James Brown - The Godfather of Soul- An
Start Reading
About this Book
About the Author
Table of Contents
For the child deprived of being able to grow up
and say “Momma” and “Daddy” and have both of
come put their arms around him.
J. B.
For Vereen Bell, Jr., Roy Blount, Jr.,
and Sam Floyd, Jr.—three juniors who are
my seniors, mentors, and friends.
B. T.
Welcome Page
Chapter 1: James Brown
Chapter 2: Lost John
Chapter 3: Augusta, G-A
Chapter 4: Prostitutes and Preachers
Chapter 5: Cal-don-ya!
Chapter 6: Goin’ to Rome
Chapter 7: Prison
Chapter 8: Music Box
Chapter 9: Singing for the Lord
Chapter 10: The Flames
Chapter 11: Burning It Up
Chapter 12: Famous
Chapter 13: Please Please Please
Chapter 14: Up in Flames
Chapter 15: Try Me
Chapter 16: Apollo One
Chapter 17: The Circuit
Chapter 18: A Thousand and One Nighters
Chapter 19: Apollo Three, Four, Five
Chapter 20: Live
Chapter 21: Getting the Power—and Losing Someone
Chapter 22: Lost in a Mood of Changes
Chapter 23: Papa’s New Bag
Chapter 24: Sex Machine
Chapter 25: Getting into It
Chapter 26: Doing It to Death
Chapter 27: There’s a Riot Going On
Chapter 28: Vietnam
Chapter 29: Say It Loud
Chapter 30: There It Is
Chapter 31: Home Fires
Chapter 32: Hot on the One
Chapter 33: Signed, Sealed, and Delivered
Chapter 34: Endorsement
Chapter 35: Death and Taxes
Chapter 36: Papa takes some Mess
Chapter 37: Prisoner of Love
Chapter 38: Dead on It
Chapter 39: Brothers
Chapter 40: Living in America
Appendix: Discography
About this Book
About the Author
An Invitation from the Publisher
I was marked from the getup. You might say that I’ve
got a mark on my back that I never knew was there.
That’s because they fixed it where I couldn’t see it
myself. But now that I can look back on my life, I
realize that what I’ve done was no accident.
I was marked a lot of different ways. With names, for
example. I was marked with a lot of different names.
And each one has a story behind it.
As a kid growing up in a whorehouse, I was known as
Little Junior. After I broke my leg a couple of times
playing football, I was nicknamed Crip. In prison I
was called Music Box.
The name of my first group, the Famous Flames,
caused Little Richard to say, “Y’all are the onliest
people who ever made yourselves famous before you
were famous.”
As a performer, I’ve had names like Mr. Dynamite,
The “Please Please Please” Man, The Hardest
Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother
Number One, The Sex Machine, His Bad Self, The
Godfather of Soul, and The Minister of the New New
Super Heavy Funk.
My full legal name is James Joe Brown, Jr. Ben Bart,
my manager for many years and a man who was like a
father to me, always called me Jimmy. Today, I prefer
to be called Mr. Brown.
But of all the names I’ve been marked with, James
Brown is probably the most mysterious. In school the
kids and the teachers always called me by it like it was
one word: Jamesbrown. Just like that. But originally
my name wasn’t supposed to be James Brown at all. It
should have been something else.
When I look back on my life and follow the different
bloodlines, it’s almost like I was a planted child, like I
was sent here for a reason. I guess we all feel that
way. But a lot of strange things have happened in my
life, and by looking back I’ve been finding out who I
It’s just beginning to come to me.
James Brown
I wasn’t supposed to be James. I wasn’t supposed to
be Brown. And I wasn’t supposed to be alive.
You see, I was a stillborn kid. My mother and father
lived in a one-room shack in the pine woods outside
Barnwell, South Carolina, and when my mother’s time
came, they sent for my Aunt Estelle and Aunt Minnie
to help. They’d helped at births before, and when I
appeared, they did all the usual things, gave me the
usual spanking, all that, but I didn’t respond. They
kept trying, but nothing happened. After a while, they
just laid me aside.
All during the delivery my father paced outside the
cabin, listening to the noise coming from inside. He
could tell when it was over that nobody sounded too
happy. When he came in to look at his child, my
mother was sobbing. Aunt Estelle said, “He never
drew a breath, Joe.”
While Aunt Estelle tried to comfort my father, Aunt
Minnie picked me up and started blowing breath in
me. She just wouldn’t give up. She patted me and
breathed into my mouth and rubbed my back. Just
about the time my father busted out crying, I did, too.
He waited until he was sure I was all right, and then he
walked nine miles into Barnwell to record my birth:
May 3, 1933.
They were going to name me Joe Brown, Jr. Then, for
no particular reason, they added James. Because they
didn’t understand the flow, they had it James Joe
Junior Brown. Eventually it got straightened out to
James Joe Brown, Jr., but the Brown should have been
Gardner because that’s what my daddy’s last name
was originally.
For a lot of reasons it’s very hard for the
Afro-American to trace ancestors. When I look at my
family tree, the hardest thing to figure out is where the
African came in. It must be from my grandmother, on
my father’s side. But my grandfather on that side was
pure Indian, a Cherokee, I think. My grandmother was
working in someone’s home and had a relationship
with him. So on March 29, 1911, about three miles
from Barnwell, my father was born Joe Gardner.
When his mother, my grandmother, left South
Carolina, he stayed behind with a woman named
Mattie Brown, who used to take in children when their
parents died or couldn’t support them. She raised him,
and he took her last name.
There’s some mystery behind my daddy’s mother.
After she left South Carolina she married a white fella
and went to New York and then to Philadelphia. Some
of the first numbers banked in the numbers racket in
Philadelphia were banked by them, and the white fella
became very wealthy there.
On my mother’s side there is a strong Asian element
and some American Indian. My mother is Asian-Afro,
but she’s more Asian because her father, Mony
Behlings, was highly Asian. I never thought that was
possible until I visited Surinam, right next to Guyana
north of Brazil, and saw dark-skinned Asians there.
Rebecca Behlings, my grandmother on my mother’s
side, was brown-skinned and had hair that hung way
down her back. My great-grandmother on my
mother’s side, Susan Bryant, was almost a
full-blooded American Indian—I’m not sure what
tribe—and her hair was so long she could sit on it. She
was married to Perry Bryant, who was
Afro-American. I don’t know how they got together,
but it must have been unusual for a black and an
Indian to be together back then. They were both
around ninety-eight when they died, which was before
my mother and father got together in 1929, so my
great-grandfather, and maybe my great-grandmother,
too, must have been slaves at one time.
Because of all these different bloodlines, I feel a
connection to everybody, not to any special race, but
to the human race. I’m very sensitive to the Oriental
people, as well as to the African people, and I can tell
that the African and the Oriental people have a very
strong bond with me.
I know about my grandparents, but I can’t say I really
knew them. I saw Rebecca Behlings (she was called
Becca) about twice, and I’ve never seen a grandfather
in my life. Becca and Mony Behlings lived in
Bamberg, South Carolina, and had a son and two
daughters besides my mother, Susie. Mony had an
organ and used to play blues and gospel on it. That
was unusual because most people who liked gospel
wouldn’t have anything to do with the blues, which
were considered dirty and low-down. Mony later left
for Florida with another woman, and the family never
saw him again.
Everybody picked on Susie—Becca, the other two
girls, everybody. They expected her to do all the work
around the house, and they beat on her all the time,
until Becca’s sister, Eva Williams, took her away to
live with her near Barnwell. That’s where my daddy
stole her from—from Eva’s. He stole her because he
had to.
Eva didn’t want Susie to marry my father because she
didn’t know anything about him and was afraid that
Becca would never forgive her if she let it happen. So
my father worked out a plan to steal her away. On a
certain day at a certain time he got a friend who
owned a Model A Ford to drive him by the house.
Over her real dress Susie put on an old dress, like she
was going to do cleaning. When the car pulled up, she
took off. Eva saw right away what was happening. She
ran out of the house and hollered for her son Perry to
catch my mother. But Perry was in on the plan with
my father. He ran her down, but just before he
grabbed her, he faked a fall. By the time he got up, she
was in the car and gone. They drove off somewhere
and got married and were living down in the woods
near Barnwell when I was born.
I guess we lived about as poor as you could be. At that
time my father did a lot of turpentine work. There
were trees all around the cabin, and he worked them.
He’d score the tree on each side and place a little
trough there to catch the tar that ran down. He’d come
back later with a scoop and a bucket and dip the tar
into the bucket. When the bucket was full, he poured it
into a barrel. When he had enough full barrels for it to
pay, he’d take them in to the turpentine company.
They paid by the barrel. There wasn’t anybody out
there with him, because the trees or the barrels, either
one, would show him up if he was slacking. They
were his boss.
When I was four years old, my parents split up. I
didn’t know why because I was too young to
understand, but I understood it was happening. That’s
one of my earliest memories: my mother standing in
the door of the cabin getting ready to leave, my father
facing her.
“Take your child,” he said.
“You keep him, Joe,” she said, “because I can’t work
for him.”
I didn’t see her again for twenty years.
Lost John
Life out in the woods with my father was rough. We
lived in a series of shacks all around the Barnwell and
Elko areas. We lived in one as long as the people gave
my father work. When he lost a job or tried to find
better work, we moved on. The shacks were
unpainted, didn’t have windows except for shutters
that you could pull together; and there was no
electricity or indoor plumbing. But we did have plenty
of firewood for the stove. My father chopped it, and
we threw in some kerosene or fatty pine to start the
We ate black-eyed peas and lima beans, fatback and
syrup, polk salad that we picked in the woods, and
corn bread. Although the diet never varied, there was
almost always enough. But I was unhappy because I
was alone all the time. Daddy was gone a lot, working
in the turpentine camps, and the various common-law
wives he had to take care of me didn’t stay around
very long, so I was left by myself a lot in the house or
out in the yard. Every now and then I had a playmate,
but we were so far out in the country I more or less
had to be a loner. So I played with sticks and sang, I
guess. Dug holes. Got up under the house. Played with
the doodle bugs—“Bag, bag doodle”—that kind of
thing. Years later I wrote and recorded an instrumental
tune called “Doodle Bug.”
I don’t think you can spend that much time by
yourself as a child and not have it affect you in a big
way. Being alone in the woods like that, spending
nights in a cabin with nobody else there, not having
anybody to talk to, worked a change in me that stayed
with me from then on: It gave me my own mind. No
matter what came my way after that—prison, personal
problems, government harassment—I had the ability
to fall back on myself.
The best thing I remember from that time is the
ten-cent harmonica—we called ’em harps—my father
gave me. I started playing it real early, when I was
about five years old. I played “Lost John,” “Oh,
Susannah,” “John Henry,” and I sang. My father sang,
too, but he sang blues songs he heard in the turpentine
camps, things by Sonny Boy Fuller and Blind Boy
Fuller, “Rattlesnakin’ Daddy,” things like that. I don’t
remember whether I sang them, but I know I never
liked them. This is going to surprise a lot of people: I
still don’t like the blues. Never have.
My father also made home brew, and he was real good
at it. Everybody wanted some. All the white people
asked him to make it for them because he could beat
anybody else making it. He made it out of apples.
He’d let ’em sour and then peel ’em. Then he’d put
’em in a barrel and stir ’em and stir ’em and put sugar
in. After that he let it sit a long time until it got real
thick. You knew when it was ready because you could
smell it. I guess it was really apple cider, but it was
good stuff.
He had a capper, too. He washed out the bottles and
scalded ’em and got the big old Co’-Cola caps and
beat ’em flat. Then he’d put the bottles in the capper,
put the caps on, and mash it down.
There was another thing my father had: a temper. He
could be very mean, and a lot of times he gave me
whippings I didn’t deserve. He’d be away from home,
and when he’d come back somebody would tell him I
needed a whipping, and he’d give it to me, no
questions asked.
He had a temper about white people, too, but he never
showed it to them. Where white people were
concerned, I would say my father threw a rock and hit
his hand. He’d call white people “crackers,” curse ’em
and everything when they weren’t around, but when
he was in front of them, he’d say, “Yessir, nawsir.”
That’s when I lost respect for my father.
I will not accept what my daddy accepted. I will not
accept being a boy. If you push me, you got a
problem. I was a boy as a boy, but as a grown man I
will be respected. That’s the reason I call everybody
by his last name with a Mr. in front of it and insist on
the same thing in return.
One of the things that probably makes me feel worse
than anything in the world is to see a Caucasian walk
up to my father and say, “How are you, Joe,” and then
walk to me and say, “How are you, Mr. Brown.” I
think the man who does that is more ignorant than my
I love my daddy to death, but he has never looked a
man in the eye and told him he didn’t like him. That’s
the difference between us: I’d tell a man to his face I
didn’t like him. But I wouldn’t be mad with his
brother. My daddy would be mad at all of ’em but tell
’em, “Yessir, nawsir,” and then be ready to kill ’em
People like that are dangerous. And that’s what we’re
facing today: people who laugh with you and say
you’re all right and then kill you later. It’s the same
thing the Ku Klux Klan used to do. The same people
you work with in the daytime come at night to lynch
My father gambled a lot, too. Never won. He’d
gamble any place he could find. He played a lot of
Georgia Skin. That’s where you shuffle the cards and
deal one to each player. Say, I have a seven and you
have a five. You flip over cards from the top of the
deck, and if a seven comes up before a five, I caught
you and win your money. You bet any amount you
want on it.
I don’t know what Daddy had going for him. He’s
been a strange man for a long time. The mystery could
have been in me, though, I don’t know.
One thing about my daddy, he was always
hardworking. I think I got a lot of my drive from him.
He was never without a job for more than five days in
his life. He did whatever work he could get. He did
farm work. He did a lot of filling station attendant
work, washing and greasing cars, and maintenance
around the station. After all the turpentine work, he
did a lot of highway work. He’s a heavy-equipment
operator, but he never had formal teaching so he
couldn’t get his certification papers. He stopped in the
second grade in school. He is a jack of all trades and
master of none because of the sheepskin he wasn’t
able to get.
My father had a very hard time trying to bring me
through. He worked hard just to take care of his child,
but the system really went against him because he
didn’t have very much knowledge. They deprived him
of knowledge, and that’s probably the greatest sin in
the world.
The social system back then was like it is right today:
economic slavery. One thing you have to understand
about slavery: A man never enslaved a man because
he didn’t like him; he enslaved him because he wanted
him to work for him. It’s about free labor. That’s all
it’s ever been about. It works that way everywhere in
the world.
My father did his best, but finally he had to get Aunt
Minnie, who was really my great-aunt, to come take
care of me—Minnie Walker, who first blew breath
into me. The three of us were living around Robbins,
South Carolina, in another one of those shacks, when
my father decided that he could find better work
across the Savannah River in Augusta. So the three of
us moved into town, but he split from Minnie and me.
He was still around, but from then on my father and I
never lived in the same house again.
In Augusta, Aunt Minnie and I lived with another aunt
of mine in a house at 944 Twiggs Street. That’s one
place I will never forget. Outside, Highway 1 ran right
by the door. You could go all the way to New York on
that highway. Inside, there was gambling, moonshine
liquor, and prostitution. I wasn’t quite six years old.
Augusta, G-A
Augusta was sin city: plenty of gambling, illegal
liquor, and a lot of houses like the one I grew up in.
The local government then was corrupt, the police
could be bribed, and the law was whatever they said it
was. It was like Phenix City, Alabama, on the other
side of the state, just over the state line.
A lot of the corruption went back to Prohibition. Even
after repeal, Georgia stayed dry for a long time, and a
whole system of payoffs developed out of that.
Augusta was also in the Bible Belt, and the ministers
were all the time getting the city to crack down on the
illegal activity. It just made it harder for the police to
keep everybody happy. Half the time they were
arresting you, and half the time they were looking the
other way.
I got to Augusta at the end of 1938. The house was
located in a section of the city called “the Terry,” short
for the Negro Territory. The Terry stretched west from
Fifteenth Street to East Boundary and south from the
Savannah River to Gwinnett Street. The streets were
mostly unpaved red clay and sand. Rows of cabins in
alleys and on the short streets stood side by side with
regular middle-class homes.
The Terry was mostly black, but in 1938 there were
still some whites and lots of Chinese. Most of the
Chinese kept to themselves; they owned stores and
lived above them. During a riot in 1970 all the
Chinese people were burned out, but back then there
was no trouble. There was a Moslem group there, too.
Today you’d call them Black Muslims, but we called
them Mohammeds. They wore beards, plaited their
hair in back, and had a temple that was closed to white
people. All I remember about them is that as kids we
didn’t care too much for their hairstyle.
Sometimes the Ku Klux Klan held parades right
through the Terry. The funny thing was all the black
folks turned out to watch. I never paid much attention.
Kids just didn’t think about things like that.
All up and down Ninth Street there were gambling
joints run by a man named John S. He operated wide
open—every year he bought the police a brand-new
paddy wagon. When he died they carried trunks full of
money out of his place.
My aunt who had the house on Twiggs Street was
named Handsome Washington, but everybody called
her Honey. She was very intelligent, and she
supported a lot of people. We had about twelve to
fifteen men staying there, in and out, and the woman
ran the house because she was the most intelligent. A
lot of the men were ex-farm workers who couldn’t get
jobs, and Honey just fed ’em all. She fed a lot of the
people who lived in Helmuth Alley behind the house,
too—young mothers who needed things. She brought
them meat and sugar, and she gave them money for
groceries. And she loved the children.
Honey just didn’t want to see anybody hungry. I
started eating better there myself. I kept her cleaned
out of hog jowls, which I really liked, and I ate tripe
(cow belly) for the first time. Honey knew I liked
potato pone, too, and she’d fix me one any time I
wanted it and I’d eat the whole thing. She also tried to
give me chitlins, but I never did like ’em. When I
finally got where I could eat chitlins, I had to have a
lot of vinegar on ’em.
Honey had a grandson living there who was a year
older than me. His name was Willie Glenn, but
everybody called him Junior. Since I was called
Junior, too, he became Big Junior and I became Little
Junior. We were as close as brothers—wore each
other’s clothes, shined shoes together, and sometimes
slept in the same bed.
The house itself was two stories, with a lot of rooms
on each side. It must have been a funeral home at one
time, because the rooms were so long. It was heated
with stoves that burned wood and coal. In the winter
Big Junior and I scoured the railroad tracks that ran
nearby to pick up coal for fuel.
Honey paid off the police right along, but they still
busted her about every three months. There was a
detective who watched the house from Edwards’
Texaco station across the street. He’d see men come
and go with the girls or he’d see one of my cousins
pull up with a car full of moonshine they’d made out
in the country. Usually the car was driven by Jack
Scott, Honey’s brother, the honcho in the family and a
really vicious man. Big Junior and I sometimes helped
stash the liquor because we were small enough to get
under the house where they kept it hid. There was a
loose floorboard in the front room, and Honey sold it
out of there for 25 cents a half pint. I guess the
floorboard was supposed to fool the police, but they’d
walk in and reach right down and pull up the whiskey.
Sometimes, when they’d bust her, she woudn’t even
get all the way to the station before they’d let her go.
Or sometimes they’d take her in and she’d pay her
fine and be right back, and other times she’d spend a
night in jail. It never seemed to make any difference;
she was back in business right away.
When the police raided the place, they were always
polite, at least for those days, because my people were
extremely dangerous. The police usually called black
people “niggers” and all that, but not at our house.
