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

mister james brown 1982
Jan Persson/Redferns
James Brown performs in Denmark.
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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.

And there was image mess. Harsh public words passed between Brown and other black stars like Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett and Jerry Butler; there were even accusations of terminal egotism from the flamboyant Little Richard. Within JB's band, there were mutinies triggered by excessive work, low pay and even less musical credit. Politically, it was disconcerting to see Soul Brother Number One embracing the Nixon White House. And in 1976, things got ugly when Charles Bobbitt, formerly Brown's manager, testified in U.S. District Court in Newark that he had paid New York DJ Frankie Crocker nearly $7000 to get Brown's records played. (Brown denied the charge under oath, and the testimony was later ruled inadmissible on a technicality.)

There was no respite at home. Brown grieved for his oldest son, killed in a car crash. His second marriage was floundering. To please his wife, Deirdre, he had moved from New York to a sixty-two-acre spread in South Carolina, just across the river from his native Augusta. He stayed at home, he says, "and tried to be a father" to his three surviving sons from his first marriage and his two daughters by Deirdre. Bookings tapered off; those that remained were no longer lucrative enough to warrant keeping the most prized symbol of his success – a black and green D-125 Sidley Hawker jet, with operating costs of $550 an hour. After its last $52,000 tuneup, the jet was sold. Shortly afterward, Deirdre swung open the custom-made gate that says "Jaydee Ranch" in wrought iron and drove away with the girls.

Ask James Brown where he's been, and he will sum it up as "down."

In his mind, the turning point was a hundred-degree day in 1977. He walked through his empty house and out into the glaring afternoon sun. On the lawn, his father knelt, knuckling chickweed and tearing it out in clumps.

"Daddy, what you doin' there?"

"I'm diggin' this grass up," he replied, "'cause we ain't able to hire nobody."

James dropped to his knees alongside his father and slid his fingers into the matted turf. He worked until the sweat came, and he felt the tension ease. He says it was handling the dirt that made him feel clean – baptized. After all, the land was his, in a neighborhood where most blacks pulling weeds by a swimming pool were still yardmen. Yardmen and their families grew up on the land, his father pointed out, "but didn't have no address."

"My daddy is a very independent man," says Brown. "He got his son back together."

Joe Brown is wiry and thinner than his son, but he has the same deep-set eyes above high, wide cheekbones. He wears a working man's version of his son's trademark cowboy hat, all straw, bent and creased for comfort, not style. There are grass stains on his blue pants, and there's dried mud on his work boots.

Politely, Joe Brown offers to show me where James spent his youth, and we climb into a Dodge van, James Brown's favorite among his forty-odd vehicles. He is always adding to it: more chrome, new side mirrors, bigger mud flaps to keep the Georgia clay off its Simonized black flanks. The interior could be the anteroom of a bawdy house. Cushioned swivel seats rise out of thick charcoal-colored shag; the gray velveteen ceiling is tucked and padded like the inside of a coffin. There is a bar and sink, a Formica table and a brace of what JB calls "disco lights," some of which are trained on a sign bearing a female nude and the florid red lettering Massage Parlor. "Oh, he love this truck," his father says, pulling out into traffic. "He love it to death."

We drive slowly past a close constellation of stoops, storefronts, banks and boarded movie theaters, spots where Joe Brown could pass thirty-five years ago and be satisfied to see his son at work, shining shoes, sweeping, racking pool balls, delivering groceries, greasing cars. We continue past the railroad tracks where the long World War II troop trains would idle long enough for James to dance and his friend Willie Glenn to pick up the change thrown at their feet. Supplements to their hoard came from the dice games beneath a canal bridge by King Street.

"That's the place," says Joe Brown, "where all them kids got in trouble." There, JB turned JD, pinching bikes, stealing car batteries. And it was there that a night's lighthearted escapade of breaking into four cars landed most of James' gang in prison, each sentenced to as many or more years as he had lived.

