James Brown jumps back into the spotlight | EW.com

Music

James Brown jumps back into the spotlight

The exuberant funk singer screams and shouts about his extravagant plans for a comeback

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Ladies & Gentlemen! Please welcome back Soul Brother Number One, the Godfather of Soul, the Man Who Invented the Funk! The Sex Machine, Mister Dynamite, he’s Super-bad, he’s Got a Brand New Bag, Say It Loud, He’s Black and He’s Proud! Here he is, Mister Please, Please, Please himself, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, the Star of the Show…JAMES BROWN!


”Aaaa-aaaaahhh,” James Brown screams into the telephone in his Executive Park office in Augusta, Ga. ”Listen, what I want you to do is, you talk to them all. Say that James Brown said such things have got to be said. Don’t ask. DEMAND. USE THE NAME.”

Even with two closed doors and 30 feet between his office and the reception area I’m sitting in, I can hear every word of his Faulknerian stream, a singsong, gravelly rush of clauses and impulses built, as often as not, around the words James Brown: ”WE LOVE YOU,” he’s telling someone else a minute later, ”and you know it, too. And James Brown and you’s good all down the line. And the government’ll underwrite it because the President, the judge, the governor, the whatnot’s a friend of James Brown. Aaaa-aaahhh.”

Click. More calls follow about the ”hope factor” Brown is trying to bring back to America – getting kids to stay in school and off drugs – and about the mammoth comeback he’s hoping to stage. After more than two years out of the public eye and 15 almost uninterrupted years off the upper reaches of the pop charts, Brown seems to realize he needs all the hope he can get, and has given himself a running start: On June 10, he returned to performing with a three- hour concert broadcast on pay-per-view television from Hollywood’s Wiltern Theatre, with guest appearances by the likes of M.C. Hammer and Quincy Jones. In the past month, he’s also renegotiated his record contract with Scotti Bros., recorded material for a new album, and seen the release of both a documentary, James Brown: The Man, the Music & the Message, and Star Time, a 71-song, four-CD boxed set of his hits from 1956 to ‘84 (see review on page 57). For the fall he’s penciled in a tour of half the world – the U.S., Europe, the Soviet Union, and China.

Click. For now, however, it’s a nasty, breezeless day outside, even by Augusta’s swampy standards. An intense noonday sun and 95 percent humidity have reduced everyone in the office complex to short sleeves and handkerchiefs. A drowsy temp receptionist answers the phones – ”Top Notch II, James Brown Affiliate, Home of the Godfather of Soul, may I help you?” – as a publicist and a chauffeur remind me repeatedly not to say James: ”It’s Mr. Brown.” In the corner office of the white stucco building next door, a salesman’s seminar for a floor-cleaning product is under way: one huge, profusely sweating man with his shirt wide open, lecturing two others.

There were 40 people assembled in that room for an insurance-licensing seminar one blistering Saturday in September 1988, when Brown entered just after noon, his shirt wide open and a shotgun in his hand. Demanding to know who’d been using his offices’ rest rooms without saying, ”May I?” he led two baffled women attending the seminar out to examine the facilities, then screeched off in his red-and-white Ford pickup truck, an Augusta police lieutenant in hot pursuit.

The legendary 80-mph, two-state chase that ensued, and a less publicized second arrest early the next morning, for driving under the influence of PCP, brought Brown into court in South Carolina and Georgia, looking at a possible 45 years in prison. Given concurrent 6- and 6 1/2-year sentences, he spent 16 months in prison outside Columbia, S.C., then another 10 months at the Lower Savannah Work Center in Aiken, S.C., working with the disadvantaged of Aiken and Barnwell counties, doing everything from counseling students at a local beauty college to picnicking with senior citizens. Other than one deviation from prison procedure (an eccentric judge had Brown summoned to his courthouse to sign autographs) and one infraction of the rules (possession of $48,000 in cash and cashiers’ checks), Brown was considered an exemplary prisoner. Granted parole on Feb. 27, he flew almost immediately to L.A. for cosmetic surgery: permanent eyeliner tattooed under his lower lids, and a new set of eyebrows.

When Brown appears at the reception area door, asking me, ”Is this all right for the photo shoot?” he looks ageless: formfitting black suit, magenta silk shirt open to the sternum, jet black ascot, alligator boots tipped in silver on the toe and heel. He has a thick diamond ring on each hand; a gold watch with a complicated, sea green face on his wrist; a foot-long collapsible Afro pick, a ring with over 100 keys, and a makeup sponge in his hands; and the most amazing head of hair I have ever seen. Fried, dyed, and laid to the side, every strand immaculately delineated and silken, only on James Brown could it be the real thing.