That’s when I learned that police are not brave: they
just have a job to do. There’s a whole lot of people
badder than the police, and a lot of ’em were people in
my family.
Everybody was afraid of Jack Scott and my daddy,
who didn’t think anything about taking a gun right out
of a man’s hand. They’d get in a scrape and a fella
would pull a gun on ’em and be afraid to shoot
because he knew if he missed he was a dead man. Jack
or my daddy would dare ’em to shoot and then snatch
the gun right out of their hands. Come home with a
pocketful of pistols.
Jack wouldn’t give up his own gun, though. One time
when the police came, Jack had a gun in his hand and
refused to surrender it to them. He let them arrest him,
but he wouldn’t hand over that gun. He just backed
into the patrol car, still holding the pistol. “Now, shut
the car door,” he said. “Lock it up and I’ll go to jail
and come out with my gun in my hand.” And they
took him away like that.
Jack mistreated me a lot. He didn’t live at the house,
but he was around all the time and he beat me for
nothing. Once, after a raid, Big Junior told Jack that I
had told the police they were selling whiskey. I don’t
know why Junior said that because I hadn’t told
anybody anything. Anyway, Jack stripped me buck
naked, hung me from the ceiling in a burlap sack, and
beat me with a belt until I almost passed out. I stayed
mad at him for a lot of years, but later on I wound up
burying that man.
If any of the customers got too rowdy, they were taken
care of by another cousin named Willie Washington.
We called him Buck, and he didn’t take no mess. He
was a big fellow, double-jointed, a sort of Joe
Palooka. I once saw him pick up a fifty-five-gallon
drum full of water. People stayed out of his way.
Believe me, there were some bad cats around there.
Out in the street you might see two men lock hands
and cut it out with knives. Each one had a knife in his
free hand, and they’d cut each other until one of ’em
fell out. Not shoot it out, cut it out.
If Buck wasn’t around, my daddy would take care of
any problems. He was in and out of the house a lot,
but he never lived there. During this time he worked a
lot of different jobs; construction work, delivering
vegetables for a truck farm by the levee, whatever he
could find. He sure didn’t get rich at it. I remember he
got paid $4 a week for delivering vegetables, and I
was spending some of that four dollars.
I said he’s been a strange man for a long time. He had
a strange sense of humor, too. Once, when I was about
seven, he and a man he was working for had a bottle
of gin they were having trouble opening. They handed
it to me and asked me to open it. Back then I used to
open everything with my teeth, thinking I was getting
away with something. After I opened it and spit the
cap out, they told me to drink some of it. I drank a
little bit and handed it to my father.
“Naw, drink some more,” he said and pushed the
bottle back to me.
It was mint gin, and that’s what fooled me—it tasted
good. Before they could say anything, I chugalugged
half of it. It made me drunk pretty quick and then I
passed out. They got worried and carried me into a
church nearby and dunked my head in the baptismal
font. When that didn’t do any good, they carried me to
a river branch, took off all my clothes, and put me in
the water to try to bring me back to life. Finally I came
to, but I staggered around for the rest of the day. Boy,
when I got sober the next day, I didn’t want any more
of that ever again. And I still don’t know why they
wanted me to drink that stuff.
It was around this time that I got my hands on an
organ for the first time. My father was working at
Eubanks Furniture Store, and they let him have an old
pump organ with one of the legs off it. He brought it
to the house on Twiggs Street and propped it up on a
cheese crate on the porch. He set it up in the morning,
and when he came back that evening he saw all the
men and women from the house and some of the
neighbors gathered on the porch. Thinking there was
some kind of trouble, he pushed his way through and
found me sitting there playing “Coon Shine Baby” on
that old organ. I had taught myself to play it in one
day. I don’t know where I picked up that particular
song, but I always figured it referred to
Afro-American kids because they called us “coons”
and they called us “shine” because we shined shoes.
But I wasn’t thinking about that, though; I was just
happy making music.
After that, Honey really started taking an interest in
me. She would bathe me and talk to me and listen to
everything I had to say. One time she was having
trouble getting into her chifforobe. It was locked, and
she’d lost the key. I said, “Don’t worry, Honey, I’ll
get it open for you.” She looked at me real funny, like
she was seeing me good for the first time. I went on
out in the yard and walked straight to a spot where I
found a piece of wire all bent up. I took it back inside
and used it to unlock the chifforobe.
Honey, who was highly superstitious and knew things,
thought she saw a definite sign with me. When she’d
bathe me, she’d wash the hair on my arm, go
crossways with it, and just stare at it.
“You’re going to be a wealthy man someday,” she’d
I’d laugh and say, “What you talking about, Honey?”
“You’re going to be very wealthy,” she’d say,
pointing to the wet hair on my arm. “See the sign.”
I told Big Junior what she said. We laughed at her and
told her she must be crazy. She’d just smile. Next time
she’d bathe me, she’d say it again.
Honey was a good woman and I loved her to death,
but she was a madam with other things on her mind. It
was Aunt Minnie who acted more like a mother to me.
I shared a room upstairs with Aunt Minnie, away from
what was going on downstairs. She read to me, talked
to me, held me close. I’d lie there and daydream and
try to envision something better. I felt terrible about
what went on in that house. I knew people could live a
lot cleaner, because I saw some who did, and I wanted
to be like them. But then the war came and the
soldiers with it, and things got a whole lot rougher.
Prostitutes and Preachers
The servicemen started pouring into Augusta in the
fall of 1940, when I was seven. At first a lot of them
were assigned to Daniel Field, an airstrip on the
western edge of the city. Later, Jimmy Doolittle’s men
practiced there for their bomb attacks on Tokyo. The
old Augusta Arsenal went into high gear making
bombsights, and Camp Gordon was built out on
Tobacco Road for the cavalry.
The soldiers brought a lot of money into the city and
we tried to get our share of it on Twiggs Street. When
the troop trains came through and stopped at a
crossing, Junior and I and some of the other kids
would run off and get sandwiches and Red Rock
Creme Soda for them, and they’d tip us. When the
cavalry came by in their truck convoys, I’d buckdance
for them on the Third Level Canal Bridge. There was
a canal that came off the Savannah River and ran
through the Terry, and the Third Level Bridge was
right beside our house. Big Junior would stand there
and pat for me, and I’d do a little old country
buck-dance, same as you might see people doing in
the South today. When I’d first come to Augusta, Big
Junior showed me a few dance steps, and I guess I just
took it from there. The soldiers loved it. They threw
nickels and dimes, and I worked even harder, adding
some steps of my own, trying to get them to throw
quarters. Boy, I wanted those quarters. We picked up
all the change, and then Big Junior and I would have
an argument about it.
“We made the money together,” he’d say, “so we
ought to split it.”
“Naw,” I’d say, “I’m going to carry it to Honey.”
And that’s what we’d do. I’ve give it to her to pay the
rent. Rent wasn’t but $5 a month, but all of those men
and women put together couldn’t come up with it. I
don’t know where all the money from the bootlegging
and prostitution went, but I know Honey was
supporting an awful lot of people. Once we made the
rent we might go back and make some money for
ourselves so we could go to the picture show at the
Lenox Theater, a “colored” movie house on Ninth
Street, or to a little Chinese place to get wienie stew
for 35 cents.
We steered money into the house another way, too. To
get to Camp Gordon from town, the soldiers had to
walk right by our house. Big Junior and I would stand
out there and ask them did they want a woman. I
wouldn’t let ’em say no.
“Come on,” I’d say, “there’s some real pretty ones in
that house yonder.” I’d hook my arm in theirs and start
tugging, pulling them toward the house. When they’d
finally say yes I’d lead ’em right inside.
I guess I saw and heard just about everything in the
world in that house when the soldiers were there with
the women. It was a funny thing about the soldiers,
though. They didn’t want anything freaky. I’m not
endorsing it or condemning it, but they didn’t believe
in oral sex; they thought it was unholy.
Even though we went out and got men for the women,
we still had to stay in our place. We had to say
“yessir” and “nosir” and “yes ma’am.” We even said
“yes ma’am” to those ladies, regardless of what they
were doing.
By this time I had started school. Floyd School, one of
the few in Augusta for black kids, had seven grades
and about forty kids to a class. When I’d first gotten to
Augusta the other kids initiated me by taking off my
overalls and throwing them up in a tree. I was a real
small kid so I had to get tough pretty quick.
I’d have to say that I was poorer than most of the other
kids, and a different kind of poor, too. I was poor
because nobody was really taking care of me. I came
from a roadhouse, not an organized home. A couple of
times the principal, Mr. Myers, called me into his
office and sent me home for “insufficient clothes.” It
made me feel terrible, and I never forgot it.
Perry Williams, the man who had stolen my mother
for my father, used to come by the house sometimes
and bring me things, including my first store-bought
underwear. Out in the country I’d worn
stitched-together flour sacks. When I told him about
getting put out for insufficient clothes, he carried me
downtown in his truck and bought me some clothes I
could go back to school in. That satisfied Mr. Myers,
but when my new clothes wore out, it happened right
It was through the school that I began to get a sort of
identity. At home I was Little Junior, but all the kids at
school and all the teachers called me James Brown,
like it was one word. I’ve always thought that was
kind of strange. I was good at baseball and football,
and I always got along with everybody. Sometimes I
sang for the class. Once I sang “A Tisket, a Tasket” to
the third grade.
Outside of school I was a hustler. Besides entertaining
the troops, Junior and I worked at most any kind of
job we could find. We shined a lot of shoes, delivered
groceries, racked pool balls, picked cotton, picked
peanuts, and cut sugarcane. The first time I picked
peanuts I ate so many I got colic. Cane kept you
bloody. Cotton was just hard.
Shining shoes was another story. There were a lot of
shoe-shine parlors in those days, and they all had
licenses. They didn’t like competition from
freelancers, so they were all the time getting the police
to run us off the streets. We had to do a lot of slipping
around just to shine shoes. Sunday was the best
day—we’d hit all the churches and at a nickel a shine
make maybe as much as $20. I’d put some
showmanship into it, too, popping the rag and beating
the brushes behind my back. When we got tired of
dodging the police we went to work for Shoeshine
King, a parlor on Broad Street, but we only got to
keep 30 cents for every dollar we made.
No matter how much money we hustled, it never
seemed to be enough. I was carrying all my money
home to help Honey, but we still needed everything
and anything we could lay our hands on—including
garbage. A grocery wholesaler down the street, C. D.
Kennedy’s, threw all its spoiled merchandise into oil
drums in back of the place. We went through the oil
drums and pulled out all the swollen cans and brought
them home and ate the stuff. Everybody in the house
ate it. Nobody thought about getting poisoned. We
were just trying to survive.
That’s what everything that went on in that
house—gambling, bootlegging, prostitution—was
about: survival. Some people call it crime, I call it
survival. It’s the same thing goes on right today in the
ghetto. You can see kids standing on corners selling
marijuana. You get it in a bag, and the funny thing is
that the bag says “Church Offering.” That’s what hard
times bring—makes pimps and prostitutes out of
preachers. Prostitute don’t have to be a person who
lays down. A prostitute can be a prostitute for
One of the things that helped me to survive in those
days was music. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it
was so. I wasn’t thinking about music as a career or
anything like that, it was just there in the community,
and I fell into it, the way you will. At home I sang
gospel with Junior and a fellow named Cornelius. We
sang “Old Jonah,” “Old Blind Barnabas,” things like
that, and tried to imitate the Five Trumpets and the
Golden Gate Quartet. Really, gospel is what got me
over, especially after I went to prison.
I was learning more instruments, too. A man named
Mr. Dink taught me to play drums. At Jack
Dempsey’s, a liquor store where I worked as a
delivery boy, I met Robert Graham, whose son,
Robert, Jr., first taught me some piano. They lived at
707 Twiggs and had an old upright. Robert, Sr., had
some good chords, and he could really play a lot of
old songs. Robert, Jr., taught me some fingerings and
let me fool around on the keyboard. Whenever I
wanted I could go there and practice on that piano.
I also learned some guitar from a blues man named
Tampa Red who was going with one of the girls at the
house. His real name, I believe, was Hudson
Whittaker, and in the thirties and forties he recorded a
lot of party blues like “It’s Tight Like That.” When he
passed through Augusta and stopped to see his girl he
sometimes sat and played for us in the front room. He
used an open tuning called Sebastopol and fretted with
a broken off Coke bottleneck on his little finger. He
bent those strings and got sounds out of ’em that I
recognized later when I heard B. B. King play.
Tampa Red sang for us, too, and his songs reminded
me of the blues my father used to sing when he
worked the turpentine camps. I still didn’t care for the
blues that much. I’d sing ’em sometimes, but I didn’t
like ’em.
I liked country music even less. Whenever I worked
for white people there was always a radio tuned in to
country music. It was constantly forced on you. Much
later on I got to where I listened to country music by
choice—Lefty Frizzell, Jimmy Dickins, Tex
Ritter—but back then I didn’t pay any attention to it.
I liked gospel and pop songs best of all. I got all the
Hit Parade books and learned all the pop tunes—Bing
Crosby’s “Buttermilk Sky,” Frank Sinatra’s “Saturday
Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” “String of
Pearls.” I also admired Count Basie’s “One O’Clock
Jump,” but I couldn’t play piano good enough to do it.
I heard a lot of church music, too, because I went to
all the different churches with a crippled man named
Charlie Brown who lived in one of the shacks in
Helmuth Alley. He had to walk with two sticks or with
somebody on each side holding his arms. On Sundays
when we weren’t shining shoes, Junior and I walked
Mr. Charlie to one or another of the churches because
they’d take up collections for people like him.
At the churches there was a lot of singing and
handclapping and usually an organ and tambourines,
and then the preacher would really get down. I liked
that even more than the music. I had been to a revival
service and had seen a preacher who really had a lot of
fire. He was just screaming and yelling and stomping
his foot and then he dropped to his knees. The people
got into it with him, answering him and shouting and
clapping time. After that, when I went to church with
Mr. Charlie, I watched the preachers real close. Then
I’d go home and imitate them because I wanted to
preach. I thought that was the answer to it.
Audience participation in church is something the
darker race of people has going because of a lot of
trials and tribulations, because of things that we
understand about human nature. It’s something I can’t
explain, but I can bring it out of people. I’m not the
only person who has the ability, but I work at it, and
I’m sure a lot of my stage show came out of the
One thing I never saw in the churches was drums until
I went to Bishop Grace’s House of Prayer. Those folks
were sanctified—they had the beat. See, you got
sanctified and you got holy. Sanctified people got
more fire; holy people are more secluded—sort of like
Democrats versus Republicans. I’m holy myself, but I
have a lot of sanctified in me.
Bishop Grace was a big man, the richest and most
powerful of that kind of preacher in the country,
bigger than Father Divine or any of ’em. He had
houses of prayer in more than thirty cities in the East
and South, and he had these “Grace Societies” that
just took in the money. Every year when he came back
to Augusta there was a monstrous parade down
Gwinnett Street for him, with decorated floats and cars
and brass bands. Everybody in the Terry turned out for
it, and other people came from as far away as
Philadelphia to march in it. You could join in it with
your car or, if you had a musical instrument, you
could fall in with one of the bands.
He was called “Daddy” Grace, and he was like a god
on earth. He wore a cape and sat on a throne on the
biggest float, with people fanning him while he threw
candy and things to the children. He had long curly
hair, and real long fingernails, and suits made out of
His House of Prayer on Wrightsboro Road in Augusta
resembled a warehouse. A sign over the door said:
“Great joy! Come to the House of Prayer and forget
your troubles.” And everybody did come at one time
or another, even people who didn’t believe in him,
because he put on such a show. Inside there were
plank benches, a dirt floor covered with sawdust, and
crepe paper streamers on the ceiling. At one end there
was a stage where Daddy Grace sat on a red throne.
He’d get to preaching and the people would get in a
ring and they’d go round and round and go right
behind one another, just shouting. Sometimes they’d
fall out right there in the sawdust, shaking and jerking
and having convulsions. The posts in the place were
padded so the people wouldn’t hurt themselves. There
was a big old tin tub sitting there, too, and every time
they went by the tub, they threw something in it. See
who could give the most. Later on he had various big
vases out there, like urns, one for five-dollar bills, one
for tens and twenties, and one for hundreds. It seemed
like the poorest people sacrified the most for him.
Daddy Grace had to be a prophet, but seeing him I
knew I was an outsider because I couldn’t believe in
him. I believed in God, so that made me an outsider
right away.
He had his house behind the church, and behind the
house was a big pool where he baptized people.
Instead of baptizing them just once, he baptized them
over and over. Some people had so much faith in him
that they took water out of that pool and carried it
home by the gallon and drank it when they got sick.
They paid for some kind of blessed papers that he put
out, too, to put on themselves like a poultice.
That pool was the first place I ever swam in my life.
We’d give him a dollar and he’d let us swim in there.
They let him get away with that. But he brought a lot
of trade to that city, and that’s what it was
about—trade. Like the Masters Golf Tournament
Elections. Or James Brown.
Meanwhile, the war was coming closer to home every
day. First, there were all the soldiers, more every year
it seemed like. Then the government started keeping
hundreds of German prisoners of war at the Augusta
Arsenal. I remember it because they were treated
better than the American blacks around there. Pretty
soon they started letting the German POWs do farm
work around Augusta and in South Carolina, and the
U.S. government paid them 80 cents a day for it. That
was more than my father got a lot of times.
Eventually the government began to crack down on
houses like ours. They put all the liquor joints and
gambling places off-limits to the soldiers. Police raids
came more often, and it took Honey a little longer to
get released when she was arrested. Nobody said
anything to me, but I could tell things weren’t right.
Finally, one day Honey fixed me a potato pone and set
it down in front of me.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“It’s for you to eat,” she said.
She was acting funny, so I watched her the whole time
I ate. When I was finished she said: “Baby, we got to
“How come?”
“We just do,” she said.
“Junior and me can get some more money.”
“That ain’t the reason,” she said. “Now go find Junior
and bring him here.”
She never would tell us straight out, but we knew it
had something to do with the soldiers and the whiskey
and the women. I guess the place really was a
hellhole, but when you’re a kid your home is home
even if it’s a roadhouse, and I was sorry to see it
broken up. It wouldn’t be the last time the government
reached into my house.
After the Twiggs house was closed down, everybody
kind of separated. Aunt Minnie and I moved into a
two-room cottage by University Hospital near
Fifteenth Street. There was a whole row of these
unpainted two-room places up there. They called ’em
cottages, but they weren’t much different from the
shacks I had lived in around Barnwell.
My father came and went like he always had, but it
seemed like I saw less of him after the move. Pretty
soon they took him right out of the service station he
was working in and put him in the Navy. He was
thirty-two-years-old with a second-grade education,
and he eventually wound up a second-class seaman. In
the service he operated bulldozers and set dynamite
for construction projects. Every month he sent Aunt
Minnie a check for $37.50, and we lived on that plus
whatever I could hustle.
More and more I was getting to be a street kid, getting
out and getting into everything. At school I was a little
roughneck, a thug. You could tell the thugs because
we wore baseball caps and jeans with a pocket on the
side and a handkerchief tying down the pocket. We
turned the sides of our sneakers down and then tied
’em back up real tight. We took Clorox and wrote on
our clothes with it to impress the girls.
I had lots of girlfriends, and the teachers couldn’t
understand it. One day a teacher said to a bunch of
’em I was standing with, “I don’t see what you all like
about him; he hasn’t got any money.”
