James Brown: Jonathan Lethem Rolling Stone Story With Godfather of Soul – Rolling Stone
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Being James Brown: Inside the Private World of the Baddest Man Who Ever Lived

The Godfather of Soul invented funk, befriended presidents and laid the foundations of rap. And he did it by defying the laws of space and time

James Brown

James Brown


James Brown

In Augusta, Georgia, in May 2005, they put up a bronze statue of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in the middle of Broad Street. During a visit to meet James Brown and observe him recording parts of his new album in an Augusta studio, I went and had a look at it. The James Brown statue is an odd one in several ways. For one, it is odd to see a statue standing not on a pedestal, flat on its feet on the ground. This was done at James Brown’s request, reportedly. The premise being: man of the people. The result, however: somewhat fake-looking statue. Another difficulty is that the statue is grinning. Members of James Brown’s band, present while he was photographed for reference by the statue’s sculptor, told me or their attempts to get James Brown to quit smiling for the photographs. A statue shouldn’t grin, they told him. Yet James Brown refused to do other than grin. It is the grin of a man who has succeeded, and as the proposed statue struck him as a measure of his success, he determined that it would measure him grinning. Otherwise, the statue is admirable: flowing bronze cape, helmetlike bronze hair perhaps not so much harder than the actual hair it depicts, and vintage bronze microphone with its base tipped, as if to make a kind of dance partner with James Brown, who is not shown in a dancing pose but nonetheless appears lithe, pert, ready.

Still, as with postage stamps, statues of the living seem somehow disconcerting. And very few statues are located at quite such weighty symbolic crossroads as this one. The statue’s back is to what was in 1993 renamed James Brown Boulevard, which cuts from Broad Street for a mile, deep into the neighborhood where James Brown was raised from age six, by his aunts, in a Twiggs Street house that was a den of what James Brown himself calls “gambling, moonshine liquor and prostitution.” The neighborhood around Twiggs is still devastatingly sunk in poverty’s ruin. The shocking depths of deprivation from which James Brown excavated himself are still intact, frozen in time, almost like a statue. A photographer would be hard-pressed to snap a view in this neighborhood that couldn’t, apart from the make of the cars, slip neatly into Walker Evans’ portfolio of Appalachian scenes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Except, of course, that everyone in Augusta’s Appalachia is black.

So, the James Brown statue may seem to have walked on its flat bronze feet the mile from Twiggs to Broad, to which it keeps its back, reserving its grin for the gentlefolk on and across Broad Street, the side that gives way to the river — the white neighborhoods to which James Brown, as a shoeshine boy, hustler, juvenile delinquent, possibly even as a teenage pimp, directed his ambition and guile. Policemen regularly chased James Brown the length of that mile, back toward Twiggs — he tells stories of diving into a watery gutter, barely more than a trench, and hiding underwater with an upraised reed for breathing while the policemen rumbled past — and, once the chase was over, he’d creep again toward Broad, where the lights and music were, where the action was, where Augusta’s stationed soldiers with their monthly paycheck binges were to be found. Eventually, the city of Augusta jailed the teenager, sentenced him to eight-to-sixteen for four counts of breaking and entering. When he attained an early release, with the support of the family of his friend and future bandmate Bobby Byrd, it was on the condition that he never return to Augusta. Deep into the Sixties, years past “Papa’s Brand New Bag,” James Brown had to apply for spu permits to bring his band to perform in Augusta; he esentially had been exiled from the city for having the dacity to transverse that mile from Twiggs to Broad. Now his statue stands at the end of the mile, facing away. Grinning. Resolving nothing. James Brown, you see, may in fact be less a statue than any human being who ever lived. James Brown is kinetic; an idea, a problem, a genre, a concept, a method — anything, really, but a statue.

This we know: the James Brown Show begins without James Brown. James Brown, a man who is also an idea, a problem, a method, etc., will have to be invoked, summoned from some other place. The rendezvous between James Brown and his audience — you — is not a simple thing. When the opening acts are done and the waiting is over, you will first be in the hands of James Brown’s band. It is the band that begins the Show. The band is there to help, to negotiate a space for you to encounter James Brown; it is there, if you will, to take you to the bridge. The band is itself the medium within which James Brown will be summoned, the terms under which he might be enticed into view.

