If the hows are still disputed, the whys are murkier still. Sharpton, who had watched the club dates and the payrolls dwindle and who found himself wheedling Brown's air fare from club owners, record companies – anyone – has a theory: "I think he went through a lot of personal problems because he was ignored. Even in the black community he was just totally ignored. I think James was a lot more hurt being treated unfairly in the music world than he ever would admit – even to himself. And sometimes that internal pain can make you do a lot of things that you wouldn't normally do."
There is something James Brown says he misses more than the adoring mobs the suitcases full of cash, more than the lines snaking around the Apollo. He misses his father – the only person on this planet who could tell the Biggest Ego in Show Business what to do. When Joe Brown had a seriously debilitating stroke several years back, his son cried – something he had not done since his own son Teddy was killed in a car accident in 1973. Since his stroke, the elder Brown has been confined to a bed in the veterans hospital in Augusta. The last time James had fallen on tough times – when he says he "took some mess" from the disco era and the tax man in the mid-Seventies – it was his father who turned him around. Point out that his latest set of troubles came just after his father took ill and James is quiet for a moment.
"Daddy's kept me together, I always told you that, didn't I? And if there was trouble, my daddy would have fixed it Everybody – I'm talking about the Man – everybody knows Joe Brown. And they LIKE him. Always did. They knew he was an honest, hard-working man, wouldn't take nothing he hadn't earned. If he wasn't sick, they would have called him in and said, 'Joe, let's talk about our boy.' And I guarantee you I wouldn't have been in prison."
It is the Old Way, he acknowledges, the way of black men at back doors, hats in hand. Joe Brown would have promised to keep his fifty-five-year-old boy in line, and they would have taken his word.
"You're right when you say I need my daddy," James says. "He always tried to keep me on the right road."
Joe Brown has been his son's mainstay – best as he could – since he and his wife split when James was four. He did many kinds of work, but his preferred job was as a heavy-equipment operator. He began grading roads with a mule team when he was just eleven and passed the war 'dozing landing strips on Pacific atolls. "Daddy can't remember nothin' now," James says. I go in and I talk to him. About the past, cause he can't remember what we come through together, no. I'm trying to bring Daddy back. I talk so MUCH in that room."
He tells the old stories to the small, shrunken man in the bed. One occurs to him now – a story about staying on the road. Around the room, the men settle in for a Jamesian tale – except for Butch Lewis, who works a phone without pity.
"When my mother and my father broke up, my father had met people who were going to take care of James. Now they didn't have ANYthing. Stick shack in the woods. No windowpanes. Open up the shutters and you look straight through at the weather."
One day, Joe Brown walked out from work in the turpentine camps and found his boy there alone in the piney woods, playing with sacks in the dirt. The woman had been gone all day. James told his father it happened often. Joe Brown closed up the shack and decided to take his son to the place he was staying. Night was falling, and they faced eleven miles of country road.
" 'Come on, Junior.' " James sounds like his father. He has left the sofa, is standing before a gilt table with a sumptuous fruit arrangement. His eyes are closed; he has adopted the posture of a staggering little boy.
"Eleven miles. Man's bigger, I'm getting tired. I walk, I close my eyes. See, I was smart, I had ANOTHER Kind of mind."
"Sure enough!" says the consortium. "No lie."
"I looked and saw how straight the road was. I'd go to sleep and walk until I feel me grass on my feet – I'd know I'm off the road. Then I'd wake up and walk straight. Now ain't that somethin'?"
The next morning he couldn't walk, his legs were so swollen. Joe Brown soaked his boy's skinny brown legs in a bucket of milk.
"I come up hard."
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