To describe the sheer electricity James Brown generated on stage in his prime is virtually impossible to anyone who wasn't there to witness it firsthand. You might as well try to describe jazz. He was the most physical singer who ever lived. The best dancer. The master of funk. But there also was something feral and unrestrained, a hint of danger. To watch James Brown sing was to watch Muhammad Ali fight. They were each the baddest thing on the block. They each used their fame to work for social change. And they each transcended what brought them fame to become cultural icons.
But to those who knew and worked for him, the James Brown behind the spotlight was a much more complicated individual. As they recount in this oral history, Brown was demanding -- a man who could cripple you with ridicule then overwhelm you with kindness. From his start in Macon to the day he saved Boston from rioting over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the endless nights on the road, CL lets the people who were there with him tell the story. Many of them speak here for the first time since his death. Their respect for James Brown is as obvious as the complex emotions that went with their personal relationship with the man. Hollie Ferris, who was Brown's music director for the past 20 years, perhaps sums it up best. "Like everybody else that was ever with him, I quit a few times or got fired," Ferris says. "He was a hard man to like, but I loved him."
Going to Macon
James Brown was born in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933 and later moved to Augusta with his father, where he was raised by a series of relatives. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and supported himself by picking cotton and shining shoes. Brown also supported himself through crime, and at the age of 16 he was arrested and sent to a juvenile work camp in Toccoa. Brown was paroled in 1952 and began to sing and play drums with a band called the Gospel Starlighters. When the group switched to R&B from gospel, it changed its name to the Flames. Brown seized his moment in 1955 when Little Richard went to Toccoa to play Bill's Rendezvous Club; during a break, the Flames strolled onstage uninvited and performed a song that caught the interest of Richard's road manager. He gave them the name of Clint Brantley, the driving force behind Macon's thriving R&B scene. Brantley also managed Little Richard. And on a fateful Saturday in 1955, he met the 22-year-old James Brown.
Clint Brantley: That Saturday, four or five little niggers walked through the door, little country boys. I had partied that Friday; I'd drank a little whiskey and I wasn't feeling good. So they said, "Mr. Brantley, we is the Flames. We're from Toccoa, Georgia. We sing and we're looking for someone to manage us."
And I said, "Well, I don't want to." I had had some little niggers out of Jacksonville, the Speeds. They'd come up here and I'd recorded them. And I never did hear no more from them. So I said, "I don't want to be bothered."
They turned around, started out, and I said, "Hey, boys. Come back. What do y'all sing?"
They said, "We sing rock 'n' roll, we sing blues, we can also sing spirituals."
I said, "Sing me a good spiritual. I don't feel good this morning; it might pick me up." And they sang "Looking For My Mother." Goddamn, they looked for her, too. All under the tables, all under the damned seats, everywhere! When they got through, I said, "Boys, y'all can sing!"
At the time, Macon was a center for R&B music in the Southeast, thanks in large part to Brantley. In early 1956, he set up Brown and the Flames with Jessie Hancock, the preeminent saxophone player in the city.
Jessie Hancock: They had what they called "party houses" down on Fifth Street -- prostitutes and gambling and stuff. It was just like it was up in Memphis and Kansas City, right here in Macon. They had gambling houses down on Broadway and the police would be sitting up there gambling. The musicians had it made. We'd start at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon at a jam session in east Macon. People would come all the way from Athens and Atlanta to jam, and we'd just play all day. After that, we'd take about an hour or two break and then play for our money that night from 9 to 1. We'd finish, pack up and then go out to Bellevue to an all-night club and jam all night.
The "chitlin' circuit"
Before Hamp "King Bee" Swain joined WBML-AM as a disc jockey (he later moved to WIBB-AM), Swain led a band that featured Little Richard. Though he was broadcast only in Macon, the velvet-voiced Swain was known as a national trendsetter. Ray "Satellite Poppa" Brown was another musician who became an on-air personality at WIBB-AM.