“Yes, I do,” I said. I pulled out this little ratty wallet I
had and kind of flashed a wad of bills stuffed in it.
“James Brown, let me see that,” she said. She grabbed
the wallet and pulled out the wad. It was $3 and a lot
of paper cut the size of bills.
I was something, though. There was this new kid
named Henry Stallings who came from the country,
and I used to take his lunch every day. He had a lard
bucket, and after I started taking his biscuits and
whatnot he started hiding the bucket under the
schoolhouse. I’d watch him from around the corner
and go get it right again. At lunchtime I’d watch him
sneak back around there, pull out the bucket, look
inside, and then just look all around, bewildered.
Henry was a lot more country than we were—he wore
overalls instead of jeans, and his shoes were
brogans—but he was a lot cleaner than we were, too;
his overalls were always spotless and starched, and his
shoes were always shined. That’s what I remembered
about him when I ran into him years later coming out
of the Theresa Hotel in Harlem and hired him to work
for me. He became the first person ever able to really
do my hair right.
I met another kid around this time who would mean a
lot to me—Leon Austin. He was a few years older and
played piano. He showed me how to play with both
hands and taught me how to get rhythmic feel into it. I
really wanted to practice playing, but I couldn’t
always count on Robert Graham being at home, so I
started sweeping out Trinity Baptist Church in order to
use their piano when no one was around. At this time
boogie-woogie was the big thing, and like a lot of kids
I wanted to play it, but you’d better not be caught
doing it in a church. I was always careful to lock the
doors before I started beating on that piano. Never did
get caught.
I was also hearing all kinds of new sounds around
me—on the radio, on records, around town. I listened
to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie,
Cleanhead Vinson, Louis Jordan. Jazz, rhythm and
blues, it didn’t make any difference to me. I tried to
play whatever I could, and I imitated all the singers no
matter what their style. There was a local man named
Sammy Green who had a band of maybe ten pieces,
and I tried to hear them whenever I could. They were
reading charts, had a horn section, everything.
When the Lenox Theater started an amateur night, I
decided to enter. I must have been about eleven, and it
was the first time I’d ever really sung in public.
Without any accompaniment I sang “So Long” and
won first prize. I think I won because even then I had
a real strong voice. The other people on the program
sang good, but real quiet. I sang loud and strong and
soulful and the people felt it.
The Lenox was also where I first saw films of Louis
Jordan performing. Louis Jordan and His Tympany
Five. They played a kind of jumping R & B and jazz
at the same time, and they were something else. They
did a lot of comedy, but they could play a blues if they
had to, or anything in between. The films were shorts
of Louis doing whatever his latest song was, and they
showed them before the regular picture. He played
alto sax real good and sang pretty good. Louis Jordan
was the man in those days, though a lot of people have
forgotten it. His stuff was popular with blacks and
whites, and he usually had several hits at one time, a
lot of ’em that sold a million. “Choo Choo
Ch’Boogie,” “Early in the Morning,” “Saturday Night
Fish Fry,” and “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”
were all his. When I first saw him I think he had out
“G. I. Jive” and “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t (Ma’
Baby)?” but the one that knocked me out was
“Caldonia, What Makes Your Big Head So Hard?”
especially the way he’d go up real high: Cal-don-ya! I
learned the words as quick as I could, picked it out on
the piano, and started playing it and singing it
whenever I got the chance.
“Caldonia” was a song you could really put on a show
with, and I guess that Louis Jordan short is what first
started me thinking along those lines. That and the
preachers. The circus and the minstrel shows that
came through town played a part, too.
Johnny J. Jones was my favorite circus. Junior and I
used to crawl through a hole in the fence in the back
of the fairgrounds to see him. Since he stayed for a
whole week, they called it a fair, but it was really a
circus. A circus is supposed to do all its stuff in one
night and then move on to the next town, the way I did
with my show years later.
We had to pay to get into the minstrel shows, but only
because we couldn’t figure out a way to sneak in. Silas
Green from New Or-leans was the best. He presented
a complete varied program with singers, dancers,
musicians, and comics. That’s what I tried to do
fifteen years later when I put together the James
Brown Revue.
It’s strange: Even though I’d seen just about
everything there was to see in the house on Twiggs
Street, I thought the short dresses on Silas Green’s
girls were unbelievable. To me, those brown-skinned
models were the prettiest things in the world. I saw
some top talent in those shows, too, like Willie Mae
Thornton, who first did “Hound Dog.” I saw a lot of
great comedians, too. In those days the comics still
worked in blackface, but like everybody else I just
thought it was funny.
What wasn’t funny was some of the things that
happened to me in the streets. Two incidents really
stand out in my memory. The first involved a fella
who tied kids to trees to try and break their spirit. His
name was James, and he was a big, heavy, muscular
fella. He’d been in the service, had gotten wounded in
the war, and had a plate in his head. One day he
grabbed ahold of me and said he was going to tie me
to a tree.
“I’m not going to resist,” I said, “but if you tie me up
and then turn me loose, I’m going to kill you.”
He laughed and started tying me to a chinaberry tree.
First he tied my arms, then my legs, me not fighting it
at all, while the other kids stood around watching and
laughing. When he got me all tied up he stepped back
and waited for me to try wriggling loose, but I never
did. I just kept still. I was ready to stay tied to that tree
for as long as he wanted. After a good while, he got
bored and untied me. I never said a word. I just
walked away, and he forgot about me and started
bothering some other kid. In a lot next to a beer parlor
nearby I found a big, heavy, broken-off tap. I picked it
up, went back across the street, walked straight up to
him, and hit him right on the head with it. It knocked
him out, and he stayed knocked out for a long time.
After that he didn’t bother me again.
The second incident involved three white fellas who
tried to electrocute me. Junior and I were working
with them draining a ditch and putting in some fence
on farmland owned by a man who ran the filling
station next to it. They had an electric air compressor
or pump of some kind and somehow it slipped down
into the water in the ditch. When they saw what had
happened they started talking among themselves and
laughing, and one of them turned to me.
“Cut on that air tank there,” he said.
“Nosir,” I said, “I don’t want to.”
“Goddammit, boy, I said cut it on!”
I stepped in the water and turned it on. When I did, it
felt like a whole herd of horses was galloping over me.
I couldn’t let go of the tank—the electricity froze me
to it. Junior was jumping around and yelling, “Turn it
off, turn it off!” But the men stood there, grinning.
Junior ran into the filling station and got the man we
were working for. He came running, and when he saw
what was happening he pulled the plug.
I collapsed, and Junior dragged me under a tree. When
I came to, I just glared at the fella who’d told me to
turn on the tank, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t
dare. The amazing thing is that when I recovered we
all went back to work.
I don’t know why I wasn’t killed, but I decided from
that day on I’d never take any mess like that again.
There were still a lot of lynchings around Georgia and
South Carolina in those days, but I was more aware of
the everyday occurrences, black men getting kicked in
the butt or beat up real bad, things like that. I wasn’t
angry, but I promised myself it wasn’t ever going to
happen to me again.
Later, I used to walk down the street with my first
wife in Toccoa, Georgia, and smile a crocodile grin,
and just pray that the white man didn’t come up and
mess with me like he messed with them other people.
“Lord, don’t let it happen,” I’d say. Because if it did, I
knew I was going to kill the man.
But when I was a kid, standing in that ditch water with
all that electricity running through me, I was just
beginning to put the race thing together. There was
still a lot I didn’t understand—like the end of the war.
When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima,
we were glad because we knew it meant my father
would be coming home soon. We were glad, too,
because from the first we were a lot madder at the
Japanese because of Pearl Harbor than at the Germans.
Now I think about it a lot differently because I realize
that a bomb like that would never be dropped on white
Right after the war I formed my first band, the
Cremona Trio. I don’t know where I got the name and
can’t even remember the names of the others in it, but
I know we thought we were hot stuff. We had to
borrrow instruments from the school or from anybody
who would lend us a beat-up old guitar or a snare
drum or whatever. I played piano when the places we
gigged had one, and I sang and sometimes played the
drums. We started off as a trio and eventually went to
five members, which we called a combo, but we still
used the name Cremona Trio.
I had won the Lenox Theater amateur night several
times by then and had a small—very small—local
following. Every now and then we got invited to play
at a black elementary school or the high school and
eventually we worked our way up to playing the
noncommissioned officers club at Camp Gordon. We
did stuff by Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, Wynonie
Harris, and the Red Mildred Trio. I learned a lot from
imitating all those different singers. For instance,
Amos Milburn and Red Mildred both did
“Bewildered”; Red Mildred sang high, in falsetto, and
Amos Milburn sang sweet and low, but I sang like
both of them. Charles Brown was the featured vocalist
with Johnny Moore and the Three Blazers, and he
could really sing ballads. Wynonie Harris had a real
strong voice. I sang like both of them, too. But no
matter who I sang like, I was always powerful. While
other singers eventually gave out, I could sing at top
volume all night.
When the Lenox closed, the Harlem Theater on
Gwinnett Street started the Harlem Talent Review on
Wednesday nights, and it wasn’t long before I won
their contest singing “Caldonia.” I sang for my
classmates, too, to raise money for the school. Like a
lot of black schools in those days, Floyd didn’t get
nearly enough money from the Board of Education or
anywhere else. Books, supplies, upkeep, everything
was a struggle, and the school needed every penny it
could get, so I sang and the other kids paid a dime
each to see me. At first I did it in the classroom,
singing and dancing without any accompaniment, but
there were enough kids willing to pay that my teacher,
Miss Garvin, moved the show to the library, where
there was a piano. Then I really worked out, especially
on that Louis Jordan tune. As often as the principal let
her, Miss Garvin put me on and charged admission.
Even though I was getting into music more and more,
I still didn’t have a burning desire to be a professional
musician. People who knew me thought I was going to
play baseball because I was much better at baseball
than at singing. I was a left-handed pitcher with a
good fastball, a sharp curve, and a wicked
floater—what they call a knuckleball today. Ty Cobb
had lived in Augusta, and I knew all about him. The
Detroit Tigers held their spring training there, and the
city also had a Tigers farm club in the Sally League.
We’d climb the trees across from the ball park and
watch the games from there.
But what I really wanted to do was box. My idol was
Beau Jack, the lightweight champion of the world
whose real name was Sidney Walker. He was from
Augusta and had shined shoes at Ninth and Broad,
same as I did. All through the forties he fought at
Madison Square Garden, and we listened to his fights
on the radio. In 1944, when he fought Bob
Montgomery for the fourth time, you had to buy war
bonds to get in; they sold more than $35 million worth
that night. Later on, I met Beau and had several
semi-pro fights with some of the boxers he handled,
but during this time I was doing most of my fighting
in the school yard, in the streets, and at the Bethlehem
Community Center for Negroes.
I boxed like I pitched—left-handed. It always
confused the person I was up against. I had developed
a reputation for being a tough little kid, so there was
always somebody wanting to test it. It didn’t hurt my
reputation for toughness when I broke my leg playing
football and played after that with a cast on. I broke
the same leg again when I jumped off a railroad
trestle, and I played football with that cast on, too. I
wore out both casts that way and earned the nickname
Because of my reputation the other kids always
pointed me out to the white men who came around to
recruit scrappy black boys to be in the battle royals
they put on at Bell Auditorium. In a battle royal they
blindfold you, tie one hand behind your back, put a
boxing glove on your free hand, and shove you into a
ring with five other kids in the same condition. You
swing at anything that moves, and whoever’s left
standing at the end is the winner. It sounds brutal, but
a battle royal is really comedy. I’d be out there
stumbling around, swinging wild, and hearing the
people laughing. I didn’t know I was being exploited;
all I knew was that I was getting paid a dollar and
having fun. A lot of good boxers started out in those
things. I think Beau himself, when he was a kid, was
in battle royals at the Augusta National Country Club.
I was too classy for battle royals, though, because I
could really box.
So I boxed and played baseball and football and sang
from time to time or did some little gig with my
group. The Cremona Trio wasn’t too much happening,
but it lasted, on and off, for about three years. It was
also during this time that I wrote my first song, “Goin’
Back to Rome.” I had never been to Rome, Georgia, in
my life—I just liked the way “Rome” sounded in the
song. But it turned out to be prophetic.
Goin’ to Rome
I don’t remember when I first started stealing, but I
remember why I started—to have some decent clothes
to wear to school. My daddy never bought me
anything, and Honey and Aunt Minnie didn’t have
anything, so it was up to me to look out for myself.
I’m not making excuses for anything I did; I’m just
saying what was going through my mind at the time.
Every time I got sent home for insufficient clothes, it
hurt me and made me mad, too.
During the war, when my father’s check was coming
in every month, I didn’t have to worry too much. After
the war, though, things got tough. Daddy was back in
town, scuffling at whatever jobs he could find and
losing his money gambling just as fast as he made it.
Things got rough for everybody. When the services
cut back, the flow of money from the soldiers slowed
way down. Food prices went through the roof, and
there was a lot less work around.
I kind of fell in with a bad crowd, too. There were a
lot of gangs around the city: Sunset Homes and
Gilbert Manor, two low-income projects, each had a
gang. There was the Downtown gang, which was
rough, and the Summerhill gang, which was all right. I
was in a little gang around King Street led by Big
Boy, Little Boy, Pete, and a boy named Harry
Robinson. The gangs weren’t vicious, not like a lot of
’em today. There were some rivalries but nothing
deadly. We just liked to swim in the canal, keep the
girls out late, shoot dice, and generally enjoy
ourselves. When we were out real late the police
might chase us, and when that happened I headed
straight for the canal and jumped in. Sometimes I
found a reed to breathe through so I could stay
underwater until the police gave up.
At dice I got very good—too good. So good you can
get yourself killed. The layman ain’t got a chance with
me. Later I won a lot of money at dice from the
Moonglows, before Marvin Gaye’s time, when it was
Bobby Lester and the Moonglows. I beat ’em out of
enough money to buy me two Cadillacs. Beat the Isley
Brothers out of a lot, too.
At first we got where we might steal a pair of skates
off somebody’s porch, but that was about all. Later we
got into everything that wasn’t nailed down, and we
sold it. I took hubcaps off people’s cars, gas caps,
whatever. Filling stations would give you a quarter for
each hubcap. But the best ones were off the ’46 Ford,
because it had the big hub, and you could get 50 cents
for one of those. A lot of times, I’d steal the battery or
break into the car and take whatever was in it.
Breaking in wasn’t too tough because most people
didn’t lock their cars.
Honey must have known what I was doing because I
had a little trick that almost always worked on her.
See, I wore out a lot of shoes playing football, just
kicked ’em right out, so I was all the time needing
shoes. I’d say, “Honey, I need me some shoes; I think
I might go and steal me a pair.”
“Naw,” she’d say, “you ain’t going to steal no shoes.
I’ll buy you some.” Then she’d give whatever little
money she had, and I’d go get the shoes.
There were two things I never did when I stole. I
never took from the Afro-American, and I never let
Junior get mixed up in it. I didn’t take from the
Afro-American because I knew he didn’t have
anything, and I was sort of a Robin Hood. I took from
the Caucasian and gave to the Afro-American—sort of
redistributing the wealth. Once I stole a whole bunch
of baseball gloves and passed ’em out to all the fellas.
Also, there were other kids whose clothes were
insufficient, too, and I didn’t think twice about
stealing them a jacket or a shirt or a pair of pants.
Junior was always pestering me about getting caught
and going to jail. He didn’t want to go to jail, and I
didn’t want to be responsible for putting him there, so
when he was around and I saw an opportunity, I’d say,
“Junior, I’m fixing to make a move. You go on home
now.” And he’d leave.
Junior was right; I did get caught. Me and another boy
were digging a battery out of a car one night when the
police pulled up. We were bent so far under the hood
concentrating on getting the cables loose we didn’t
even hear the police come up behind us. They had to
tap us on the shoulder. They carried us in the patrol
car to the Richmond County Jail and kept us there
overnight, trying to scare us. In the morning a juvenile
officer talked to us real stern and then let us go. I think
it scared Junior more than it did me because when I
got home the next day and told him about it, he said,
“I told you, Crip. You got to get away from Augusta.”
His mother was living in New York and had written to
Honey about sending him up as soon as there was
enough money for a bus ticket. After I got caught he
tried to persuade me to go with him.
“Why don’t you come on and live with me and Mama
up there?” he said.
“What would I do in New York?” I said.
“You could sing. Play the harp. Dance. New York’s a
big old town.”
“I want to stay here with Honey and Aunt Minnie.”
“Police catch you, they going to send you to the
penitentiary,” he said.
“Naw,” I said, “they won’t never catch me again.”
“I’m telling you, Crip. Please come with me to New
Honey wanted me to go, too. They both knew I was
going to get into trouble if I stayed down there, but I
wouldn’t listen. I turned right around and started
breaking into cars again.
One night three or four of the fellas and I went all up
and down Broad Street getting into all the cars parked
along there. I must have broken into three or four
myself and gotten out a whole lot of clothes. A couple
of the fellas got caught that night, but I got away. The
next day I went up to the shoeshine stand on Broad
and heard that the police had been around looking for
a boy named James Brown. Right while the fella was
warning me, a patrol car pulled up and two policemen
got out. I started to slip away, but somebody must
have pointed me out to them because they started
chasing me. They didn’t have a chance. Broad Street,
like its name says, was real wide, maybe two hundred
feet, with a promenade down the center lined with
trees and park benches. I negotiated it like a
halfback—dodging cars, people, trees, benches—and
man, I could move. After a couple of blocks of that,
the cops gave out.
To me the whole thing was a game. I went back to that
same shoeshine stand later that afternoon, the police
got behind me again, and I got away again. The
second time they chased me a lot farther, until I lost
’em behind the Dr. Pepper plant. I hid out for a couple
of hours, then went back a third time. Same ’shine
stand: Here I come again, there they come again. But
now they’re mad. When I take off running this time,
instead of chasing me on foot they come after me in
their car. And they can drive as good as I can run: I
cut down an alley, they come screeching around the
corner; I tear across a vacant lot, they charge right
over the sidewalk; I duck behind a building, they
barrel in the back way. I know that eventually they’ll
have to get out of their car, and then it’ll be no contest.
But they must have radioed for help because now it
seems like every patrol car in Augusta is after me. I’m
getting worn out, and I’m thinking, “if only I can get
to the canal and jump in, I can lose them.” So I cut
down another alley. It turns out to be a blind one, and
when I run back out I find myself surrounded by
police cars and looking at a whole lot of guns.
This time they took me to jail for real—fingerprinted
me, took a mug shot, and threw me in the lockup with
adult offenders even though I was only fifteen years
old. When the detectives asked me about breaking into
the cars, I told them everything I had done. They let
the other boys go because none of them had ever been
in trouble before, but they charged me with four
counts of breaking and entering and larceny from an
There were some pretty tough cats in that jail, some
real hardened criminals, and when I was put in with
them I thought I was gone. They didn’t bother me too
much, though, just asked for cigarettes, things like
that. They did explain to me that there was no point in
worrying about anything because the authorities
would do whatever they felt like doing anyway. There
sure wasn’t any bail or legal counsel or anything like
that. It’s funny, but it didn’t really bother me that
much that I was in jail. Somehow I knew I was
destined to go, and I didn’t have anything to stay
home for, so I passed the time lying on my bunk,
thinking about things, waiting, but not really expecting
anything. It reminded me of the days out in the woods
when my daddy was gone because in jail, although
you’re surrounded by other people, you’re really
Sunday was visiting day. Junior would go out early in
the morning and knock up some money shining shoes
or whatever and bring me a pack of Camels and Juicy
Fruit chewing gum. We sat and talked in the
runaround, a big room enclosed with wire mesh at one
end where the visitors came in. Junior told me how
Honey and Aunt Minnie were doing and what all the
fellas were up to. When he left, he always gave me a
few quarters. Honey never came to visit me; she said it
would break her heart to see me there. My father never
came to see me, either, but I’m not sure why.
