James Brown: An audience with the Godfather

James Brown has the same gates outside his US mansion as the Queen does at the Palace. And he never, ever lets journalists in - until now. Robert Chalmers enjoys a unique glimpse into the eccentric, private world of the Godfather of Soul

Sunday 02 July 2006 00:00 BST

Interviewing Mr Brown," says Charles Bobbit, the singer's longstanding manager and confidant, "is like attempting to draw teeth from a lion who has recently been castrated - he suspects, by you." He makes this observation as we are driving the 15 miles from Augusta, Georgia, to James Brown's home and, though I haven't yet met the musician, I already have some understanding of what Bobbit means.

This is the second time I've set off for Brown's country estate. I arrived in Augusta four days ago, with the rock manager and producer David Arden. David is the brother of Sharon Osbourne; their father Don Arden was famous for his robust supervision of bands such as Black Sabbath and The Move. David, who is currently managing Brown's wife, Tomi Rae, gets on well with the Godfather of Soul and we had, as we understood it, a firm appointment to meet him three days ago.

Looking back on that first, doomed excursion, I can see now that everything was going way too smoothly. Tomi Rae - former singer with Hardly Dangerous, an LA band once signed to Madonna's Maverick label - was driving us to the house in her black SUV. The fourth Mrs Brown is smart, articulate, and an outstanding artist in her own right: her first single, "This Bitter Earth", will be released in the autumn. She stopped off at a jewellers, where she began the unenviable task of finding her husband something precious that he doesn't already own. She chose a pair of $200 Union Jack cuff-links, for him to wear when he plays the Tower of London this Tuesday.

We were heading for the Browns' home at Beech Island, across the Savannah River in South Carolina, when Tomi Rae's cellphone rang. Brown asked to speak to me. He suggested a five-minute telephone interview, and maintained that he knew nothing about any other arrangement. The call concluded with him insisting: "I am not doing this."

For the last three days, David and I have been hanging around in our Augusta hotel - situated, lest we forget him, on James Brown Boulevard. The road leads to Broad Street, where a bronze statue of Brown wears a mischievous grin, as if to remind David and myself - like the authorities who erected this monument to Augusta's most controversial son - that the joke is on us. Charles Bobbit, who lives 150 miles away in Atlanta, agrees to come down and argue our case. In Ruben's Gentlemen's Outfitters (est 1898) I am advised - accurately as it turns out - that I need new trousers as a matter of urgency: Mr Brown does not admit visitors wearing blue jeans.

Brown's many involuntary appearances in the press - often coinciding with his arrest - have tended to find him in bold and uninhibited mood: threatening 40 insurance salesmen with a shotgun, because he suspected one of them might have used his private toilet; being pursued through Augusta by 14 squad cars after police bullets had punctured his tyres and petrol tank; discharging a rifle dressed only in his underpants. In the course of a recent harassment case successfully defended by the singer, a young woman alleged that James Brown, who at 73 is a year older than Lord Kenneth Baker, had brandished a pair of zebra-striped briefs while informing her that he had been implanted with bull's testicles.

Brown's conversation, in his rare interviews, has tended to be somewhat more circumspect. The majority of such encounters have been brief, and conducted backstage, with Charles Bobbit holding a stopwatch. The cuttings file contains lines like, "You have 20 minutes if Mr Brown likes you, two if he doesn't"; "Do not drink beforehand. Mr Brown dislikes the smell of alcohol"; and, "The interview will be terminated immediately if, at any point, you address him as 'James'. "

And still we come back, for the simple reason that Brown is worth the trouble. He is often described as being, to black music, what Elvis Presley was to white - a serious understatement of Brown's stature. Presley, iconic as he was, was ultimately derivative; the most accomplished of the numerous performers delivering black music to white people. Without Brown, popular music would not exist in the form that it does today. A pivotal figure in the development of soul music, Brown is the man who invented funk and, indirectly, hip hop and its subsequent mutations. "A hundred years from now," says Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, "people will still be doing what James Brown did."

Unlike Ray Charles, he never sought to mellow his extraordinary voice to seduce a broader audience. He didn't have to: whether on the stage, moving like a voodoo doll controlled by an epileptic puppeteer, or off it, Brown is that rarest of things in the music business - a true original.