”You look beautiful,” I say. ”Yeah-hh,” he nods tautologically, heading back to his office, where he’ll change into a green suit. ”I’ll be with you in a minute.”

In retrospect, Brown’s recent troubles seem almost like a cri de coeur against aging and obscurity, and one that worked. When he got in trouble, pop, rap, jazz, and African artists immediately stepped forward to acknowledge their debt. Critics and journalists began repositing Brown as the seminal black musician of our era, a fact known for years to record buyers, who made him the most frequently charted pop artist after Elvis, with 94 songs in the top 100.

Though Brown is bitter about the two years he lost, he laughs at the irony now. “I’m at the height of my career. I had to go to prison for them to realize that all of America has got to get behind James Brown. Rest of the world already knew it.”

Proclamations such as this flow like sweet reason as we glide along the outskirts of Augusta in his 25-foot, gray-and-tan Lincoln Continental limo, getting rubbernecked by every driver and pedestrian we pass. Brown waxes especially grandiose when one of the many subjects he normally won’t discuss (including anything that might diminish him) hits the floor – money, the material on his new album, and PCP, which he denies ever using. When I ask about his arrests and imprisonment, he either likens himself to Martin Luther * King Jr. or Robert Kennedy, or he mumbles “Keep it positive” under his breath like a refrain from one of his songs. This is a small tic of Brown’s, I notice, a series of beleaguered, Popeye-like phrases that fall like backbeats against the groove of his monologue: “Wore me to death”; “Keep it going”; “Keep it positive”; “You can have this day.” As often as not, they come at the end of some massive stream of consciousness, leaving me a few seconds to recollect which of my two dozen or so questions he has eluded.

When I fill a rare pause in the conversation by asking why he has a six- year-old Continental sitting in his parking lot with the sales tags still on, he says, “Can you believe that? Lincoln dealer didn’t have any others to sell me. That’s a vintage model, only 2,500 made. I got another Lincoln from ‘86, only 24,000 miles on. I still got the truck they shot up,” he boasts, then brakes himself: “Keep it positive,” he mutters.

I ask what it’s like driving his imposing 1964 Excalibur. “Oh man, you got to remind yourself all the time in that car. Time was, I’d open it up to 150 without a thought. Now I won’t do but – man,” he catches himself, “you’re just ITCHING to get me talking about that, aren’t you? Listen,” he says, “the whole truth’s going to come out,” dropping an ominous pause before adding: “someday. But I’m not into that now. Why get in trouble, when you can get like Smokey the Bear? PREVENTION! And I’m not Moses, or an impresario, but I have got to take the position of a Moses if I’m gonna help.”

“What position do you mean?”

“Leadership,” he says emphatically. Brown has always been a God-fearing man. “Take ‘em down from the bulrushes. I brought ‘em a long way already. I didn’t finish seventh grade, but I’m a PHENOMENON, and that’s raw talent. RAW ENERGY. I got one of the most fantastic minds in the world. I believe God gives me this. He gives me extra mind. Just like the music, like the funk. Come from God.”

I tell Brown I’ve never really understood what funk is. “Aaaa-aaahh,” he screams, “I love you for saying that. You know what I’m gonna do, though? When I leave, I’m gonna do like Einstein. Put together a little thing for their hearts, a manual on how to put the funk together. See, you play chords like” – he taps out and sings me a sweet, 16-note vamp – “but you still gotta get the feel of the dances today.” He taps out a double-time shuffle that accents each note he sings several times.

“Those are polyrhythms?” I ask.

“That,” he explodes, “is the pocket. P-O-C-K-E-T. Right where you want it. Once you get it in the pocket, it’s all the same. GET IT IN THE POCKET,” he howls. “It’s just like when I’m sitting in the church and getting it in the pocket, you gonna faint and you’re gonna jump up and you’re gonna jump down. You don’t know where or when or why the Holy Ghost hit you, but you are gonna jump up and down.”

When I tell Brown that I also hear a lot of blues in his funk, he silences me with a broad crocodile grin and the simplest sentences he’ll say all day. “The gospel,” he says, “is contentment. And so is funk. The blues is for hard times.”

By the mid-’70s, Brown’s funk had fallen upon hard times. While his chart numbers started dropping, funk became an industry staple, played by fusion and jazz artists, by George Clinton and his Parliament/Funkadelic operation, by Herbie Hancock, and by rockers like David Bowie, Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, Led Zeppelin, and Rick James. Brown’s live show, always half-glitz, half- street, lost its glamour to that digital mass hallucination known as disco, then lost much of its relevance to hip-hop and break dancing.