The James Brown Band takes the form, onstage, of an animated frieze or hieroglyphic, timeless in a very slightly seedy, showbiz way but happily so, rows of men in red tuxedos, jitterbugging in lock step even as they miraculously conjure from instruments a perfect hurricane of music: a rumbling, undulating-insinuating (underneath), shimmery-peppery (up on top) braided waveform of groove. The players seem jolly and amazed witnesses to their own virtuosity. They resemble humble, gracious ushers or porters, welcoming you to the enthrallingly physical, jubilant, encompassing groove that pours out of their instruments. It’s as if they were merely widening for you a portal offering entry into some new world, a world as much visual and emotional as aural — for, in truth, a first encounter with the James Brown Show can feel like a bodily passage, a deal your mind wasn’t sure it was ready for your body to strike with these men and their instruments and the ludicrous, almost cruelly anticipatory drama of their attempt to beckon the star of the show into view. Yes, it’s made unmistakable, in case you forgot, that this is merely a prelude, a throat-clearing, though the band has already rollicked through three or four recognizable numbers in succession; we’re waiting for something. The name of the something is James Brown. You indeed fear, despite all sense, that something is somehow wrong: Perhaps he’s sick or reluctant, or perhaps there’s been a mistake. There is no James Brown, it was merely a rumor. Thankfully, someone has told you what to do — you chant, gladly: “James Brown! James Brown!” A natty little man with a pompadour comes onstage and with a booming, familiar voice asks you if you Are Ready for Star Time, and you find yourself confessing that you Are.

To be in the audience when James Brown commences the James Brown Show is to have felt oneself engulfed in a kind of feast of adoration and astonishment, a ritual invocation, one comparable, I’d imagine, to certain ceremonies known to the Mayan peoples, wherein a human person is radiantly costumed and then beheld in lieu of the appearance of a Sun God upon the Earth. For to see James Brown dance and sing, to see him lead his mighty band with the merest glances and tiny flickers of signal from his hands; to see him offer himself to his audience to be adored and enraptured and ravished; to watch him tremble and suffer as he tears his screams and moans of lust, glory and regret from his sweat-drenched body — and is, thereupon, in an act of seeming mercy, draped in the cape of his infirmity; to then see him recover and thrive — shrugging free of the cape — as he basks in the healing regard of an audience now melded into a single passionate body by the stroking and thrumming of his ceaseless cavalcade of impossibly danceable smash Number One hits, is not to see: It is to behold.

The James Brown Show is both an enactment — an unlikely conjuration in the present moment of an alternate reality, one that dissipates into the air and can never be recovered — and at the same time a re-enactment: the ritual celebration of an enshrined historical victory, a battle won long ago, against forces difficult to name — funklessness? — yet whose vanquishing seems to have been so utterly crucial that it requires incessant restaging in a triumphalist ceremony. The show exists on a continuum, the link between ebullient big-band “clown” jazz showmen like Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan and the pornographic parade of a full-bore Prince concert. It is a glimpse of another world, even if only one being routinely dwells there, and his name is James Brown. To have glimpsed him there, dwelling in his world, is a privilege. James Brown is not a statue, no. But the James Brown Show is a monument, one unveiled at select intervals.

James Brown lives just outside of Augusta, so while he is recording an album, he sleeps at home. He frequently exhorts the members of his band to buy homes in Augusta, which they mostly refuse to do. Instead, they stay at the Ramada Inn. James Brown, when he is at home, routinely stays up all night watching the news, and watching old western movies — nothing but westerns. He gets up late. For this reason, a day in the recording studio with James Brown, like the James Brown Show, begins without James Brown.

Instead, I find myself in the company of James Brown’s band and his longtime personal manager, Charles Bobbit, approximately fourteen people whom I will soon in varying degrees get to know quite well but whom for now treat me genially, skeptically, shyly but mostly obliviously. They’ve got work to do. They’re working on the new James Brown record. At the moment they’re laying down a track without him, because James Brown asked them to, and because since they’re waiting around, they might as well do something — though they do this with a degree of helpless certainty that they are wasting their time. It is nearly always a useless occupation, if you are James Brown’s band, to lay down a track while he is not present. Yet the band members do it a lot, wasting time in this way, because their time is not their own. So they record. Today’s effort is a version of “Hold On, I’m A-Comin’,” the classic Sam and Dave song.

