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Mister James Brown: The Godfather of Soul Is Back

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'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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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