James Brown: The funk doctor

James Brown is a genuine legend. He doesn't vote for presidents; he plays for them, he informs James McNair

Friday 02 July 2004 00:00

It's quite a sight. James Brown, Godfather of Soul, is sitting in front of me in green, pink and purple rollers. He's wearing a grey bandleader's suit and no shirt, and save for his pot-belly, his torso is surprisingly muscular. Behind him, a blonde woman prepares to comb out his still lustrous pompadour, and to my left, Brown's manager and erstwhile bandmate Charles Bobbit is on hand to vet my questions. "Just music," Bobbit had warned me earlier in the week before an interview that twice didn't happen. "Ask Mr Brown anything too personal, and your time is up."

Had Bobbit been managing Will Young, I'd have told him to stuff it. But Bobbit manages James Brown, the 71-year-old maverick with 119 chart singles and over 50 bestselling albums to his name. Without Brown, no Prince or Michael Jackson. Without Brown, R & B might never have become soul, and funk might never have been invented. Where black pride is concerned, moreover, Brown pioneered the soundtrack. Until JB's 1968 single, "Say It Loud I'm Black And I'm Proud", Chuck D of Public Enemy has said, "we didn't know whether to call ourselves 'Blacks, 'Negroes' or 'Coloureds'. That was the record that united us with a powerful, clear-cut definition."

Brown is an icon, innovator and iconoclast, then. But he is also the good-footing former jailbird whose drug-use, penchant for firearms and alleged beating of his 33-year-old fourth wife, Tomi Ray, are not up for discussion. When you are offered 20 minutes with him, you pledge to do the necessary, rub shoulders with his giant bodyguard, and see what gives. And so here I am in his Hyde Park trailer, just an hour before he takes the stage for a support slot with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They, of course, should be supporting him.

We start with the easy stuff. Yes, the Lifetime Achievement gong that Mojo had presented him with three days earlier meant a lot to him, but the funk, see, that's different from rock 'n' roll, because rock 'n' roll can sometimes bring you down, but funk always lifts you up.

"Funk isn't like Mozart or Bach, either", Brown adds, flashing his dazzling smile. "With Mozart you have so many bars and then you have to go to the bridge, but with funk I can call out one change all night and it will work. It works because God sends it to me and there's no sheet [music] with it. I have to have a photographic mind to remember all those licks."

I, too, am concentrating extra hard here - and not only because of Brown's abstruse diction. While part of me is taking in his strong, sculpted-looking features and wondering just how badly a question about his time inside might play, another part of me hovers above the situation in a state of near awe. This, after all, is Mr Dynamite, the leader of various line-ups whose 'chicken scratch' guitars, taut, punctuating horns and dangerously kinetic grooves have been endlessly dissected, sampled and lauded. When Brown's 1965 single "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" cleverly shifted the traditional accent of the downbeat, it was the musical equivalent of reinventing the wheel.

You could argue that Brown's genius reached its zenith on 1970's "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine", a ridiculously propulsive groove with choice bass-playing from future Funkadelic and Parliament star, Bootsy Collins. What, though, did the moral majority make of its bawdy lyric at the time?

"'Sex Machine' was never sexy", says Brown, surprisingly. "You never listened to the lyric; the message was 'Don't be a wallflower', that's all. It was about a fella and his girlfriend at a dance hall, and all of a sudden he wants to dance, to celebrate the fruits of life." At this, my host leaps from his chair with alacrity than belies his years, then proceeds to pop some spins and slides.

Pressing on, I canvass Brown's views on the upcoming presidential election. George Bush or John Kerry? "I don't vote for presidents," he tells me. "I just play for them when they get in there. I was involved in the president-making thing with Mr Nixon, but not since then. I know Mr Bush and his father personally, but I don't try to make presidents any more."

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Does he think he will see a black president in his lifetime? "I don't know. But if I do live to see a black president, I hope it's the right one. I think Mr Colin Powell would be good, because he has the knowledge and wisdom you need. But I don't want him to be a black president, a white president or a yellow president, you understand me? I just want him to be good at his job."

The only child of an impoverished couple who separated when he was four, Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina in 1933. He spent most of his childhood living at his aunt Honey's brothel in Augusta, Georgia. James would direct servicemen to the house and dance in the street for change. He also picked cotton and worked as a shoe-shine boy.

