*The first pop music concert I ever attended, in the summer of 1967, was a soul-sanctifying revelation called the James Brown Revue. I was 12 years old. The concert was outdoors, at Oklahoma City’s Douglass High School football stadium. My father took me, my younger brother Tony and a woman we didn’t know who wasn’t our mother.
Too shy to actually move to the beat, I sat there doing my best to contain myself to the mighty rhythm of not one, but two drummers onstage, often playing simultaneously. For at least a week after that show, I was on fire–forever changed, baptized in possibly the funkiest, coolest music known to man.
That concert would set the standard by which I’d judge every rock n roll performance after it. How a performer moved, worked the microphone, interacted with the musicians and their overall stage presence–it all mattered because that’s how James Brown did it.
Remarkably, I’d grow up to meet James Brown. In my life, the occupation of music journalist in Los Angeles afforded me the James Brown Experience several times in my life. Anytime I encountered James Brown, that’s what it was—an experience.
I first interviewed James Brown one afternoon sometime in the ’70s, by phone. Dialed a given number at the appointed time and identified myself to a courteous but nonchalant black woman whom I assumed was an assistant.
The woman told me James Brown would be with me shortly. “Sir, before I put you on with him, there are three ways you may address Mr. Brown,” she said instructively. “You may refer to him as James Brown, Mr. Brown or Godfather. We never use just ‘James.’”
The formality was unusual—an old fashioned man/respect thing, I suppose. In any case, the man’s been dead almost ten years now and yet, whenever I speak of or write about James Brown, it’s either James Brown, Godfather or Mr. Brown. Never James.
On the phone, James Brown didn’t sound like Mr. Dynamite, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, the Godfather of Soul, the Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk or any of the great and dramatic monikers he lived up to. Rather, he was calm, quiet and reflective.
It was always difficult to get Mr. Brown to discuss his music—how he created it, recorded it, performed it. It was as if the process was such an intuitive thing that it annoyed him to explain it to mere mortals.
James Brown told me a true star, no matter where they are or what time of day, “should always look like someone that somebody would pay money to see.” I loved that.
It was this dogged dedication to image, Mr. Brown said, that one summer early in his career made him push the automatic windows up on the first Cadillac he owned–not equipped with air conditioning–whenever he drove somewhere he might be seen by the public. Even in sweltering, debilitating humid heat down south, absolutely no one could know that Mr. James Brown didn’t have factory air.
Mr. Brown said that for the life of him he couldn’t understand the purposely no-talent, modern entertainer. “When I was coming up, you didn’t want even your friends to know you were trying to learn an instrument until you could actually play it,” he said. “Today, the kids don’t seem to even care to learn to play or sing or truly entertain. They’re all fake. There IS no talent there.”
Otherwise, a conversation with James Brown weaved in and out of national politics, the importance of family, the state of the world and the black man’s place in it. You couldn’t truly blame his sense of self-importance. He was, after all, James Brown.
However, being human, even James Brown could feel pain. I learned that one afternoon in the ‘80s when I went to interview him at the Westwood Marquis Hotel, where he was camped while in Los Angeles on business.
A blond woman in the lobby introduced herself as his publicist. The plan was that I’d meet him in his room. “Mr. Brown is upstairs, under the hair dryer,” she said. “I’ll let him know you’re here.” After not getting an answer from her calls via the hotel house phone on a table nearby, she excused herself to the elevator.
I stood there, small cassette recorder in hand, growing more excited by the minute to be sitting with James Brown. So many questions! My thoughts were interrupted by a tall, thin, black gentleman in a black suit and tie. “I’m sorry, sir, Mr. Brown won’t be meeting with you today.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
The man delicately explained that over the years James Brown had taken a beating from the black community for showing support for President Nixon during Nixon’s first term in 1969. Apparently, it didn’t matter to black folk that during the Inauguration Ball, James Brown boldly performed “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” and actually had white GOPers singing along. Because Black America treated James Brown as if he were a traitor, said the man, Mr. Brown reasoned that a black journalist probably would not have much sympathy, either.
I was dumbfounded. “You gotta be kidding. ” Panic began to set in. “That was a long time ago. I didn’t come here to talk about that. I’ll talk about anything James Brown wants to discuss.”
The emissary was polite but adamant that the biggest black act in entertainment would not be talking with a black reporter. I was still trying to get him to see things my way when none other than a freshly coiffed James Brown, decked out in a white suit, stepped out of the elevator, followed by a small cadre, and strode across the lobby, heading for the door.
“Try to understand, my brother,” Mr. Brown said with a measure of compassion, as he walked by. “But Godfather…GODFATHER!”
Bystanders marveled at the sight of James Brown–and then curiously at the anguished face of the young man shamelessly calling out to him, to no avail. I headed to my car in the parking structure, quickening my gait as my eyes began to water. I got in my car, locked the doors and sat there, breaking into a full weep.
The next time I saw James Brown was one Friday evening in the ‘90s. He was being feted at a reception in the private upstairs room of the Beverly Hills restaurant Crustacean, the reason I don’t recall. I didn’t allow my nerves to keep me from approaching when I saw him standing by himself for a moment.
“Mr. Brown, you were the first concert I saw when I was just a kid,” I said, beaming like a smitten teenager. How many times had he heard such a thing. “It was in Oklahoma City, in 1967.”
He grinned. “It was outdoors, at a high school, east side of town.”
“Yes, it was.” I was stunned that he actually remembered this. A million concerts around the world, and he remembered the Douglass High School date decades earlier.
“There was a D.J.,” he continued. “Ben Tipton…on the black station there…”
“KBYE, that was the station. Ben Tipton promoted that show. He was a good man, Tipton.”
At that moment, a photographer asked us to pose. I stood with James Brown and we both smiled for the camera, our hands cornily frozen in the Soul Shake. That was it. And it was all I needed. A PR person came over to Mr. Brown and gingerly whispered to him about doing something else; meeting more people or something.
“They eatin’ me alive NOW,” Mr. Brown said wearily, indicating he’d dealt with enough people for the night.
I was among those proudly walking behind the Godfather of Soul when he went down the stairs and into the main restaurant, packed with unsuspecting Beverly Hills white folk having dinner. As The Hardest Working Man In Show Business made his way through the room, table by table you could hear the whispers—“Hey, LOOK”…”That’s JAMES BROWN”…”Wow, I don’t believe it…”
Slowly came a smattering of applause as Mr. Brown continued walking. Some of those clapping rose from their tables in ovation. Then others. Pretty soon, the whole room was in full applause, half of them standing. James Brown, ever the showman, reached the exit of the room, stopped, turned around, flashed that big smile and shouted, “I feel GOOD!” And the crowd went wild.
Like he knew they would.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]