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Certain aspects of his history - the love of ostentatious vehicles driven at speed; the periods in jail; the penitent statements to judges, instantly forgotten in the exhilaration of release - recall the failings of Mr Toad. His country house, certainly, would not disappoint the hero of The Wind in the Willows.

Mr Bobbit steers his saloon through the gates - exact replicas of those at Buckingham Palace, except that Brown's, unlike the Queen's, are electric - and we enter his 300-acre estate, with its fishing lake and pine woods. High on each wall of the imposing mansion there is a large "B", embossed in gold. In the centre of the roof, as David Arden points out, is a glass dome of the kind that might be commissioned by an astronomer.

"Mr Brown goes up there at night," says Bobbit, "to do his thinking. He thinks a lot, when he's alone."

Tomi Rae shows us in. The living-room is immaculate; in design terms, it's basically a cross between the Palace of Versailles and a Cadillac Eldorado. There's a sunken bar in grey marble, red leather chairs, chandeliers and a medieval tapestry. The room is dominated by a large portrait of the singer.

Brown makes his entrance, with the insolent swagger of a black James Cagney. A man of about 5ft 6in, he's wearing an elegant black suit and his trademark shades, which he does not remove. He is diabetic and has recovered from prostate cancer. Enemies whisper that Brown - whose self-confessed addiction to angel dust, the animal tranquilliser PCP, in the late 1980s - may still use recreational drugs. Whatever he's on, he looks tremendous. He shakes hands, and addresses us as "Mr Chalmers" and "Mr Arden". His manner is one of tremendous suspicion.

"Nobody," Mr Bobbit whispers to me, reassuringly, "ever gets this close."

In his 2005 autobiography, I Feel Good, Brown refers to Invisible Man, the classic novel by Ralph Ellison, which argues that racial prejudice causes black Americans to vanish from the landscape perceived by the white majority. And yet there can be few men, anywhere in the world, who have so effectively overcome the curse of anonymity. On stage, Brown still performs vintage songs such as "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine", "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" and "Please, Please, Please" - yet somehow manages not to look sad and absurd like Mick Jagger. His hugely popular tours, like his performances in films such as The Blues Brothers, When We Were Kings and Rocky IV, guarantee that Brown will be recognised with affection on any street, in any country in the world.

With his 1965 single "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", he patented the 1/3 beat that became the basis of funk, and has made him the most sampled artist of all time. In doing so, Brown tells me, with no hint of irony, "I went up against Mozart and Schubert, and Bach and Beethoven."

Brown has a fondness for obscure Yiddish slang and sometimes uses a long word out of context just because he likes the sound of it. He's especially fond of "antidisestablishmentarianism". He speaks with limited movement of his upper jaw, which makes him sound like a man whose dentist forgot to remove the cotton plugs from his upper gums, and is, in general, extremely difficult to understand.

"A man got hair and teeth," Brown says, "he's got it all." The implants in his lower gums are of a size and brilliance that nature would struggle to replicate; his top set are a work in progress. Former associates told me that Brown has expressed fears that dental implants could conceal transmitters planted by the government. On the day he set off for David Beckham's recent party, he'd been in the orthodontist's chair for four hours.

An Anglophile, he's proud of his links with the Royal Family.

"Prince Charles," he says, "just ain't got nobody to hang with. So he figures, if he's got James Brown - if he can show I'm there - he's saying 'James Brown is my kind of a man,' you know?"

Jonathan Ross, he recalls, "looked at me and said: 'That's the coolest man on the planet.'"

"Would I be incorrect if I were to describe you as a modest man, Mr Brown?"

"Yeah," he replies. "I mean, no. No, you wouldn't be wrong. I am very modest. I have become more modest," he adds, "as I have got older."

A writer for the New Yorker once observed that, as an interviewee, Mr Brown is "not very easy to steer", which is rather like saying that the Acme rocket sled delivered to Wile E Coyote might have benefited from a little fine-tuning to its navigational systems. Mr Brown says what he likes, when he likes, how he likes. He may answer obliquely, head-on, or not at all. And yet he has humour, old-world gentility, and an ability to listen. We've been talking for 20 minutes when the shades come off, and he smiles. It feels as though he's just put a gun away.

