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James Brown: Wrestling With the Devil

The struggle for the soul of the ‘Godfather of Soul’

James BrownJames Brown

James Brown performing at the Apollo, October 16th, 1987.

John Roca/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

The Georgia Judge who is about to give James Brown a six-year prison sentence is in a jovial mood as he surveys his courtroom, taking in the television cameras, news photographers and reporters. “You know they’re giving out reports of his progress on the radio,” says Judge Gayle B. Hamrick of the Richmond County State Court.

Brown, already serving another six-year sentence at South Carolina’s State Park Correctional Center, is being escorted to Hamrick’s court in downtown Augusta. The singer is expected to plead guilty to misdemeanor weapons and traffic charges that stem from a now infamous interstate chase that began when he entered an insurance seminar carrying a shotgun last September. It is the same series of events that led to his incarceration in South Carolina.

The judge is talking to a bailiff. “Every few minutes it’s ‘Hey, we got a report in on James Brown–they just passed us in a police car,’ “says Hamrick, smiling. “Judge, gonna charge admission?” asks the bailiff. “We’re gonna set up three rings out there,” Hamrick says.

The courtroom begins to fill. Brown’s mother, his aunt and one of his sons, as well as Danny Ray, his longtime master of ceremonies, and Leon Austin, a childhood friend, find seats. Brown’s wife, Adrienne, who is here to plead no contest to her own misdemeanor traffic charges, the result of a 1987 incident, bustles in. “Nothing but a zoo,” she says with a frown. “Don’t these people got nothing better to do?”

Adrienne Brown’s case has already been heard by the time her husband is finally brought into the court a little before 11 a.m. Judging by his appearance, no one would know that James Brown has spent the last six weeks in prison.

Attired in a three-piece suit and a burgundy silk shirt, a gray silk scarf tied around his neck, he flashes a smile as he greets an acquaintance. But standing before the judge, the singer quickly becomes subdued and somber. As Brown begins speaking in a low, hoarse voice, reporters strain to catch his statement.

“My life has always been a model, and I just don’t feel good about it now,” says Brown, adding that he is “very sorry for what happened…If I had it all to do over again, well, I just wouldn’t do it.” With his hands clasped behind his back, Brown looks up at Hamrick and says quietly, “I hope this is behind us.”

Brown’s contrition pays off. After he pleads guilty to the charges, the judge gives him what amounts to a slap on the wrist: a six-year sentence that will run concurrently with his South Carolina term. Brown could be free in August 1991. Albert “Buddy” Dallas, one of Brown’s lawyers, tells the judge that his client is sincere, that he “wants to do good.”

But three weeks later Brown is on the telephone, calling from prison, complaining wearily that the police have harassed him for the last two and a half years, expressing disappointment that having served on President Reagan’s anti-drug task force for seven years, no one from his administration has stepped in to help.

“I was very much surprised that I didn’t get a call from the White House,” Brown told Rolling Stone in late February. “I think I should get some help. I knew President Carter on a one-on-one basis. I know a lot of the state senators, governors. When they get the message, they going to help me out.” Comments like these aren’t surprising.

Brown recently described himself to one of his former backup singers, Vicki Anderson Byrd, as “the only man who can do anything I want.”

Brown thinks he should be released. “Special treatment I’m not looking for,” he says. “But I don’t think I should be in here. I am not a man who breaks the law. That [the insurance-seminar incident] was something that happened very fast, and I think the policemen just wouldn’t accept their responsibility once they shot the car up. Thank God I’m living. Regardless of who did it, I didn’t protest against the police, because I didn’t want to cause problems. I figured if we could work it out some other kind of way, if I had to go to jail for sixty, ninety days, and then we work it out, I would accept that If I had actually fought it like it actually happened, we’d have a lot of problems in the state, and I didn’t want to see that. I didn’t want to have a racial problem. So I took it all on me.”

James Brown has always had a tremendous ego, and not without justification. He is arguably the greatest artist in the history of black music, and his contribution to American popular culture is, simply, immeasurable. His 33 years as a hitmaker dwarf the accomplishments of current stars like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson and U2.