The setting is a pleasant modern recording studio in a bland corner of Augusta’s suburbs, far from where the statue resides. The band occupies a large room, high-ceilinged, padded in black, with a soundproof-windowed booth for the drummer’s kit and folding chairs in a loose circle for the band, plus innumerable microphones and cables and amplifiers and pickups running across the floor. On the other side of a large window from this large chamber is a room full of control panels, operated by an incredibly patient man named Howard. It is into this room that James Brown and the band will intermittently retreat in order to listen to playback, to consider what they’ve recorded. Down the hall from these two rooms is a tiny suite with a kitchen (unused) and a dining room with a table that seats seven or eight at a time (used constantly, for eating takeout).

The band is three guitarists and one bassist and three horn players and two percussionists — a drummer in the soundproof booth and a conga player in the central room. They’re led by Hollie Farris, a trim, fiftyish, white trumpeter with a blond mustache and the gentle, acutely Mid-western demeanor of an accountant or middle manager, yet with the enduring humor of a lifelong sideman; a hipster’s tolerance. Hollie now pushes the younger guitarists as they hone the changes in “Hold On, I’m A-Comin’.” Howard is recording the whole band simultaneously; this method of recording “live in the studio” is no longer how things are generally done. Hollie also sings to mark the vocal line, in a faint but endearing voice.

One of the young guitarists, cheating slightly on the “live in the studio” ethos, asks to be allowed to punch in his guitar solo. This is Damon Wood: thirtysomething, also blond, with long hair and a neat goatee. Damon, explaining why he screwed up the solo, teases Hollie for his singing: “I can’t hear myself with Engelbert Humperdinck over there.” Howard rewinds the tape and Damon reworks the solo, then endears himself to me with a fannish quiz for the other guitarists — Keith Jenkins, another white guy, but clean-cut, and Daryl Brown, a light-skinned, roly-poly black man who turns out to be James Brown’s son. “What classic funk song am I quoting in this solo?” Damon asks. Nobody can name it, not that they seem to be trying too hard. ” ‘Lady Marmalade,’ ” Damon says.

“Well,” says Hollie, speaking of the track, “we got one for him to come in and say, ‘That’s terrible.’ “

Keith, a young man with a trace of disobedience in his eyes, asks if they’re going to put the horns on the track. Hollie shakes his head. “He might be less inclined to throw it out,” Keith suggests. “Give it that big sound. If all he hears are those guitars, he’ll start picking it apart.”

Hollie offers a wry smile. He doesn’t want to add the horns. Hollie, I’ll learn, has been James Brown’s bandleader and arranger on and off since the early Eighties.

It is at that moment that everything changes. Mr. Bobbit explains: “Mr. Brown is here.”

When James Brown enters the recording studio, the recording studio becomes a stage. It is not merely that attention quickens in any room this human being inhabits. The phenomenon is more akin to a kind of grade-school physics experiment: Lines of force are suddenly visible in the air, rearranged, oriented. The band, the hangers-on, the very oxygen, every trace particle is charged in its relation to the gravitational field of James Brown. We’re all waiting for something to happen, and that waiting is itself a kind of story, an emotional dynamic: We need something from this man, and he is likely to demand something of us, something we’re uncertain we can fully deliver. The drama here is not, as in the James Brown Show, enacted in musical terms. Now it is a psychodrama, a theater of human behavior, one full of Beckett or Pinter pauses.

James Brown is dressed as if for a show, in a purple three-piece suit and red shirt, highly polished shoes, cuff links and his impeccably coiffed helmet of hair. When we’re introduced, I spend a long moment trying to conjugate the reality of James Brown’s face, one I’ve contemplated as an album-cover totem since I was thirteen or fourteen: that impossible slant of jaw and cheekbone, that Pop Art slash of teeth, the unmistakable rage of impatience lurking in the eyes. It’s a face drawn by Jack Kirby or Milton Caniff, that’s for sure, a visage engineered for maximum impact at great distances, from back rows of auditoriums. I find it, truthfully, terrifying to have that face examining mine in return, though fear is alleviated by the rapidity of the process: James Brown seems to have finished devouring the whole prospect of me by the time our brief handshake is concluded.