Hamp Swain: Sunday night was a hot night in Macon because all the local bands would be back from their out-of-town gigs. They used to do a thing at 12:01 a.m. at Club 15. See, you couldn't sell alcoholic beverages on Sunday, so 12:01 was technically Monday morning. They'd have live bands, food and just tremendous crowds.
Ray Brown: James and I used to travel together. We were both booked by Clint Brantley. We were on the "chitlin' circuit," playing clubs. We'd go from lower Florida to Chattanooga. We'd go west to Mississippi and as far east as Savannah. A lot of times we had to sleep on the side of the road. Finding a motel room, that was unheard of, man. You'd sleep in your car or stay at the club until daybreak.
"Please, Please, Please"
James Brown's first record, "Please, Please, Please" was released in 1956 and reached No. 5 on the R&B charts. The original demo version of the song that landed him his record deal was recorded in Macon. The hit was a godsend for Brantley, who'd had a major falling out with Little Richard.
Ray Brown: James Brown cut "Please, Please, Please" in the WIBB studio, standing on a drink crate.
Hamp Swain: They brought the record over to me when I was at WBML. I put it on the air and we got a tremendous reaction. Immediately. The phone lines just lit up.
Clint Brantley: Richard, he was gonna fuck with you. That's the difference between he and James Brown. I told James one time that I needed $2,000; I owed it to a cracker. And a few days later, that $2,000 was here. James did everything he could for me; I didn't have to ask him to do it, he did it. Richard didn't ever do a damned thing. All I got out of Richard, I took it.
Not long after his groundbreaking Live At The Apollo album was released in 1963, James Brown returned to Macon to play a "homecoming show" at the City Auditorium on a bill with Joe Tex. Two people in attendance were Newton Collier, who would go on to perform in Sam & Dave's band, and a local white singer named Wayne Cochran. Afterward, James Brown went out to Club 15 in east Macon where Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers were performing. In addition to Jenkins, the band included Otis Redding.
Jessie Hancock: When a black band would play at the City Auditorium, they had a string upstairs on the balcony about middle ways down. Whites would sit on one side upstairs, and blacks would sit on the other. And no whites would come downstairs. But, man, them white people would be jumping upstairs! They'd be dancing! I didn't know white people could dance like that.
Newt Collier: Joe Tex could imitate anybody he wanted to. You know how James came out with the cape? Joe had one made up out of a raggedy blanket, with holes all in it. You know how James would break down and fall on his knees? Joe fell on his knees, and all of a sudden, he grabbed his back. He had the cape on and got all tangled up in it, and he was fighting to get out, singing, "Please, please, please, get me out of this cape." He just made a mockery of James. Here it was, James' homecoming show, and James didn't appreciate this at all. He went out to Club 15 after the show, and Joe Tex was out there. And James took a couple of shotguns, and I think six people got shot. James did most of the shooting, and Joe was running back behind the trees and bushes. So that was the end of the Joe Tex/James Brown revue.
Charles Davis: I was the last one to know what was happening. I'm playing drums with my eyes closed and getting down. The crowd was noisy, and I couldn't hear the shooting. By the time I figured out what had happened, everybody was on the floor, and I'm up there on the stage by myself.
Wayne Cochran: James and somebody else was in there, shooting across the room at each other and reloading. Didn't neither one of them hit the other. James ran outside, and I saw his tour bus pull out of the parking lot with him behind the wheel.
Johnny Jenkins: Seven people got shot. They were reloading and coming back in. Me and Otis, we were hiding behind a piano. A guy went around later, and I think he gave each one of the injured $100 apiece not to carry it no further. And that just quieted it down.
By 1965, James Brown was a star. His hits included "I'll Go Crazy," "Out of Sight," "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)." These were records that redefined R&B music because they marked the birth of funk. Powering that shift was Brown's rhythm section, which was anchored by a succession of three of the world's greatest drummers: Bernard Purdie, Jab'o Starks and Clyde Stubblefield. They all learned early on about Brown's reputation for fining band members.
Bernard Purdie: You'd make a mistake while he was singing, and he'd turn around and say, "Ten dollars." He accused me of making a mistake, so I got fined. But it wasn't me that made the mistake. I was so mad, I said to Brown, "I'll do your records, but I ain't going on the road with you because you were wrong for what you did."
