We Called Him Mr. Brown

James Brown, 1933-2006: A godson remembers the Godfather

by Alan Leeds as told to Steve Perry

James Brown was about a lot of things to a lot of different people. But to those of us who passed through his inner circle, he was about family. It wasn't always a warm, fuzzy, or even functional family. But it was family. He was that crabby patriarch who'd seldom give you what you wanted but usually give you what you needed. He'd mock your performance and curse your efforts but if you ever needed to "come home," the door was always open.

I met him as a pimply-faced teenage rookie disc jockey, interviewing him for my radio show in Richmond, Virginia. I was so awestruck at being in his presence that I secretly recorded our pre-interview conversation as he asked me about my radio station and career aspirations, all the while bragging about his then-new single, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." I explained I only had an hour on the air per day and was just an apprentice, but he waved me off and said, "You sure are hip, man, and you got the PRIME time, baby! I GOT to know you. You're gonna be ruling radio in Richmond before long."

Of course I left there on cloud nine. Years later when I went to work for him, I realized he pretty much praised all the disc jockeys that way in every town. I also realized that most of them left him feeling as special as I had that hot summer day in 1965.

From the day I met him, backstage he was always Mr. Brown—never James. DJs, friends, and wannabes called him James. But one of the initiations into the inner circle was the unequivocal exchange of James for Mister. It was reciprocal. I went from Alan to Mr. Leeds.

There was a lot about Mr. Brown that wasn't easy to understand. But, contrary to popular belief, he was sometimes open to explanation. As an employee, I had to pick my spots and choose my words carefully so they couldn't come back to haunt me when our relationship flipped back to employer-employee. But if we were riding to an airport after a gig and the day's business had been put away, sometimes I would revert to being a fan and casually pick his brain. One night I asked him, "So what's with the 'Mister' deal?"

"Alan," he said, "until I was 20 years old, all I was ever called was Jimmy. My name was never Jimmy. It was James. But nobody saw no James. They saw Jimmy. Now if they didn't see no James, you KNOW they didn't see no mister. See, if we all call each other mister, then it makes it much harder for anyone else to call us by any other name. When I took over my own business, I knew I had to have the respect of someone running a business. They might still wanna call me Jimmy, but if they wanted to book the James Brown Show, they were gonna have to deal with Mr. Brown."

During his prime years, there's no question that he felt he had a lot to prove. His whole career was about getting respect. And not just respect as an artist. It was about respect as a man. It was about, I'm an itinerant guy from the rural, pre-civil rights South who didn't go past the seventh grade, but you're going to call me "Mister." I think that's kind of a metaphor for his whole life.

And music was the vessel. He was so revolutionary in music that he was bound to be accorded respect for that at some point, but it was late in coming. His prime years were arguably the mid- to late '60s. The first time I read any kind of major piece that really recognized his contribution wasn't until Robert Palmer did a review of one of his albums in Rolling Stone around 1974.

We realized in the black music world that it was a revolution long before that. Jerry Wexler told a journalist once that "Cold Sweat" just fucked up everybody, that it made every musician who worked for Atlantic Records go back to the drawing board to try and catch up with what this guy was doing.

You want to talk about black popular music—my brother said the other night that when you think of it, none of the other icons in black music were as inventive as James Brown, except maybe Ray Charles. And even Ray Charles was basically just taking gospel and Nat King Cole and kind of putting them together in a new way. He hadn't really invented something new. James Brown invented something new. The only parallel I can think of in terms of sheer inventiveness is Miles Davis. The way Brown structured music, the way he put rhythm ahead of melody and kind of de-Westernized the writing and arrangement of pop music, has affected practically every genre. The way the Red Hot Chili Peppers construct their songs wouldn't be the same if it hadn't been for James Brown. It doesn't mean they sound like him or would even necessarily think they had been influenced by him, but he changed what it was possible to do in writing popular songs.

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