He invented funk and rap, and his profound influence on music is international in scope. Brown has sat with American presidents and last year even had an audience with the pope. His words once cooled rioting in Washington, D.C., Boston and Augusta, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

According to Joel Whitburn’s new book Top R&B Singles: 1942-1988, Brown is the most popular black musician of all time. His recorded legacy–114 charted singles–includes such classics as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Out of Sight,” “(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Night Train,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Brown’s fall comes at a time when his influence on the pop scene is as strong as ever. You can see it in the dance steps and music of superstars like Prince and Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and George Michael, and dozens upon dozens of other entertainers. His own recordings have been sampled to death by Eighties rappers, like Run-D.M.C, the Beastie Boys, Eric B. and Rakim, the Fat Boys, Ice T and Public Enemy, which takes its name from an old Brown record.

“Everybody samples James Brown,” says rapper Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. “You can’t make a rap record without using some James Brown.”

Or as Brown himself put it with a laugh during his telephone call from prison, “The music out there is only as good as my last record.” But another James Brown is now surfacing–one whose bearing is not so regal.

Since Brown disappeared behind bars, friends, business associates and musicians have come forward with horror stories about their days with the man. They say that for 30 years he has been beating women; that he has gypped collaborators out of record royalties. That he threatened musicians with guns; tried to steal their girlfriends; left band members stranded on the road; and got so high on marijuana and PCP that he thought he could “fly like a bird.”

“They don’t know, sir,” counters Brown, who won’t talk about his drug use. “My employees tell you, ‘Oh, James Brown smokes a little pot.’ I won’t say nothing about those gentlemen. I’m going to be more man than they were. I’m a clean man.”

But what of the PCP that was found in Brown’s blood after his arrest? “They can find anything they want to find, don’t you know that?” he says. “I’m just the last of the Afro-Americans to have enough intelligence to deal with the business world. And they would like to kick me out, back over into that fast lane. And they’re not going to get me to do it.”

Despite such denials, Brown’s problems are the dark side of the tremendous ego and self-determination that helped a neglected child of poverty to fight his way to the top. But like fellow rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, Brown is a man who has been wrestled to the ground by a host of personal demons.

Some years ago in a fit of rage. James Brown scolded one of his employees by saying, “You know I got the Lord in one hand and the devil in the other, and I can control you. You’re nothing without me!”

James Brown might just as well have been shouting at himself.


James Brown is a mess. It is May 6th, 1988, and in his plush suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Brown is tripping on PCP, the potent hallucinogen known on the street as angel dust. He is in such bad shape that the hotel doctor must be called to treat him for high blood pressure and hypertension, and his aides are forced to cancel his show at the Lone Star Cafe.

This is almost unheard of: for decades, Brown has been the self-proclaimed “hardest working man in show business.”

This also occurs at what should be a time of celebration for James Brown. He is in the midst of a major comeback. In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with “Living in America,” he made his first appearance on the Top 10 pop charts in 18 years.

His latest album, I’m Real, is strong on the black charts. But in the hotel room, there is nothing but misery. “Doc, you just don’t understand,” says Brown, who is upset by his marital troubles. “You just don’t understand.”

At the Lone Star, word is brought to Brown’s band by his wardrobe mistress, Gertrude Sanders. “Martha, James is really sick,” a teary-eyed Sanders tells backup vocalist Martha High. “He’s just about gone. I’m scared he’s going to die.”

A group of Brown associates and employees–including the Reverend Al Sharpton (who is making headlines for his role in the Tawana Brawley debacle), drummer Arthur Dixon, music director Sweet Charles Sherrell, saxophonist Maceo Parker, High and Sanders–head back to the hotel.

“You could smell the stuff from the elevator,” Sherrell recalls later. “It was heartbreaking. Both of them [Brown and his wife] were just out of it. She could hardly open the door.” Inside, a disheveled Brown sits on the edge of the bed, staring into space. For the next few hours, Brown’s visitors try to bring him around by getting him to drink milk, massaging his shoulders and offering their support.

“That was a good show tonight,” Brown eventually says. “Wasn’t that a good show?” “Man,” says Maceo Parker, “I think you’re talking about last night.”