Before his sentence yanked him out of the seventh grade, James had won every talent show in town, and his small band was playing dates. "When I was in prison," he says, "they called me Music Box. I had my own band. We had combs and paper and we blew the combs, and we got a washtub and made a bass fiddle." Model prisoners, they sang spirituals. Loud. Three and a half years into his sentence, James wrote a pleading letter to parole authorities on a Thursday; by the following Monday, he was on his way home.

Brown had been out and singing with the Famous Flames (himself, Johnny Terry – who had gone to jail with James – Bobby Byrd, Sylvester Keels and Nafloyd Scott) for nearly three years before A&R man Ralph Bass brought a demo tape of the Flames' "Please, Please, Please" to Syd Nathan of King Records. The lyrics, consisting of please, fractured, torn and telescoped a couple hundred times, did not impress Nathan. It was up to Henry Stone, now of TK Records, to promote this curiosity. It was, he says, "the kind of music nobody ever really heard at the time," as raw as the blackest "race music" yet oddly sophisticated. Somehow, Brown's lambent wail fused the other Flames' neat syncopations. It was wild but crafted, and it hit.

"My initial promotion was to the jukebox operators," says Stone, who begged and cajoled to get Brown and his small band booked into the Palms in Hollandale, Florida. Boasting headliners like Ruth Brown and Ray Charles, it was the primo club on the southern chitlin circuit. Brown played that circuit for a decade before the big dates at the Apollo in New York and the Uptown in Philly. But Stone says that just as rock clubs are affording JB a new audience now, it was a basically white network-TV show that got him serious national attention. That was the Dick Clark production Where the Action Is.

By then, showmanship had become a key selling point for the man who billed himself as "Famous" long before he had a right to. He learned quickly that style was of paramount importance; it got Brown noticed and gave him his "bag."

On record and onstage, Brown's style celebrated a kind of blackness impenetrable to whites. It was pure black, deep black, and it loosed a swaggering pride that few men of color dared express. Even among blacks, it ruptured the stratifications of "high complexion" versus low. "A darker person would probably be named as ugly," explains Leon Austin, a friend and member of Brown's entourage. And James Brown is dark. "So," says Leon, "he made the ugly man somebody. "

He did it by getting pretty, in ruffled shirts and rollers. "I used to wear my hair real high," says Brown. "And people would ask, 'Why you wear your hair so high?' I tell'em, so people don't say 'Where he is?' but 'There he is.'"

After twenty-six years under dryers and in curlers, James Brown still has his hair done more often than Nancy Reagan – as many as three or four times a day when he's touring and his sweat battles Luster Silk for control. He has hairdressers in Augusta, New York and Los Angeles; Leon Austin estimates that Brown spends $500 to $700 per week on stylists and supplies. Two dryers and two suitcases filled with rollers, creams, shampoos and relaxers are part of the road equipment. Henry Stallings, after nearly twenty years as master sculptor of JB's hair, can trace changes in Brown's hair style to phases of Brown's career. In the early days, when he needed to be noticed, it was jacked up past the bounds of Little Richard's outrages. The hits and Brown's resulting confidence rolled the sides back smooth as Caddie fenders. The top foamed into a dizzying cataract of waves and curls. The late Sixties presented a quandary. "Processed" hair was not cool, but a true Afro was just too kinky. The result was a compromise – the processed Afro, the hardest of all to maintain and a kind of psychic torture for Brown.

"It was like givin' up somethin' for Lent," he says. "I wanted people to know that one of the most prized things I let go of was my hair. It was a real attraction to my business, but I would cut it off for the movement. Feel it," he insists, wishing to dispel any rumors of wigs. It has the texture of industrial-grade nylon; you could knit a trampoline with it.