I’m also struck by the almost extraterrestrial quality of otherness incarnated in this human being. James Brown is, by his own count, seventy-two years old. Biographers have suggested that three or four years ought to be added to that total. It’s also possible that given the circumstances of his birth, in a shack in the woods outside Barn-well, South Carolina, in an environment of poverty and exile so profound as to be almost unimaginable, James Brown has no idea how old he is. No matter: He’s in his midseventies, yet, encountering him now in person, it occurs to me that James Brown is kept under wraps for so long at the outset of his own show, and is viewed primarily at a distance, or mediated through recordings or films, in order to buffer the unprepared spectator from the awesome strangeness and intensity of his person. He simply has more energy, is vibrating at a different rate, than anyone I’ve ever met, young or old. With every preparation I’ve made, he’s still terrifying.

James Brown sits, gesturing with his hand: It’s time for playback. Mr. Brown and Mr. Bobbit sit in the two comfortable leather chairs, while the band members are bunched around the room, either seated in folding metal chairs or on their feet.

We listen, twice, to the take of “Hold On, I’m A-Comin’.” James Brown lowers his head and closes his eyes. We’re all completely silent. At last he mumbles faint praise: “Pretty good. Pretty good.” Then, into the recording room. James Brown takes his place behind the mike, facing the band. We dwell now in an atmosphere of immanence, of ceremony, so tangible it’s almost oppressive. James Brown is still contained within himself, muttering inaudibly, scratching his chin, barely coming out of himself. Abruptly, he turns to me.

“You’re very lucky, Mr. Rolling Stone. I don’t ordinarily let anyone sit in on a session.”

“I feel lucky,” I say.

Fussing his way into place, James Brown decides he doesn’t like the microphone. “I want one with no felt on it. Get me a cheap mike. I made all those hits on a cheap mike.” The mike is swapped. He’s still irked, turgid, turned inward. “Are we recording this?” he asks. The answer comes back: Yes. “The one we throw out will be the best one,” he admonishes, vaguely.

Now he explains to the band that it’s not going to bother with the track it recorded before he arrived. Go figure: Hollie was right. “Sounds good,” James Brown says, “but it sounds canned. We got to get some James Brown in there.” Here it is, the crux of the matter: He wasn’t in the room; ipso facto, it isn’t James Brown music. The problem is fundamentally one of ontology: In order for James Brown to occur, you need to be James Brown.

He begins reminiscing about a rehearsal they enjoyed the day before, in the practice space at the Ramada. The Ramada’s room provided a sound James Brown liked, and he encourages his band to believe they’ll recapture it today: “Gonna bring that room in here.”

Now that the gears are oiled, a constant stream of remarks and asides flows from James Brown’s mouth. Many of these consist of basic statements of policy in regard to the matter of being James Brown, particularly in relationship to his band: “Be mean, but be the best.” These statements mingle exhortations to excellence with justifications for his own treatment of the men he calls, alternately, “the cats” and “my family.” Though discipline is his law, strife is not only likely but essential: “Any time a cat becomes a nuisance, that’s the cat I’m gonna want.” The matter of the rejected track is still on his mind: “Don’t mean to degrade nobody. People do something they think is good. But you’re gonna hear the difference. Get that hard sound.” Frequently he dwells on the nature of the sound of which he is forever in pursuit: “Hard. Flat. Flat.” One feels James Brown is forever chasing something, a pure hard-flat-jazz-funk he heard once in his dreams, and toward which all subsequent efforts have been pointed. This in turn leads to a reminiscence about Grover Washington Jr., who, apparently, recently presented James Brown with a track James Brown didn’t wish to sing on. “He should go play smooth jazz. We got something else going. James Brown jazz. Nothing smooth about it. If it gets smooth, we gonna make it not smooth.” Still musing on Grover Washington Jr.’s failings, he blurts, “Just jive.” Then corrects himself, looking at me: “Just things. Instead of people. Understand?”