"You been in that hotel too long," he tells me. "You ain't been sleepin' there. You been thinking about James Brown. I mean you didn't think about anything but me last night."

He looks across the room, at his wife, 36 years his junior.

"I go back to how it was years ago, when men controlled women," he says. In the world of James Brown, control is a word that crops up with some regularity. It's remarkable that he's entrusted the management of his wife's career to David Arden. (The softly-spoken Englishman, who is 55, has inherited the shrewdness and determination of his widely-feared father, but not the predilection for GBH.)

"A woman should know her limitations, as a man should know his obligations," Brown continues. "I'm going to stay into that philosophy. Unless I quit reading the Bible."

"Do you read the Bible every day?"

"I do. You can't give a woman limitations if you don't find your obligations. But once I've taken care of her like a queen, I'm not going to go along with so much."

It's a matter of record that his treatment of certain women has been less than regal. Adrienne, his third wife, who died following cosmetic surgery in 1996 aged 45, accused him of beating her with a metal pipe and shooting at her car. The Sun alleged that he also shot up her mink coat "and possibly other clothes".

Tomi Rae herself called 911 following a domestic dispute, and the couple separated temporarily in 2003.

"I did do some of the things reported," was Brown's response to this last incident, "and admittedly, they weren't so great."

He met his current wife 10 years ago in her hometown of Las Vegas, where she successfully auditioned to join his backing singers.

"She said 'Hello'. I knew then that she was sarcastic. I knew she was selling herself." But Tomi Rae, he adds, "has suffered like I did. We're like two inmates with the key to our own cell."

Tomi Rae Hynie, the daughter of a police officer, left home at 13 after she was abused by her stepfather. At 14, she lied about her age and was hired as a waitress at the Rainbow, the long-established rock and roll bar in LA. Like Brown, she's recovered from drug abuse. ("Which drugs?" I ask her. "All of them.")

The most intense disharmony in their relationship has been related to allegations that Tomi Rae failed to discard her first husband before marrying Brown. "The guy was from Pakistan," she says. "He wanted to enter the US. I was young and desperate. The marriage was never consummated. I believed I had an annulment. Later, with my husband, I got into an argument... but, finally, a judge told me I was never legally married. So this is my first marriage."

One of pop music's greatest producers, going back to his magnificent early recordings of band members like Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson, James Brown is equally enthused by his latest protégée. Tomi Rae was a rock vocalist who, under Brown's guidance, can now sing a soul number like Otis Clay's "This Bitter Earth" with an assurance which earned her an ovation when she performed at BB King's Club in Times Square, last month.

"There is no limit to what she can do," Brown tells me. "Joss Stone heard her and said - 'Hey - you got some pipes on you'. (omega) Her voice reminds me of Mahalia Jackson. And she's white - that's what's really unbelievable. To hear 'Bitter Earth' - a song which deals with the tsunami, and Iraq, coming from a white woman. See, we're labelled. Years ago, you go to the bathroom, you white people were labelled 'Ladies and Gentlemen'. 'Coloured', that was me. Her singing 'Bitter Earth' is like Richard Nixon singing it. It gets attention. I like to make my wife look like a Daisy Mae - a backwoods girl. I try to be strong. And breathe this air. And learn what's happening. The older I get," he adds, "the better it's gonna get."

James Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, where he was raised in a woodland shack. When he was four, his mother Susie handed him over to his father, James Joe Brown, who dealt in bootleg whisky and turpentine. The first words he recalls hearing were: "Take your child. You keep him." He was entrusted to his Aunt Honey, who had a well-patronised business in Augusta. Like Richard Pryor, Brown grew up in a brothel.

"Say you hadn't started out surrounded by prostitutes. Would your life have been better?"

"You," Brown says, "are trying to invite me to a reunion with myself. It would have been worse. Because I wouldn't have known that life. Suppose a man who knows nothing about that world is made governor. How's he going to tell a prostitute that she could have another direction? Even if I was the most educated person on the planet, it wouldn't do any good anyway. I'm much better off with common sense."

"Do those images come back to you, from your childhood?"