His clothes, says wardrobe mistress Gertrude Sanders, must be made of equally durable fabrics – whipcords and stretch knits – to withstand the jumps, knee drops and splits that can leave the trouser seat torn and the knees bloody. "He's not gonna come out there and be cool," says Leon Austin. "And he ain't gonna have on this pretty suit that ain't gonna get dusty. He gonna wallow. He gonna be just dancin', splittin', messin' up his knees. Or he may scream so hard he can't sing the next night, but he ain't gonna worry about that."

He simply brings a dozen or so costume changes – enough to cover drying-out time and busted seams. And he keeps the rest of his image as superbad as his wardrobe.

"We stay in different hotels, because you know with him, he has to be the prestige," says Sanders. "He don't be stayin' with the band. "

She remembers one night at Caesar's Palace in Vegas when JB arrived early for a soul extravaganza taking place there, and had a sleeping couple roused from the presidential suite he had reserved. His aide and spiritual adviser, the Reverend Al Sharpton, black activist and former "wonder-boy preacher," takes up the story: "He's got it [the suite], with three bedrooms just for him. The next day, everybody's downstairs – Aretha, Barry White – down gambling. He says, 'This is how you be a star. Ain't nobody gonna see me till show time. They see them all day, they gonna be used to 'em, it don't mean nothing.' Sure enough, that night everybody got polite applause. But when they introduced James, the place went crazy. And here he was, sittin' there sufferin', watchin' that stupid stuff on television all day while everybody else was havin' a ball."

Sharpton has enlisted the aid of dozens of black entertainers, from B.B. King to Teddy Pendergrass, for his various youth crusades, but JB remains his personal hero. It's an image of manhood, he explains. "My mother and father broke up when I was ten, and my only memories of my father were that he used to take me to the Apollo to see James Brown. One of the impacts of black entertainers that a lot of whites don't understand is that they become substitute fathers. We know how to dress from watchin' a star, we learn how to walk. We look at James Brown and we say, 'Hey, that's how I'm gonna be a man.'"

Brown's manhood is his own construction, jerry-built of street swagger and neomilitary discipline that sends his office staff scurrying to straighten ties when the boss walks in wearing a shirtless denim vest. He must be called Mr. Brown – and by everyone, including his friends. Mr. Brown prefers to maintain only a professional relationship with his band, and still fines for poor performance and sloppy attire. Mr. Brown is never afraid to make himself heard, especially on the subject of comportment.

"I don't have no education, but I can read," he says at a snooty Manhattan restaurant one night, halting the menu suggestions of an officious maitre d'. "And God bless you, I know you're doin' your job.

"Part of our manhood program," he informs me, explaining the incident as he slathers his veal marengo with half a bottle of Tabasco. "You got to let people know who you are."

Just who James Brown is beneath the zippered and coifed manhood of style, few people, if any, really know.

"I ain't never seen him crack," says Henry Stallings, "and I'm with him all the time." It is a mental toughness Stallings can trace back to their days together at Floyd Elementary School.

"He was doin' pretty bad himself. I remember him comin' to school barefoot in the winter. But he was a little tough one, you know. He would never grumble or complain, 'bout the same as he is now. You can't never really check him out to see if he's in a down mood. I always refer to him as a sergeant or somethin', a man who can't show weakness to a lot of people who work under him. I know he's a human being and he feels things, but he never shows it. Maybe he goes behind closed doors and breaks down, but I never seen it."

Despite the tax troubles, the divorces, the slipping record sales, there was only one incident that Stallings remembers as having visibly shaken his friend. When nineteen-year-old Teddy Brown drove his car into a tree in upstate New York, Brown flew up in his jet to identify the body and bring his son home. The funeral was jammed. Henry Stallings watched from the back of the church.

"They had Mr. Brown up there, talking and whatnot, with the preacher. But suddenly he rushed outside. I left and went the other way 'cause I can't have him and me both breakin' down. But I tell you what, the next day – right back on the job."