After a couple of months in jail, I got hip: You could
get out if you could get somebody to bribe the right
person. It was like everything else in Augusta then.
One boy had stolen a car, not just broken into one like
me, and his daddy had gotten him out for $100. That
was the going rate. The next Sunday I told Junior
about that boy. “Tell Daddy to try and get me out,” I
said. After that, whenever I asked Junior about it, he
said he was working on it, but he always looked like it
made him uncomfortable when I brought it up.
Nearly two more months passed that way. I turned
sixteen, then all of a sudden they decided to try
me—as an adult. Without any advance notice, they
took me and three or four other prisoners over to
Richmond County Superior Court. Later I found out
why it was so sudden. On that same day—June 13,
1949—they were scheduled to try a sensational
bribery case against the chief of police, a civil service
commissioner, and six other city officials. The
prosecutor asked for a postponement, and when the
judge granted it they were left with an empty calendar,
so they hustled us over to the courtroom.
The prosecutor was Solicitor George Haines and he
was a man who would sink you. People in Augusta
loved to hear him plead a case because he put on such
a show. If you were being tried for cutting somebody,
he had a way of holding the knife so it looked five
inches longer than it really was. Sometimes he brought
a suitcase into court, and when he made his final
argument he’d say: “Your Honor, here’s my suitcase.
If you let this man go free”—he’d pick up the suitcase
and put on his hat—“I’m going to leave this town.”
When I was brought into the courtroom there were
still a lot of people left over from the postponed trial,
but I could see Junior sitting way up in the balcony
where black folks had to sit. The guard sat me down at
the table and pointed out the state’s attorney, R. Lee
Chambers III, who was supposed to act as my lawyer.
It was the first time I’d ever seen him.
I knew I was in trouble when they tried a little white
girl right before me. She had stolen $50 from
somebody, and the judge, Grover C. Anderson, gave
her two to five years. When my turn came, Attorney
Chambers waived the indictment, the list of witnesses,
a jury trial, and formal arraignment. Then he pleaded
me guilty. I was tried, convicted, and sentenced before
I knew it. The sentence read that James Brown “be
taken to the jail of said county to await a guard to be
sent by the penitentiary of Georgia, where he shall be
taken and confined at hard labor therein or elsewhere,
as the State Department of Corrections shall direct for
the space of not less than two years and not more than
four years in each case of four cases, said term to
commence from this date, and one sentence to
commence at the expiration of the other.” He had
given me eight to sixteen years. When he asked if I
had anything to say, I begged him to give me a
“This is your chance,” he said. “If you work hard in
prison, you can get out when you’re twenty-four years
old. If you don’t, you’ll be thirty-two. It’s up to you.”
I didn’t say any more. I knew they had given me all
that time because I was a colored boy being tried
behind a white girl who had gotten two to five. The
judge had to give me the maximum sentence on each
of the charges to please the whites. On top of that, he
had to make the sentences run consecutively instead of
concurrently. What I couldn’t understand was why he
was sending me away. There was a boy’s home, a
reformatory, right there in Augusta, but he was going
to send me to a detention center in Rome.
Mine was a kangaroo court, I knew that. What I have
always felt was unjust in this country is that they
didn’t allow us to get an education, and yet when we
went to court they treated us like we were impresarios
who knew what was going on. We can’t be wrong on
both ends. If you don’t allow a man to get an
education, don’t put him in jail for being dumb. That’s
what they did in Augusta—they sent me to prison for
being dumb.
The Sunday after the trial Junior came to see me as
usual. I could see he was upset at all the time I was
carrying, but I knew they were keeping me in Augusta
for a few more weeks to give me one more chance to
come up with a bribe from somewhere.
“Is Daddy going to get me out?” I asked.
Junior looked all over the runaround before he looked
straight at me. “Mr. Joe said there wasn’t nothing he
could do.”
I didn’t say anything and neither did Junior. We both
knew my daddy could have gotten me out, but he
didn’t do it. He just didn’t have the knowledge.
“It looks like you’re going away,” Junior said.
Out of the blue I said a strange thing.
“Don’t worry, Junior,” I said, “when I get out of here
the world is going to know about me.”
I don’t know why I said it, except that he looked so
downhearted. I didn’t say what the world was going to
know me for. Somewhere in the back of my mind I
knew I wanted to do something with my music, to be
popular, to do things for people, but I couldn’t put it
into words. It was something I could feel. I just knew
that when I said what I said I really believed it. Junior
thought I was crazy. When he went home he told
Honey that being in the cell had affected my brain. He
told her what I’d said. She told him, “Junior, the world
is going to know about him.” But when he was sitting
there with me I could see he was worried about
something else, too. Finally he told me what it was.
“Mama sent some money,” he said. “We’re leaving,
“Honey too?”
“Uh huh.”
I don’t remember if we hugged each other or not, two
tough guys like us, but I remember watching him walk
away through the wire-mesh door. I was splitting up
from my family again. They were going to New York.
I was going to Rome, like the song said.
One day, without any warning, an officer took me out
of my cell. He didn’t tell me anything; he just led me
down the hallway and out the door. For a second,
coming out into the sunshine, I thought my daddy had
come through for me, but the officer put me in
handcuffs and turned me over to a man who wasn’t
wearing a uniform. The man looked at a document he
had and asked, “Are you Brown, J.?”
“Yessir,” I said.
“You’re being transferred to Georgia Juvenile
Training Institute at Rome.”
He led me to a half-ton van and put me in the back of
it with five or six other fellas already inside. There
were two benches running along each side and no
windows. This was sometime around the last of June
or the first of July, and it was real hot back there, like
an oven. It got hotter the longer we sat there.
After a while the van pulled away, and we rode for a
long time. The whole trip must have taken about ten or
twelve hours. It was already dark by the time we got
to Rome, but I could see we were in a compound with
a whole lot of buildings. The place had been a WAC
camp before. When the federal government abandoned
it, the state of Georgia bought it and converted part of
it into a tuberculosis hospital, Battey State, and part
into a prison for juvenile offenders, GJTI.
They took us to a holding area where they cleaned us
up, deloused the ones who needed it, fingerprinted us,
and issued us uniforms. The uniforms were dark gray
with blue pinstripes, and the shoes were high-tops,
sort of like boots. After we were done at the holding
area, they took us to the old army barracks where they
housed us. There were two in front of the place, where
the white boys stayed, and one in the back for the
black kids. The barracks were surrounded by
twelve-foot-high chain-link fences with barbed wire
around the top.
Nobody ever really told me what to expect. I just fell
in with the routine: out of bed at 6:00 A.M. and
breakfast at 6:30 in a building that they’d made into a
dining hall. The whites sat on one side, the black kids
on the other. At 7:00 we went to work. We maintained
the hospital grounds and worked in the kitchen, the
laundry, and places like that. It’s a wonder we never
caught TB in there—we had to have strong systems.
Along with some hired labor, we helped build houses
on the grounds for some of the doctors, too.
Sometimes we worked on a farm about fifteen miles
away. We ate lunch at noon, went back to work at
1:00, quit at 4:30, and ate supper at 5:00. After supper,
if it was light, we played baseball or football. At night
in the barracks we listened to the radio or played
dominoes. A lot of times we used the dominoes like a
deck of cards and played all kinds of poker that way.
We shot dice, too, and I hadn’t lost my touch.
Most of the boys were serving time for burglary,
robbery, breaking and entering, and things like that. A
few had killed somebody, but it was always another
black person. See, if you were black and killed another
black person, the state didn’t punish you too seriously
back then because they held black life cheap. They
just put you away for a few years, same as they would
if you’d stolen something from a white person. A
separate system of justice existed for the black
There were some rough cats in there, but some nice
cats, too. Not too long after I got there a boy named
Johnny Terry came in. I don’t remember what he’d
done, but I don’t think it was much more than what I
did. He later became one of the Famous Flames with
me and was very free-hearted; he shared everything he
had. He had a radio that he let me play whenever I
wanted to, and I always wanted to because I was
always trying to find a station that played the kind of
music I knew. Rome didn’t have but one radio station
then, and it didn’t play much music of any kind. One
night when I found a station that played rhythm and
blues, I got so excited I dropped the radio. Oh, man, it
must’ve broken into a hundred pieces. I felt terrible
because I knew what the radio meant to Johnny, and it
wasn’t like he could go out and buy another one
anytime he wanted to. I found some tape and some
wire and put it back together as best I could. It looked
pitiful, but it still worked.
“I’m sorry, Johnny, I busted your radio,” I said and
handed it back to him.
“That’s all right,” he said. He just took it and laid it
aside. Never even got mad. All the time I was in
prison, Johnny was like that. We got to be close
friends right away.
When the guards weren’t around, the big, dangerous
guys tried to run everything, just like in any prison,
but they didn’t run me because I knew how to use my
fists. I was fast—couldn’t nobody get to me—plus I
was left-handed, which gave me an advantage because
most of ’em just weren’t ready for a left-hander. I was
still a small kid, so I got put to the test by the bullies
right away, and I identified with the other small kids
and always took up for them.
For a short time, we had organized boxing, which
gave me an opportunity to show the bullies without
getting into trouble that they better not mess with me.
Carl Noles, an old boxer who lived near Rome, came
out and ran the boxing program. It didn’t last too long,
though, because couldn’t nobody who got whipped
forget about it after the matches were over. They’d be
nursing a grudge against whoever beat ’em in the ring,
looking for a chance to get even. One night it all broke
out in the dormitory, and we wound up in a great big
brawl. I mean we tore up the place. That was the end
of the boxing.
GJTI was more like a school than a tough prison. The
black kids were still segregated and were treated more
like convicts than the white kids, but the place wasn’t
near as bad as being in the Richmond County Jail. The
security wasn’t too tight, and a lot of things were done
on the honor system. The catch was that if you messed
up too often they sent you to a place that was much
I wanted to serve the minimum time I could and get
released, but I saw pretty quick that it wasn’t going to
be easy. No matter how a place like that is run there’s
always two forces at work—one trying to help you
and the other trying to hurt you. What makes it
complicated is that both forces include guards and
inmates. Some guards and inmates were really good
influences, and some were really bad. One force tried
to help me grow up and the other tried to turn me into
a hardened criminal. A bad guard can do that just by
mistreating you all the time. If you lose your cool, you
wind up in the penitentiary. Prison is at best a
balancing act.
Some guards did a lot of things to me, like they do in
any prison. Mostly, they tried to play with my
integrity because I was very intelligent. They gave me
humiliating jobs or tried to provoke me into getting
mad so I’d get in trouble. It’s the kind of thing goes on
in prisons right today, everywhere. One guard named
Wallace, who had one eye, always watched me,
following me with that one eye. It was spooky.
One time a guard who didn’t like me wouldn’t let me
play football. He was hoping I’d get mad and try to
run away so they could send me to a much rougher
prison. Some of the other boys told me the best route
to take if I ran away. It was like it was all set up for
me to run. I wouldn’t do it.
Another time a guard named Boatwright put his hands
up like a boxer and talked about how nobody could
get a punch through. Some of the fellas were sitting
around in the barracks when he went on and on about
how good his defense was. “You couldn’t get in there,
I don’t care what you do,” he said.
I sat and listened to him talk for a long time until
eventually I said, “Captain Boat”—we called all the
guards Captain—“I can get in there.”
“Naw, you can’t,” he said.
“Yessir, I sure can,” I said, “but if I do, you’re going
to put me in the hole.” The hole was solitary
confinement, where they put you on bread and water
for several days when you did something serious.
Hitting a guard was very serious.
He said, “Naw, I won’t put you in the hole. Forget I’m
a guard and see can you get in there.”
“You promise you won’t put me in the hole, Captain
“I swear. Now come on.”
He danced around a little bit and shuffled his fists. I
guess he thought because he weighed about 200
pounds and I was about 135 he could whup me real
bad, and that was probably what he wanted to do. I
stood up, went into my left-handed stance, leading
with my right and circling to the right. He wasn’t
ready for that. Before he knew it I hit him about
twenty licks and beat him up pretty good without
knocking him down. When I stopped throwing
punches, he turned and walked out of there fast.
He kept his promise; he didn’t put me in the hole. But
after a while I started wishing I had gone to the hole.
From then on he caused me a lot of problems, being
real hateful because he just couldn’t live with the fact
that I beat him up. He always gave me the hardest jobs
and tried to irritate me while I was doing them by
yelling at me the whole time. I let it go; his pride was
hurt, and I knew that a man whose pride is hurt is
The assistant warden was very mean to me, too. He
would probably say he was just being a strict
disciplinarian, though. One day he said I was
supposed to put my stool in a jar for a stool test. I did
it and went back to his office carrying it at my side. I
guess he couldn’t see it because he said, “I thought I
told you to get a stool sample.”
“I got it,” I said. “I brought it back in the jar like you
told me.”
“Where is it?”
I set it on his desk. He liked to had a fit.
“Don’t you set your shit on my desk!” he yelled.
He grabbed me and threw me against the wall, but he
didn’t beat me because I wouldn’t have taken it. I was
different from the other people. None of the bad
guards ever really beat me because they saw
something in my eye that said I wasn’t going to accept
it—from any man.
There were a lot of good guards in there, men who
tried to help me. A guard named Mr. Avery showed
me how to do jobs right and taught me things. I even
played basketball with his boy. For a long time after I
got out I went to see him at Christmas. The warden,
Walter Matthews, treated me like a son. Really, he’s
the person who raised me. Didn’t nobody do it when I
was at home, that’s for sure.
Mr. Matthews got mad at me only once the whole time
I was in prison. I don’t even remember what for, but I
think it was one of those times like when you get
really mad at your child because you love him so
much. We were standing in his office and he was
trying to tell me something, but I wouldn’t listen so he
slapped me. Didn’t hit me. Slapped me. And almost
cried after he did it. I guess he slapped me to see if I
would hit him back. I would have hit him back if he
hadn’t been a good man, but I would never have hit
Mr. Matthews because he was in my corner. It would
have been like hitting my father. Anyway, right after
he slapped me, he hugged me. He was a good man,
and after I got out I visited him many times, too, right
up until his death.
In another part of the prison they had a few girl
inmates. Most of them were real dangerous because
almost all of them were in there for killing somebody.
I didn’t care. They were women, and I wanted to
impress ’em. Sometimes we worked with them around
the hospital, and I always tried to look sharp, which
was one reason I didn’t like the baggy pants they gave
us in the kitchen. But a lot of it went back to not
having decent clothes as a kid. Really, it was wanting
better clothes that got me into prison in the first place.
I’d do anything to look better. The gray pants that we
wore were all right—we called ’em coyotes—but
unless they were new they wouldn’t hold a crease.
Whenever I worked in the laundry I pulled out new
pants and put my number, 33, on ’em and took the
number off the pants I had on and exchanged ’em. I
got all the new pants that way for a long time, then
one day they caught me and gave me an old baggy
pair and put me out on the farm.
Man, I couldn’t stand being seen in those things, so I
soaked ’em with starch and hung ’em upside the wall
until they dried stiff as a board. Then I took a hot iron
and steam-pressed ’em. Made ’em shine and hold a
crease. Then I cut the tops off my high top shoes and
made ’em look like slip-ons. When the guards saw
that, they got mad and said they wouldn’t give me any
more shoes. So Johnny Terry, who was working on
the trash truck, brought me some saddle oxfords. I
cleaned ’em up and had somebody half-sole ’em and
put big strings in ’em. The next day I was with the
farm detail formed up at the gate. The guard said,
“Brown, J. Step out.” He made me stand in front of
the other cats while he said “Look here. See how he
refuses to be like the rest of y’all. Look how clean he
is.” I looked like a politician going to work. Nobody
could keep me down.
There was one girl in particular I wanted to look sharp
for. Her name was Eva. We looked at each other all
the time, but I couldn’t figure out how to get together
with her. One guard who was always real good to me
could tell I had my eye on her. One day he said to me,
“James, you kinda like that little ole gal, don’t you?”
“What gal is that, Captain?” I asked.
“Come on, now. You know who I mean—Geneva.”
That was her real name. I just smiled, waiting to see
what he was driving at. “Well, there’s a big linen
closet near the laundry,” he said. “It’s right roomy in
there. If nobody was looking, two people could get
real comfortable in there.”
That guard liked me and he liked her, and he was just
helping us, the way some people will, just being
human. He was another good man. He didn’t have to
say any more. The next time Eva and I worked in the
laundry, as soon as that guard nodded that the coast
was clear, we took off for that closet. It was roomy in
there, and there were all those linens to make a nice
bed out of. It wasn’t the honeymoon suite, but I don’t
think anybody in a honeymoon suite ever enjoyed
themselves more than Eva and I did that day.
Music Box
Eight to sixteen years—it didn’t seem real to me. So I
tried to make the best of things, to make some kind of
life. It was like my life outside prison had never
existed. Honey and them had moved to New York.
Aunt Minnie wrote to me from Augusta a few times,
and my father came to see me once, but other than
that, nobody ever came to visit me. Come Sundays, it
seemed like I was the only boy in the place without
some kind of visitor—family, girlfriends, running
buddies, somebody. Maybe that’s why some of the
people like Captain Avery and Mr. Matthews were so
good to me.
I also think they were good to me because I was
different. I was good and always had a smile. No
matter what happened, I never got mad at the people
who ran the place. I wasn’t going to be wrong and
mad, too. You do something wrong, why you going to
be mad at somebody when you’re already wrong?
That’s stupid. I was good and I maintained my
integrity. That’s what got me through—that and
I hadn’t been there but a couple of months before I
formed a gospel quartet with Johnny Terry, a fellow
called Shag, and another called Hucklebuck. Singing
gospel is a way to help your soul and be content.
Gospel gives you a form of contentment. I’m glad I’m
in tune with God because that’s the only thing that can
bail out the Afro-American or any minority that
doesn’t have an education. The man has him tricked in
everything else, and he cannot get out of that.
I sang a lot of gospel in prison. Gospel is contentment
because it’s spirit, and you feel that spirit when you
sing it. It’s the same spirit I feel when I’m on stage
today. I feel it when I sing. Period. I make people
happy, and they feel it.
Singing gospel’s a good way to learn about music in
general. There’s a format for gospel; you learn the
different parts, and then you start putting them
together: first tenor, second tenor, baritone, bass.
Instrumental music’s put together the same way.
That’s how I knew the chords before I ever got to the
piano. I had sung so much gospel with Big Junior and
them in Augusta that all I had to do was to go to the
piano and pick out the chords.
The other fellas in prison didn’t really know too much
about music, but after I taught them how to do all the
parts, we got real good. We got so good that one day a
guard took us to sing for the free people in the
hospital. We started singing and we sang so pretty that
the people started crying. I was singing “Our Father.”
And then the tears started running down my cheeks.
Meantime, the guard wandered away, and we didn’t
see him anymore. I was still pretty new at the prison
then, and they didn’t know if I’d run away or not. We
kept singing, kept crying. As time went by, the guard
forgot about us and went off duty. Mr. Matthews
started wondering where we were. Nobody
knew—none of the guards and none of the staff.