“We supposed to work tonight,” Brown says.

“He didn’t know he’d missed the show,” Martha High recalls later. “That’s not James Brown. That’s out!”


Last year the self-styled Godfather of Soul continued to make news: in the spring he was arrested after beating up his wife, a one-time Solid Gold hair stylist and makeup artist named Adrienne “Alfie” Rodriguez; since then he has been repeatedly busted on drug and weapons offenses.

It hasn’t helped matters that his wife–also arrested and charged with possession of PCP–told her story to the National Enquirer, describing the beatings she had received at her husband’s hands in an April 26th article headlined “James Brown Tried to kill ME” and let the tabloid photograph her bruises.

Drugs were also tightening their grip. Brown had been smoking reefer spiked with angel dust for years, but he was in command onstage. So band members were shocked when he hit the stage stoned and out of control at both the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and at the Valley Forge Music Fair, in Philadelphia. In midsong he would stop the band, stare at the audience and, says Sherrell, “talk about something in left field. It was horrible.”

The sad denouement came on Saturday, September 24th, 1988, when Brown, high on PCP and carrying a shotgun, entered an insurance seminar taking place in a building adjacent to his Augusta office.

According to Geraldine Phillips of Atlanta, who was leading the seminar, Brown wanted to know who had been using his private restroom and began asking her questions. “I thought if I answered one of those questions wrong, he was going to kill me and everybody else,” she said later, although it turned out the shotgun didn’t work.

The police were called, and a two-state high-speed car chase ensued in which Brown allegedly attempted to run over two policemen who were setting up a roadblock. The police shot out the front tires of Brown’s truck, but that didn’t stop him. He drove another six miles on the rims, circling back to Augusta before stopping in a ditch.

The police said that after they removed him from the truck, he started singing “Georgia” and “was doing his ‘Good Foot’ dance” as they gave him a sobriety test. Released on bail, Brown was in trouble again within twenty-four hours, when he was arrested for driving under the influence of PCP.

Brown claims the incident happened somewhat differently: that he was just trying to find out why people were using his bathroom without permission and that he stopped for police but that they kicked in his window and shot at his truck. “A man fires twenty-three rounds of bullets in a truck, two in the gas tank, and then rush me to the hospital and say I am on drugs and I’m going to kill him–they wanted me to plead guilty to that,” says Brown. “Worst day of my life.”

People close to Brown–his agent, Jack Bart; his attorney Buddy Dallas; his childhood friend Leon Austin–blame Adrienne Brown for the big man’s troubles. “She no good for him,” says Austin. But artist manager Joyce McCrae, who has known Adrienne Brown since the early Eighties, believes she is as much “a victim of James’s problems as James is himself.

“Alfie has been portrayed as the scapegoat, the cause of all of James’s problems,” says McCrae. “James certainly knew about drugs long before he ever met Alfie. On the few occasions that I sat and listened to her talk, she reminded me of the women I’d seen suffering from battered-wife syndrome on TV talk shows. For her to bear the blame for the downfall and destruction of James is absurd.”

“A scapegoat is right,” says James Brown. “She is a scapegoat for some people who have taken advantage of her because they don’t like the relationship between she and I. They don’t like it because we are third-world people. Third-world people are not recognized.

“I’ll tell you what got us into this problem,” he continues. “Number one, they didn’t like the marriage between my wife and I in that small area. Next, they didn’t like my wife leaving NBC, coming and staying with me. Some group of people want me to go to New York or Los Angeles. They want James Brown in a big city, think he’s more effective with the business world. They need my guidance because 85 percent of the business is all James Brown. But I don’t want to live in L.A. I like coming back home.

“I been a human all my life, but we don’t get human rights. Should get them. I don’t have to explain myself. You know who explains my problem? Martin Luther King. Kennedy dying for human dignity, human rights, Adam Clayton Powell, James Meredith, Hubert Humphrey. You all want to spend your time trying to make me a drug addict when you should spend your time trying to get me back on the streets so I can help you with the problem.”


There is a small painting hanging in James Brown’s private office. The painting shows a bull, its back already bloodied, butting its horns into a red matador’s cape.

