I suppose it wasn’t a total surprise to wake up this morning and read that James Brown had left the building. He was, after all, 73 years old, and when you advertise yourself as the hardest working man in show business, you, well, you work hard at it. And there was never any doubt that James worked hard.
I got to see him up close once, in one of those random moments that happen when you least expect them. My friend TV Tom used to be the publicist for the Parliament-Funkadelic organization in their heyday, around 1977-78, which meant that there were several James Brown alumni on the bus: bassist Bootsy Collins, who fronted his own amazing band which included his brother Catfish (who’d played alongside Bootsy in the Brown band), saxophonist Maceo Parker, and trombonist Fred Wesley. Bootsy was always grateful for the protection the man he called “Mr. Brown” had given him as a young, green, but phenomenally gifted 16-year-old bass player, on the road with the “Sex Machine”-era Brown band. Catfish, Maceo, and Fred, however, would just give you the evil eye if you asked them about “Mr. Brown.”
Anyway, Tom and I had flown in from the East Coast, since I was doing a story on the band and, with Tom, would follow them from Savannah, Georgia to Washington D.C. over the course of four or five days. We’d flown non-stop from L.A. to Atlanta, and were going to get some tiny plane to cover the last leg, but the weather coming in had been very unpleasant, and I’m a fearful flyer at the best of times. (Almost Famous wouldn’t be made for years, but I am so there during that airplane scene.) Tom and I looked at the map, saw how close Savannah was, and decided to blow off the flight and pick up a rental car instead. We were going to have to do this anyway, and the chances were better that Atlanta would have a “floater,” a car not assigned to a pool, and, thus, not subject to dropoff charges. And hey, it was the record company’s money.
So we approached the Avis counter, which was next to the Hertz counter and maybe one or two others. As we were standing in line, Tom gripped my arm. “Don’t look, but that’s James Brown standing over there in the Hertz line!” So I casually rolled my eyes, and there he was. He was very short, very black, and had ridiculous hair. James Brown, all right.
Our line moved pretty quickly, and it became evident, the closer we got to the counter, that the black guy at the next counter was working for James Brown, because the dialogue was repetitive. Clerk: “I’m sorry, sir, but the card’s not going through.” Guy: “I’m certain there’s some mistake. We always use you people. The name is Brown, James Brown.” Clerk: “Yes, that’s the name I show, but the card’s not going through.” Guy: “Could you please try again?” Clerk: “Yes, sir. Let’s give it a minute.” And there would be some more business, and the card wouldn’t go through. “Do you suppose we should go vouch for him?” Tom wondered, more idly than asking a serious question. “Naaah, it’s the card that’s the problem, not the Godfather.”
Our business took a while, because we insisted on a floater, and civilians aren’t supposed to know about them. And we got to hear that dialogue several more times. The guy was just not going to give up. I think Tom was on the verge of taking his card over and putting it down for the beleaguered star when the clerk said “Well, how about that? It came up fine this time! I don’t know what the problem was, but it’s solved now.” At this point, James hustled up to the counter and said “It’s the car we always have reserved for us. The Lincoln. The purple Lincoln.” Tom made a face and tried not to laugh.
But I’ll tell you one thing: as we walked with our keys to the car we’d rented, we passed James Brown and the guy in the hall, and neither Tom nor I was brave enough to open our mouths and say a thing. Short, black, ridiculous hair, but the man had one powerful aura around him.
Actually, in the middle of writing that, I remembered the time I didn’t meet James Brown. In the early ’70s, John Goddard of Village Music, arguably America’s greatest record store, bought a warehouse full of King Records, and I discovered, through him, a goldmine of American music. I bought dozens of them, and one thing they all had in common was the address: 1540 Brewster Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio. I became obsessed with King and its amazing hillbilly and R&B artists, although I didn’t bother to pick up any of the albums John stocked by the man who had saved the company’s life in the late ’50s by being the only person on the label to have substantial hits: James Brown.
A lucky gig found me working in Chicago and picking up a nice check for it, so I arranged (back in the days of “triangle fares,” which let you add on a destination to a round-trip ticket for a negligible amount) to visit friends living near Dayton, Ohio. And, I reasoned, while I was there, I could drive to Cincinnati and visit 1540 Brewster.
Which, of course, I did. And found nothing. Well, not literally nothing, but the huge space was empty except for a little lady behind a desk. John had asked me to find any memorabilia, particularly photos, but also press releases, point-of-sale material, anything they might have, and, if there was a lot of it, to call him collect so he could arrange to pay for it and have it shipped. Naturally, I asked her about that first. “Oh, we got rid of all of that. Just threw it out. We saved some of the more important stuff, though.” Oh? I brightened up. “Like Steve Lawrence’s first contract. Did you know he started with us?” I almost passed out. Threw it out???
Just at this moment a string-bean with an explosion of orange hair walked into the room, obviously back from lunch, asking if he’d had any messages. “No, but there’s this young man who’s come asking about King. Maybe you folks have something he’s interested in?” “Sure,” the guy said, and said “Come with me.” We walked down a hall, and he stuck a key in a door labelled James Brown Enterprises.
Even with that warning, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The room froze as I walked in, and the redhead said “It’s okay, he’s with me.” He then introduced himself as James Brown’s road manager. (Note for historians: I remember his last name as Jaffee, although I note that Alan Leeds was Brown’s tour director at this time. Anyone out there can straighten this out?)
He showed me to a seat, and everyone went back to what they’d been doing. In the case of the couple over at the next desk, that was (him) counting $20 bills into an attache case and (her) languidly puffing on a cigarette. This action was even more noticeable than it might have been because of the very short skirt she was wearing and the huge emerald that had been pierced into her left nostril.
“Those people out there,” the roadie said, “they don’t care about anything! We were the only asset they had, and now James is with Polygram, and they had to give James Brown Enterprises all his files but the rest of it? Pfffft! They don’t have any idea what they’ve got, they don’t know what to do with it, and it’s driving everyone crazy. All I can say is, it’s great your friend got all those albums, because if they weren’t pressed on such cheap plastic, they’d probably already have recycled them, too. Sorry, I’d like to help, but…” and he shrugged.
As a naive white kid in my mid-20s, I was freaked out enough by the scene around me, so I thanked him, shook his hand, and went back to my car. The last I saw of 1540 Brewster was in my rear-view mirror.
The good news, incidentally, is that a lot of the King tapes and acetates were, in fact, saved, and are being sorted through by people who do know what they’re doing. The bad news is, the people who own the label still don’t have a clue. But James Brown’s legacy is safe, thanks to the aforementioned Alan Leeds.
The very bad news, though, is that his legacy is now at an end. Thanks for everything, Godfather.