Finally, one of the fellas told him we were singing at
the hospital. He ran over and charged down the hall,
yelling, “Where are they? Where are they?” He
stumbled into a roomful of people, some of ’em
singing, some of ’em listening, and all of ’em crying.
He took a minute to get himself together, then he said,
real low and gruff, “Come on.” He turned and walked
out of there real fast, us marching behind him. He was
mad, but he was glad, too, that we hadn’t run away. I
wouldn’t have let anybody run, and if anybody had
run, I probably would have run and caught him. After
that he trusted me completely.
I wasn’t satisfied just singing, though. I wanted to
have a band like the Cremona Trio. The only problem
was we didn’t have any instruments. I remembered the
homemade instruments the jug and washboard bands
had in the minstrel shows, and I didn’t see why we
couldn’t make some. We started with a comb and
some paper—Hucklebuck played that—then I got
some empty fifty-pound lard cans from the kitchen
and made a drum set from them. A washtub and a
broomstick made a washtub bass, and I made sort of a
mandolin out of a wooden box. I taught myself to play
the bass, and in different keys, too. Somehow I knew
where they were. You might think we would have
sounded terrible with those knocked-together
instruments, but when you do it right and you sing
your parts correctly, it sounds real good. The jug
bands on the minstrel shows sounded fine, otherwise
they wouldn’t have been on there.
There was a piano in the gym, and I was all the time
asking to play it; after about six months they gave in. I
don’t know if they thought I couldn’t play it or what;
anyway, I walked over to it and ripped into
“Caldonia.” In about a second everybody was jumping
up and dancing. Talk about jailhouse rock—those cats
were boogying. Whenever we played basketball after
that, during halftime I played the piano and sang. At
night my little band entertained in the dormitory, and
we still sang a lot of gospel, too.
Before too long the other fellas started calling me
Music Box. Sooner or later most everybody got a
nickname that stuck. You got so used to calling people
by their nicknames that you forgot their real names.
Hucklebuck’s real name was Davis, I think, but I can’t
remember Shag’s at all. They were good boys, though.
But it’s funny, as good as I knew them, I don’t know
their names. And they’re both dead now.
Shag was killed in the state prison at Reidsville. They
killed that boy for nothing. He was originally sent to
Rome because of something that happened in Atlanta.
He was in a place playing a record on a jukebox when
a white fella came up and pulled the plug for no
reason. They got into a fight, and Shag wound up
getting sent to GJTI. While he was there, a guard got
down on him for some reason or another. So one night
the guard came into the dormitory to teach him a
lesson—he beat the boy with a chain. Then he went
back to the warden and lied, saying the boy had beat
him up. So Shag got sent to the state prison. And a
guard down there was beating him one day, and Shag
held up his hands to protect himself and they shot him
dead for holding up his hands. At Reidsville
Penitentiary, Tattnall County, in the state of Georgia.
Sometime in 1951, after I had been at Rome for about
two years, they moved the prison to a place near
Toccoa, Georgia. Mr. Matthews and most of the
guards went, too. Toccoa was a little bitty town clear
on the other side of the state, right near the South
Carolina border in the Appalachian foothills. An old
paratrooper camp had been turned into a prison. The
Flying Tigers, who jumped in China, had trained
there, but now the place had twelve or thirteen
dilapidated cement block buildings. Except for the fact
that the buildings were so run-down and that they had
changed the name to Boys Industrial Institute, it was
pretty much like Rome. We slept in the old barracks,
and there were fences with barbed wire on top to keep
us in.
Toccoa was a little more exciting at first because we
were constantly finding old grenades buried on the old
practice ranges. We did everything we could to make
’em explode. Never succeeded. We found a lot of
ammunition, too, rounds that hadn’t been fired.
As soon as we found the bullets, we started making
zip guns. You made them with lead pipes. You had to
find a pipe that the bullet would fit in but that the
casing wouldn’t. As soon as you found that, you had a
gun. You’d make a hammer out of a spoon or
something and then make a wooden handle with a
socket for it. You put the spoon handle down in there
and attach it to a nail for it to revolve on. You wind
rubber around it, put the rubber around the nail and
pull it tight. You pull the hammer back and turn it
loose, and it fires.
I made two, a singlebarrel and a doublebarrel. I fired
’em a thousand times. Never shot anybody, though,
not like some of the cats did. I was just having
fun—and making sure they worked just in case I did
need ’em. The guards never did catch me; I guess they
thought somebody had firecrackers or something.
At Toccoa I wound up being a trusty. I even helped
bring back escapees. When boys ran away, me and
Johnny Terry and one or two other boys would go out
with the guards to look for them. There were only a
few routes an escapee could take—a couple of roads
and the railroad tracks—or he could hide in the
woods. Lots of nights I stayed out in the woods all
night waiting for the boy to come by. When he did I
talked to him and got him to come back with me. By
that time he’d usually had enough of wandering
around in the woods, and he was ready to go back
anyway. See, something would get in a person’s mind
when he’d run away. Most of them didn’t have
anywhere to run to, and even when they did, it didn’t
take any time for them to be picked up in their
hometowns, and then they’d be in worse trouble.
At Toccoa I still played all the sports I could and kept
on playing music. A lot of times, we’d go into town
and play the high school in whatever sport was in
season. We were all muscular and strong from the
work we did, and we really beat ’em playing football.
One time we beat ’em so bad that their coaches played
the next time. We almost beat ’em again, except they
had help from the referees.
Once, after we’d played ’em in basketball, I sat down
and played the piano in their gym. When I got
through, one of the town boys said, “We got a boy
here who’s always been the best around on keyboards,
but he better look out now.”
“Where is he?” I said.
“He’s gone to Atlanta with the glee club.”
“What’s his name?” I said.
“Name’s Bobby Byrd.”
“Well, you tell him what you heard tonight.”
Sometimes the town kids came out to the prison and
hung around the fence to gawk at us jailbirds. It was
just a friendly curiosity, and we went over to the fence
and talked to ’em if we could. One day one of the
fellas told me there were some cats out by the fence
talking about music. I went over to check it out. One
of ’em was a tall, thin cat, said he had a gospel group.
I said I did, too. We talked about gospel, rhythm and
blues, and pop. He had a lot of good things to say, and
I liked him right off. When he told me he played
keyboards, I said, “Say, what’s your name?”
“Byrd,” he said.
“I’ve heard about you,” I said.
“You the one they call Music Box?” he asked.
“Then I’ve heard about you, too.”
It was a long time before I saw him again. We were
playing the Toccoa city team in baseball at the Toccoa
Recreation Center. First time up I singled. On the next
pitch I took off to steal second. When I slid in, I
knocked the second baseman flat. It was Byrd.
“Hey, it’s you,” he said. He was laughing. “They
gonna keep you locked up forever?”
“It looks like it,” I said. I was laughing, too. Then for
some reason I got serious, maybe because I knew I
was talking to another musician. “Byrd, I’m going to
get out,” I said, “some kind of way.”
I had just turned nineteen and had been thinking that
all the years I should have been in high school I had
spent in prison instead, and I had a lot more years to
go. It just didn’t make any sense to me to be in there
any longer, so one night, late, I wrote a letter to the
parole board. I told them that I was like any other
person, all I wanted was a chance. I explained that I
was poor and didn’t have anybody to help me get out
and that I got in there in the first place trying to get
clothes for school. I wrote: I know 1 don’t have any
education but I can sing, and I want to get out and
sing for the Lord.
I didn’t know if the letter would do any good, but I
sent it off anyway. Then one day a man from the
parole board came out to talk to me. “You want to get
out?” he said.
“Yessir,” I said.
“What do you think you’re going to do on the
“Sing gospel,” I said.
I tried to explain to him about the music. He was real
polite, listening to everything I had to say, but I could
see he didn’t think singing would be enough to get me
by. By the time he left, I was more discouraged than
The next day one of the guards told me Mr. Matthews
wanted to see me in a big way. When I went in I could
see he looked happy but he looked worried too. He
told me he’d seen my letter and was impressed with it,
and so was the parole board. “Music Box,” he said,
“you can walk out of here tomorrow if you can get a
I couldn’t believe it. In my mind I was already telling
the fellas, already saying good-bye to ’em.
“I can get a job,” I said. “All I did in Augusta was
work. A lot of people there would hire me.”
He looked downhearted. He didn’t want to tell me
what was coming next.
“Music Box,” he said, “you can’t go back to
“I’ve been on the phone with Solicitor Haines. He’ll
agree to your parole only on condition that you not be
allowed to enter Richmond County.”
“But that’s where my father is,” I said. “And my Aunt
“I’m sorry, Music Box,” he said. “It’s not up to me.”
“You’ve got to get a job in Toccoa.”
When I left his office I was happy and sad at the same
At least there was a chance I’d get out, but I couldn’t
go back home, even to visit, and I sure didn’t know
where I was going to get a job in Toccoa, or how.
The next Saturday I was out in a field somewhere
loading rocks on a truck, and a man who owned a
Toccoa automobile dealership saw me working. I
don’t even know why he was out there that day. He
watched me working hard for a while, then came over
and said, “Boy, what would it take to get you out of
“All I need is a job, sir,” I said.
“Well, I’ll give you a job,” he said.
Mr. Matthews let me out that day—June 14, 1952. It
was exactly three years and one day since I’d been
convicted. I walked to town.
Singing for the Lord
I got out at noon on that Saturday, and by three
o’clock was pitching a crucial game for the Toccoa
city team. They let me out to pitch that game. That’s
when I learned there’s no such thing as law—coming
or going. They gave me too much time in the first
place, then they tore up the courts when they wanted
me out.
At Lawson Motors, the Oldsmobile dealership where I
had my job, I washed and greased cars and cleaned up
around the car lot, like my daddy had done at filling
stations in Augusta. I was sad about not being able to
go back home and be around him. Years later, when I
was living in one of the best neighborhoods in
Augusta, I met Solicitor Haines’s son and told him,
“Your father sent me away and didn’t want me to
come back, but I want you to know I don’t hold it
against him.” I think the boy was embarrassed.
As part of my parole I had to have a stable place to
live with someone who would act as my sponsor.
Finding a place wasn’t easy. I saw Bobby Byrd around
town—the population was only six or seven
thousand—and he invited me to come home with him.
I was able to stay with his family only temporarily,
though, because there were already seven people in
the household, but it gave me a chance to keep
looking. Pretty soon I found a room at Miss Lena
Wilson’s, but it was available for only a couple of
months. Almost as soon as I moved in I had to start
looking all over again. After I had asked around a lot,
some peole who had seen me pitch were talking about
me in a barbershop run by a couple named Dora and
Nathaniel Davis. Mrs. Davis overheard them.
“All he needs is a place to live?” she said.
“That’s all,” they told her.
“Well, he can stay with us,” she said.
She had never met me or even seen me, and she was
willing to do that. Before long I was calling her Mama
and trying to give her some of the money I brought
home from Lawson’s. I laid the bills out side by side
on the supper table. When I was finished, she pushed
all the money back to me and told me to buy clothes
with it.
I attended Trinity CME Church with the Davises and
joined the choir there. I also started getting together
with Bobby’s sister, Sarah, to sing gospel. She sang in
the Mount Zion Baptist Church choir. We liked each
other right off, our voices blended well, and before
long we were making guest appearances at churches in
the area. Sarah also belonged to the Community
Choir, a gospel group run by a man named Detroit
Steeple and made up of the best singers from the black
churches and the community at large. The choir sang
all around town at churches and schools and
sometimes appeared on a local radio station, WLET.
Sarah talked me into auditioning for the choir. Mr.
Steeple liked my singing well enough to take me on
and to feature me sometimes when we were on the
radio. Sometimes quartets and other small ensembles
were spun off the choir to go out to various churches
or to be spotlighted during a performance by the entire
group. Sarah and I, along with two sisters, Yvonne
and Johnnie May Wheeler, developed our own group
that way, and Mama helped us and encouraged us all
she could. We called ourselves the Ever Ready Gospel
In a lot of ways it was a good time in my life. I was
out of prison, I had a job and a good home, and, like
I’d promised, I was singing for the Lord. And I was
falling for Sarah.
Meanwhile, Bobby still had his little musical group
going. Besides him, it consisted of Sylvester Keels,
Doyle Oglesby, Fred Pulliam, Baby Roy Scott, and
Nash Knox—all friends from Whitman Street High
School in Toccoa. They didn’t have any instruments,
just voices, and originally they started out as a gospel
group. About the time I got to town they had switched
to rhythm and blues, doing mellow stuff like the
Moonglows and the Dells, and they had started calling
themselves the Avons. They couldn’t really get it
going, though, because Troy Collins, a promising
singer they were bringing along, had been killed in an
automobile accident when the Whitman glee club
made a trip to Atlanta.
I’d see Bobby when I went by his house to be with
Sarah, and he started trying to talk me into joining the
group. I was happy with the gospel thing I had going,
and baseball, church, and my job at Lawson Motors
took up the rest of my time, so I told him no. Working
at Lawson’s was rough, though. There was a man
working there who treated me like dirt. He was nasty
to many people of my color and he was always
cursing me out, calling me all kinds of names and
ordering me to redo work even though I’d done a
perfectly good job. In Atlanta, long after I had become
well known, he apologized to me publicly for the way
he had treated me. I said, “You don’t have to do all
that, I’m not mad at you. Because you’re ignorant.
You should be mad at yourself.”
Back in those Toccoa days, though, he wasn’t doing
any apologizing. One day he told me to wash a car all
over again that I’d just finished washing and waxing.
It was a 1950 Ford, one of the first really
modern-looking cars, and I promised myself that I
would take it for a drive before I did all that work
over. Might as well get it dusty and make the job
worthwhile. Nobody saw me take it out of the lot.
Once I was clean away I really opened it up. A fine
automobile, driving good. I drove it all the way to the
prison so all the fellas could see me driving this new
car. I drove real slow by the fence and honked at ’em
and waved. They couldn’t believe it. After I was done
showing off, I had to drive fast to get back because I’d
been gone a long time, but then I took this particularly
sharp curve and couldn’t handle it—I didn’t get much
driving practice in prison—and wound up in a ditch. I
had managed to keep from turning over, and when I
got myself together and realized that me and the car
were both in one piece, man, was I relieved. But when
I backed out of the ditch and headed back toward the
lot, one of the wheels started wobbling real bad.
Somehow I had warped it.
Meanwhile, the fella who owned the car had come
back to the lot to pick it up and discovered it was
gone. Here I come driving the car real slow, sort of
limping in, and I see the owner and a crowd of white
fellas waiting for me. As soon as I jumped out of the
car, the owner—a great big fella—came at me with a
tire iron. All those other white men were going to
stand around and let him do it. This grown man
wouldn’t jump on me with his bare hands; he was
going to beat me with a piece of iron. That told me
right away that the man was a coward. He cornered
me against the car and raised his arm to hit me, but I
was too quick for him. I grabbed the tire iron with my
left hand and held him off with my right without really
hitting him. I knew that with the other white men
watching I was a dead man if I actually hit the fella.
Instead, I just kept a grip on that tire iron—I was still
small, but boxing and football had given me a lot of
upper-body strength—and I just refused to let him
beat me. We wrestled that way for a long time until he
started feeling silly, I guess. He let go of the tire iron
and stomped away.
Naturally, I lost my job. I didn’t mind leaving
Lawson, but it put me in a jam with my parole officer.
As soon as he found out, he threatened to have me
sent back to prison. When I told Sarah how worried I
was about it, she got her mother to stand up for me.
The Byrd family was well known and well respected
in town, and their support really helped. Mr. Matthews
spoke up for me, too, and when I got a job working at
a plastics factory, the parole officer decided to let it
I was willing to do any kind of job, to get a foothold in
anything. I even thought boxing might be a way to go.
Some fellas in Toccoa had formed a boxing club and
arranged matches. I told them I wanted to fight, so
they set up some bouts. I wound up having three
fights—two wins and a draw. The biggest mistake I
made was fighting another left-hander, which I had
never done before. We kept knocking each other
down. That was the draw. I figured that was enough
After that, I sang even harder for the Lord. The Ever
Ready Gospel Singers were doing well, singing in all
the churches, and I thought it was time we made a
record. I kept my eyes open when the Community
Choir was in WLET’s studio, and I thought we could
make a tape there without too much trouble. We got
permission from the owner of the station and taped
“His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” the song Ethel Waters
made famous. We took the tape and had it pressed into
an acetate, the kind that is cut from the inside of the
record to the outside to keep you from competing with
record companies.
Now that we had a record like this, we had to get
somebody to play it. I vaguely knew that air play
might attract the attention of a record company or at
least help our little group get real gigs; beyond that, I
didn’t really have any sort of strategy figured out. But
I did know which radio station I wanted to air
it—WLAC in Nashville.
WLAC was all we ever listened to. In the daytime
they played country music, which we didn’t listen to,
but late at night Gene Nobles, John “R” Richbourg,
and Hoss Allen played blues, rhythm and blues, and
black gospel. You could hear the station all over the
eastern half of the United States. Gene Nobles hosted
“Randy’s Record Mart,” and John R hosted “Ernie’s
Record Mart,” both offering mail-order packages of
records. The funny thing was that a lot of people,
including black people, thought those disc jockeys
were black, talking all this smooth jive, and then
you’d go in the station and find out they were white.
Somehow word had gotten around that the WLAC
disc jockeys were willing to listen to new things,
including dubs and acetates, and if they liked
something, they would play it. They helped a lot of
artists get started that way. So I got someone to drive
me to Nashville with the record. We found the WLAC
studio, but instead of going in we waited at the back
door until the jocks came out. We first asked Gene
Nobles to play it, but he turned us down. We waited
until 3 A.M. when John R came out. He listened to it
but said he couldn’t play it either. At least he took
more interest in me than anybody else did, which is
why he will always be number 1 in my book when it
comes to disc jockeys. Later on, he helped me a whole
I went back to Toccoa not really discouraged but sort
of at a dead end. The Community Choir became less
active, and the Ever Ready Gospel Singers had about
saturated the local market. Like always, I listened to
all the new sounds and wanted to try all kinds of
music. With the gospel record and the trip to
Nashville, I had made my first move toward trying to
be a professional musician. The idea wasn’t full blown
yet, but the next time Bobby Byrd asked me to join his
group I said yes.
The Flames
We had our first rehearsal one Sunday afternoon in the
living room of the Byrds’ house at 114 Saultee Street.
This must have been late 1952 or early 1953. Besides
me there was Bobby, Sylvester Keels, Doyle Oglesby,
Fred Pulliam, Nash Knox, and Baby Roy Scott. We
didn’t have any instruments except our voices and the
Byrds’ upright piano, an old roller model.
We were pitiful. Our voices didn’t seem to fit
together. Their voices were sweet and mellow, and
mine was raw and powerful. We weren’t even sure
what kind of music we wanted to do, gospel or rhythm
and blues. I hadn’t given up on gospel entirely, so I
taught them some songs I knew, such as “When I Get
to Heaven I’ll Be Looking for My Mother.” They sang
their close harmony tunes for me, and then I played
and sang some of the more upbeat rhythm and blues
things I had been hearing. I guess a lot of groups start
that way, looking for their identity.
We practiced and practiced—on Sundays, after
school, whenever we could. After several weeks I
brought Johnny Terry into the group. He’d been
released in Toccoa, too, and we had stayed friends on
the outside. After a fling at gospel, the group worked
up a repertoire of about ten rhythm and blues songs,
mostly things by the Dominoes, the Five Royales, the
Orioles, a lot of stuff by the Five Keys, the Clovers,
all those groups.