Throughout these ruminations, the members of James Brown’s band stand at readiness, their fingers on strings or mouths a few short inches from reeds and mouthpieces, in complete silence, only sometimes nodding to acknowledge a remark of particular emphasis. A given monologue may persist for an hour, no matter: At the slightest drop of a hand signal, these players are expected to be ready. There’s nothing new in this. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business is one of the legendary hard-asses: His bands have always been the Hardest-Worked Men in Show Business, the longest-rehearsed, the most fiercely disciplined, the most worn-out and abused. Fuck-ups, I’ll learn, will be cold-shouldered, possibly punished with small monetary fines, occasionally humiliated by a tirade. These men have been systematically indoctrinated into what begins to seem to me less even a military- or cult-style obedience than it is a purely Pavlovian situation, one of reaction and survival, of instincts groomed and curtailed. Their motives for remaining in such a situation? That, I’ll need more time to study.

“I’m an old man,” James Brown says. “All I can do is love everybody. But I’m still going to be a tough boss. I’m still going to give them hell. I got a family here. I tried to meet everybody’s parents.” At this, he suddenly squints at Damon, the guitarist, and says, “I don’t know your people.” Permission has apparently been granted to reply, and Damon corrects him. “Yes, you met them in Las Vegas. Just briefly.” Then James Brown points to his son, saying cryptically, “I don’t know where this cat’s coming from.” Daryl dares a joke (which it dimly occurs to me was perhaps the point): “But you do know my people.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” says James Brown, irritably. “Love.” He poses a question, then answers it: “You go to the blood bank, what do you want? Human blood. Not baboon.”

Throughout the afternoon, even as the band begins to record, these ruminations will continue, as though James Brown’s mind is on permanent shuffle. Sometimes the subject is the nature of his art. “Jazz,” he states simply at one point. Or he’ll segue into a discourse on his relationship to hip-hop: “I’m the most sampled and stolen. What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine, too.” At this, the band laughs. “I got a song about that,” he tells me. “But I’m never gonna release it. Don’t want a war with the rappers. If it wasn’t good, they wouldn’t steal it.” Thinking of his influence on contemporary music, he mentions a song by Alicia Keys with a suspicious riff: “Sometimes you find yourself meeting yourself.” Yet he’s eager to make me know he’s not slagging Keys: “I don’t want to scrape nobody.” Later, in a moment of seeming insecurity, dissatisfied with something in his own performance, he blurts, “The minute they put up that statue I was in trouble.”

Much of the afternoon is spent working on an arrangement of a medley comprising another Sam and Dave song, “Soul Man,” and one of James Brown’s own most irresistible and enduring classics of the early Seventies, “Soul Power.” James Brown tinkers with the guitars, indicating the desired tones by wailing in imitation of a guitar, as well as by issuing what sound like expert commands: “Diminish. Raise nine. Flatten it.” Of Damon’s solo, he requests, “Go psychedelic.” It seems to be the nature of the guitarists — Keith, Damon and Daryl — that they are the center of the band’s sound but also the source of considerable problems.

A horn player — a large, slightly hound-doggy saxophonist named Jeff Watkins — interjects. Raising his hand like a schoolboy, he suggests, “They might have it right, sir. They just didn’t play it with conviction.” To the guitarists, Jeff says, ever so gently, “Play it like you mean it.”

They do, and James Brown listens, and is persuaded.

“I’m wrong,” the Godfather says, marveling. “Play it like you mean — I like that, Jeff.” James Brown’s deadpan is perfect: It is as if he’s never heard that particular phrase before.

Now he coaches his bass player, an aging, willowy, enigmatically silent black man named Fred Thomas, on the bass line: “Ding-dong, ding-dong.” Again, he emphasizes: “Flat. Flat. Hard.” Fred Thomas does his best to comply, though I can’t hear any difference. James Brown turns to me, urgently, and introduces me to Thomas. “It’s all about ‘Sex Machine,’ ” he says. “This man’s on more hits than any other bass player in history.” I nod. Of course, it will later occur to me that one of the most celebrated partnerships in James Brown’s career was with the future Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins — and anybody who cares at all about such things can tell you that Bootsy was the bass player on “Sex Machine.” Fred Thomas was, in fact, Bootsy’s replacement, which is to say he’s been in the band since sometime in 1971. Good enough. But in this matter we’ve at least briefly entered what I will come to call the James Brown Zone of Confusion: James Brown now puts his arm around Fred Thomas. “We’re both cancer survivors,” he tells me gravely.