Jab'o Starks: I was playing with Bobby "Blue" Bland. And every time we'd play on the East Coast, James would send his people to see us. And they'd always come up and ask if I wanted to play with James. But I liked playing with Bobby Bland, and I'd say "no." Then I had my first child and started looking at it more in terms of a business. And when they came and asked again, I said "yes." I joined in 1965. I was about 22 years old. Before I took the job, I told James, "Now, I don't pay fines. If you ask me to play something a certain way, I'll play it just like you told me to play it. But if I'm paying fines; that's not me having to pay them but my family." And he looked at me and said, "You know, nobody's ever told me that before and I respect you for it." He knew I was more mature than the others because I'd been out with Bobby Bland for all those years.
Clyde Stubblefield: The difference between playing with Otis Redding and James Brown? I didn't get fined when I played behind Otis. I'd get fined when I played behind James. When he threw his hand up, with all the fingers going up, that's $25. He'd do that four or five times. That's $100. When I started, I was making about $250 a night, paying my own hotel bill, food and cleaning bill. I had a family living at home to support, and I'd get fined!
Bernard Purdie: Two years after I quit, the hits had stopped coming, and they called me to do a session. We set up the band and we ran through arrangements, and he got there and walked into the vocal booth. When he did that, I got up and left. I'd told his bandleader, "I want you to forgive me because tonight, I'm going to show my ass." And [Brown] came out. "Where's Purdie?" He found me and apologized. We went back in and cut "Cold Sweat" [See Editor's note at bottom] and about four other songs that became million sellers.
Birth of funk
"Cold Sweat" is the quintessential James Brown record. It has riveting horn lines, a dramatic stop-and-go at the end of the bridge, a droning one-chord riff, a hot sax solo from Maceo Parker, and a drum solo by Purdie. By this time, a Richmond, Va., student and part-time disc jockey named Alan Leeds had met Brown and, two years later, would join the traveling show as tour manager. And Wayne Cochran had not only built a show around the music of James Brown, he'd dyed his hair white and piled it in a huge pompadour and became known as "the white blue-eyed soul brother."
Wayne Cochran: James started out playing R&B. When I began to imitate him, we got the Live at the Apollo album and learned every song, and we'd play every song on that album as our floor show. But with "Cold Sweat," it began to change -- it became more funk than R&B. And he wound up doing pure funk music. Really, he wasn't the Godfather of Soul, he was the Godfather of Funk.
Alan Leeds: "Cold Sweat" was one of the songs where James Brown reinvented the vocabulary of music. Jerry Wexler [vice president of Atlantic Records] told a writer that "Cold Sweat" just screwed everybody up, that it made every musician have to go back to the drawing board. Every musician in the world was saying, "Holy shit, how'd he do that?" Very few figured it out.
Quelling a riot
Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, there were fears of riots all over the country. James Brown happened to be in Boston, one of the country's most racially divided cities, and was scheduled to perform the next evening at the Boston Garden. The city debated whether to cancel the show and ultimately decided not only to allow it to go on, but to broadcast it live on local television in an effort to keep people off the street.
Alan Leeds: You couldn't cancel the show because that would make the kids, who were already angry, even more angry. So they threw the doors open and televised it. I've got a video of the concert, and there's only about 1,000 people there -- all day long, they'd been telling people to stay home and watch the show on TV.
Jab'o Starks: The Boston show was amazing. We got there and they told us the city was about to riot. And James got up on stage and said, "Look, there's no reason to do that. All you're going to do is get arrested, and some of you are going to get killed. Just calm down and let's see how this works out." He had a way of doing that. I mean, he was James Brown, you know?
Fred Wesley: He got on stage and told everybody, “Get back, get back, we’re going to do this right. We’re not going to act like fools, we’re going to act like people about this.” Then he calmed the people down and gave them a show. For a while there, everybody forgot about the assassination of Dr. King and got into the show. He made a speech talking about everybody being proud of being black and being proud of Dr. King and we weren’t going to let him go out with a lot of rioting. And they heard it, and there was no riot in Boston.