Billy Ward and the Dominoes, featuring Clyde
McPhatter, had some really strong stuff, such as
“Sixty Minute Man” and “Have Mercy, Baby.” The
Orioles, with Sonny Til singing very sweet, had hit
with “Crying in the Chapel.” The Five Keys, who
sounded a lot like the Orioles, had “Glory of Love.”
The Clovers did “One Mint Julep,” a favorite of ours,
and “Ting-a-Ling,” “Fool, Fool, Fool,” and “Don’t
You Know I Love You.” The Five Royales, who had
started as a gospel group, had some powerful R & B
hits in 1953 with “Baby, Don’t Do It” and “Help Me
We could sing like all of ’em. Even without
instruments, we always tried to copy the sound of the
records exactly, down to the last ooh-aah. Bobby sang
bass, so he covered all the bass parts, including the
instrumental ones. He could whistle real good, too, so
sometimes he’d whistle the saxophone solo or
whatever. We kept time by stomping our feet.
I stayed on top of all the latest dances—the slop, the
funky chicken (even before it was called the funky
chicken), the alligator, the camel walk. I guess the
camel walk is a dance people associate with me. I first
saw people dance it around 1940 and I heard Louis
Jordan sing about it a little later, but I put the pizzazz
into it. Really, I developed my own camel walk so that
it would eventually become the James Brown. It
shouldn’t be confused with the moon walk that
Michael Jackson does, which is really the bicycle, a
move Charlie Chaplin used to do. You know how you
get on a bicycle and ride it backwards? That’s the
moonwalk—the Charlie Chaplin bicycle done
Bobby’s grandmother didn’t like us rehearsing at the
house. Her name was Adeline Hickman, but
everybody called her Big Mama. She was very devout
and she thought the kind of music we were doing was
sinful. Bobby’s mother was always having
confrontations with her about it so that we could
Big Mama didn’t like me getting serious about Sarah,
either. We had talked about getting married, without
making anything definite. When Big Mama found out,
she stepped in. “My granddaughter isn’t marrying any
jailbird,” she said. We all laughed about it, even
Sarah’s mother, but it didn’t do any good. Big Mama
would give in on us rehearsing at the house, but she
wouldn’t give in on the marriage. That was the end of
that. I didn’t hold it against her, and later on we
became good friends.
The group’s first gig was at a place called Bill’s
Rendezvous Club in Toccoa. They had a jukebox,
piano, dance floor, and booths where they served food.
Bill and Delois Keith, who owned the place, lived on
the same street as the Davises. I hung around the club
in the daytime, and they let me practice on the piano.
We started playing the Rendezvous once or twice a
week and managed to come out with maybe $6 or $7
apiece each time. The Rendezvous helped us make a
name for ourselves, although we didn’t really have a
name. We dropped the name Avons because we found
out another group already had it. As we started
playing other juke joints in the area, we became
known as the Toccoa Band, and under that name, we
played in Livonia, Hartwell, Cornelia, Cleveland,
Kingsville, and Athens, and in Seneca and Greenville
in South Carolina.
We traveled in a 1941 Ford station wagon we rented
from Guy Wilson, a man in my church. The car was so
dilapidated that Guy was afraid to drive it around
town, but we took it everywhere. Sometimes Delois
Keith went with us and acted as our bank, buying us
food during intermission because the places didn’t pay
us until the gig was over. Then we would pay her
back. By the time we paid her back, paid Guy Wilson,
and bought gas, it turned out a lot of times that we just
went for the trip.
These places had jukeboxes—called piccolos
then—and people listened to records and danced.
When we came in they cut it off and we performed,
stomping our feet and singing nonstop because we
didn’t have any instruments outside of the piano in the
place. Almost everybody in the group played a little
piano, so we rotated depending on who was singing.
We learned to make a whole lot of noise with very few
resources, and I think that’s eventually what made us
so powerful and gave me the stamina to sing and
dance like I do.
We didn’t know anything about show business, but we
came up with a few tricks to get us over. Once, in
Athens, we were playing a little place where there
weren’t but two or three people who had drifted in.
We noticed that people would come up to the
windows, see the place was empty, and go on down
the street. We took five and talked it over. We decided
that we were going to sing louder, stomp louder and,
on top of that, pull the curtains. We closed the place
up tight and went back to work. Made it sound like
there were a hundred people in there. Before long the
place filled up. After that we always pulled the
curtains first thing wherever we played. If there
weren’t any curtains, we covered the windows with
We also helped attract crowds by bringing a crowd
with us. A lot of our friends went along with us for the
ride and the music. No matter how jammed the station
wagon got, we always managed to squeeze in one
more person if he was willing to make noise at the gig.
Sometimes we carried a little moonshine liquor with
us, too, but not to drink. We delivered it. There were a
lot of dry counties around there, and if we were
heading toward one, we would drop off a load now
and then. It kept a few extra dollars in our pockets and
didn’t hurt our popularity either.
We added Nafloyd Scott, Roy’s brother, to the group
because he could play guitar. But he didn’t own one.
So we all kicked in for an amplifier and an electric
guitar, the kind with the pickup on the outside. We
ordered them from Sears, and they took about four
weeks to get there. This was the little bittiest amp you
could imagine; it had two jacks, one for the guitar and
one for a microphone. We’d be in some hot, close
place, playing and singing, people up dancing, and the
heat and humidity would build up in the amp. Then it
gave out real loud feedback, cutting right through our
voices, and we would really have to start belting.
People didn’t think you could sing that loud and still
be soulful, but we managed it. We had to, to drown
out the amp.
After our one-nighters began to increase, we got us a
manager, an older man named Barry Trimier who was
the town’s black undertaker. The first thing he told us
was that we needed something to beat on instead of
stomping our feet to keep time. I used a machine out
at the plastics factory to cut a big piece of metal into a
cymbal. It was so big and heavy that we had to have
something really sturdy to set it on when we played. It
clanged when you hit it, but it didn’t sound like any
cymbal anybody had ever heard before. Some of the
fellas who had attended Whitman Street High found,
way back in a storage room at the school, a tom-tom
and a big old field drum, the kind marching bands
have, and we started using them. We fixed up the field
drum with a pedal, just like on a regular drum kit.
When someone sat behind it to play, you could hardly
see him.
Barry kept a book with the names of all the places we
played and the dates and how much we got paid. I
don’t think he made any money himself; he just
enjoyed doing it for us. We really thought we were a
band then. The places we played always had a piano,
and we had our own guitar and amp, the great big
raggedy drum, and whatever other instruments we
could borrow. We even had a manager, but we still
didn’t have a real name.
In Toccoa we started playing some little gigs at
Stephens County High, a white high school. They had
a piano and we’d use that and sing and play at
intermission of their intramural basketball games in
the daytime. Once, I came sliding across the
basketball floor with a big dust mop and danced with
it. The kids went wild. From those daytime things we
moved up to doing some of the high school dances in
the evening.
The daytime gigs were a problem because most of us
worked, and it was hard to get off. But we had all
made an agreement: When it’s gig time, you go.
Bobby would drive to the plastics factory where I was
working, and I’d sneak away. A lot of times they
never missed me. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. I
was still on parole, and I had been having problems
with it already. The incident at Lawson’s had almost
put me back in prison, and then I got involved in
another accident. I had a girlfriend in Cornelia a few
miles from Toccoa, and one day I got stranded up
there. After asking around, I caught a ride home with a
fella whose name was Horace Brown. He was driving
a DeSoto, flying around those curves. I said, “Horace,
don’t drive so fast.” But he was heading for death. As
were coming around a curve on one of the mountain
roads near Toccoa, Horace lost control of the car and
we went down an embankment. I was thrown out and
shaken up real bad. Horace was killed. Dazed and
disoriented, I wandered up to the highway, a two-lane
blacktop with very little traffic, and ran in the
direction of Toccoa. By the time I got to Toccoa, the
authorities had found the wreck. When they
discovered I had been with Horace, I was charged
with leaving the scene of an accident.
I thought I was gone for sure. On top of the time they
might give me for leaving the accident, they could
make me serve the twelve years left on my original
sentence. It looked like I was going to be forty before
I got out this time, but after Barry Trimier and Mrs.
Byrd explained what had happened, the charges were
dropped and I was released.
One way or another, my troubles always seemed to
involve a car. A short time later, me and another cat
drove a load of stolen tires from Toccoa to Cornelia,
where we sold them. A man in Toccoa had offered us
part of the money if we did the driving for him. It
didn’t seem much different from the small loads of
moonshine the band ran from time to time, but I
should have known better, and I sure shouldn’t have
gambled with my freedom that way. We got away
with it, except that on the way back we wrecked the
car. When the police came, they thought it was kind of
funny that we were in this other man’s car. They had
heard rumors about some stolen tires, too. They
couldn’t prove anything, but they were suspicious
enough to take me to jail. I was sure this was it,
especially when I saw Mr. Matthews walking toward
my cell.
“Hello, James,” he said.
When he called me James instead of Music Box I
knew he was really mad at me. “Did you come to take
me back, Mr. Matthews?” I asked.
“They want me to,” he said.
“I sure don’t want you to,” I said.
“Then you have to slow down, James. You either have
to play and sing—I know you can do that—or you
have to work at a job and stick with it. I don’t care
which, but you’re going to have to do one of them.”
“I’m trying to do both,” I said, “so I can get married.”
“All right, James,” he said, “I’ll see what I can do, but
I’m not making any promises.”
He left without even asking about the girl I wanted to
marry. I think he wanted to get away before he got any
madder at me, but when they let me out a little while
later, I knew it was because of him.
I planned to marry a very sweet girl I had met named
Velma Warren. She belonged to Mount Zion Baptist
Church, and we had been introduced when my gospel
group sang there. I started taking her with me to some
of the band’s gigs, which made us even more popular
because the cats in the audience could see that I
wasn’t interested in their women. That may sound
peculiar, but a cat in a juke joint on a Saturday night
can get very mean if he thinks somebody is messing
with his girl. And if the guy doing the messing is up
on the stage, it makes the cat doubly jealous.
Velma and I were married in Trinity Church on June
19, 1953, a little over a year after I had gotten out of
prison. The next day I pitched a no-hitter for the
Toccoa baseball team. I think you’re supposed to be
drained after your wedding night, but I was inspired. I
think the idea of marriage appealed to me as much as
anything else. I wanted a real home and a steady
family, which I had never really had before. That was
what I saw myself working for, whether as a singer or
as a laborer—to be able to establish a home.
Just about the time I got married the band started
having some problems, most of them brought on by
jealousy. By this time I was the leader. All the songs
were built around me, and on stage I stood apart from
the other singers and danced differently from them. I
didn’t want to do all that, but Sylvester and Bobby
pushed me out front. Some of the other fellas started
resenting it. At first they just grumbled about it
occasionally, then they called a meeting. We all sat
down one night around the kitchen table at Bobby’s
house. The ones who had called the meeting said they
didn’t think it was right for me to sing most of the
leads and do the solo dances, and they thought Bobby
was monopolizing the spotlight, too. Consequently,
they wanted to break up the group.
Sylvester, Bobby, and I couldn’t believe it. Sylvester
said it didn’t make sense not to showcase our best
singers and dancers. Bobby told them it was stupid to
break up when our local popularity was about to start
paying off. We were already making as much as $6 or
$7 apiece per night, and we could be working five or
six nights a week if we wanted. The others said they
would think about what Sylvester and Bobby had said.
As they got up to leave, I blew up. “How are we going
to break up? We haven’t done anything yet. We don’t
even know what we can do, and here y’all are already
talking about quitting. We don’t need to be talking
about quitting, we need to be talking about working
harder.” They stopped and looked at one another kind
of sheepish. One by one they sat back down.
Instead of any more talk about breaking up, we talked
about how we could improve ourselves, about
different ways to sing harmony, new songs we ought
to learn, different arrangements we might try.
Eventually we got around to the question of our name.
I said we ought to come up with one right then to
show that we were together again. So we sat around
for a long time trying to come up with one, going over
the names of other groups, throwing out ideas, and not
getting anywhere. Then one of the fellas said, “How
about something along the lines of the Torches?”
The Torches were a local group that sang the sweet,
close harmony stuff, but what was unusual about them
was that one of their singers was white. Later on, they
wound up with three white and four black members,
which was very unusual for that time and place. We all
agreed that we liked their name. We played around
with it for a few minutes until somebody came up with
a good variation. I don’t remember which one of us
said it first, but I remember that we all agreed right
away. It captured what we had been trying for in our
music since our first rehearsal. We became the
Flames, full of fire and romance.
Burning It Up
I had always absorbed ideas from whatever I was
around—minstrel shows, circuses, preachers, gospel
music, records—but now I started to pay attention to
the way professional musicians performed on stage. A
lot of big R & B shows came to Greenville, South
Carolina, and I went to as many as I could to study
them: Bill Doggett, Faye Adams, the Clovers, the
Moonglows, Joe Turner, anybody who came through.
They all had something to offer. Bill Doggett played a
strong, bluesy organ. Faye Adams, who had a big hit
then with “Shake a Hand,” sounded like straight
gospel. With “One Mint Julep,” the Flames already
had the Clovers’ thing down. I also liked the way the
Moonglows, who had “Sincerely,” sang harmony. But
as a showman, Big Joe Turner impressed me because
he didn’t waste any time on stage. “Shake, Rattle and
Roll” and all of the other songs came one after the
other. He really took care of business on stage, and so
did the band who backed him, Paul Williams and the
Hucklebucks. But I still think that the best showman
of them all was Louis Jordan, even though I saw him
only in movie shorts.
The best group we ever saw in Greenville was Hank
Ballard and the Midnighters. They had “Work with
Me Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby,” and “Sexy Ways,”
all hits even though most radio stations wouldn’t play
’em because they thought the songs were vulgar.
Really, the Annie records were just good fun, and so
was the Midnighters’ stage act. For instance, while the
piano player was playing, his pants would drop and
he’d have on longhandles, like a clown.
The Midnighters were the first professionals we’d ever
seen. We traveled sixty miles to the Greenville Textile
Hall and stood down front for their show. When they
really got the crowd worked up, Bobby and I clasped
hands real strong and I said, “Okay, one day we’ll be
up there, and somebody else will be down here
looking up at us.”
It was just one of those things that beginners say when
they see someone they want to be like, but we still
couldn’t get it out of our minds. When we got back to
Toccoa, at about two in the morning, Bobby and I
went to his house and stayed up the rest of the night
playing the piano and talking about our ambitions. We
went through the usual stuff about getting rich and
doing a lot for our parents, and for the first time we
became close; we pledged that we were going to
succeed as entertainers, no matter what. After that
night, we were like brothers.
We had a chance to show our determination when the
two of us did a tea party at a little restaurant
downtown in the middle of the block. Tea parties were
actually coffee breaks in the afternoon, when little
cafes and places like that had some entertainment. The
parties lasted only about thirty minutes, but they were
a good way for a group to get exposure. This
particular tea party was an audition that Bobby and I
did by ourselves. We auditioned that way a lot; the
two of us would give a short performance, then
whoever we were doing it for decided whether to have
the whole group in later on.
I had trouble sneaking away from my job the day of
the gig and we were almost late, but we made it. We
went in the back door of the restaurant—we weren’t
allowed to go in the front—and auditioned, with
Bobby at the piano while I sang “Good Lovin’”
without a mike. I danced and sang lead, and he did all
the background vocals, jumping from voice to voice.
During the bridge, when I started doing splits, slides,
and the camel walk and Bobby jumped up and kicked
away the piano stool, the crowd stood up, clapping
and hollering and making all kinds of noise. Cars
stopped on the main street outside, and people started
jamming in. I danced over to Bobby and yelled to him
during a spin: “We got ’em!” He beat on the piano
harder and he was already pounding it pretty good.
The man paid us $5 apiece, even though it was an
audition, and gave us the date for the whole group on
the following Wednesday. Come Wednesday, we went
in there with our mike, our guitar, and our big raggedy
drum and cymbal, and we saw that the place was
packed with college kids who were home for the
summer. Their parents, who’d been at our audition,
had told them about us. There were so many people
trying to get in that the manager finally opened the
doors to the sidewalk and the police blocked off the
main street. A lot of ’em had never seen a raw R & B
performance with singing and dancing like ours
before. We did our whole show, and we killed ’em. I
mean we just laid ’em out. Afterward, the man who
owned the clothing store next door to the restaurant
approached us.
“That was a good show,” he said. “I caught your act
over at the high school, too, but what really impresses
me is that you at least try to look clean up there.” On
stage we always wore starched blue jeans and white,
short-sleeved shirts. “I have some things I don’t stock
at the store anymore, and I want to donate them to
you.” He took us next door and gave us each two pairs
of pants and two shirts. The pants were very shiny,
like mohair. He fixed us up with some loafers, too, but
we had to pay for them as we went along. I think he
saw something in us that made him want to help us.
The biggest benefit from the tea party came after the
kids went back to school in the fall and we started
getting booked by the fraternities at all the different
colleges. They’d call Barry Trimier, and we’d sneak
away from our jobs and go. We played at the
University of Georgia, Clemson, the University of
Tennessee, Austin Peay, all those places. These were
some of the biggest crowds we’d ever played for, and
they treated us very well.
We were still traveling in Guy Wilson’s station
wagon, but now we had our instruments plus all the
people—it seemed like about twenty—that we took
along. We laid the guitar across our laps; someone
held the tom-tom; somebody else hugged the amp, and
we tied the field drum to the roof. As soon as the gig
was over we piled back into the car and raced to
Toccoa because we still had day jobs to get to.
Sometimes I was so tired I would almost nod off
standing up at work. I managed to hang on that way
until we made our second round through the
fraternities. They had liked us so much that almost all
of them booked us again as soon as they could. Word
spread to other campuses, and we began to get gigs at
places that were so far away we had to sneak away
from work in the middle of the day. Sometimes we
were so tired after driving all night that we’d lay low
the next day and miss work entirely. Before long, I got
fired, but before my parole officer could get upset, I
found another job, this time as a janitor at Toccoa
High School.
In the middle of all this, my first son, Teddy, was
born. That meant the world to me because with him I
was starting the family that I had never had myself. It
was hard, though, because I didn’t really have any
models from my own raising. I was trying to be a
husband and a father, hold down a janitor job, and
make it as a singer, all at the same time. That can be a
lot of strain. Sometimes you struggle so hard to feed
your family one way, you forget to feed them the other
way, with spiritual nourishment. Everybody needs
The Flames and I were still staying on top of the latest
records, doing material by all the other groups, when a
friend of ours named Williams said something that set
me thinking. “It’s fine when you sing them other
people’s songs,” he said, “but when the audience
hollers, they’re hollering for that song. You got to get
some songs of your own.” I had written a few tunes,
such as “Goin’ Back to Rome,” and I was always
hearing fresh tunes in my head, but I hadn’t really
thought of myself as a songwriter. It was just
something that I did in odd moments. But after I
thought about what Williams had said, I started to
concentrate more on the music running through my
At that time we were doing an Orioles song called
“Baby, Please Don’t Go.” The background vocals for
it included the word “please” repeated several times.
With that as a starting point, I wrote “Please Please
Please,” writing down the words and picking out the
chords on the piano, but not writing down the chords.
