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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.
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!"
There was another story about a family at the airport in Augusta that was preparing to welcome their mother home. So one of the kids spots James Brown there and goes and strikes up a conversation. Next thing you know, the mother walks off the plane and there's James Brown standing with her family holding up a banner that says, "Welcome Home Mom." And he goes and welcomes her back, tells her Augusta's been great but the whole town's really missed her. And he does like 10 minutes with her. These kinds of stories pop up time after time after time.
And that happened in every town we went to. He had these relationships with people, and some of them were local politicians, some of them were TV personalities or disc jockeys, some of them were just John Q. Fan. These people would keep coming back after shows in their towns to pay respects, and he would remember them all. He'd give an audience to damn near anybody willing to call him Mr. Brown. There were nights after gigs when those of us who worked for him dreaded seeing those people. You wanted to get away after the gig. No way. He'd either hold court in the dressing room or he'd put on his coat and go out in the hall. Either way you were going to be there at least an hour. And if he brought them into the dressing room, you could be there until 3:00 in the morning.
Based on what I've seen in recent years and heard from others, I think there was a point in the last decade where he finally became satisfied that the respect was there. It would have been hard not to. When you reach the point where you're playing the finest venues, selling $100 or $200 tickets, and playing places you've never been before—just this November, he went from Sydney back to the States, to Europe and back to the States in a period of three weeks or so—he had to see the respect thrust in his face on a daily basis. When he got the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003, he was sitting up there with the president of the United States and with people like Itzhak Perlman.
I think there was a point where he really realized how blessed he was and was grateful for it. And that was very gratifying for those of us who had loved him through the years.
Writer and longtime music business veteran Alan Leeds served as James Brown's tour manager in the 1970s.