And as the momentum of his career stalled, the huge business empire Brown had built over two decades – three radio stations and a television show, 17 publishing companies, a booking agency, a record label, an independent production company, and a series of Lear jets – began to fall apart. In 1969, the IRS presented him with a $1.8 million bill, which he refused to pay, arguing that a country that didn’t allow him to finish seventh grade had no right to tax him. The figure has since grown to more than $11 million, consuming his properties as it swelled. First went the jet, then the TV and radio stations. By 1987, he’d even lost his Beech Island, S.C., estate in a tax auction (his Atlanta lawyer, Albert “Buddy” Dallas, purchased it and arranged for Brown to remain there with his third wife, Adrianne, and two daughters from his second marriage); the $48,000 found in his prison cell was immediately seized by the IRS.

Throughout it all, Brown fought to retain control of the business of his own music, an idea he’d all but introduced to the industry. Independently producing both himself and his sidemen for two decades, he financed hundreds of recordings with his artist’s and royalty earnings, occasionally fronting the entire budgets for such ground-breaking projects as 1962’s Live at the Apollo, probably the most influential concert album in pop history. Far more often, though, he borrowed from his labels against future earnings. When the hits stopped and the earnings fell off, the practice began to cost him dearly, and continues to. Other than songwriting royalties, Brown won’t earn a cent from Star Time: He owes PolyGram about $2 million, by a two-year-old estimate of one of his lawyers.

Though this might explain why Brown, at 58, is making another comeback, the question remains: Can he? Myron Roth, president of Scotti Bros.’ parent company, apparently believes so. He restructured Brown’s long-term contract – ” making it a super- star-level deal” – and concedes (as does a gloating Brown) that there was competition for the privilege. Indeed, the industry’s prognosis seems divided only on the issue of how much control to allow Brown, an issue he himself has strong opinions about. “Total control,” he says, “production and writing. Those other ones (his last two releases – produced and largely written by other hands) were the only time in my life I went left instead of right.”

An A&R executive from a major dance-music label has his doubts. “It’s difficult for anybody to live up to what they once were, let alone get a grasp of a (recording) language that, while certainly based on his past work, has been totally changed. He has to collaborate with young guys. At the same time, he has to take them seriously for it to work.” Rapper KRS-One has another view. “For James Brown to build himself back up, he needs to go back to the individuals that understand he is the Godfather of Soul. He needs to go back to his base.”

Though I’d planned to ask Brown if he ever regrets having returned to live in the South (he spent most of the ’60s in a Queens, N.Y., mansion), as we walk along Augusta’s newly gentrified waterfront it becomes quite clear that the city and its surrounding area – the sleepy towns of the Georgia and South Carolina pine barrens – are not only Brown’s real “base,” but the only place, other than the stage, in which he makes sense. Every fifth person we pass is either known to him or pretends to be. Every direction he points in is laden with meaning; to our right, for instance, is the Fifth Street Bridge, where he buckdanced for quarters as an 8-year-old, and which he crossed on the last leg of his two-state chase, the tires of his truck shot out and sparks shooting from the rims.

As we walk along a railroad trestle under the hot sun, where the photographer has set up for a shoot, Brown, immaculate, freshly made up and somehow entirely sweat-free, looks like an apparition. When the smell of creosote on the railroad ties gets him talking dreamily under his breath, I pick up the word “barefooted” and ask what he means. “We used to come up here to look for coal. Train coal, which would burn twice: as coal, for the fireplaces, then as coke, which you could cook on. Looks exactly the same here,” he says, balancing himself on the rails as he smiles for the camera, “only back then it was barefooted.”

He repeats the word three times-a sotto voce field holler as he raises a fist at the photographer’s request, louder the second time, then with a big smile and a scream: “Bare…foot…ted. Mind over matter. Had no mind, so it just didn’t matter.”

Walking down to the water, Brown is recognized by a flurry of people, including a patrolman who follows us, in some semiofficial capacity, gawking shamelessly. An elderly black woman comes up to give him a big hug, saying, “My Tony never came back (from the gulf war),” as she touches his face reverently. Brown blesses her, then, as much to himself as to me, whispers: “Too many people lost along the way.” He stays silent for a full minute, until he sees a shy-looking man sitting on a bench by the water, eating a Slush Puppie. The man has a large red-and-white button on his shirt that reads JAMES.

“Aaa-aahh,” Brown howls as we approach. “You’re James!

The man looks up, startled. “James Brown,” he says, examining Brown from head to toe, undergoing a sighting, as if of Elvis or a UFO. “No, no,” he finally says, “you’re James. You are James Brown.”

“Yeahhh-HHH,” Brown says, fielding the adulation without missing a beat. “I am James Brown.”