“The hardest working man in show business.” James Brown couldn’t even escape this title when he died in December of 2006. His family memorial service was squeezed between bookend engagements at The Apollo Theater in New York City and the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Georgia. In holding true with his life on the road, Brown’s body made the overnight trip to NYC and back again in a drafty van. His family had finally decided to lay him to rest in a solid gold casket that weighed 500 pounds. His Lear Jet couldn’t handle the load and when all other transportation avenues failed, Brown was literally on the road again to the Apollo. Everyone knows that he would never be late for an engagement at the most iconic venue of them all and the people who were always there to take care of Brown’s details took care of this one, also. To keep up appearances to the end, they met up with a hearse in New York City to make the final delivery to the Apollo. James Brown does not show up in a van.
In his book The One – The Life and Music of James Brown (2012 – Gotham Books), author RJ Smith does a masterful job of piecing together the puzzling life of James Brown. An entire volume could be written about the legal entanglements that are still taking place regarding his estate. Even with a will in place at the time of his death, Brown’s multiple wives, children, girl friends, grandchildren, and assorted business partners are engulfed in a tangled web of legal issues that may never be untangled. For his part, Smith spends only five pages in the book’s afterword section on this sad part of the story. As my lawyer friend Jim has said time and again, “Money makes people funny” and it is apparent that this statement is magnified many times over in the case of a larger than life artist like James Brown.
Band members and fans say his final shows in 2006 were great. Long time trumpeter Hollie Farris claimed, “I am telling you, they were some of the best shows I have ever done with him.” Brown was obviously ill and still managed to pull off 81 full one and one half hour long shows in his final year. His final European swing found him doing ten shows in nine different countries in ten days. Singer Amy Christian said, “ The last tour was completely ridiculous . . . we went from Scotland to Moscow to London to Thessaloniki to Helsinki to Latvia.” The show was all that ever mattered to James Brown. If it was a crowded arena or a crowd of fifty people, he did the same show. He may have needed to be wheeled up to the side of the stage in a wheelchair for some of the last shows, but when the lights came up, JB was on the good foot.
What would drive a man with a legacy like JB’s to essentially work himself until death? He told childhood friend Leon Austin, “I’m tired. I’d like to retire, but I can’t. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to retire, because I’m making money, and people are needing me to work.” It was December 21, 2006 and he had only recently returned from the grueling ten day European tour. He had his annual toy giveaway scheduled in Augusta on December 22 and a New Year’s Eve gig scheduled for New York City. Long time aide-de-camp, the Rev. Al Sharpton, did not know that Brown was already in the hospital when he talked to him that night. Sharpton thought that he was sick from the tone of his voice, but he was still shocked when his phone rang later that night with the news that the invincible James Brown had passed on.
James Brown was indeed a complex man. He grew up dirt poor in Barnwell, South Carolina where his father Joe labored in the brutal turpentine camps of the pine country. This is the area where the term “cracker” originated in 1763. A proclamation issued in that year banned settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains so the pioneers already moving west turned to the south instead. The sound of their whips cracking as they drove their livestock gave rise to the term still in use today to describe certain mannerisms of folk who settled the area sometimes referred to as “Georgialina”. You could make money in the turpentine industry, but it took a lot out of you. Around 1938, Joe, Joe’s aunt Minnie Walker, and his boy hiked the forty miles from Barnwell to Augusta in search of different employment. The die was now cast for Brown to become a product of “Georgialina”. Senator Strom Thurmond read the following definition of Georgialina into the Congressional Record: “a region of the Savannah River Valley which includes a number of cities and towns on both sides of the South Carolina and Georgia state line.” This is the same Strom Thurmond who James Brown would befriend later in his career. Even during the period when he lived in New York City, Augusta was still his home and as famous as he became, he still identified with the Georgialina lifestyle he had known all his life.
A small boy left alone for much of the time, he grew up to be a scrapper and a fighter. Joe was away much of the time and JB was more or less raised in his Aunt Honey’s place of business. It was in a neighborhood called The Terry which was originally founded by Irish immigrant’s and called “Verdery’s Territory”. When emancipated slaves were moved into the area, it became the “Negro Territory” which was eventually shortened to just “The Terry”. Aunt Honey’s establishment sold prohibition whiskey called “scrap iron” for the metallic taste it acquired from the drums it was made in. She also rented rooms for working girls and their “dates”. She loved James and cared for him, but she also beat him when his behavior had a negative impact on her place of business. James had a home, but it isn’t hard to understand why he learned so much about life out on the street. On the streets, James learned to use his wits and his fists in equal proportions. At home, he tried to be invisible.
He may have only had a seventh grade education, but he was a keen observer of people and always knew just what to give them and what he would get in return. Smith describes JB as “The Johnny Appleseed of Dance” because dancing for nickels and dimes gave him his sense of rhythm and the rhythm of his music made him a star. For James Brown, rhythm was everything.
Teacher Laura Garvin and principal Yewston Myers took a interest in the young James Brown. They knew of him as “a poor waif on the streets of Augusta” who had gotten into some trouble. Garvin recalled, “He was not a scary kid; he was respectful, funny… nothing could make you dislike him.” They encouraged him to sing the national anthem before classes began each day and Garvin later let him perform in her classroom for a ten cent admission. Even at this early stage of his performing career, Brown could read his audience and give them what they came to hear and see.
Brown learned to make a living in Augusta. He shined shoes, boxed in battle royales for the idle rich, and sang with groups mixing gospel music with popular music and the blues. As a product of the streets, James Brown was a thief when he need to be but was caught breaking into cars on May 7, 1949. Expecting at most a slap on the wrist, he instead found himself a pawn of the local political climate and ended up in jail at age 16 facing hard labor on the dreaded chain gang. Luckily for him, he ended up in a juvenile facility called the Industrial Training Institute. He happened to land in jail about the time the chain gangs were being done away with and the governor pushing the state to educate and rehabilitate young criminals. Had Brown been jailed a couple of years earlier, his story might have had a completely different ending. He was many things and one of those things was “lucky”.
Brown’s penchant for listening to the radio and singing earned him the nickname “Music Box” at the ITI. His voice also helped him secure his release from his incarceration. The Institute was located hear Toccoa, GA, were a local teen musician named Bobby Byrd first heard about this kid at the ITI who could sing. Byrd talked his mother into sponsoring Brown’s release because he saw the possibilities of having Brown join his band. With 400 signatures on a petition from the local churches and a stipulation that he stay out of Augusta for ten years, James was sprung from the ITI. While working assorted jobs in Tocoa, JB began taking his first steps down the musical road that would make him famous all around the world. The trip would be a long one, but it wouldn’t be a straight line. Knowing about his rough and tumble early years doesn’t explain all of the idiosyncrasies that Brown displayed later in life, but it does give some hints as to why he had to be the man in control. In Part 2. we will examine some of the zigs and zags that James Brown would take over the next sixty years while influencing a host younger musicians, inventing new musical genres, and earning a new title: “The Godfather of Soul”.
Top Piece Video – The big band, big show version of I feel good from 1995