Alan Leeds: The next morning, he flew to Washington, D.C., which was up in flames. And he walked the streets all day, randomly stopping kids and telling them to go home. And at some peril, I might add. But he never worried about it. He'd say, "These kids aren't gonna hurt me."
I'm black and I'm proud
A young trombone player named Fred Wesley joined the band in 1968, and he would go on to become James Brown's music director. His first recording session was a song that galvanized the black community in 1969: "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)."
Fred Wesley: We were in California and had the day off, and we were laying around the hotel. Somebody came in and said, "We're going into the studio." James Brown walked in with a bunch of kids, and he said, "Say it loud!" And the kids said, "I'm black and I'm proud!"
Jab'o Starks: He was painstaking in the studio. He'd come up with the tune, and we'd work on it until he'd work up a sweat. Then he'd say, "I'm ready to record." It was like he was doing a gig right there in the studio."
Fred Wesley: We went back on the road a couple of weeks later. We were in Houston. And James Brown came out on stage and said, "Say it loud!" And everybody in the auditorium, about 10,000 people, yelled back, "I'm black and I'm proud!" It happened that quick.
Just about everyone in the core band left in 1970, and James Brown brought in a new group under the direction of Fred Wesley. When Wesley left in 1975, a trumpet player named Hollie Ferris eventually replaced him.
Fred Wesley: My first week, we were trying to learn a new song, and I was trying to get the horns right. James Brown told me to get the rhythm right. I figured the rhythm was easy, and I said, "We need to get the horns right." And he told me I didn't know what I was doing and that I should listen to him. So I told him he didn't know what he was doing and that he should listen to me. Naturally, I got fired.
Alan Leeds: He was much more difficult on a successful night than a bad night. I would bring the ledger book into his dressing room. He'd be in a robe to absorb the sweat, his hair would be in curlers, and he'd be under a hair dryer. You'd hand him the books, and he'd either nod or else lift off the helmet of the hair dryer and ask questions. He'd complain about radio promotions: "We sold out and we didn't need to advertise." He'd complain about comp tickets: "They ripped you off, went out and scalped the tickets." He'd nitpick you to death, and it was brutal. But if it didn't go well, he'd say, "Hey, fellas, we'll have better days, don't worry about it."
Fred Wesley: Luckily, I got a second chance and came back as band leader. I came back with the understanding James Brown was a strong man. But that was the most difficult job in the world.
Hollie Ferris: I would rehearse the band and tighten up anything that needed working on. And then I would confer with him on a personal basis, which nobody else did. Nobody wanted to hang around him. ... People would prefer not to be in his face because he could find fault easily.
Alan Leeds: He was a crabby patriarch. Brown's philosophy of being a boss was that a relaxed employee was a lax employee. For every compliment, there had to be a payback. But for every insult, there was a compliment.
Fred Wesley: They used to say we got a fine for every note we played wrong. But we hardly ever played any wrong notes because we took pride in the fact we were doing something precise, something that was strong and monumental.
Alan Leeds: He not only fined the musicians, he'd fine us occasionally. "That's $100 off your check," he'd say. But the next day at breakfast, he might slide you $100 under the table. One night we were in New York playing at the Copacabana, and I brought my mother up and arranged a table for her up front. I took her upstairs after the show to meet him, and he was just charming and delightful. He had a guy bring in champagne, and he toasted her as "The Mother of the Year." There was a second show, and he told me to take off and make sure my mother got back to her hotel. And I thought, "Oh god, I know what this means -- nothing's free." And sure enough, the next day he called me at 9 or 10, which was early for Brown. And he said, "Son, bring your papers up, we've got to go over all the dates coming up." And he grilled me. That was the payback.
Hollie Ferris: You'd think he'd mellow out, but he never really did. He had to live the legend all the time. Can't you just be Jimmy Brown for a while and be a normal person? He didn't know how to do it.
The road never ends
Even as the hits dried up and James Brown got in the news more for drug arrests and police chases and jail sentences than he did for his music, he remained a touring machine.