Most stars of Brown’s stature are handled by experienced managers based in New York or Los Angeles. Not James Brown. He didn’t have a manager, and when he was not on the road, you could often find him in Augusta handling his own business out of a suite of offices in an anonymous-looking executive park near 1-20.

On the afternoon following Brown’s Augusta court appearance, his wife is sitting at a big desk with an engraved plaque that reads, “James Brown, President.” She is on the phone with USA Today. “This has been one of the worst days I’ve had,” Adrienne Brown says. “I almost broke down today. I’m ready for the hospital, but I’m trying to keep going.” Brown hangs up.

“How much do they want us to take?” she asks. “We’re just two people. They had James and I in the same courtroom today! I told God last night I can’t take too much more.”

Sitting across the desk from Brown is 40-year-old Ray Ferrill, who looks like a low-rent Tom Waits and says he is James Brown’s godson. “What we have is a conspiracy to incarcerate,” he says and then proceeds–in a rambling monologue–to the James Brown’s problems to Iran, racism and national security.

Adrienne Brown is exhausted. Her eye shadow is smeared, face puffy. But she is hanging in there, staunchly defending her husband and their marriage. She says his troubles have only helped his career. “This man is so hot right now it’s scary,” she insists. “There are movie contracts right now they want to negotiate in jail.”

Brown pops a diet candy into her mouth. “My husband doesn’t take drugs,” she says flatly. “They say they want to treat James the same as anybody else. Well, he’s not anybody else. And then, what they want to do is come down even harder to show that they’re not treating him like anybody else.”

“Scapegoat and an example,” says Ferrill.

Adrienne Brown says she has also been victimized. “We love each other,” she says. “And that’s where it’s at. This bull of me feeding my husband drugs. You can’t make James Brown do anything.”

The phone rings, and this time it’s Sharpton.

“Hi, Rev,” she says. “These asshole attorneys made him plead guilty. He got another five years. Well, it’s because they figured he’d get a deal. He got no deal. I’m telling you, Rev, we’re both doomed people if someone doesn’t move on something.”

In Adrienne Brown’s world, as in her husband’s, paranoia runs rampant. She recounts an incident last year in which “a nickel bag of grass” was planted in her husband’s coat pocket and insinuates that his lawyer may have had a hand in it “A month ago, before he went to jail, my husband had his coat hanging here in the office,” she says. “We were sitting here in the office–Mr. Dallas, myself, my husband, the people who work here, some reporters. Mr. Dallas says, ‘That’s a beautiful fur coat–may I see it?’ Mr. Dallas walked up to the coat, looked at it, touched it. We went home, and my husband emptied the coat pockets. Do you know what he found? A nickel bag of grass. Now that was put there!”

Adrienne Brown sighs. “Do you understand how we can be set up?” she asks. “These things happen with us. And it’s hard for people to believe, because it’s like a soap opera. But it isn’t It happens to us every day.”

Asked later about the coat incident, Buddy Dallas recalls “being in the office and asking about the cougar coat.” He says, however, that he has had nothing to do with–let alone planting–illegal drugs of any kind. Adrienne Brown denies she has been beaten by her husband, and she doesn’t want to talk about the photograph of her bruises that appeared in the National Enquirer. But pressed on the subject, she makes it sound like a publicity stunt.

“We sold newspapers,” she says. “James couldn’t get in those newspapers, no matter all the good he’s done. There are many P.R. schemes that people use.”

But at the moment Adrienne Brown is unhappy with the way she and her husband are being portrayed. “Let these animals talk all they want to talk,” she says. “As soon as this is over, I’m taking care of them.” She pauses a moment. “If this story is wrong, I will hunt you down.”


On the Saturday afternoon before the Augusta trial, Bobby Byrd–a former member of James Brown’s Famous Flames and at one time the singer’s closest friend–is brooding in the upstairs bedroom of his Atlanta home. Just a few weeks earlier, Byrd, who is in his fifties, suffered a mild stroke when he learned he wouldn’t be getting the money–some $25,000 in artist’s and writer’s royalties–that he claims James Brown owes him.

