The Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown is the personification of the rags-to-riches fairy tale, with a lot of hard times in between. |Raised in poverty in Augusta, Ga., Brown ended up singing and dancing on the streets to help support his family. Though his formal education ended in seventh grade, Brown learned about gospel, and by the time he was twenty he had joined a gospel R&B group with singer Bobby Byrd called the Famous Flames. His dynamic personality was the focus of the group and in 1956 they had their first hit as James Brown and the Famous Flames with “Please, Please, Please.”
Brown found his own voice in the Sixties, and he hasn’t stopped since, save for a personal crisis in 1988 when he was charged with assault and battery by his wife. Later that year he led police on a car chase after allegedly barging into an insurance seminar next door to his Augusta office, brandishing a shotgun and a pistol and saying someone had broken in. He got out on bail but was arrested the next day for driving under the influence of PCP. Brown served two years of the six-year sentence related to the car chase, sparking fans’ “Free James Brown” pleas and instigating even more sampling of his music in rap. Brown still openly thanks live audiences for believing in him during those years.
Now sixty-five, Mr. Dynamite is releasing his first studio album in four years, Back Again, which is due out Nov. 17. Brown samples himself on the first single, “Funk On Ah Roll,” taking parts of his classic “Hot Pants.” Also on the record are Nineties takes of old hits like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat” alongside new tracks like “Peace in the World.”
The Rolling Stone Network caught up with Brown in San Francisco after a high-energy, typically big production with twenty-piece band that proved Brown still has the moves. Brown was both cordial and spirited as he freely spoke of his past run-ins and current message to America.
The new CD is titled Back Again. Is that a state of mind for you?
I think it says a lot to not just me but to you and everybody. “Back Again” meaning, I’m the same man who said, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I’m the same man who told kids to stay in school, don’t be a dropout. I’m the man who stopped the race riots after Dr. King. I’m the man who helps out with thirty-six different colleges for underprivileged kids. I’m going to bring all those principles, all those morals back. Also, you need to set goals for young people that make sense. We need to think of not degrading a woman and putting the wrong lyrics in songs. And the cussing don’t have to be there.
Any comments on how the Clinton/Lewinsky case is being handled?
I feel more sorry for the President’s office than I do the President as a man, because a man you can overcome, but the office should not be stained at any time. Our country should not be stained. The president is on too high a pedestal for us to put him down. If we attack the President’s office, we just attack America. Take him in a back room. Tell him what you’ve got to tell him. Offer him a chance at resignationif that’s what it comes to, but don’t try America for one thing. Don’t tie our important time up when there are other things that are more important.
What are your thoughts today about the charges of assault and battery brought against you in 1988?
Well, I did time for nothing. They know it, and they’re trying to square up and make everything right. In this particular incident they were wrong.
In retrospect, was the IRS valid in investigating you many years ago?
Well, when a country takes a seventh grade student who don’t know about taxes yet … take a man that’s not allowed to school as a baby. I wasn’t allowed to go to no real good school. I wasn’t allowed to drink out of water fountains, I wasn’t allowed to do nothing. They should take me and rock me in their arm, just like they do a little baby, and say, “James, this is the way to do it, this is the way to do it, or we’ll do it for you.” But I believe our government now realizes the disloyalty it done to me. I don’t think America will tolerate a man like me, with a track record of the things I’ve done for the betterment of humanity, to be taken advantage of like that.
Are you still the hardest working man in show business?
I don’t have to work. I work because I enjoy it. I’m a very, very well taken care of man. I save my money and God has blessed me very good. America has been good to me. It gave me a chance to come out from being a shoeshine boy and a janitor and make it on top. I have nothing to say but the greatest things for my country and the greatest things for the world because they offered me an opportunity and I’ve taken advantage of it.
How much did it mean to you to get your star added on the Hollywood Walkof Fame recently?
The star just gave me so many blessings. They went past me purposely. A fellow told me the other night, “Because you were so big we knew you would take care of yourself and we’d help the less fortunate people.” Now the system came back and said, “Okay, James Brown, we’re going to give you your flowers while you still live. We went and helped everybody else, now we’ll help you.” That’s what the system said. They told me verbatim.
Did you ever think you would still be doing this at this stage in your life?
No, I never thought I’d be singing this long. I really should have retired. I didn’t because of the fact that there’s a lot of people that need an identity, need a role model.
Is there any one way you want to be remembered?