Mister Messiah: A Classic Interview With James Brown

We dig into the Rock's Backpages archive for a wonderful 1971 interview with James Brown by Philip Norman


JAMES BROWN will die on the stage one night, on the moving staircase of his own feet in front of a thirty-piece band; and then who knows what may be unloosed between black Americans and white?

In Baltimore or Washington or Detroit, cities where the very peace between them has a quality of angry breathing, merely the presence of Brown has been reckoned to equal 100 policemen. Harlem, on the sweltering night after an atrocity, he can cool by one word. At the end of each performance he sings the chorus "Soul Power" over and over again with bass guitar equalling a tribal tom-tom in rhythm that locks up the mind; but he doesn’t cause a riot, he empties the theatre. The audience dances out into the street.

Oppressed people are the ones who need heroes in the deepest sense of idols that come from among them and can show them a way upwards to release and happiness. James Brown is the greatest American black hero; more than any of their dissenters, more even than Dr King. He is so much to them because of his distance above them as the most famous of all Soul and Rock singers; because he started life far below them, shining shoes on the doorstep of a Georgia radio station; and because this ascent has given him a bulging conceit which, like an itchy ectoplasm, reaches black audiences, somehow transformed to pride that they deserve to feel in themselves but have been denied. He is great, above all, for his music, for never having withdrawn, as the Beatles did, to be cut and issued from record studios by scientific means. After 15 years, every night he is miraculously re-created on the stage of one desperate city or another.

When Dr Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, the Brown revue was appearing at the Boston Garden arena. It was the televising of his show three times during the following 24 hours that kept streets throughout the Republic relatively clear of the destruction that police and National Guard had anticipated. Brown himself made a public entreaty to black people to contain their grief – "you ain’t going to tear up the streets and throw your shoes in the trash can" – that was afterwards entered on the Congressional Record. Therefore, black politicians sustained by hate say he is an Uncle Tom, just a catspaw of the white law agencies. They monstrously resent Brown for what he does for morale. He has given black people not theories or systems of aggression but a phrase from the soul that they can speak and be uplifted by and yet smile at – "Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud." What can white culture offer to give a glow like that to the spirit?

I first saw Brown sing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem three years ago; in a winter when the sauerkraut relish from the hot dogs steamed on the breath of queues stretching two blocks either way down 125th Street. And the Apollo audience is exquisitely critical and it has tranquilly watched the decline of many who fancied themselves Brown’s equal in soul-size. There was Little Richard, whose stage company finally exceeded any fee he could possibly be paid, who sang flanked by mock Grenadiers and demanded that a carpet be unrolled before him as he walked. There was Screaming Jay Hawkins, carried onstage in a coffin (which shut him in one night), and Solomon Burke, who always had the catering franchise. His followers used to sell pork sandwiches and popcorn in wrappers that bore Burke’s image wearing a crown.

And then a new generation of perfectly good people, like Sam and Dave, Joe Tex, Arthur Conley, has from time to time produced a challenger to Brown, emboldened by the thought that he was making records in 1965, when ‘Please Please Please’ sold a million. There have even been tournaments, with Brown and his younger opponent as mailed knights and some gigantic Southern stadium the tilt-yard. Always the challenger has been danced off the platform, roared out of sight, unable to comprehend that Brown has lungs and legs like a normal man.

He could tear down a theatre on his own; yet the turning of a short man of 38 with a perceptible heart condition into this colossus is the product of an organisation as quaint as it is profitable. Brown is a business tycoon and multi-millionaire; a condition that his soul-brothers readily pardon because of the thousands of dollars he gives back to Negro charities and schools. He owns buildings and three radio stations including the one where he was shoeshine boy, and a chain of restaurants called The James Brown Gold Platter, which do quick-service Soul food. His few leisure hours have a baroque quality – in the ornate mansion in Queens, New York, that is soon to become a museum of black history, at his estate in the lushest portion of white Georgia next to the links where they play the U.S. Masters golf tournament, and in a black private aircraft named The Sex Machine after its owner’s most characteristic song.

