You live as long as you can and die when you can’t help it – Furry Lewis
Not to be a cowboy name-dropper, but once I was talking to the B picture star Lash LaRue and he said that when he died he would have his funeral (tempting to say “stage” his funeral) in the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum. “And if it’s a hit—his voice by then like Bogart’s on acid—”and the people dig it”—the corners of the wise lips curl down, the left eyebrow raises—”then I’m gonna take it on the road!”
My point being, Lash didn’t achieve such a swell sendoff, but James Brown did. Not only that, it ain’t over yet.
Early Christmas morning of 2006, James Brown—the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, the Pope of Funk—dies at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta. He was 73. A day or two before, he had visited his dentist, who recognized the symptoms of pneumonia.
The first time I saw him, more than forty years ago, James Brown was doing a farewell tour, after which he was supposed to retire. When he died, he was booked to play on New Year’s Eve and had outstanding engagements through the following August. He was, as the saying goes, a bundle of contradictions.
In 1933, when James Brown was born, the Depression was at its greatest depths, and his parents were turpentine workers, the lowest of the low. After a few years his mother migrated to New York, leaving him alone with his father, Joseph Brown, in the South Carolina pine woods.
Few people remember the system of peonage, a quasi-legal extension of slavery. Blacks were housed in shacks in the forest, usually with a nearby commissary. James Brown and his father, however, lived off by themselves. As an adult Brown remembered playing with doodlebugs in the crawl space under his house. He even did an instrumental record called “Doodlebug.”
For the record, doodlebugs are tiny sand-colored creatures, like super-miniature crabs with pincer-style lower jaws. The child hovers over the doodlebug’s cone-shaped depression in the dirt, where the bug is hidden, just out of sight. Using a pine needle, the child tickles the sand in imitation of an ant or other small morsel that has fallen into the doodlebug’s trap, meanwhile saying, “Back, back doodle.” With luck (the child’s good luck, the bug’s bad), the bug will grasp the needle and the child will put it in a jar where it can be looked at.
Fascinating as they were, doodlebugs did not supply a well-rounded home life. Before James Brown was six, his father took him—they walked—into Augusta, Georgia, where he was raised by his aunt Minnie. They lived in the house of another aunt, Handsome “Honey” Washington, who was a prostitute. Joseph Brown lived in Augusta, but not in the whorehouse. He and James never lived together again.
Even back when he was living in the woods, James was into music. His father gave him a ten-cent harmonica, or French harp, and he played songs like “Oh, Susannah” and “John Henry.” He had a ways to go before becoming the Sex Machine, but he had also begun to sing.
When James started attending school, in a well-remembered episode, he was sent home for “insufficient clothes.” As soon as he was old enough and big enough, he began breaking into cars and stealing clothes, hubcaps, whatever wasn’t nailed down. His first arrest took place while he was in the act of stealing a car battery. He and a friend were locked up in the Richmond County Jail overnight, which proved a prophetic experience.
Eventually, after one particularly egregious robbery spree with three or four other boys, the police chased James down. Though he was only fifteen, he was locked up with adults. James tells this story in his book, James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, which he stitched together with the help of a writer named Bruce Tucker.
James confessed, or as he puts it, told the truth, and was charged with four counts of larceny. He was sentenced to not less than two years or more than four on each count, the sentences to run consecutively. He did his time, first at the Georgia Juvenile Training Institute at Rome, then after a couple of years, in the Boys Industrial Institute at Toccoa. He had been a good southpaw boxer and a baseball pitcher in the free world, and a filling station owner in Toccoa gave him a job so he could pitch baseball for a local team. With a job, he was freed, three years and a day after his conviction. All the time he should have been in high school, he was locked up.
During his incarceration, James acquired the nickname “Music Box” and met a singer and keyboard player named Bobby Byrd who was attending a local high school. Because the Richmond County officials had banned James from the area, he needed a Toccoa family to give him a stable place of residence, and the Byrd family took him in. As a young (pre-con) teenager, James had been in a group called the Cremona Trio, which sometimes had as many as five members. Now he started doing performances inc churches with Byrd’s sister Sarah. This developed into a romance—the boy had been locked up for three years, after all—and, with the addition of two sisters, Yvonne and Johnny Mae Wheeler, a quartet called the Ever Ready Gospel Singers. James was already the hardest working man in show business. He just didn’t know it yet.
Eventually, he joined the Avons, Bobby Byrd’s singing group, but according to James, they were terrible. Even the name had been taken previously by another group, so they became the Toccoa Singers. They sang in towns all around piedmont Georgia and South Carolina, becoming the Flames and then James Brown and the Famous Flames, as Little Richard later pointed out, even before they were famous.
James’ life was a primitive dance. It started in the humblest circumstances and ended in the adulation of thousands, indeed millions. During the Second World War, James danced for the soldiers coming through Augusta on the railroad. He never stopped dancing ’til he was dead.
James would literally not take “no” for an answer. He wangled a ride to WLAC radio station in Nashville, which everybody in the South listened to, and had his first acetate (the demo record format of the day) turned down by Gene Nobles and John Richbourg. At least John R. listened to it. James kept punching away, playing small gigs, keeping the group together.