"He's selfish, and he can't help it," Austin says of the celebrated Brown ego. "If you try to overpower him, then he'll show you how much he don't need you. And then when you do somethin' for him, he'll come back and fall on his knees and thank you."

Ego, he figures, is a necessary lubricant for the James Brown machine. "Daily, it's all James Brown. And he's not afraid. Maybe I get afraid to just keep tellin' you about Leon. I'm afraid you gonna get tired of hearing Leon. But he don't care whether you get tired, he's gonna keep tellin' you James Brown, James Brown. It's been good for him, because if nobody else love him, he love him. And things keep workin'."

I ask Leon what, if anything, he thinks James Brown may be afraid of.

"What I think bothers him is not bein' the top. He's not gonna tell himself that he's not there. He's not gonna let nobody even speak that around him. I don't think he could live with that."

Vulnerability is displayed only to the parents who were not there to coddle him as a child, their marriage having collapsed when Brown was very young. He guards his parents closely now, aware of their vulnerability to age. Only they dare confront him with the harsher truths, to tell him when he's wrong, even to scold him.

"My daddy won't let me gamble," he says, seeming to enjoy his obedience.

"He likes to keep them around," says Henry Stallings, who spends a lot of time at Brown's home. "I think he just wants to sit around where they can baby him. He wants to lay back and holler 'mom' or 'dad.' He'll ask for somethin' and his mom will tell him, 'Well, you don't need it.' He likes that, you can see it. He wants to be a baby again, sit back and say, 'Mamma, why is this?'"

'Unless you do puzzles," Brown twits me as we sit in his Augusta office, "you cannot hope to understand James Brown."

Unless you appreciate the tension of opposites, he's right: proud of the country that first brutalized him, then mythologized him; a grown godfather who plays out the childhood he missed; funky revolutionary confronted with the fear of becoming a has-been. It's a duality that echoes through his lyrics as far back as 1960's "I'll Go Crazy": "If you leave me," he screams, "I'll go crazy . . . " And then, punched out with strident horns, a jarring non sequitur: "You got to live for yourself, for yourself and nobody else!"

He throws off dependence as though it were just another stifling cape. "Prettiness plus strength . . . tender but tough," Charles Keil calls this black male vocal style in his book Urban Blues. Thus the strutting Sex Machine can spin around, drop to his knees and plead "Try Me" without losing a drop of manhood. As a lyric, it's danceable; as a lifestyle, the footing can be perilous.

But whatever his personal creed, there is no doubt that James Brown's music is communal, rather than personal, boasting the polyrhythms and the call-and-response involvement of pure African forms. "Get Up Offa That Thing," it screams. It's dance music above all else. There is so much going on, it sounds like a party. This is not the kind of soul founded on the intimacy of a Smokey Robinson or the aching humanity of Otis Redding. This is not the kind of music you read lyric sheets to understand; JB's funk works its best mojo from the neck down. You love it or you hate it; it's magic or just screams. At its best, it won't let you rest; at its worst, it keeps the motor running.

George Clinton took the funk and flew to another planet. Sly Stone cozied up the self-contained stage band and made it a less autocratic "Family" Stone. Rick James performs the soulful repetitions, but with the uninspired boredom of a Nautilus workout. The first rap record was JB's "America Is My Home," even if it was horrendously unhip.

"I really believe James Brown's the father of all this music you hear, of all these grooves and beats, and he really needs the recognition," says Henry Stone, who has discovered and produced black acts since 1945. "We're talking about a pioneer of music that's really worldwide."

Lack of recognition is one of the few things JB gets "warm" about. "They keep gettin' people out of my camp to give recognition to," he says, "but they're afraid to give it to me. They don't want a man to have that kind of power."

On principle, Brown is not opposed to the newer, high-tech forms, to highly overdubbed Cuisinart funk. He tried monkeying with synthesizers, but he didn't like the feel. "The electrical thing, you just bang it and it barrels off four or five licks for you," he says. "We make the licks. It's all manual, every step of the way. When I go down the road, I know every bump in the highway. I don't fly over it."

