James Brown: I Feel Good!

The Reeducation and umpteenth Resurrection of James Brown

james brown 1991 netherlands
Michel Linssen/Redferns
James Brown in the Netherlands.
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'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.

'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."

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."

Prison made him remember that, but not in the obvious ways. First and always, there was loneliness, and it was scarier than being an unloved boy in the woods. Now he was a middle-aged man, one who had been wealthy and worshiped, incarcerated with those who were just past being children. He says he didn't know these kids. Some of them were more hard-eyed, more without hope and flat-out dangerous than any "hardened" inmates he'd ever seen. They couldn't believe he was in there just for running from the law. "They'd say, 'Man, they put you in jail for nothing,' " he recalls.

But if they were hip to me severity of James Brown's sentence, the young inmates were not impressed with his soulful credentials. They looked at the older man in the processed pageboy, watched the way he carried himself, like he was somebody, and they said: "Who he?" These big, wise children with their fades and their shades and their tough New Jack Swing – THEY DIDN'T KNOW JAMES BROWN.

He didn't know how to explain to them who he was – what masterworks of his they live and breathe from their big, thudding boxes. Who was it that subdivided the most primordial bass line, who got so deep into polyrhythmic receptions, so far out the other side of the jam, that it all seemed brand-new? And who first pop-locked a funky femur and drove the sweat straight through shoe leather? Brother, it was NOT some cat who gooses twin turntables and scratches the hell out of perfectly good vinyl, HELL NO. It was NOT a bunch of fat dudes in surfer clothes and gold chains . . .

"They're talking about some cat I never heard of," JB grouches. "Some rapper or whatever." At night, the walls rang with the cassette ravings of the usurpers. He says the noise in jail is awesome. And until lights out – BOOM thunka-thunka BOOM – he heard that voracious street-corner roar, heard himself sampled "near unto death." He says he heard lyrics that would make a Sex Machine blush. "I just can't believe these kind of records exist in the world." No names, no ma'am, no way. So he stayed quiet, did Mr. Brown, until things started to turn around.

"You know when it came back to life? When their families started bringing James Brown tapes. They remembered then WHO IT WAS." He leans forward, incredulous. "They had forgotten WHO IT WAS. Who THEY were."

And who are they? James wasn't sure. They sure looked different and, have mercy, how those cats talked. "I may run into trouble but I GOT to say it Ninety percent of the black Kids, with what the system has done, seventy-five percent of their language is 'MF' and 'SOB.' They can't put words together but without that one [MF], which they think says EVERYTHING. You get that far down expressing yourself, ain't one place left by the graveyard."

Query him on New Breed styles and he is off and bellowing. STYLE? These boys needed him. "These cats get a hat, turn it around and wear it backward!" To some, a backward ballcap is the main b-boy mode. To James Brown, it makes no kind of sense, fashion or otherwise. "They don't need the bill. I say, why don't you buy a ROUND hat?" Another pet peeve: putting holes in jeans on purpose. "They DESIGN the holes!" Such raggedy attitude is unthinkable for a man who once owned 400 suits, a man who barbecues in silk and whipcord. "I don't care where I am, I got to be CLEAN! I kept my stuff pressed, starched, my hair done."

The Hair. Those closest to him worried about the effect prison shears would have on the Superbad Dome. "I think if they had cut his hair, it would have been the thing that crushed him," says Sharpton. He notes that as soon as James was sentenced, he was singing one refrain: "Make sure the lawyers go to the judge about my hair."

They pleaded Professional Necessity, and the 'do escaped unmolested. Every Saturday during visiting hours, Alfie Brown toted dryer, roller and potions to a room behind the warden's office and administered a wash 'n' set. And every night, the Godfather slept on a few rollers for maintenance.

Pride may have landed him in prison, but pride in the small stuff would keep him on the good foot Inside. James says that, of course, even in jail he started new styles. He was assigned kitchen duty, and the white uniforms that go with it were, shall we say, beat.

"I come in, I put things together, had it LAID down. It was the thing. I come with a STYLE."

In JB's soul kitchen, the jumpsuit was accessorized with a silk neckerchief. Collar up. "And I threw some shades on 'em." Even the white cats came up to him and praised what the Godfather did for a uniform. "It ain't never looked right till you come in," they told him. "It was a drag." In short order, the other inmates were peeling spuds in their Ray Bans and Vuarnets. James admits it made for an amusing tableau. "I had my following," he says, cracking himself up. "I HAD to have a following."