Finally they were discovered by Ralph Bass of King Records in Cincinatti. (This was achieved through the aid of Gwen Kesler, the Queen of Georgia Music, who was then working for King). The first session was a near-disaster, simply because King’s owner Syd Nathan, producer of Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the second half of the twentieth century. But James and the Famous Flames knew what they were doing, and the record, “Please Please Please,” sold more than a million copies.
This is the part of the story where the pages fly off the calendar: the hero works ever harder, fights even more bloodily with “Mr. Nathan.” The big fight, according to James, was over the first Live at the Apollo album. King-Federal had made all of its money selling singles and Nathan was unable to envision a change in his way of doing business. James wound up paying for the Apollo record and selling it to the company. It stayed on the record charts sixty-six weeks.
James himself started the insane rumor that he was going to have a sex change and marry Bobby Byrd. In those days, that was scandalous. James didn’t care; he just wanted to make an impression, whatever it might be.
James played New York’s Madison Square Garden, the London Palladium, the Paris Olympia. He was an international sensation.
But there were difficult days ahead. There’s an axiom I just forgot. Oh, it’s the axiom about how much easier it seems to get there, in street terms. Staying there, in the limelight, is damn near impossible.
I would wager than James worked harder for every successive dollar. He has worked in ways unknown to him when he started. When did he start? Doodlebugs get no votes.
The truth is, James was always starting, changing, remolding, rebuilding. As Leon Austin, James’ lifelong friend and employee said, “If nobody else love him, he love him.”
It must have been this fierce commitment to self that kept James constantly renewing himself.
“Please Please Please” went to number five on the R&B chart. King recorded a great many James Brown and the Famous Flames tracks and started releasing them all over the place, putting James in the position of competing with himself. But he stayed on the road, making more money for appearances now, and kept making records, finally—in 1958—recording his first number one, “Try Me.”
The first Apollo album was cut in 1962. Another large step forward for James was the T.A.M.I. Show, recorded on tape in Santa Monica, California, in November, 1964, with the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Rolling Stones. The Stones closed the show, but it advanced James’ position in the pop world.
On February 1, 1965, James cut an epoch-making single, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” It spent eight weeks at the top of the R&B chart and made it into the pop Top Ten. The follow-up, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” was even more successful, reaching number three on the pop chart.
As time went on and the militant “black power” movement gained strength, James was drawn more and more into politics, emphasizing education and black ownership of businesses. He inaugurated a program, which received the support of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, called “Don’t Be a Dropout.” He was booked into the Boston Garden the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination. He had the started the year by buying his first radio station, WGYW, in Knoxville. (He later changed the call letters to WJBE, for James Brown Enterprises.) Fearing rights, James worked out a deal with the city of Boston for his show to be televised free throughout the area. On the broadcast, James said, “I used to shine shoes in front of a radio station. Now I own radio stations. You know what that is? That’s black power.”
Back in 1964, James had broken his King/Federal contract by recording for Smash Records. Eventually a court ruled that he could only record instrumentals for Smash. He wound up going back to King, but left for good in 1971, first for the German Polydor label.
In the middle of those developments, at the end of 1969, his band quit, and James simply hired another, from Cincinnati, featuring guitarist Catfish Collins and bassist Bootsy Collins who would later go on to establish themselves as pillars of seventies’ funk with Parliament-Funkadelic.
Meanwhile, many of James’ previous band members returned to the fold—among them, saxophonists St. Claire Pinckney and Maceo Parker, drummer Clyde Stubblefield, and longtime associate Bobby Byrd. At the end of 1973, James released The Payback, his only certified gold record album. (Gold certification requires sales of 500,000 copies.)
James’ record sales had fallen into a slump by 1980, when he performed in a cameo in the John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd film The Blues Brothers, playing an over-the-top preacher. His career was revived for the umpteenth time. In January of 1986, another film, Rocky IV, used a James Brown song, “Living in America,” as its theme. That same month, James was among the first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ceremonies at New York City.
James, twice divorced, had married a California makeup artist named Adrienne (nicknamed “Alfie”) Rodriquez. They began to have marital problems, perhaps fueled by drugs. James, composer and author of “King Heroin” and developer of anti-drug programs, was reputed to use “gorilla,” slang for PCP, or phencyclidine, an animal tranquilizer. Alfie was arrested at the Augusta airport with half a pound of gorilla in her bra.
Perhaps the single most bizarre incident in this minor crime spree started in the office complex on Augusta’s Claussen Road from which James and others did business. On Saturday, September 24, 1988, James came into his office, somehow divined or imagined that a person or persons unknown has been using his toilet, and taking an inoperative antique shotgun, invaded an insurance licensing seminar. The police were called, and James led a slow-speed chase to North Augusta, South Carolina, and then back to Augusta, Georgia, though the police shot out his front tires.
On December 15, 1988, James, found guilty of numerous offenses, was sentenced to six years in a South Carolina prison. He was paroled on February 27, 1991. The next year, at the Grammy Awards, James received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Once out of prison, James went right back to making records. Love Over-Due came out in 1991, Universal James in 1992 and I‘m Back in 1998.
In 2004, James was discovered to be suffering from prostate cancer but fought the disease into remission. He did, as we have seen, on Christmas morning 2006 from pneumonia, and then it was as if a circus began. there were multiple funerals from Augusta to the Apollo. His forth wife, Tomi Rae, performed Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin'” before James’ open coffin. At the time of this writing, March 2007, James still has no last resting place.