James Brown: Soul Brother No. 1 (1933-2006)
The story of a Georgian who rose from poverty to become a cultural icon, as told by the people who knew him best.
By: Scott Freeman
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.