic violence, on drugs, talking about his faith in America, his trust in God, the Holy Bible, his wonderful, loyal wife. It's been a tough opening day on the comeback trail.
So how'd it happen?
"Good gawd. You, too?"
The other men in the room shoot looks at one another, then relax when James laughs – loudly. This is an ecumenical bunch: one black minister-lawyer, Reginald Simmons; a black magistrate from Aiken County, South Carolina, Judge Al Bradley; one Fifties soul man, Lloyd "Personality" Price; Butch Lewis; and one white lawyer from Chicago, Jay B. Ross. These are the men who turned up during Brown's second year in prison with offers, ideas and one ineffable commodity JB is calling the Hope Factor.
"Hope that I could put it back together," he says. "Hope that others could – soul acts that can still sing. Right, Mr. Ross?"
The Chicago lawyer nods.
"And we ain't gonna call 'em nostalgia acts no more, right?"
"Classics, Mr. Brown. Classics."
"Thank you, sir."
So how'd it happen?
"Have mercy, woman."
The Official Version of the incident has JB toting a nonfunctioning shotgun into an insurance seminar in an office near his own in Augusta, Georgia, accusing participants of using his private restroom. When he left, there was a police chase, during which officers shot out his tires. They say he drove through a roadblock, six miles on the rims before he ended up in a ditch and was arrested. The Official Version also says he tested positive for PCP.
He will not discuss the issue of drugs, even with his very close friend Rev Sharpton, except to say he's against them. And James says he wishes there had been someone there with a video camera the way there was in Los Angeles recently. He says there were twenty-three bullet holes in the pickup; he did not fire at, touch or assault anyone.
There is a remarkable piece of footage in the documentary regarding the chase. James sits in that battered vehicle, its tires hanging in shreds, and explains his version of events. He admits to having driven around the roadblock but says that the police had begun pumping bullets into his truck after he had pulled over – that one officer had smashed in the passenger window with a gun butt as James was talking to another. He drove off on the rims, he says, once the cop ran out of bullets. "I did it then, I'd do it again. If a man shoots three or four times and don't kill me – if he tries to reload, I'm gone."
JB says fear for his life made him crank it up and git – and pride got him the mondo sentence. He would not cop a plea for things he says he was not guilty of. The judge and his own attorneys advised him to plead guilty and accept a ninety-day sentence. They told him that if he refused and went to trial, he would face big time if found guilty. JB had a long docket sheet of traffic violations, and there were a dozen calls on record to the police by his wife and her mother, alleging domestic violence. He also had experience with Southern justice: When he was sixteen, he drew an eight-to-sixteen-year sentence for breaking into cars; he served three.
"I knew there was no justice," James says of this go-round. "I knew that from years back. But I was surprised at them being so bold. That's it, ninety days or six years, there ain't no in between, they told me straight up. I made my choice."
Why? Knowing what he did, why take the chance?
James starts singing: " 'MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE . . . ' "
He's up on the goodfoot, shimmying around a coffee table piled with the day's press lips.
"I'm a believer."
In God and country? Yes, ma'am. James is laughing again.
"The Bible will save your soul, the Man put you in jail?
"AMEN!" from the comer. "Yessir. That's the truth."
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