Suddenly, James Brown is possessed by an instant of Kabuki insecurity: “I’m recording myself out of a group.” This brings a spontaneous response from several players, a collective murmur of sympathy and allegiance, most audibly saxophonist Jeff’s “We’re not going anywhere, sir.” Reassured, James Brown paradoxically regales the band with another example of his imperious command, telling the story of a drummer, a man named Nat Kendrick, who left the room to go to the bathroom during the recording of “Night Train.” James Brown, too impatient to wait, played the drum part himself, and the recording was completed by the time Nat Kendrick returned. “Go to the bathroom, you might not have a job.”

The two-inch tape is now in place, and James Brown and his band attack “Soul Man/Soul Power” once again. “It’s about to be as good as it was yesterday,” he says, reminding them again of the Ramada rehearsal. “We’re not recording, we’re just having fun.” Indeed, everything suddenly seems to come together. “Soul Power” is an unbearably funky groove when taken up, as it is now, by a James Brown who sings it as though he’s never heard it before, with crazy urgency and rhythmic guile, his voice hopped up on the crest of the music like a surfer riding a curl. In a vocal improvisation, James Brown shouts in Gatling-gun time with the drums: “Food stamps! Welfare!”

This take sounds better by far than anything that’s gone before it, and James Brown, seated on his stool at the microphone, looks half a century younger now. At the finish, he rushes from his stool directly to where I sit and slaps me on my knee. “That was deep, Mr. Rolling Stone!” he exclaims, then dashes from the room. The band exhales a burst of withheld laughter the moment he’s through the door. “Food stamps!” several of them cry out. “Never heard that before.” His son Daryl says, “Damn, I almost dropped my guitar when he said that.” They seem genuinely thrilled and delighted now to have me here as a witness and go rollicking out the door, into the room where James Brown, ever impatient, is already preparing to listen to playback. They’ve done it, cut a classic James Brown funk jam! Never mind that it is a classic that James Brown already cut in 1971!

The laughter and conversation cease, as Howard is commanded to roll the tape. Midway through the first time he’s heard the tape, James Brown’s head sinks in weary dissatisfaction: Something’s not right. When it ends, after a single beat of total silence, James Brown says soberly, “Let’s do it again, a little slower.” And so the band trudges back in, in dour, obedient silence.

During the playback session, guitarist Keith leans in and whispers to me, “You’ve got to tell the truth about what goes on here. Nobody has any idea.” I widen my eyes, sympathetic to his request. But what exactly does he mean?

Someday, someone will write a great biography of James Brown. It will, by necessity, though, be more than a biography. It will be a history of a half-century of the contradictions and tragedies embodied in the fate of African-Americans in the New World; it will be a parable, even, of the contradictions of the individual in the capitalist society, portentous as that may sound. For James Brown is both a willing and conscious embodiment of his race, of its strivings toward self-respect in a racist world, and a consummate self-made man, an entrepreneur of the impossible. This is a man who, out of that shack in the woods of South Carolina and that whorehouse on Twiggs, mined for himself a career and a fortune and a legacy and a statue; who owned an airplane; who has employed hundreds; whose band begat many famous and lucrative careers; whose samples provided, truly, the foundation for hip-hop; who had his photograph taken with presidents and whose endorsement was eagerly boasted of, first by Hubert Humphrey, then Richard Nixon; who was credited with singlehandedly keeping the city of Boston calm in the twenty-four hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; a man who owned radio stations, controlling the very means of control in his industry; and who did all of this despite the fact that no likelihood except desolation, poverty and incarceration may seem to have existed.

He’s also a martyr to those contradictions. That James Brown should succeed so absolutely and fail so utterly is the mystery. For no matter his accomplishment and the will that drove it, he has no fortune. No plane. No radio stations. The ranch hom