"I know those images like the back of my hand. They are mine. I carry them with me." Brown pauses. "I carry them with me," he says again, more quietly.

At the age of 15, convicted of petty theft, he was sentenced to eight to 16 years.

"If you don't allow a man to have an education," he says, "don't lock him up in jail for being dumb. That's what they did to me in Augusta."

He was freed at 18, after telling the parole board he would devote his life to "singing for the Lord" - an undertaking which scarcely anticipates "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine".

"That song is not about sex," says Brown (who is fiercely critical of music that is "dirty"). "'Sex Machine' is about a man too shy to dance."

Once out of jail, he started performing with Bobby Byrd's Ever Ready Gospel Singers. Brown considered a career as a boxer - his ability with his fists has never been in question - but "once I heard all of those girls screaming when I was on stage, that was it".

Bobby Byrd's sacred ensemble rapidly acquired a more secular character once Brown arrived. They became The Flames, then James Brown and His Famous Flames. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his first major hit, "Please, Please, Please".

"Did you know that song was special right away?"

"Yes, because I'd sung it for years before I put it on wax. 'Try Me', the same. I knew they was both hits."

"But did you know they were great?"

"I knew how great Jack Johnson [the first black heavyweight world boxing champion] was. Nobody had to tell me."

His reputation was cemented by two seminal performances: the legendary 1962 New York show, available on CD as Live at the Apollo; the second a television special filmed at Santa Monica in 1964, where he eclipses everyone on the bill, including The Rolling Stones.

Brown had, and still enjoys, an unparalleled reputation as an enforcer of discipline in his band.

"He kept people intimidated," according to former colleague Pee Wee Ellis. "Dress code fines. Shoes had to have a certain shine." Wages were docked for errors on stage; Brown's backing singer Marva Whitney was fined $75 "for having a crease in my dress".

Whitney, like many of his women vocalists before and since, was his girlfriend for a time. He had three children from his first marriage, to Velma, and two from his second, to Deidre. His third, to Adrienne, was childless; when she died in 1996, they'd been together for 14 years. He has acknowledged fathering a daughter outside marriage, which would make James Joseph Brown II, Tomi Rae's five-year-old son, his seventh child. In his struggles against infidelity, Brown has suffered innumerable reverses. "I am," he once told Bobby Byrd's wife Vicki Anderson, "the one man who can do anything he likes."

Alan Leeds, who was Brown's tour manager in the 1970s, before leaving to work for Prince, is currently producing a film version of Brown's life. Leeds believes the singer's combative approach to life is explained by his childhood.

"From his earliest years, he was taught that you can't put faith in anyone. If you can't trust your mother, who can you trust? He has the feeling that anyone who gets too close may abandon him. He lost the son he was closest to [Teddy was killed in 1973, aged 19, in a car crash]. He was taught by circumstance that betrayal was the norm. And the music industry is not an environment that's going to disabuse you of that perception."

Leeds's film will be a scripted drama; the great documentary about Brown's life has already been made. Jeremy Marre's 2003 film Soul Survivor is as eloquent and remarkable an achievement - given the headstrong character of its subject - as Scorsese's portrayal of Bob Dylan.

"After six months of negotiation he agreed to be filmed," Marre told me. "We arrived with the crew. He showed up late and with a massive entourage. Then he sat down and said: 'Who are you? Whatever this is, I'm not doing it. I'm leaving.' He stood up. Then he laughed and said: 'That fooled you.' "

This pattern of behaviour, says Alan Leeds, "is one I saw in the early 1970s. It's a test of your mental strength and your devotion to him. It all comes back to control."

Brown was one of the first black artists who succeeded in taking charge of his own career. By the late 1960s, he owned his own production company, three radio stations and a chain of restaurants as well as - to quote Albert Goldman, writing in 1968 - "500 suits, 300 pairs of shoes, a silver grey Rolls-Royce, a Cadillac convertible, an Eldorado, an Oldsmobile Toronado, a Rambler saloon, a twin-engined Learjet and a moated castle in Queens, New York City."

After years of wrangling, his house, plane and cars were seized by the US tax authorities, on charges that would eventually see him jailed for contempt of court.