A spokesman for PolyGram Records, Brown’s former record label, says there may be royalties owed to Byrd by Brown. The label currently credits all royalties from James Brown records or productions against monies previously advanced to Brown (Brown’s attorney says that figure is about $2 million); it is Brown’s responsibility to pay artists like Bobby Byrd who were under his production umbrella.

“Bobby need his name in the paper,” says Brown, who denies owing Byrd any money. “Whatever Bobby Byrd did, he did. I know nothing about it. Bobby made a mistake years ago–he quit [Brown’s band]. That’s his problem. He shouldn’t have quit.”

“Everything was beautiful when we first started,” says Byrd, who co-wrote such Brown classics as “Licking Stick–Licking Stick,” “(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Talkin’ Loud & Sayin’ Nothing.”

Byrd is thinking of those early years, in the Fifties, when the whole band would pile into a station wagon and head off to gigs. “We were playing locally up and down the highway, the girls screaming, and that was all that mattered,” says Byrd. “Making a few dollars. We all supposed to be together. It was the Famous Flames. Everybody got an equal share of everything. We gonna stick together till the very end.” Byrd pauses a second. “We thought.” Byrd sips from a can of soda pop. “But when it got to the money, then this man changed completely,” he says. “It was like the difference in night and day,”

“James’s head just went bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Johnny Terry, another former member of the Famous Flames, during a separate interview.

For years the people who worked for James Brown wouldn’t talk about these things. To this day, many of Brown’s employees won’t say a word against their boss. They include Danny Ray, who has been Brown’s master of ceremonies for a quarter century; wardrobe mistress Gertrude Sanders; the secretaries in Brown’s office; and even former members of Brown’s band, such as St Clair Pinckney, who quit last summer after the band was stranded in Rome with no money for nine days.

“He’s a loving person,” insists Sanders, who has been with Brown for decades. “A nice person.”

But many others–some no longer on Brown’s payroll, some still in his employ–have had it. They are fed up with the world of James Brown, where he is the self-proclaimed king and mere mortals are expected “to bow,” as a former band member puts it.

“That goes for the moon and stars and the air outside,” says the Reverend Al Sharpton, who once claimed he and Brown were starting a nationwide chain of Groom Me shoeshine parlors, where “unskilled young people” could make a living shining shoes. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

No more. Brown once ruled the recording studio, dictating every note on some of his records, but before he was imprisoned, he was merely showing up to overdub his vocals after hired professionals wrote and produced the tracks.

Since the early Seventies, Brown has had major tax problems; he currently owes the government in excess of $9 million. Once considered an astute businessman–whose properties included a booking agency, three radio stations, seventeen publishing companies, a record label, a television show, a production company and a Lear jet and who had millions in an Atlanta bank account–Brown no longer even owns the sixty-two-acre Beech Island, South Carolina, ranch where he lives.

James Brown’s almost supernatural ability to create astounding records from street talk and raw rhythms went hand in hand with an obsession for stardom bordering on the pathological. Abandoned as a four-year-old to the care of relatives and friends, neglected and unloved (he says it was twenty years before he was reunited with his mother), James Brown grew up on the streets of Augusta–the “ill-repute area,” he calls it–where he learned how to wheel, deal, gamble and steal.

“I wanted to be somebody,” Brown has said. “To be somebody.”

He was a tough, street-savvy kid who in addition to working odd jobs–shining shoes, delivering groceries, picking cotton, racking pool balls–put more cash in his pockets by playing dice and directing servicemen from nearby Camp Gordon to the local whorehouses.

“He didn’t have nothin’,” says Henry Stallings, one of Brown’s schoolmates. “He always say that’s why he work so hard now. He don’t ever want to go back that way. Never, ever again!”

By the time Brown entered the seventh grade, in 1949, he was stealing bicycles, hubcaps, car batteries–anything he could turn into cash. But that came to an end that year, when a night of breaking into cars landed him in Alto Reform School, near Toccoa, Georgia, with a sentence of eight to 16 years.

“They took me off the street,” Brown said this January. “They put me in prison. I thought they were putting me away, but they were saving me. In that prison I found myself.”