When I reached Washington last month for his appearance at Loew’s Palace, the Brown organisation had struck the District of Columbia already. Detailed sheets had been drawn up of exactly how much the four-night engagement should earn, allowing for the usual percentage of children let in at a special rate of 99 cents. The theatre management had received exact, if slightly misspelt, instructions as to the advertisements required, the size of Brown’s name in relation to his supporting acts, and how many promotional spots should be engaged on Soul radio stations around the city.

It was only in the wings of the theatre, watching the show for the sixth or seventh time, that I began to appreciate Brown’s full size as a star: that is, how many arms and legs existed round him to do their utmost to stop us meeting. There was a U.S. Marshal with white hair, a camel coat and eyes and eyebrows cast into the same dangerous dark nuggets; there were dozens of other acolytes wearing suits and sometimes hats, addressing each other as Mr Bobbit, Mr Hall, Mr Holmes as their employer insists they do – he once corrected Hubert Humphrey for omitting that courtesy. I was also counselled not to drink to excess, since Mr Brown disliked the smell of alcohol, and told to have faith. In the succeeding 48 hours I must have shaken as many black hands as the Chief Scout at an international jamboree.

The show is Brown – virtually nothing else. Even the three go-go dancers who pump their knees in ghostly red light on a dais behind him seem to have been chosen for perfect inconspicuousness. There is a comic and a supporting group, in this case the Chi Lights, who astonished me by saying they had worked 10 years together. But the band is splendid. Splendour is forced on them. There is an Afro-Rock section, a formal octet of brass and strings, two drum kits, talking drums. Good billing is also deservedly given to an old friend of Brown’s, Bobby Byrd, who was in his classic group of the early Sixties, the Famous Flames. Byrd plunged offstage in a glaze of exertion and was at once introduced to me. "The London Times!" he exclaimed. His hand shot out. "Talk it up!"

Because of his heart condition, each of Brown’s appearances has an element of brilliant suicide: each is like his first big chance or his last, and yet he has probably done two shows tonight already. It is as if he is gripped by demons and poltergeists, themselves in the grip of drums. Hot whips seem to turn him: the eye can only follow him when he stops but he can’t bear to stop. ‘Get Up, Get Out, Get Involved’ with its chorus "Soul Power" stretches into parts of an hour because there truly is no end to such a rhythm. Brown is wrapped in a cloak which he casts from him again and again, precisely on the drum-roll. Is the only thing he really loves the velvet space he sees beyond the mirage of the stage lights?

Finally at four in the morning I was beckoned through the crowd of supplicants into Brown’s dressing-room. It remained, however, difficult to enter, because of the number of black men in suits respectfully crowding the walls. Reverence hung like the smell of an altar. The next thing I saw was some two dozen pairs of boots and shoes, from the 80 pairs Brown wears out onstage each year, in patent leather and piebald and snakeskin, giving the impression of a harbour crowded with picturesque craft. Next to the shoes sat Brown himself, drinking beer from a can. After the way he looks in performance, coiffed and tailored in beige or soft blue, he is a man of surprising shortness and plainness.

He was engaged with a disc-jockey in tape-recording programme flashes for his most recently acquired radio station, in Baltimore. That and WJBE in Knoxville and WDRW in Augusta, Georgia, are among the very few Soul stations in America which are actually black-owned. "Hi," Brown said into the microphone, "this is James Brown. Hello Brother! Now," he ordered the disc-jockey, "you reply "Hello Sister"."

"Hello Sister," repeated the disc-jockey.

"Hey no – they’ll think I’m some kinda" faggot here. Say after me. Hello Brother!"

"Hello Brother!"

"Hello Sister!"

"Hello Sister!" said the disc-jockey.

"I think the people are beginning to understand," Brown recited. "Get outa’ that bed and into that bread!

"Now li’l brother and li’l sister, if you on your way to school and you feeling bad – a education can bring you the things that you never had – so don’t feel bad, but say it out loud…" Brown produced a variation on the axiom that has passed into the literature: "I’m going to school and I’m black and I’m proud."

