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Mister James Brown: The Godfather of Soul Is Back

After an eight-year absence, James Brown is back, bopping, dancing and screaming as loud as ever – but he's still fighting for respect

James Brown performs in Denmark.
Jan Persson/Redferns
April 1, 1982

The clamor begins seconds after the flashy, customized van deposits its cargo outside the Richmond County Jail in Augusta, Georgia.

"Jaaaaaaames!"

"Yo, God-fathah, get me out!"

James Brown hooks a gold-ringed finger into the chain-link fence and peers up at the yawning darkness beyond the brick facade. No faces are visible, just rows of fingers, most of them black, curled around the thick iron grillwork.

"I been in there," he yells back. "The Man had me an' I know what it's like, bruh."

The quick stop that was to be just a photo session is making Brown nervous. A little deja vu, he explains, smiling. This is the jail where sixteen-year-old James Brown was held for four months in 1949, without benefit of bail or counsel, before a judge sentenced him to eight-to-sixteen years "at hard labor" in a state institution. His crime: breaking into cars. He would serve nearly four years before being paroled.

"First thing that gets to you in there is the noise," Brown says. "Then the smell. Like a zoo."

There is a faint whiff of institutional ammonia in the muggy courtyard. As more inmates spot the stocky black man in the silver bomber jacket and cowboy hat, the din grows, punctuated by shrieks and laughter.

"Jaaaaaaaaames!" Where you been, James Brown?"

Now, inmates from the women's cell blocks have seen him and added their keening descant. Hands cupped over his mouth, Brown engages in a dialogue with a prisoner who claims he needs only a small donation to make bail.

"Just three sawbucks, man, come on . . . "

Brown gets his name and dispatches his twenty-one-year-old son, Larry, to the sheriff's office to see what can be done.

"If it's true," he yells, "I'll get you out."

Bars are rattling now, and the noise brings a fat, gray-uniformed guard to the door.

"Now what y'all doin', rilin' these boys up?"

The commotion has drawn children from a nearby playground, and a second guard has suddenly appeared. Brown orders the photographer to pack up and get in the van, fast. He says he hadn't expected this, forgot how hot it was inside. He peers anxiously down the sidewalk where Larry is returning, shaking his head.

"Daddy, the man's up for felony," he says. "Heavy stuff, six counts."

"Get in," Brown mutters, swinging open the van door. "I can't help that kind of man."

The racket peaks as he pulls away, rolling up the window against a few angry curses.

"You hearin' rage and frustration," he says over the hum of the air conditioner. "And those are things I left behind. Where I been is not where I am, no thank you."

These days, James Brown does not like to agonize over where he's been; at forty-nine, he prefers to look ahead. "I lost $50 million and a lot of friends," he says of that period in the late Sixties when his move toward a bolder blackness spoiled his dream of crossing over into the musical mainstream. And now, twenty-six years since his first record and after an eight-year hiatus in which he rarely toured, JB is out on the road again, bopping, dancing, screaming as loud as ever: "I'm back, y'all!" He is spreading the news chiefly to a young, white audience. "The white kids," he says, "are the kids who bailed James Brown out."

Brown believes his resurrection began when John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd cast him as a pulpit-shaking minister in The Blues Brothers; the soundtrack of that movie, which he shares with soul greats like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, became his first gold record since 1974. Now, white promoters are booking him into white rock clubs as New Wave acknowledges its debt to hard-core R&B. A year ago, the Clash invited him to tour with them; JB turned them down because he didn't know who they were.

He does know Mick Jagger, who used to visit him backstage at the Apollo Theater in the Sixties. Although plans to have JB open for the Stones at Madison Square Garden this past November fell through, a film of their last joint appearance – The T.A.M.I. Show, the 1965 teen classic – has been turning up on rock-club video screens and in movie theaters around the country.

James! he was then, shooting out of the wings like a pinball off the spring with a "pleeeeeeeeeease!" that could pop a hairpin at fifty feet. James, skittering sideways on one leg that drove and twisted in quadruple time, while the other kept a backbeat in the air. James, leading the guitar player with his shoulder, the horn section with his knees, the drummer with a nod. James, so hot he sweated through his shoe soles; so salable that Papa's traveling bag bulged with up to a quarter million in small bills from a single date – one of 355 he played a year. James, who racked up seventeen hits in a row in two years; a flaming sixty-six weeks on the charts with his landmark Live at the Apollo (Vol. 1) LP. James, who had himself crowned onstage and draped in superbad raiment: 500 suits, 300 pairs of shoes, the personal jet, the diamonds, the cars, the funky castle in Queens, New York, with the black Santas on the lawn at Christmas. James, Soul Brother Number One, summoned to the fore in Boston and Washington during the 1968 race riots for a march and live TV spots to cool the constituency. James! they bellowed that same year when he choppered through Vietnam for the GIs who craved more swing than Bob Hope's golf stance could deliver.

And then, he says, "I took some mess."

By the early Seventies, there was, to Brown's thinking, a backlash mess. After songs like "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," whites were afraid to come to his shows, and once the movement cooled, blacks danced off to more commercial beats. There was a financial mess as well, one he couldn't dance his way out of. The tax division of the Treasury Department claimed he owed $4.5 million in back taxes for the years 1969 and 1970, a case that is still pending. Brown's three black radio stations (in Augusta, Baltimore and Knoxville) failed, as did plans for a catfish-and-collards fast-food chain and his TV venture, a Soul Train clone called Future Shock.

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