While serving three and a half years in reform school, Brown met Bobby Byrd during a baseball game between the inmates and some of the local Toccoa kids. Byrd liked Brown and persuaded his mother to intervene in his friend’s behalf. The Byrds sponsored Brown and took him into their home. Byrd also took Brown into his group, the Gospel Starlighters.

Before long the members of the group had switched to hard R&B, changing their name to the Famous Flames. In January of 1956, they were signed to King Records, in Cincinnati; four months later “Please, Please, Please” was in the R&B Top Ten. By then Brown’s ego had already begun to assert itself: at his insistence, the name of the group was soon changed to James Brown and the Famous Flames. Brown’s first taste of fame sent him into hyperdrive.

Over the next decade he relentlessly pushed himself, his band and his business advisers. Along the way he created the baddest rock & roll show the world has ever seen.

Writers have been trying to get the James Brown experience down on paper ever since. “He is in an ecstasy of agony,” wrote Doon Arbus in the mid-Sixties. “It is as if he is gripped by demons and poltergeists,” wrote Philip Norman of the London Sunday Times in the Seventies.

“He does a split, erupts into a pirouette, whirls like a dervish, and ends up at the microphone just in time to shriek “‘bayba-a-ay’ as the band modulates into the introduction to his latest hit,” wrote Robert Palmer in the late Seventies, when he was a pop-music critic for The New York Times.

“James! he was then, shooting out of the wings like a pinball off the spring with a ‘pleeeeeeeeeese!’ that could pop a hairpin at 50 feet,” wrote Gerri Hirshey in Rolling Stone in 1983.

Any way you put it, Brown was a phenomenon. As Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones once said–and as one look at the 1965 performance film The T.A.M.I Show confirms–”You could put Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley on one side of the stage and James Brown on the other, and you wouldn’t even notice the others were up there!”

From the late Fifties through the mid-Seventies, James Brown toured year-round, crisscrossing the country in buses and Cadillacs and later a series of private jets, coming up with ideas for songs in dressing rooms, cutting hits between gigs.

Business was done on a cash basis, and Brown carried suitcases full of cash from town to town–as much as $250,000–his employees often passing some of it out to the DJs whom his men hired to “co-promote” the shows.

The pace was manic, and Brown gave no quarter. He fined his musicians for infractions ranging from a missed note to a wrinkled stage outfit.

“He wanted things to always be razor’s edge,” says saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, Brown’s arranger during the middle to late Sixties. “He kept people intimidated. Stupid stuff. We had dress-code fines, shoes had to have a certain shine. There were rules about carrying our uniforms.”

Brown’s passion and obsession made him push harder and harder, fueling a remarkable stream of hit records–17 in a row during one two-year period–that didn’t stop until the late Seventies.

At a time–the late Fifties and early Sixties–when record companies typically chose the song, producer and musicians that would work on a recording session, Brown was a revolutionary. “He insisted on making his records his way,” says Alan Leeds, one of Brown’s former tour managers who now works for Prince. “He said, ‘I’m not going to sound like the Stax sound or the Detroit sound, where everybody has the same studio guys. I got my band, we’re gonna play my music, and we’re going to play it my way.’ And when the record company balked at that, he’d just not record at all. And he’d make them suffer until they needed a James Brown record so badly that they’d take whatever he gave them.”

Even disillusioned former sidemen like Ellis and Byrd brighten up as they describe working on the hits. Ellis says that his job was to “act as a translator and a mediator between the bizarre and the guitar, taking the unorthodox ideas of James Brown and making them somewhat conventional but not losing the rawness.”

Among the songs Ellis co-wrote with Brown was “Cold Sweat,” which became a Number Seven pop hit in 1967.

“He called me into the dressing room and mumbled something, hummed a feeling,” says Ellis. “I got on the bus, and by the time we got to Cincinnati [where the studios of King Records were located], we fell off the bus, rehearsed the song for a few minutes, cut it, then got back on the bus and went back to work.”