On my last afternoon in Augusta, JB is in a playful mood. "You gettin' close, young lady, but you ain't there yet," he says, dodging questions, throwing out bits of folk wisdom. Did you know that bologna is a truth serum? Know why his Coke commercial never made it to the radio? Slipped a soulful "Good God" past the agency boys in that jive jingle chorus. And so it goes, until two hours before I am to catch my plane, when he finally offers to show me his home.

But isn't it forty-five minutes from the airport?

No sweat, JB will make the van fly. We climb in with his son, Larry. The radio plays Vivaldi; the sun shines after a week of rain. We are headed for the interstate when JB wheels us around, having remembered a spot that was very important to him as a child. We cruise slowly through some back streets, and he stops every few blocks to chat with a woman on a porch, a man hosing down a car. Finally, we pull up to an abandoned warehouse just a hundred yards from Trinity Church.

"Swept that church so I could use the piano when the minister was gone," he says, laughing. "Playin' boogie-woogie right there in the church."

Larry follows his father to a rusted oil drum beside the warehouse and peers inside. It is right on the spot where young James once plumbed trash cans for dented cans discarded by the warehouse.

"Puffed up cans of vegetables," he says. "I guess they was spoilt."

Larry looks a trifle uncomfortable.

"Daddy, you ate garbage?"

"Never did get sick."

Within minutes, we are out of the city, surrounded by the kind of green that vibrates against the dark asphalt. We turn off the highway onto a red clay road that crests in front of the Jaydee Ranch gate. Brown unlocks the gate and has Larry drive me down the winding road about a quarter mile in toward the house. Brown decides to "stay here and keep an eye on this fella," photographer Michael Halsband, who is not permitted past the gate, even without cameras. Brown's mother has already been evacuated.

"I keep her hostage," he explains, "and away from the press." Such protection is not necessary for his father, he says, because "my daddy can handle much more than I can. My daddy watches me like a hawk watches chickens."

In fact, Joe Brown is waiting at the pump house as we drive past a languid, man-made lake carved out of a stretch of woods. He gets in and we continue to the house, a handsome but modest ranch of deep-tan brick. There is a fenced-in pool and pool house; the two-car garage contains a silver Mercedes and a gold Excalibur. A pair of floppy Afghan hounds lope up to the van, and in a fenced enclosure, two poodle puppies yip. I am almost to the huge hewn-oak door when Joe Brown calls me back.

"Can't go in there," he says. "Ain't got no key."

"But he said I could make a phone call . . . "

"Ain't got no key. "

His words fall heavily in the country stillness. Larry drops the van into reverse, and we start back to the gate.

"How'd you like it?" queries JB. "You couldn't get in? Aw, how about that. Pop, you ain't got your key?"

Dusk is closing in around the Augusta airport as we barrel toward it. JB is making Grand Prix moves, weaving in and out of road-construction detours. When we finally arrive, Brown is relaxed, even expansive. He is apologetic about the week's missed appointments and bungled arrangements, about the locked house. And he is visibly relieved the visit is over. Grinning, he leans against the van and offers a final clarification of black caste and class.

"A colored," he says, "is a very frightened-to-death Afro-American. A Negro is one that makes it in the system, and he wants to be white. A nigger, he's loud and boisterous, wants to be seen. Nobody likes a nigger. A black man has pride. He wants to build, he wants to make his race mean something. Wants to have a culture and art forms. And he's not prejudiced."

He smiles wider, his face just a shadow beneath the brim of his hat.

"I am a black American man," he says slowly. "Now you go ahead and print it."

And what about the place of a black American legend? I ask him.

"That be your plane," says Joe Brown, pointing to a Delta jet dropping its landing gear over the tarmac. "Reckon you oughta check in."

This story is from the April 1st, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 366: April 1, 1982
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