He started to talk, but this was as much to his attendants as to me and his voice, to begin with, was silted up with distrust. "I’m preaching revolution. Some preach revolution for land and some for politics – I’m preaching it for awareness. If I’d of had an education I wouldn’t be where I am today, wouldn’t know nothing about land, business, but not everyone can have my advantages. Most important teacher I ever had? He was my manager, Mr Bart of Universal Attractions. He was manager to a lot of famous people, Jackie Wilson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, but he told me I had something no-one else had – intelligence. I was a whole man. A doctor or an attorney, he’s a doctor or an attorney 150 per cent of the time. How can he satisfy a woman?"

Brown turned to one of his men and said, "Now Mr Patton, you shoulda’ told this young man ‘fore he came in here that I was super-hip, you shoulda’ primed this man up. I can tell what he’s going to ask me ‘fore he asks it."

I replied that this was untrue. For the first time I felt Brown’s complete attention settle on me, with a body-weight. There was a little shudder from the door. The interview ended and for the next 24 hours it was intimated at second and third hand that I had blown the whole of it by contradicting the star: he was as a result "leery" of me and, anyway, I had already enjoyed as much of his time as had ever been granted to Look magazine or Cosmopolitan. Therefore it was surprising to me – not to mention those of his followers trying to see me off – when Brown told me to go up to his suite at the Hotel Sonesta when he rose in the early afternoon.

Brown was eating a tangerine in a white-carpeted parlour, somewhat complicated by cream-coloured wrought-iron tables and chairs. All the ashtrays had peel in them and the room smelled sharp with it. At first Brown appeared to be by himself: then the soft movements were added of a woman in slacks whom I took to be a chambermaid. It was only when she gave Brown his heart-pill that I realised this was his wife Deirdre. She came back into the room with two of the long waste-paper baskets peculiar to American hotels, and Brown put one leg into each. They were filled with warm water and salts. Then she rubbed his feet with ointment. Sitting beside him on the couch she took one of his hands under her arm and began to trim all the cuticles of his nails. In this apparently servile posture, all at once she looked strong and influential, and Brown not lordly but quite small and vulnerable.

"When I’m on my own on the road I behave just like a teen-ager, 19, 20 years old – bang, bang, bang," Brown said. "I’ll eat a hamburger before the show that I won’t even finish, but this afternoon I ate almost a full meal with salad and Black Forest dessert. We could get a maid to do all this but she won’t have it. People sure like me if Didi’s visiting. She salts my feet and rubs ’em and takes the ingrowing hairs out of my nose that I’d cut myself if I tried.

"She gives me a lot of room in the bed. I don’t do karate tricks but I have to spread out. If my wife and I are together in bed I’ll dream – 95 per cent pleasant dreams. If I eat late I may dream about an accident and that’s not pleasant. And I wake up and see the outline of her there, and I feel like I did sleeping at the back of the aunt I boarded with when I was 12 years old. She gets up to bring me a soda. I drink a little of it. I can relax and feel like my spirit goes and lies on the studio-couch in the next room ’till morning."

Brown grew up in Augusta; in red clay country where the white word "Boy" can have the most evil sound in the world. "It was a country home – water outside. I was nine years old before I had my first store-bought underwear, my clothes having been made out of sacks and things like that. My first memory is unpleasant. If it were pleasant I wouldn’t remember it." His mother left home when he was scarcely walking; his father greased and washed cars and was a sporadic parent. James helped him and picked cotton and gathered coal from railway lines, danced for the soldiers at Fort Gordon or cleaned shoes. "I’d come home at one or two a.m. and there was nobody there."

His cousin Fred Holmes, now with the Brown road show, says, "We’d steal anything – groceries, hub-caps. All I could think of then was that James was going to be a hoodlum." At 16, Brown was sent to reform school; at 19 he was paroled and became a lightweight boxer. The cleft over his right eye that the stage make-up conceals is a souvenir of that. "I trained with Beau Jack and all the fighters I was with went on to spar with Ray Robinson. I only ever lost one fight and that was because I was a chicken." Today, in extreme displeasure, he will still aim a punch at somebody.