Brown recorded live in the studio. Standing in the middle of the room surrounded by his band, Brown would try out new dance steps even as he laid down a track. Unable to read or write music, Brown would sing each part to the musicians. “He’d take the rhythm section, verbally hum the parts out,” says St. Clair Pinckney. ” ‘I want you to play this–dum-da-dum-da-dum-dum. Gimme this kind of beat. Play that for a few minutes. Okay, hold that right there, don’t forget nothin’. Hold that groove right there.’ Then he’d call the horns in and do the same thing with them. Next thing you know, it’s ‘Okay, roll the tape.’ Most times it was first time down.”

Former band members, including Byrd, Ellis, Johnny Terry and others, complain that Brown didn’t always give them full credit for their contributions. They say that Brown would add his name to songs he hadn’t written and that instead of paying someone, he might give them a writing credit. Terry claims he wrote “I’ll Go Crazy.” Both Byrd and Bobby Bennett, another former member of the Famous Flames, say one of Brown’s girlfriends, Betty Newsome, actually wrote “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

Although Brown has disputed this, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”–which for many years was credited solely to Brown–is now also credited to Newsome.

Wherever the songs actually came from, no one denies that Brown made them his own. “It was his energy that gave it the fire,” says Bob Patton, who worked for Brown promoting his records and tours. “If you took James away, the band could play the tunes, but they didn’t have the spark. He made the engine run. Damn near bum it out sometimes.”

Brown could get crazy on the road. In 1968, Bennett was playing cards with Danny Ray in his room at the Ritz in Paris when a furious Brown burst in, a pistol in his hand. “He came in and pointed it at me,” says Bennett. “He told me, ‘I’m going to kill you. You told my old lady I had another woman on the plane.’ He jumped on me. I tried to throw his head out of the fifteenth-story window. If not for Danny Ray, I’d have driven his head through one of the iron bars they had in the window. Danny was shouting, ‘Don’t kill him!'”

But Brown saved the worst treatment for his women. “He beat Tammi Terrell terrible,” says Bennett. “She was bleeding, shedding blood.” Terrell, who died in 1970, was Brown’s girlfriend before she became famous as Marvin Gaye’s singing partner in the mid-Sixties.

“Tammi left him because she didn’t want her butt whipped,” says Bennett, who also claims he saw Brown kick one pregnant girlfriend down a flight of stairs. Both Bobby Byrd and his wife, Vicki Anderson, say that in the Seventies, Brown abused his wife at the time, Deirdre, “something terrible.”

“All the women liked his money and his fame,” says Anderson. “They liked being Mrs. James Brown. This is nothing new. The minute he buys you the first thing–if you’re his woman–next will come those beatings.” Anderson says she has seen Brown repeatedly lure women away from their men with promises of stardom.

On a plane flight to London in 1976, Brown even tried to steal his best friend’s wife. “He told her that if she left me, she’d have an album and it would be Number One,” says Byrd.

“Said he’d make me a millionaire,” adds Anderson. “I wasn’t going to leave my husband for no hit record.”

Brown abruptly ended the prison telephone interview with Rolling Stone before he could be asked about abusing his girlfriends and wives over the years, and his lawyer Buddy Dallas said he could not comment because the incidents had occurred before he represented Brown.


Sheriff Carrol Heath is sitting in his Aiken, Georgia, office, where a photograph of himself and George Bush is prominently displayed.

“About two and a half years ago we started getting the calls,” says the sheriff, running a hand across a pale forehead and through thinning white hair. “Either Adrienne, the wife, or her mother. ‘James beat up on me.’ ‘Get someone out there. He’s killing her.'”

The sheriff shakes his head. He picks up a phone and asks for a computer printout. The printout shows that Adrienne Lois Brown called the police once in 1984, three times in 1985, once in 1987 and more than half a dozen times in 1988. “On one occasion she said he was going to take her out into the woods and shoot her,” Heath says, putting the printout aside. “You know, if a man and woman can’t get along, they should part ways.”

Captain Jim Whitehurst, a big man who says his nickname around the sheriff’s office is Wyatt Earp, steps into the office. In apparent homage to the psychotic villain of The Night of the Hunter, Whitehurst has “H-A-T-E” tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, “L-O-V-E” on the other.

“It’s a damn Yankee,” says Whitehurst. “I can tell just by looking at you.”