"Right," yells Reginald Simmons. "The kitchen JBs."

Before long, there was an Entourage as well. Three or four inmates accompanied James everywhere, protectors and acolytes. On visiting day, Rev teased him: "It's like one of those old gangster pictures – you got your own crew in jail." But they'd take care of him – big, tough guys who came to the Godfather with family problems, fears of getting "shipped" to a maximum-security joint.

On Saturdays, JB did his bit for an inmate-charity fund by posing with other inmates and relatives, two dollars a shot. Sundays, he toiled in the fields of the Lord. Singing in the prison choir got him early release when he was a teenager. This time he was choir director, lead singer, and he made that organ moan. His gospel group, he says, "was so good I could have recorded yesterday. I had them doing routines! I had them so sharp that the inmates wanted to get their autographs."

Once sparsely attended, the prison chapel was packed; Sunday was star time. The only downside, says James, was that inmates started getting visits from relatives they hadn't seen in months. "Everybody came to see James Brown, and it was really a shame. I felt sad." Still, that chapel was rockin', and maybe some sinners got saved.

"It was hip."

Most of the days were very much the same. "You play baseball. Look forward to the days they got something good to eat . . . " And, being the Hardest-Working Mouth in Show Business, you talk to other inmates. This was the true reeducation of James Brown, and he says it wasn't pretty. He says this new generation of inmates are lost children. They came up in the country, like he did. But now they see urban cool pulled in by the Dish, get bamboozled by the light of cathode dreams.

"The slaves' kids' kids' kids done grew up and they didn't leave," James says. "But they got television, shows coming, rappers coming. Talking that rap way. And the same thing's happening that's happening in New York."

Drugs. Street-corner law to replace the rudimentary ethics his generation got in church. Crazy gangster jive, with jewelry to match.

"The cable and the dishes have made reality come to the field," James says. "But they got NO way out. They see something they can never own."

They can't even afford the high-maintenance hairdos, let alone the Adidas sweats. "The kids out there are being fooled into fatality," James says. "I don't mean death all the time, but dead ends . . . They don't relate to nothing. Just crack and finding out what's the latest drug on the market. It ain't the latest record. I got me the new James Brown, the new Sam Cooke, Temptations. NO! They say, 'I got a drug that's really kickin'.'"

He says this generation of young black males does not have the one thing that got him through his first jail term and through all the other hard times. They do not have hope. One night, when he had talked to them for hours, he called Rev at his wits' end. At me end of JB's sermon they'd said, "Yeah, but you're going back out there and sing. Where are we going?" For one of the few times in his life, the Godfather was speechless. He knew they were right.

The native son was in for an even ruder education once he started doing community work under the auspices of the Aiken County Community Action agency. He went with caseworkers to visit rural clients: "What I saw was unreal. We walked down to a trailer, a woman fifty-nine years old, a daughter and a granddaughter. Nothing works. No curtains. I go to the bathroom and my feet went through the floor. Only thing in her bedroom, a picture of Christ. No sheets, just one blanket."

They managed to get her a new trailer, but it was so well appointed electrically, James fretted for their safety. "Lady didn't know how to operate none of that," he said.

Judge Bradley, who tries civil and criminal cases in that jurisdiction, says they've had problems in new housing projects with rural people trying to build fires in electric ovens. They didn't know any better.

"South Carolina can't get away with that no more!" James is yelling. "It's worse than Mississippi before the King march. South Carolina is fourth in illiteracy in the U.S. Can you think how BAD that is, when you're in a country with high tech, nuclear energy and stuff?"

James is pacing now. His voice is hoarse; he's popping juicy grapes to soothe the pipes. He looks fit and strong, the result, Sharpton says, of eating and sleeping "like a human being" after years of junk food and all-nighters. James says his mind is . . . ah . . . kickin'.

"All these things come up. Your head really gets opened up. I got so much business, so much UNFINISHED business."

"We have to give Mr. Brown longevity" the Judge says. "He can go on forever. 'Cause he hasn't changed anything. If it's not broke, it don't need fixing."

James bows. "Thank you, sir."

From the far end of the room, Lloyd Price has raised his very soulful voice: "What's he gonna do? He's gonna do what he ALWAYS does. THE MACHINE IS NOT BROKEN."

With all the voice he has left, James Brown screams.

"EEEEEEEEEoooWWWWW! I feel good!"

This story is from the June 27th, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 607: June 27, 1991