When he sang spirituals in a church in Toccoa it was not from any promptings of the soul but because "I was trying to get a foothold in anything." His early professional years were spent touring Southern dives, he and eight musicians and their equipment all junked into one station wagon. It was that life which gave Brown his extraordinary notions of how orderly and punctual a touring Rock show must be. His employees, as well as addressing one another formally, have to wear suits. Even the road-managers with their filthy nails have to operate in jackets, sometimes with three rear vents. The available females that pursue Brown after each show are used with the same relentless courtesy. Brown himself makes little secret of benefiting from their company. "That racehorse – he don’t run if he ain’t got no lust." According to someone else, "there can be three different women in three motel rooms but he’s polite to ’em; he calls ’em ‘Miss’ and puts ’em on a pedestal if they put him on one."

The band is ruled by iron. Rock musicians must forsake their dilatory ways if Brown employs them. He devises each phrase they play and remembers everything. He designs their suits. He is capable of rehearsing them 12 hours at once. With him, recording is not simply a lazy, artful process on individual tracks: he wants everything played straight off as if it were live onstage. He governs by a system of fines: 25 dollars for dirty shoes, 100 dollars for lateness; it can be as much as 1000 dollars for what Brown considers some gross breach of order or courtesy. The astonishing thing is, the bandsmen pay. They believe Brown leads them to play beyond their capabilities.

Possibly his equation of business acumen with pride of manhood is whimsical: even so, it beats political harangues or the vagaries of someone like Chester Himes, the novelist, whose vision is that blacks will engage whites in total war. "We ain’t won," Brown says, "until any black man can walk down the street and nobody turns their head to look at him." But how about looking at his clothes, his shoes or his car? At this question Brown’s features parted into a brilliant grin. "Yeah," he said, "right. I put all o’ my people into Cadillacs. Miss Sanders my wardrobe mistress I gave a Cadillac Bro’ham. I got a Buick Riviera ’71 that there’s only seven of made at a time ’cause of the recession, and when I’m sitting in that sometimes I wish I was the car so people would look at me that way."

By the third night of his engagement at Loew’s Palace, a vast number of people had assembled outside his dressing-room. There were several U.S. Marshals now, police and local disc-jockeys, most of whom professed intimate friendship with Brown, and one insufferably earnest white youth from the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and the pilot of The Sex Machine. At one point, Deirdre Brown was also there, holding their two-year-old daughter; the child’s hair rose up from her face in a cataract and she stared at all the people while her shoulders moved in intimations of rhythm as thrilling to watch as a first step forward.

And there was a preacher named "King" Coleman with a bald head like a Payne’s Poppet and a character named Rufus – "folks call me Catfish" – Mayfield who was intent on out-preaching him in the small hours, while Brown was still lecturing the band musicians on their night’s performance.

"I," Catfish shouted, "am the sergeant-at-arms, I am the chairman of the board and the master of my own soul and there ain’ no white man on his Ajax horse gonna come along and say to me ‘down Boy’."

"Rufus," King Coleman said. "You been brained."

"No I ain’t, no I ain’t," Catfish shouted.

"You a militant…"

"No I ain’t," Catfish shouted. "I’m only doin’ what J.B. says to do. Get out, get involved and take care o’ business."

At last Brown released his guitarist and bass guitarist and came out of the theatre himself. He was intercepted by two boys, their hair shaved into black stooks, who clamoured that they’d been made to leave their shoeshine boxes outside during the show, and somebody stole them.

Brown gave them a 20-dollar bill.

"Oh – hey, thanks," said the larger boy. "I was meanin’ to come talk to you James Brown while you was appearing."

"Mister Brown," Brown said. "When I come back tomorrow I want to see you here and your shoeshine boxes full of shine. Then I’m going to call you ‘Mister’."

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© Philip Norman, 1971

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