Mister James Brown: The Godfather of Soul Is Back

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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.'"

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