The next day I taught the song to the group and
worked out an arrangement by humming the solos.
The first time we sang it in public the crowd went
wild. They asked for it over and over again. After that
we always had to sing it at least three or four times a
We were working really regular now, at juke joints,
colleges, and schools. We’d moved into South
Carolina and North Carolina, getting known in a wider
and wider area. In Greenville we played a place called
Latham’s and we were becoming well known there.
When the R & B acts came to Greenville, we went to
the shows ready to get up on the stage and try to cut
’em, but they wouldn’t let us on. People talk about
jazz musicians having cutting contests, but singing
groups used to do the same thing. At a lot of little
joints we jumped on the stage during intermission and
did a few numbers, letting the audience decide the act
they liked best, us or the one that was booked there.
We cut the other acts every time because we were
hungrier than they were.
We gained so much local popularity and respect that
we were able to achieve a kind of racial milestone in
Toccoa: playing at the Ritz, the town’s movie theater.
After he lost his job at Troop’s photo shop, Bobby had
gone to work at the Ritz as a janitor. He kept pestering
the manager to let us play during intermission. Like
everything then, the Ritz was segregated, whites
downstairs, blacks in the balcony. The manager
worried that a black group performing would upset the
whites and set off an incident. Bobby reminded him
that we had played the restaurant in the middle of the
block, and it had gone off fine. The manager pointed
out that there hadn’t been blacks and whites together
at the restaurant, but Bobby kept after him until he
gave in.
We were a little nervous when we set up, but once we
started performing we got over it. A lot of the whites
had seen us before at the restaurant and at Stephens
County High, and they already dug us. The black folks
had heard us all over, and most of them were our
friends. The people who hadn’t seen us before listened
out of curiosity at first, and then they dug us, too.
There wasn’t anything resembling a racial incident. A
few years later I remembered that when promoters
tried to make me play segregated shows.
We became regulars at the Ritz. We played, the
audience threw nickels and dimes on the stage, and we
picked them up. But the jealousy in the group started
all over again because Bobby and I were still doing
most of the singing. Several times some of the fellas
didn’t show up for the Ritz gigs, and it looked like we
were falling apart again. This time even their parents
could see it was foolish, and they called a meeting. We
all sat down at Bobby’s again, but this time the parents
did the talking. Nash’s mother said, “If y’all are going
to do anything, all this arguing has got to stop. Either
stop or, starting tonight, Nash isn’t going out
anywhere anymore.” Mrs. Keels said, “And Sylvester
is going to start doing his work at home.” They really
laid it on the line to their own kids, and I was kind of
grateful because it took care of the problem right
As soon as we got our personal problems worked out,
we started having trouble with our churches. We were
all churchgoers, me especially because it was a
condition of my parole. Our churches were opposed to
the kind of music we played. They thought it was
sinful, the devil’s music, so each of us was hauled
before the conference at our various churches and
threatened with being thrown out. Maybe some of the
deacons didn’t want us to see them in some of the juke
joints we played. The parents stopped them from
throwing us out, and no matter where we were on
Saturday night, we didn’t let anything stop us from
getting to church on Sunday morning.
When that blew over, Barry got a new car for the
funeral home, a big black Ford, and we started
traveling to gigs in that. There were still eight of us
and all our stuff, but at least we were in a new car
We made a trip to Atlanta and dug the scene on
Auburn Avenue where all the clubs like the Royal
Peacock, the Poinciana, and the Zanzibar were
located. At the Royal Peacock we heard Billy Wright,
who at that time was the most popular performer in
Atlanta. He had a big, luxuriant pompadour and he
still sings real good today, but he’s never gotten his
due. We also appeared on Piano Red’s radio program
on WAOK. Red, whose real name was William
Perryman, was an albino with red hair. He played
boogie piano and later had a few R & B hits on
Groove records. We were on his show along with a
group that later became the Penguins and had a smash
hit with “Earth Angel.”
From our first pitiful rehearsal we had progressed to
that—being on the radio in the big city. We had
worked out our problems in the group; we’d managed
to keep ourselves from being thrown out of church; we
were riding in a new car, even if it didn’t belong to us;
and we worked five or six nights a week all around
our area. We had achieved the local popularity we’d
been working for.
But local popularity can hold you back. You can get
so popular in a place that you won’t leave. That’s the
position we were in. We had conquered everything in
sight, and there didn’t seem to be any challenges left.
Then Little Richard came to town.
Little Richard didn’t have a hit record yet, but he was
still the biggest thing in Georgia and in some
surrounding states, too. When we went to catch his
show at Bill’s Rendezvous, we couldn’t believe it. He
carried a big band, the Upsetters, of maybe eleven
pieces, he had a group of singers called the
Dominions, and he had himself—hair piled higher
than Billy Wright’s, who he got the style from, and all
that makeup. Even so, the Rendezvous was our turf,
and we were determined to cut him if we could.
Richard gave his usual wild show, beating up the
piano, jumping around the stage, flirting with the
audience the way he would, his band pumping out the
music. But watching him, I knew I had a big
advantage over him because I could really dance. The
crowd loved him, but at intermission they started
patting for us, yelling at us, “Go on up and sing, go on
up and sing!”
That was all we needed. We jumped up on the stage;
Nafloyd plugged in his guitar; somebody else took
over the Upsetters’ drums; Baby Roy sat at the piano;
and we tore into our act. When Richard heard us, he
came running out from behind the counter where he’d
been talking to Delois and started screeching, “What’s
happening? What’s happening?” He saw us and then
shook his head, like we were no good, but we put so
many moves on him up there on stage that he started
screaming, “Get ’em off! Get ’em off!” Man, he was
peepin’ and hidin’ til he didn’t know what to do. We
almost ran him out of town, we were so bad.
After the show Richard said he didn’t want to have
nothing to do with James Brown. “You’re the onliest
man I’ve seen who has everything,” he said. He
walked away, still shaking his head, and left us
standing there with Fats Gonder, who ran his band.
Fats told us about Clint Brantly, Richard’s manager
over in Macon, and told us to get in touch with him.
Clint owned a nightclub called the Two Spot, booked
R & B shows into the Macon Auditorium, and handled
several acts besides Richard. Fats thought that Clint
could help us get wider exposure but, really, Richard
was behind it, even though he walked away. I have to
give him the credit, because it really helped us.
I was ready to go. We had done all we could from
Toccoa; we had even cut several records, although
most people don’t realize it. We hardly realized it
ourselves. All of them were for little local labels like
NRC out of Greenville; we cut “So Long” and a few
other things for them. We did things on tape at radio
stations and gave the tapes to these small companies,
and they transferred them to plastic. Piano Red
introduced us to a small label in Atlanta where we did
some records we were going to use to advertise
ourselves. We didn’t even know whether the
companies were selling the records or not. We didn’t
care; we just wanted to be on stage in front of all those
Now that I was more ambitious, the logical place to
move on to was Macon, which had a very active music
scene. But it was a delicate situation. Barry had done a
lot for us and hadn’t gotten much in return, and he
couldn’t leave town because of his funeral business.
But Barry was a really good man; he told us he didn’t
want to hold us back, and he even offered to drive us
to Macon if we left. There was a parole problem, too.
If Clint liked us and we wound up staying in Macon, I
would be violating my parole. With the parole thing,
they had me in slavery—and kept me that way for ten
years—but after a lot of paperwork and promises, I
was given the name of a parole officer in Macon and
cleared to go.
The hardest part of all was separating from my family.
By this time we had another son, Terry. Since Macon
wasn’t but about three hours away, I figured I could
get back and forth pretty easy. Plus, in the long run I
thought I could provide for my family a lot better as a
singer than as a janitor. So I decided to try it.
Clint sent us gas money, and Barry drove us down in
the black Ford. We went straight to the Two Spot to
audition. There was no piano, only a guitar that
Nafloyd borrowed from the house guitar player. We
had heard that Clint really liked gospel, so instead of
singing anything popular we decided to do a sacred
number. A song we could really tear up was the one I
taught the group at our first rehearsal, “Looking for
My Mother.” During the group’s short gospel career
we had developed a little routine where we walked
around like we were doing what the words said:
“When I get to heaven, I’m going to look for my
mother.” It brought tears to Clint’s eyes. After that he
would always say, “I had ’em sing that song, ‘Looking
for My Mother,’ and they looked all up under the
tables, all behind the stove, and all behind the
refrigerator. Never did find her.”
Clint took us on and we moved into Dean’s Hotel,
where I shared a room with Johnny Terry. Clint’s
operation now included Little Richard, a band led by a
fella from Florida named Percy, and us. Richard and
Percy had been with him longer and were already
established in the area, so he paid more attention to
them at first. We hung around the Two Spot and saw
them come in, get their bookings, pick up their gas
money, and go. We didn’t have day jobs, so we were
anxious to start making some money. One day Clint
told us he had booked us at the Club 15, a big juke
joint out by the river, and he wanted to advertise the
gig on the radio, but first, he said, we needed
something to make us special.
“Y’all are named the Flames, right?” he said.
We said yeah.
“We’ve got to do something about that,” he said,
looking disturbed. “Just the Flames?”
We said that was all.
He thought about it for a minute, then said, “Okay,
we’ll put ‘Famous’ in front of it since y’all aren’t from
around here. We won’t say where you are from, we’ll
just say you’re the Famous Flames.”
When we got to the Club 15 we found out we were on
the bill with another group. They had all this nice
equipment, new horns, a real drum kit, real amplifiers,
real everything. We still had our big field drum, our
little bitty amp and guitar, and Bobby was still
whistling some of the instrumental parts. The other
group was smooth, and when we had to follow them
we were worried. We did all our songs, I did every
dance I knew, and the others did the dance routines I
had worked out with them. The audience wouldn’t let
us off the stage, and we played the rest of the night,
while the other group watched.
The next weekend we were right back there, and the
weekend after, too. When we told Clint we were
anxious to get out on the road, he said we needed to
open up Macon first. But an incident at the Club 15
almost closed the town for me for good.
Nafloyd’s girl, who had come to visit him, was
helping to collect money at the door with Fats. He had
left Little Richard and was moving over into helping
Clint manage the acts. Some fella started messing with
Nafloyd’s girl, so Nafloyd jumped over the railing
around the stage and snatched his girl away. We
thought something funny was going on with the crowd
anyway, so we stopped in the middle of a song and
grabbed something to use to defend ourselves. I
followed Nafloyd over the rail and punched the fella.
Before a big fight could get going, though, the police,
who were outside already because of the crowd,
swarmed over us. They grabbed me right off. When
things settled down they ran a check on me and found
out I was on parole. I wasn’t supposed to be in a club
that sold liquor, but instead of taking me to jail and
then shipping me back to Toccoa and prison, they
waited until Clint got there. He was one of the most
well-known black people in town—even the police
respected him—so he was able to squash it.
During the time we were gigging only on weekends,
we drove back to Toccoa and spent weekdays there. I
was able to be with Velma and my two boys and kind
of keep my family life going as best I could. I don’t
think Velma’s father liked the situation much, though,
and that caused some friction. I had always felt he
wanted me to be a yes-man for him, and I wouldn’t be
a yes-man.
Back in Macon, our gigs were improving. Little
Richard was working farther and farther away, and we
were taking over some of his old spots. He still didn’t
have a real hit—just some blues records he’d made for
Peacock—and he was still washing dishes at the
Greyhound bus station when he wasn’t performing.
He was steadily getting bigger, but we were gaining
on him. One night we replaced him for a gig at Emory
University in Atlanta, and Emory was ours after that.
We were working outside the state, too, and that could
have caused some problems with my Macon parole
officer, Donald Walters. He was a good man. I saw
him once a month for the first four months I was in
Macon, and after that he left me alone. He could see I
wasn’t any kind of a criminal that needed watching.
When it came time for me to go out of state, he gave
his permission right away. He wasn’t supposed to do
it, but he did it anyway. For the rest of my time on
parole I sent him a postcard once a month from
wherever I was. He never even made me meet with
him again.
Not too long after I got to Macon, some people started
hitting on Richard about recording for them instead of
Peacock. Eventually Bumps Blackwell got him for Art
Rupe’s Specialty label out of Los Angeles. After
“Tutti Frutti” broke, Richard left Macon for
California, left everybody without saying a
word—Mr. Brantly, the Dominions, the Upsetters, and
a lot of bookings. Mr. Brantly asked me to fulfill
Richard’s dates. He put me together with the Upsetters
and the Dominions and sent me out as Little Richard.
Meantime, Byrd and the fellas were doing the Famous
Flames bookings. I was getting paid as Richard while
Bobby was getting paid as me. I guess I did about
fifteen of Richard’s dates. I’d come out and do “Tutti
Frutti” and all those things, and then I’d do some
Midnighters’ stuff, some Roy Brown, and even
“Please Please Please.” I guess the audience thought I
was really Richard. Then, near the end of the show,
I’d say, “I’m not Little Richard. My name is James.”
After a few shows like that, Fats, who also went on the
tour, started announcing me as Little James. I didn’t
let that stay too long, either.
Back in Macon me and the Flames would cut every
group that came through. Pretty soon the word got
around, and then nobody would let us on stage—the
Drifters, the Midnighters, nobody. They had records
out and were afraid to let us get on stage when we
showed up at their performances. That was when I
realized we had to get a record out on a good label,
and it had to be our own material. First, we needed a
demo. There was no question that we would do
“Please Please Please”; it was our own stuff and we’d
been performing and perfecting it for almost two
years. We had seen the hysterical reactions of
audiences when we sang it, and I had complete
confidence in the song. But before we could do it, I
almost wound up going back to prison to serve the rest
of my time.
I was driving from Macon to Toccoa, taking some
clothes to my kids, when somewhere between
Madison and Athens a fella on a tractor pulled across
the road in front of me, and I hit the back of the
tractor. It threw the man off and hurt him, but not real
bad, I don’t think. I got help for him, and with the help
came the police. When they found out I was on parole,
I was taken to jail in whatever little town we were
near. After I was in the lockup for a few days, a fella
from Clayton County came to see me.
“Brown,” he said, “I represent the Georgia Board of
Pardons and Parole, and it’s my duty to inform you
that a board arrest warrant was issued for you on
October 28, 1955.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“Your parole will be revoked, and you will be
returned to the state penal system to serve out the
remainder of your original sentence.”
“But, sir,” I said, “that’s ten more years. I have a
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Since I’d gotten out of GJTI I’d had a couple of close
calls, but I thought this was it. And I knew I wouldn’t
be going back to a juvenile institution; I would
probably be going to Reidsville. All I could think
about was that I wouldn’t be able to see my family,
just like the time I’d been in prison before. On the
third day Mr. Brandy showed up. He had arranged to
have me released in his custody until the thing was
decided. For the next couple of weeks he did
everything he could to explain to the parole people
that it was an accident, that I was only taking clothes
to my kids. He told them he would be responsible.
Finally, on November 18, they withdrew the warrant.
After that, I didn’t waste any time making my demo.
We arranged to use the studio of radio station WIBB,
an AM daytimer in Macon. Mr. Maxwell, the owner,
didn’t even charge us. Big Saul, one of the disc
jockeys, was at the control board. With Nafloyd on
guitar and Bobby on piano, we all gathered around
one microphone. I was so short I had to stand on a
Co’-Cola crate. We cut loose and just tore it up. When
Saul played it back for us, it sounded very good, but I
wasn’t satisfied. I insisted on recording it several
times until I felt it was right. I don’t think anybody
really knew what I was doing, but I always knew. I
didn’t know that I knew, but I always knew.
Clint took the tape around, and everybody refused
it—Specialty, Chess, Duke, and other independent
labels. While they were all turning it down, Hamp
Swain, a jock on WBML, began playing the tape on
the radio. It became the most requested song around
Macon, even though you couldn’t buy a record of it.
Hamp didn’t care whether there was a record or not;
he played the song constantly, and our bookings got
better and better. Hamp knew it was a good song; the
people knew it was a good song; and I knew it was a
good song, no matter what the record companies said.
I was sure that if I could get it to the right person, it
would succeed. I took a copy and drove to Southland
Record Distributing Company, sixty miles away in
Atlanta. Southland was a big jukebox operation and a
distributor for independent record labels, which were
the only labels that recorded our kind of music in
those days. Back then, music was regional instead of
national like it is today. The regional distributors acted
as regional talent scouts for the indies.
As soon as I walked into Southland, I met a very nice
lady named Gwen Kessler. I asked her if she would
listen to my tape. She accepted it and promised me she
would. I thanked her and left. She had come to Atlanta
in 1948 to open a branch of King Records, based in
Cincinnati, and then had gone to work for Southland.
She listened to the tape and liked it well enough to
play it for Ralph Bass, a King talent scout, the next
time he was in Atlanta. “It’s a monster,” he told her.
“Where can I find these guys?”
We didn’t know any of this was going on. We
continued to play all around the area that picked up
WIBB and WBML, not really letting on to people that
we didn’t have a record out. One night in January
1956 we were playing a club called Sawyer’s Lake,
not too far from Milledgeville, Georgia. There was a
terrible storm outside, with rain really coming down,
but the place was packed anyway. Up North the same
storm was dropping snow everywhere, grounding all
the planes, including the one Leonard Chess, the
owner of Chess Records of Chicago, was supposed to
be on. At first he had rejected “Please Please,” then
changed his mind and tried to get down that night to
sign us. We didn’t know this was going on, either.
While we were on stage we saw over in the corner a
white face amid a whole bunch of black ones. We
thought it had to be another club owner looking us
over. At intermission he introduced himself as Ralph
Bass and said he liked the show. We thanked him and
waited for him to offer us a club date.
“I’ve heard your demo of ‘Please Please,’ he said. “Do
you have any other tunes of your own?”
“We’ve got a good one called ‘Good Good Lovin’,’” I
“And a nice baseball dance routine that goes with it,”
Bobby said.
When we sang “Good Good Lovin’,” we danced into
baseball positions—pitcher and catcher and I was the
batter. I took a swing and then danced real fast, like I
was rounding the bases. We mentioned it because we
thought he would be interested in the stage act.
“Yessir, we’ve got a lot of songs of our own,” I said.
“Good,” he said, “because I want you to record for
King Records.”
Please Please Please
We were working down in Tampa when Clint called
to tell us that King wanted us in Cincinnati to record
right away. We hadn’t heard from anyone there since
Ralph Bass signed us the morning after he’d seen us at
Sawyer’s Lake. Since then we’d been working clubs
around Tampa and Jacksonville, and we were
beginning to wonder if he’d really liked us.
The club work in Florida was all right, but the club
owners had a meal ticket system that could wear you
out. At the beginning of, say, a week-long
engagement, they gave us a meal ticket to their place.
With what we were making, that meal ticket could be
our margin of profit on the gig, but there was a catch:
If they served breakfast at six o’clock in the morning,
you better be there at six o’clock in the morning if you
want to eat, even if your show the night before had
lasted until 2 a.m. I missed a lot of meals that way.
We drove the four hundred miles from Tampa to
Macon, stopped and picked up some money there, and
continued for another six hundred miles to Cincinnati
in a station wagon that had The Upsetters painted on
the side. Clint had let Little Richard use the car before,
and now we were jammed into it with all our clothes
and instruments. We rode all night, stopping only for
gas. It was the first time out of the South for any of us,
and when we got to the outskirts of Cincinnati
somebody came out from King and led us to the hotel,
a place called the Manse. It was a fleabag, but it was
better than anything we’d stayed in before.
