We Called Him Mr. Brown

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

I'm not sure he really cared if people understood that aspect of what he was doing. I'm not sure he even thought about it. To him, it was just a matter of what he felt moved to do on a daily basis. It was as much a work ethic as an artistic sensibility that drove him. It was really just about breaking through, having an impact. And if he broke through because he was a flashy dancer or because he had a tight band, then so be it.

At the end of the day, he was an entertainer who was very concerned with figuring out what the audience wanted. There was a point in the late '60s when he was toying with the idea of trying to rework himself as a top nightclub act. He inserted a few saloon songs into the act, trying to prove his breadth but also trying to get some bookings in Vegas. This was all around the same time that he was making records that spoke very loudly to black youths, like "Say It Loud." That confused some people, but it was easy for those of us who knew him to see that that was all legitimately a part of him. It was all "the real James Brown."

He wasn't really solvent financially until a few years ago when he made a deal to acquire his publishing catalog. So frankly, there was always an element of economic necessity in his staying on the road so much until quite recently. But the fact is, he would have been out there even if he didn't need to be. Because, number one, he had that work ethic, a blue-collar American work ethic that says, this is what you do. You don't sit at home on your ass, you do your job. And his job was to get onstage and give joy to people. And to offer employment to all the people in the extended family. What happens otherwise to people like Danny Ray, the guy who held the capes? There were all these guys who depended on him. I'm thinking of Johnny Terry, one of the original Famous Flames, who's in a wheelchair now living in Atlanta and basically surviving on food stamps and the fact that James came around once a month and gave him a few hundred dollars. I'm thinking, what happens to him now?

I don't want to over-romanticize his charitable aspects, but that was part of the reason he was out there, too. He was very generous when it suited him. Now there were times when it didn't suit him. And you could wonder how much of it was his wanting to absolve himself of guilt. He knew he wasn't exactly fair with those original guys. But then again, he also knew that he was the only one who was going to make it. He knew he stole writer's credits from a lot of guys in past groups. But there was also the part of him that said, Hey, I was the one who had enough sense to figure out how this racket works, I was the one who got a manager to help me. If they had the goods, they could have done that too. And the fact is, too, he did love them. He shared memories with them that no one else on the planet had together. And he did care about these people. He was a mixture of all those impulses. Gray, not black or white. He was a very complex guy.

This was a guy who just soaked up the attention he got. He had a never-ending thirst for that kind of affection. I don't want to say that performing was the only place he was comfortable, because this was a guy who could make himself comfortable in any surroundings. He made himself comfortable in jail. His adaptability to his circumstances was beyond imagination, really.

He was in it for the chance not to be invisible in the way he had been growing up. He needed the spotlight. But he wasn't pathetic about it. If he had to, he could have lived without the screaming of the crowds. But he liked it. To the very end, he enjoyed being with people in public. Right now at the Augusta Chronicle website, they've got a book that people can sign with their memories of James Brown from through the years. There was one from a high school band musician who had been in a school bus on the way to a game in Augusta. James was friendly with the director. One night he stopped their bus on the way to a game and got on the bus to give the band a pep talk. He spent 20 minutes shaking the hands of musicians, encouraging them, thanking them for representing their school. And years later, one of the kids from that bus ran into Brown somewhere in Augusta. And he said, "Mr. Brown, I don't know if you remember, but I was one of the musicians on that bus you talked to." And James said, "I remember you! Do you still play that horn? Because my band is rehearsing, and if you want to come sit in, you can!"

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