Alan Leeds: In the last 20 years, let's face it, his shows were good, but it wasn't the same. In the '60s, people anticipated a James Brown concert the way a 5-year-old anticipates Christmas morning. Toward the end, the audience was coming to his show just to pay homage.
Hollie Ferris: There were times when we'd literally roll him up to the stage in a wheelchair, and he'd get up and do a two-hour show. It didn't matter if it was 50 people out there or 500,000, he always gave 100 percent. We've played shows where there were 50 people out there, literally, and he went out and gave a two-and-a-half hour show.
The last tour
James Brown was on the road until the end. At the time he was hospitalized before his death on Christmas Day, he was preparing to leave for a New Year's Eve concert at B.B. King's nightclub in New York City.
Hollie Ferris: The last tour was two weeks across Eastern Europe. We flew into Moscow to play for somebody's 50th birthday party; the guy had James Brown and Jennifer Lopez as the entertainment.
Alan Leeds: The last show with his band was in Croatia. Brown played his last gig on Nov. 14, when he was honored by the U.K. Music Hall of Fame in London. This was a week after the tour, and the band had flown back to the States, so he performed with a house band. He sang, "I Feel Good," of course, just a three-minute rendition for television.
Hollie Ferris: It always seemed he'd go home after a tour and get ill, from just not taking care of himself. You couldn't really take care of him because, you know, he was James Brown; you couldn't tell him what to do. Then right before we'd go out on the road, he'd start to get himself together. He went to the dentist, and they took one look at him and said, "You've got to go to the emergency room, you're sick." Three days before he died, he was handing out toys in downtown Augusta.
James Brown leaves behind a larger-than-life legacy. As Wayne Cochran says, "He was a complete original. There was never anybody like James Brown."
Alan Leeds: After I left Brown, I went to work for Prince. And every sound check, he would jam on a couple of James Brown songs: "Body Heat" and "Too Funky In Here." When I was hired, everybody told me, "Don't go to Prince, let him come to you." So for two weeks, we'd shake hands and say "hello" in the morning and that was it. One night, I was sitting in the hotel bar and Prince comes in. He sits down next to me, then he leans over and whispers, "Tell me some James Brown stories."
Fred Wesley: I didn't really want to play with James Brown because he was a little screaming sissy, that's the way we saw it. I was into jazz. Now, I'm credited with creating funk, and funk was something I really didn't want to do. I've gone from not wanting to play with James Brown to being very proud of my association with James Brown. I see now that it was a very important change in music.
Hollie Ferris: We never really got tired of playing those songs. All you had to do was look out and see the crowd going nuts. Toward the end, I started noticing that in spite of his age and in spite of him slowing down, you'd look out in the crowd and everybody would be smiling. And who else in concert provokes that kind of feeling, where people just sit out there and smile through the whole show?
Clyde Stubblefield: Because of "Funky Drummer," I'm the most sampled drummer in the world, and I'm not getting a penny for it. All the rap artists might be paying James Brown for using the drummer off his records, which was me, but not a penny of it went in my pocket. He had a great impact on the musical world. But I believe that if Otis Redding was living today, he'd be stronger than James Brown.
Jab'o Starks: James was one of the hardest-working people I ever knew in show business. And he was an innovator. A lot of people copied James' style, and a lot of them didn't want to give him credit.
Wayne Cochran: All that I am today is because of those two men: Otis Redding and James Brown. It hurt me when both left this world. It's just hard to believe there's no James Brown.
Fred Wesley: His legacy is music. All that other stuff that surrounded him -- the domestic violence, running from the police -- all that is secondary to his music. All that other stuff will go away. It'll be lost in the dust of his music. And the music of James Brown will live forever.
Editor's note: Bernard Purdie is quoted as saying he played drums on the James Brown classic "Cold Sweat," a claim he also had made to other media. However, on the Star Time box set of James Brown's music, Clyde Stubblefield is listed as the drummer on that song, and Stubblefield is generally credited as the drummer on "Cold Sweat."
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