"Thankfully," Brown said, "I was never into owning a lot of extravagances, or ego-boosting things."

"I put money in one state," he tells me, "and money in another state - $100,000 here, $200,000 there. Then the government wanted to know where all of it was. That's when I became 259323801," he says, referring to his tax number. "I'd had many different names: 'Pure Dynamite', 'Mr Excitement', 'Godfather of Soul'. But the government said: 'I name you 259323801'. That's who I am now. Before that, I was James Brown."

A friend of the Reverend Al Sharpton since the early 1970s, Brown himself played a key role in the civil rights movement. He was in Boston on 5 April 1968, the day following Martin Luther King's assassination. As rioting erupted around the country, the mayor, Kevin White, requested that Brown allow his show to be televised, as an appeal for calm. His dignified and courageous performance - at one point, intervening between a volatile crowd and white police in aggressive mood - remains some of the most extraordinary footage in rock and roll history.

"A leading politician," Sharpton said, "told him: 'You're in trouble now. Because we know that anyone that can stop a riot, can start one.' "

Brown, who has said that he avoids computers because he suspects intelligence agencies can observe him through the screen, tells me that he has the ability to foresee death from a person's expression.

"I saw that look," he says, "on the face of Dr King." (omega)

When I ask him more about this, the question prompts the following response.

"Everyone has a supernatural life. God can do anything to remind you his powers are unimaginable. Like he turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt. These things happen. The spirits are out there. After death, the spirit leaves. A puff of smoke. Right out of your rectum. Now, you see the moon, and the sun. Beautiful. You look at the stars - they are planets too. You see one go up in smoke... that's probably... you find that water... the moon," he says, looking at Charles Bobbit, "what happens there?"

"With the water?" asks Bobbit.

"Since they control the tides."

"All the water," his friend replies, "came from the moon to the earth. That's why there's craters."

"The sun pulled the water back?"

"The water," Bobbit explains, "was on the moon."

"But is it a theory, or what? It turned sideways?"

"I know that when they separated, the gravitational pull of the earth caught the moon. The moon revolves around the earth. The earth is not round. It's egg-shaped."

"You see?" Brown turns to me. "That's where education is at. We know they are taking all of our money. And we can't do anything about it. But the thing is: I am a goose. They can't make me lay when they want to. I won't lay. I will not lay. They put me in rehab. I was in rehab for drugs. But there were no drugs. They thought I was out. They was out."


"Out to lunch. I was just taking care of my business." Jail, he says, "was one of the places I had to be in. Like Jesus Christ."

The sometimes disjointed nature of his conversation, says Alan Leeds, is not necessarily pharmaceutical in origin.

"I saw him backstage, years ago," Leeds recalls. "He was totally lucid. He told me that his mother was half-Chinese and an Aquarian, then he told me that this explained his unusual ability to stay underwater without passing out - 'and that's why my knees allow me to dance the way I do.' His next sentence addressed the ability of grass to grow through cement."

When I ask Brown more about his work for civil rights, he understates his contributions to the movement, which included playing a special concert in the aftermath of the shooting of black activist James Meredith on his "March Against Fear", in Mississippi, in June 1966. It was a gesture that could have had Brown killed. Life magazine ran the headline: "Is This The Most Important Black Man in America?"

"I didn't march," is all Brown will say.

When he recorded "Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" in 1968, he alienated many of the whites who increasingly dominated his audience. Since then, his radicalism has waned. He entertained troops in Vietnam: it's indicative of his self-belief that, according to Marva Whitney, when the two of them were in helicopters flying over terrain devastated by rocket grenades and napalm, Brown carried only a stick for his protection.

His political allegiance these days - as you might gather from his support for Nixon, Carter, Clinton, George Bush Sr and son - tends to lie with a man who works out of an oval office.

"You own a pair of shackles, salvaged from a slave ship..."

"Who told you that?" Brown interrupts. "If you know that, it means somebody told you."

"Not me," says Bobbit.

"You did," says Brown.

"I did not.'

He didn't. The shackles are described in Brown's ghosted autobiography; you wonder what else in I Feel Good he may not have read, such as his admission of his former addiction to PCP, a drug so destabilising that it is avoided by most users of crack and methamphetamine.

