Mister James Brown: The Godfather of Soul Is Back

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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?'"

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