Whitehurst is followed by Bill Hartman, an investigator who has been to Brown’s ranch. Hartman is wearing a belt with a buckle in the shape of handcuffs. “I went out there the day after the car got shot up,” he says, referring to an incident that occurred over the 1988 Easter weekend. “I met her at the hospital. She was beat up real bad. Black-and-blue marks all over her body. Legs, back, side.”

Hartman takes a seat. “What was supposed to have happened, they had got into an argument because he wasn’t going to take her on this foreign tour,” he says. “He went in the house, and first he got her mink coat, throwed it on the ground and shot holes all in it. Then he went back in and got one of these here leather jackets with sable collar and sable cuffs, thrown it on the ground and shot it up.”

“Did they have holes in them?” asks the sheriff.

“Sir, I don’t know,” replies Hartman. “Because before she went to the hospital, she had took them to a furrier to have them fixed. The next-door neighbor told me that the night of the incident she wouldn’t even go to the hospital until she took them coats over to that furrier to have them fixed.”

“You ever recall going out there and finding the house in disarray and the furniture broken up?” asks the sheriff.

“Just bullet holes,” says Hartman, smiling. “Plenty of bullet holes in the house. He took a .22 rifle and went into this walk-in closet and shot down through everything on her side of the closet. Found bullet holes in the bedroom walls.”

Whitehurst leans forward in his chair. “Ever shot a monkey?” he asks, idly fingering a bullet he has picked up off the sheriff’s desk. “Ever seen anyone shoot a monkey?”


James Brown is standing in a small room inside the Law Enforcement Center a few hours after he has received his concurrent sentence. He is smiling, flashing that classic grin, his false teeth glistening. His mother, Susie, her body enveloped in a black fur coat, is seated nearby, staring almost reverently at her son. Seated next to her is Brown’s aunt Gerry. “I feel so good,” says Brown.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m so happy,” interjects his mother. Brown mentions a Psalm he has been reading; he implies that the spirit has moved him. “At the height of my career, I thought that everything was happening great,” he says. “And thank God for it, but the height, the very pinnacle of everything I’ve ever done in the business, is not10percent of what’s happened, in the last ninety days. See, it’s almost a rebirth.”

And what has happened?

Brown assumes a thoughtful pose. “I’ll tell you,” he says, “it’s like an omen. As a kid in that prison, I found myself. An omen in my life. The same place I’m at right now. That was the beginning of my life, in 1950. This is the beginning of my life again. An omen. An omen.

“I can’t give you the kind of interview I’d like to give you in front of my mother,” says Brown. “But, you know, once you be lucky enough to do some of the things I’ve done in life, there’s a lot of stress. Christ went off–he didn’t want to be around other people when he was praying. I ain’t no Christ, but I at least got to go off and think.” He laughs. “If Christ had to do it, what about me?” he asks. “I’m no prophet–I’m just a good person trying to do the right thing. But I got to have that time off.”

But what about all the trouble he has been in? What about the drugs? What about the violence? “Being a victim of different kinds of things going in your system,” says Brown.

“I’ve been a victim of that. And to stand here and run my history down would be hard to do, but I’ll always be behind telling kids not to use drugs, I’ll always be behind drug abuse. I can’t stop the pushers, but I can stop the kids from being buyers.”

It’s time to leave; Brown wants some time alone with his family. But he just can’t help himself, and he voices bitterness and resentment over his predicament.

“If they catch some sports figure snorting coke or any kind of drugs, you know what they do?” he asks. “Have him sit on the bench and then let him play next week. I can go to some of our highest official wives, they just send them to a clinic. But I’m sure when God wanted Moses, he didn’t think of all the people yonder, he thought only of Moses. Maybe if a man is strong enough and people believe in him, maybe they won’t take no for an answer…”

Brown flashes that grin again. He is shaking hands, about to turn away. “I thank God that I know what I know,” he says. “Everybody help you win. But nobody help you when you lose. So when you get back to winning again, they’ll love you again.”

Brown’s mother and aunt chime in: “That’s right, that’s right.”

“Thank God the Lord gave me something this time to know what I have to do,” he says.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” says James Brown’s elderly mother. “I was praying for you.”

In This Article: Coverwall, James Brown


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