For years, he was recognised as one of the cleanest-living men in showbusiness. Quite what undermined Brown's discipline - the loss of his son, declining record sales, or the drug habits of his third wife - is unclear even to his friends. What is certain is that, while Brown has remained vociferously opposed to drug use, there have been times when he has struggled to heed his own advice.

"A preacher says do as I say," he once noted, "not do as I do."

"He was close to 50 years old when he began to abuse drugs," says Alan Leeds. "And smoking angel dust is probably not the ideal way to see in your 50th birthday. Before then, he might have one drink or perhaps smoke a little weed - nothing more than that. I once saw Redd Foxx, the comedian, give him an envelope. When he saw it was cocaine, he flushed it down the toilet. The last thing a control freak wants is something that makes him lose control."

His most dramatic loss of equilibrium occurred in 1988 when ("high as a kite", to quote I Feel Good) he was pursued by police across two states.

"The truck you were driving that day is on this estate, still with its bullet holes. Why?"

"Well, you tell me why they keep the pyramids."

"Because they symbolise..."

"And what does that truck symbolise? The taking of a man's life for no reason."

The official version of events on 24 September, 1988 goes like this. Forty insurance delegates were meeting at an Augusta office in the same building as Brown's business suite, when he appeared holding a shotgun and pistol, inquiring which one had used his bathroom without permission. Soon after he left, a squad car pulled him over. Brown stopped, then took off again, and entered South Carolina at 80mph.

When he was halted by a police road block, officers smashed his side window. Brown set off at speed for a second time, at which point, officers opened fire. The singer rolled into Augusta on his wheel rims at 30mph, with the blue and white motorcade in pursuit. He was sentenced to six years, of which he served three. (Had he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of drugs and resisting arrest, his sentence would have been considerably shorter.)

"I went to jail," he said later, "and I thank God for it, because I rested."

"The police shot each of your tyres out, as well as the gas tank - is that right?"


"Why would they do that?"

"Let me ask you something. Why did they have two water fountains - one for the coloured people, and one for the ladies and gentlemen? Why did they have two commodes?"

Years ago, in his office, Brown used to keep a picture of a wounded bull preparing to gore a matador. Defiant machismo is one aspect of his character that is never going to change. Privately, though, I suspect the man in front of me recognises that the manic, dishevelled figure who stares out from photographs taken that day, might have come from another lifetime.

Friends say that, for all their problems, Brown's relationship with Tomi Rae Hynie is one of the best things that has happened to him. The couple have been followed by a film crew for the past few months - Life on The Road With Mr and Mrs Brown, by the respected young director Camille Solari (with Tomi Rae as executive producer) will be released in 2007.

Towards the conclusion of our two-hour meeting, we are joined by James Joseph Brown II. Even at five, he has the kind of poise, and the captivating good looks, that promise a lively and eventful life.

"Ain't that a beautiful picture?" says Brown. "If I could make myself over, I'd make myself like that. He has it all. His hair. His looks. He can be a star."

"Given what you've experienced, would you like him to follow you into showbusiness?"

"I'd like him to be like George Clooney. Good-looking. Knowledgeable. With integrity. Warm. A good person. That's what I want him to be."

Brown and David Arden discuss the possibility of Mr and Mrs Brown collaborating on a Christmas single, or even recording an album of duets. I get the sense from Brown that the idea of a project that might take him back to the top of the album charts - something that he has not managed for years - is intriguing, to say the least.

We leave, somewhat to my surprise, on excellent terms.

"Call me," he says. "We'll talk... generalities."

I ask if he'll have his picture taken with me.

"Mr Brown..." says Bobbit.


"He's, er... taller than you."


We move out and rectify this small problem with the help of a flight of steps.

"Everything that happens here," Brown says, "is history."

"I remember," I tell him, "that someone once likened you to Moses."

"I accept that gracefully and very humbly and if there is ever anybody that I'd like to be like, it would be Moses. Yeah."

"Why Moses?"

He thinks for a moment. I wonder which aspect of the Hebrew prophet's life he will mention. The crossing of the Red Sea? The procurement of the Ten Commandments? The deliverance of the children of Israel?

"Because Moses," Brown says, "was totally in control."

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