When he was 11, he won an amateur night contest at the Lenox Theatre singing "So Long", but at 16 he took part in an armed robbery and was sentenced to eight years' hard labour. After a brief spell in the county jail, he was transferred to the juvenile work farm where he met the Famous Flames singer Bobby Byrd. Having cut a gospel demo with Byrd's band, Brown established himself on the performance circuit, and by 1956, he had scored a major hit with "Please, Please, Please", a typically intense ballad which later featured on Brown's legendary 1963 album, Live at the Apollo.

Famously, Live At The Apollo was the product of tremendous self-belief. Brown was forced to finance it himself after Syd Nathan of King Records refused to. But the record proved to be a landmark release, Brown delivering a master class in showmanship even as he and his cohorts sketched funk's blueprint on "Night Train."

"Mr Nathan said, 'James, how are you going to sell those songs all over again?'" Brown remembers. "I told him that I knew in my heart God was with me. Like Moses said, so be it; so it be written. And to this day, that's the biggest-selling live album ever." The singer went on to record three more live albums at the famous Harlem hotspot, but it was his 1963 recording that inspired Otis Redding, Ben E King and a legion of other soul acts to follow suit.

Despite Brown's numerous chart appearances, dubious contracts and botched deals have left him with far less cash than many of his peers. And with hefty tax debts reportedly now pressing, attempts to improve his finances are on the front-burner.

"I own all of my own music, and if I got $2bn, they wouldn't be overpaying me", he says. "My big hits were million-sellers back then, so by now that must have quadrupled. Some artists seem to have all the money in the world and hardly wrote a song, but me, I worked hard and don't have that much to show for it. I admire Little Richard and Elvis Presley, and I admire James Brown. All I want is what's owed to me.

"I'd give it back to the kids, anyway," Brown continues. "We send black kids to college, Mr Bobbit and I, because we know that knowledge is the only thing that will get kids through. I only got a seventh-grade education, but I have a doctorate in funk, and I like to put that to good use."

Ah, yes - James Brown the philanthropist. Visit www.godfatherofsoul.com, and you'll find a selection of his good deeds listed. Every Christmas, he provides 800 turkeys for needy families in his adopted hometown of Augusta, and "pondering the recent loss of life in Santana, Jonesboro and Columbine", Brown penned the anti-violence song "Killing's Out and School's In".

What's not mentioned on the website, of course, is that such noble acts sit rather uncomfortably alongside some of Mr Dynamite's other activities: in 1988, after a high-speed car chase from Georgia to South Carolina, he was charged with aggravated assault with a shotgun and possession of the drug PCP; and in 1998, he was charged with unlawful use of a firearm. In January this year, moreover, Brown was arrested and charged with pushing his wife, Tomi Ray, to the floor and threatening to kill her. He later escaped with a $1,087 fine, and his wife has since stood by him in interviews. Still, it wasn't the kind of incident that made Brown's admonition that we should "love the family more, love mom and dad more" easy to swallow.

Suddenly, Bobbit wants to wind things up. However, I can't let the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business go without a few more questions. What does he do when he's not working? "When I'm not doing music, I try to find me the prettiest woman I can," he says. "That makes sense, don't it? Adam didn't know what he was missing, and then God made Eve and he was happy, you know?" Does he believe in a Day of Judgement? "Yes. I believe it because the Bible says so, and that's the only thing I go by. But my human instinct tells me that a lot of us are real quick to judge other people..."

At this, Bobbit leans across to intervene. "You know, we really do prefer questions about music", he says.

OK. Can Brown imagine retiring? "There are only two things that will make me retire", he says, "and I hope you press people don't force it. I don't like folks interfering with my personal business, or telling me what to do. But if this man [he points at his manager] gets out of the business, I'm quitting anyway. I believe in God, but I also believe in angels. And Mr Bobbit is definitely an angel."

Eyes downcast, Bobbit smiles bashfully and gets to his feet. "We appreciate it", he says, ushering me out with an extended arm.

"And God bless you, sir!" shouts Brown.

James Brown plays the Apollo, Hammersmith, London W6, tonight

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