Instead of sleeping we went straight over to King
Records, situated in an old icehouse at the end of a
dead-end street. They did everything there, recording,
mastering, pressing, shipping, even printing the album
covers. At one end of the building, facing the street,
there was a big opening where the ice used to come
down; now the rollers that shot out the ice were
shooting out the records, big boxes of albums and 78s
rolling down the chute. An entrance on the other side
led into the studio, consisting of some microphones
and a plate-glass window separating this area from the
control booth, and a little mixing room behind that.
We had never seen an operation like this before and
walked around the place in a daze. From the studio
you could go into the stockroom, where they pressed
the records. We watched them lay small balls of soft
vinyl on a sort of platter, and then the press would
come down and mash them into records. They were
just about to move entirely from the big, old 78s to
While we were being shown around, we were
introduced to Earl Bostic. He was fixing to cut that
day, and he invited us to watch. Back in the control
room we met Syd Nathan, who had started the
company back in 1945. Syd was Little Caesar—short,
fat, and smoked a big cigar. He yelled all the time in a
big, hoarse voice, and everybody was afraid of him.
Even though Syd didn’t know one note from another,
King had been successful in all kinds of music. In the
country field they had Moon Mullican, Cowboy
Copas, Grandpa Jones, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and a lot
more. In R & B instrumentals they had, besides Earl
Bostic, Lucky Millinder, Tiny Bradshaw, Bill
Doggett, and Big Jay McNeely. They had singers like
Bullmoose Jackson, Wynonie Harris, Cleanhead
Vinson, and Little Willie John, and groups like the
Midnighters, the Five Royales, and Otis Williams and
the Charms. Mr. Nathan also had several companies
that published most of the songs King recorded.
We were supposed to record the next day, but when
we showed up we found out Hank Ballard and the
Midnighters had come in unexpectedly. Everybody at
the studio was tied up in a big meeting with them, so
our session was postponed until the following day.
When we showed up, Little Willie John had come in
to record, and our session was put off again. Little
Willie John was just a shade over five feet tall, and he
looked really sharp. Later on he came to mean a lot to
me, but when I met him that day, I was thinking more
about whether my own session would ever come to
When it finally did, on February 4, 1956, I almost
wished it hadn’t. We were set up in the studio, with
Mr. Nathan and Gene Redd, the musical director,
sitting in the control booth. Through the glass we
could see Ralph Bass and the engineer, too. I didn’t
like the idea of a muscial director because I felt I knew
my music better than anyone else. Besides, our stuff
wasn’t put together in the conventional way. We used
a lot of seventh chords. Fats played keyboards and
voiced chords with the sevenths instead of the triad.
And we used sevenths for passing chords, too. Playing
in the key of G, for example, we might want to go
from a G chord to a C chord, and to make the change
we might play a G7 as the harmonic transition.
They rolled the tape, and we ripped into “Please” in
our style. When we were halfway through, Mr. Nathan
suddenly jumped up from the board.
“What’s that? What in hell are they doing? Stop the
tape,” he yelled. “That doesn’t sound right to my
ears.” He was in a rage. “What’s going on here?” He
turned on Gene Redd, who just shrugged because he
didn’t understand it, either. Then he turned to Ralph
Bass. “I sent you out to bring back some talent, and
this is what I hear. The demo was awful, and this is
worse. I don’t know why I have you working here.
Nobody wants to hear that noise.”
“It’s a good song, Syd,” Ralph said. “Give them a
“A good song?” He looked at Ralph like Ralph was
crazy. “It’s a stupid song. It’s got only one word in it.
I’ve heard enough.” He stormed out of the room and
up the stairs to his office.
We were frozen in the studio. We had made it through
only half a track of our first professional recording
session, and the owner of the company had walked out
in the middle saying we were so bad he couldn’t use
us. We were thinking, “Oh, Lord, we’re fixing to get
sent away, and we just got here.” Gene came from
behind the glass to talk to us.
“Can’t you do it some other way?” he asked.
“That’s the way we’ve always done it,” I said.
“But Mr. Nathan doesn’t like it,” he said.
“Mr. Nathan doesn’t understand it,” I said. He looked
disturbed at that. “Everybody’s music can’t be alike,
Mr. Redd. If everybody comes up here and goes to
cutting alike, then nobody’s going to do anything.”
I showed him the chord changes on the piano and
explained to him what we were doing. Once he
understood, and it made sense to to him, he said he
would go and tell Mr. Nathan that they should try it,
even if it sounded funny. He was gone a long time.
While we were waiting, hanging out in the hall, we
could hear them yelling upstairs behind closed doors.
When Gene came back, all he said was, “Okay, we’re
going to cut it.” When Mr. Nathan never showed up
again, we couldn’t help feeling that the session wasn’t
legit, but we went ahead with it anyway. We cut
“Please,” “Why Do You Do Me Like You Do,” “I
Feel That Old Feeling Coming On,” and “I Don’t
Know”—in spite of all the turmoil that day.
Usually, King pressed and shipped a record within
days after it was recorded. Before we left Cincinnati
we saw a handful of 78 RPM pressings of “Please,”
but as soon as we got back to Macon we got worried.
We heard that Ralph Bass had been fired and King
wasn’t going to release the record. Mr. Nathan hated
the master as much as he had hated the demo. Mr.
Brantly was on the phone to him every day for nearly
a month. At the end of February, Mr. Nathan told him
that against his better judgment he was going to put
the record out on his Federal label. So on March 3,
1956, “Please Please Please” was released. Eventually,
it sold a million copies.
Up in Flames
The release of “Please Please Please” was the
beginning of a strange period in my career and the
beginning of the end for the original Famous Flames.
The record didn’t sell a million right away; it was a
sleeper that built up in different parts of the country at
different times. With no support from King, we made
it a hit ourselves, traveling everywhere, doing
hundreds of gigs. During the course of all that,
including four more recording sessions for Federal
over the next year and a half, I saw a lot and learned a
lot about the business on stage and off, sometimes the
hard way.
Trouble within the group dated all the way back to our
Toccoa days when some of the others got upset
because I was doing most of the singing and dancing
and Bobby and I were doing two-man performances.
The record caused more problems. We were dividing
up the money equally, and I decided that we ought to
split the writing credit on the records, too. “Please
Please Please” was credited to Brown-Terry; the
flip-side, “Why Do You Do Me Like You Do,” was
supposed to be credited to Byrd-Knox-Keels, but King
printed the labels with only Byrd-Knox on them.
There was some grumbling about that and more jive
about quitting, but everybody realized how stupid it
would be to break up just when we might be about to
break through.
Now that we had a record out we began to get a lot of
everybody—and we began to learn some things about
the business. People said, “You’ve got to help
yourself. You’ve got to get out there and push the
record.” That piece of advice made sense to me, so we
started visiting disc jockeys.
We got all dressed up and went to one particular
deejay and talked to him real polite: “Sir, we stopped
in here today with a record of ours we hope you’ll
listen to and that you’ll like enough to put on the air.”
He sat through this little speech looking kind of bored,
but he let us go on. When he had each said our piece, I
handed him a copy of “Please.” He pulled the record
out of the sleeve and laid it to one side without even
looking at it. Then he turned the sleeve upside down
like he expected something to fall out of it. Nothing
happened. He shook it. Nothing. Without a word he
picked up the record and handed it back to me.
Payola wasn’t the only thing we didn’t know anything
about. We also didn’t know we had a hit until it
charted at number 60, and we didn’t know how much
that ignorance had cost us. See, we hadn’t followed
the progress of the record at first; we just went out and
worked hard, playing a lot of the same places we’d
played before, a lot of ’em for the same money—$25
for the whole group, even though we now had a hit
tune. We didn’t know enough to mind because we
could all remember a gig in Atlanta once when we’d
come out with a quarter apiece. I realized later that
there were people who didn’t want us to know how
well the record was doing; they could make a lot of
money from a hit group that cost them only $25.
The record company didn’t do much better. When we
got a statement from them, Mr. Nathan saw that they’d
charged us for everything: the hotel stay in Cincinnati,
studio time, tapes, their long-distance phone calls,
even the food we ate during the session. Mr. Nathan
would also under-report sales and jack up the
breakage figures. That way he’d owe us even less. The
biggest money we ever got for the record was the
$150 apiece he gave us when we recorded it.
We went back to the studio in late March and late
July. We’d usually cut four or five sides, all in one
day, using our band plus some of King’s house
band—Ray Felder and Cleveland Lowe on sax,
drummers Edison Gore and Reginald Hall, and bass
players Clarence Mack and Edwyn Conley. In those
sessions, we cut tunes like “Hold My Baby’s Hand,”
“Chonnie-on-Chon,” “Just Won’t Do Right,” “Let’s
Make It,” and “I Won’t Plead No More.”
In June, King released “I Don’t Know” and “I Feel
That Old Feeling Coming On” before “Please” had
hardly gotten started. In July they turned around and
put out “No, No, No,” and “Hold My Baby’s Hand.”
You can hear a lot of where soul music came from by
listening to some of those tunes. In “No, No, No” I
was influenced by the Dominoes, who had started out
as a gospel group, and by the Five Royales. The vocal
harmony is gospel, but the chords are sevens and nines
from jazz and R & B.
In October, King released “Just Won’t Do Right” and
“Let’s Make It.” “Just Won’t Do Right” should have
been big, but a lot of things worked against it. It
should have crossed over, but my musicians held me
back. They could think only in terms of R & B and
didn’t understand what I thought about. They were
singing R & B, but their voices were too heavy; I
should have had girls singing with me. Most
Afro-Americans can’t sing pop; they may think they
can, but they can’t. The Platters were the first
Afro-American group to really sing pop.
I had so much faith in “Just Won’t Do Right” I recut it
five times in my career. In the first version the lyric
goes, “Since you’ve been gone, I drink and gamble
every night.” The next time I changed it to: “I stay in
the chapel every night.” It still didn’t do it.
“Let’s Make It,” on the flip side, was a sort of vocal
rendition of Bill Doggett’s big instrumental hit
“Honky Tonk.” It should have been big, too, but
putting it with “Just Won’t Do Right” hurt both songs.
King never gave any of the records a chance to sell.
All the releases coming out one on top of the other
confused people, especially disc jockeys. I was
competing with myself. But nothing could stop
“Please.” It made it to number 6 on the Billboard R &
B chart and stayed on the chart for nineteen weeks. It
even got Ralph Bass his old job back.
Once we started seeing record charts from the towns
we played, the gigs got better. We even played
Augusta. I had to get special permission from the
district attorney’s office to come to town, though.
They said I could come in to do the gigs, but I
couldn’t stay twenty-four hours. The first thing I did
there was a kid’s matinee at Sunset Recreation Center
on a Saturday afternoon. That night I played the
Delmar Casino, a club on Ninth Street. When the job
was over, the police escorted me across the bridge into
South Carolina. It had been almost ten years since I
had been in trouble as a teenager, and they still treated
me like a dangerous criminal. But I did get to see my
father and Aunt Minnie. Honey was back in Augusta,
too, and Big Junior was visiting her, so I got to see
everybody. They all knew about me having a record
out, and except for Honey they couldn’t hardly believe
Pretty soon we started moving north with the record.
When we got as far as Richmond, we kind of stalled.
We played there so much we got tired of it, but we
couldn’t seem to make it to Washington. Finally, the
record broke there and we played the Capitol Arena,
singing and dancing in a boxing ring. After that we
started playing Washington as much as we did
Richmond, going back and forth; then the beaches in
Maryland opened up for us—Carl’s Beach, Wilmer’s
Park—a lot of afternoon gigs for very good money.
The funny one was Carl’s because they called it a
beach, but the water was way away. They did tell us
the general direction it was in, though.
The gigs got better in the South, too. We went back to
the Palms in Jacksonville and another Palms in
Bradenton, but this time we had a hit record. Instead
of the $25 we used to get, now we made $750. In
Jacksonville we were on the bill with Guitar Slim, the
blues guitarist and singer who had a big hit with
“Things That I Used to Do.” From Bradenton we went
into the Palms of Hallandale near Miami, a premier
spot on the so-called chitlin’ circuit. Ordinarily you
played the Palms for nine days, then you went out and
played other clubs in the area for a while, coming back
into the Palms for nine more days. It was a long
open-air place with walls around the side, and it could
hold two thousand people. The first time we
performed there the bill included the Five Royales,
Guitar Slim, Shirley and Lee, B. B. King, and Ray
Charles. Cost 90 cents to get in.
The Five Royales was a group I had sung like in the
early days. They had a real good guitarist and
songwriter named Lowman Pauling who later wrote
“Think” when we were all at King Records together.
Shirley and Lee, out of New Orleans, had a big hit
with “Let the Good Times Roll.” Of course B. B. and
Ray had both been out there for a long while.
It was a good gig, but Ray was always an advice type
man and I was always my own man, so we were
probably destined to have a little disagreement. It
seems funny now, but at the time I guess we were
serious. He told me I ought to change the order of the
songs I did during my set. He kept after me about it,
and pretty soon I started to get hot. I was pacing back
and forth, arguing with him, telling him to mind his
own business.
“Stand still,” he said, “so I can talk to you.”
I was too disturbed to stay put. I kept pacing. After a
while I noticed he was turning his head back and forth,
following me the whole time. It kind of spooked me
for a second, and I stopped dead in my tracks. He
seemed to be staring at me right through his shades.
“Listen,” he said, “you may think I can’t see, but I
That stopped me cold for a second. Then I laughed,
and after that we made our peace.
When the Flames came back into the Palms for the
second nine-day stand, we were on the bill with Hank
Ballard and the Midnighters. They danced pretty good
and they had a lot of hit records, so we really worked
to outdo ’em. At that time there were no slow songs in
our act, and we did almost all our own material. For
the entire set we sang and danced at top speed without
a break, just working hard. What we didn’t realize was
that the people weren’t only digging our music, they
were also watching to see how long we could keep up
the pace. And we could keep it up a long time.
Back then a lot of the groups were pretty, performing
with top hats and canes and singing mellow, close
harmony stuff. You didn’t see too many groups like
us, dancing all over the place, cutting flips, slinging
sweat, and singing real raw. We wore bright red suits
made out of ripcord, with the jacket cut open in front
to show a lot of shirt. Sometimes I was set off in a
dark blue version of the same suit while the group was
all in red. They were very heavy suits. You sweat,
they got heavier.
Anyway, we did a good job at the Palms, and after we
went back to Macon we got booked on another show
in Atlanta with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, a
big bill with Solomon Burke, a group called the
Turbans that later became the Tams, and several other
acts. Thanks to Hank, the gig turned out to be a
turning point for me, but it started off like it was going
to be a disaster.
We weren’t sure where we came on the show. By the
time we found out we were supposed to go on second,
Nash Knox and one of the other fellas, thinking they
had plenty of time, had gone out for food. Time came
for us to hit and they were nowhere in sight. The rest
of us waited as long as we could and then went on
without them; as soon as we did, they came through
the stage door, out of uniform, did a double take,
grabbed their uniforms, and started dressing in the
wings. When they were dressed, I mashed potatoes
over to the side and brought them on like it was part of
the act. I always work hard, but I think they worked
harder that night to make up for being late. We wound
up doing such a fantastic show that after we came off,
Hank went straight to the telephone—before he even
went on stage for his set—and called his booking
agent, Ben Bart, at Universal Attractions in New
York, and told him he’d just seen an act that Universal
ought to have.
Before starting Universal Attractions, Ben Bart had
been with Moe and Tim Gale at GAC. He knew every
aspect of the entertainment business—promoting,
managing, booking, whatever—and had managed
Jimmy Lunceford, Dinah Washington, the Ravens,
and several others. With the Ravens he had formed
Hub Records, one of the earliest independent record
companies. At Universal he booked most of the major
R & B acts of the day. He could do it all.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that phone call was the
beginning of one of the most important relationships
of my life. Hank gave all the information about
Universal to Fats Gonder. After we got back to
Macon, Mr. Brantly called Mr. Bart. They had some
lengthy conversations and decided that Mr. Bart
would book us. Later, Mr. Bart became my manager
and business partner. But the main thing is that he
became like a father to me. I loved that man and he
loved me.
We started working our way north from Macon, doing
gigs, heading for New York where we were supposed
to sign with Universal. In Newark we played Laurel’s
Garden with Little Richard and Ray Charles. By this
time Richard and I had a little rivalry thing going to
see who could outdo the other. His act had gotten
wilder and wilder—suits made out of mirrors, hair as
tall as he was, so much makeup on his face it looked
like icing—and he beat up on the piano right along.
Came time for us to go on, I did my usual dancing and
powerful singing, and I could tell we were getting
over real good. Halfway through the act Richard was
already trying to get them to make me come off the
stage. But I wanted to do something to really cap it
off, so when we were closing, I got the Flames to
boost me up into the rafters. I worked my way across
the ceiling, holding the mike, singing. When I got to
the middle, I hung there by one hand above the crowd
just pleading: “Please, please, please.”
Richard liked to had a fit. He was running around
yelling, “Get him down! Get him down! Get him
down!” Scared him to death. Meantime, the Flames
danced out to the middle of the floor and cleared out
the people underneath me. For the finale, I let go, like
I was overcome with emotion, and dropped down like
a man going off a high bridge. The crowd gasped and
jumped back. When the Flames caught me, the place
went wild. Richard never had a chance.
From Newark we jumped down to Trenton before we
finally got into New York and Universal. It was my
first time in New York, but I never was amazed at the
big city, looking up at the buildings or anything like
that. I guess Atlanta helped me a lot. By going to
Atlanta, I wasn’t really excited by New York at all.
Mr. Bart was a nice-looking man, big, with gray and
brown hair. He told us about how he had Hank
Ballard, the Five Royales, and all the other big acts,
and how he could do for us what he had done for them
if we’d just stick together. He was going to book us,
and Mr. Brantly was going to keep on managing us.
We listened to him and then signed the contract
without even reading it. Back then we just did what
we were told. Even when we were on the road, all the
money we made went to Fats, who held it for Mr.
Brantly until we got back to Macon where the payoff
was. We didn’t mind; the system kept us from
spending all our money.
While we were in New York we went to catch the
show at the Apollo. It was the first time any of us had
even been inside the place, but we knew what it
meant. All the greatest acts in the history of black
show business had played there, and it was the
toughest audience in the world. What they said about
New York in general was even truer of that theater: If
you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.
That night we saw the Dells, the Cadillacs, and several
other acts, and after the show we went backstage,
which was a hectic scene. All kinds of people
everywhere. Naturally, the entertainers had told their
girlfriends and sisters and brothers, “I’m working at
the Apollo this week. Come backstage and I’ll get you
in free.” Sign over the backstage entrance said: “If
your friends and relatives won’t pay to see you, who
While we were back there we saw Billy Ward and the
Dominoes coming in for the beginning of their week.
Billy Ward wasn’t really the star of the group, but it
was his act. He had put it together and he kept it
together. In the early days the Dominoes had been a
gospel group, but they moved into R & B with “Have
Mercy, Baby” and things like that, featuring Clyde
McPhatter. After Clyde left, Jackie Wilson took over.
They’d started out on Federal, like us, moved up to the
King label and then left Mr. Nathan for another
company. They’d had a lot of hits and seeing them
backstage opened my eyes to a lot of things. They
came through with valets pushing long garment racks,
like the ones on Seventh Avenue, holding all their
uniforms. For dressing rooms they took the top floor
of the theater beause it had a lot of space where they
could rehearse, and they put long mirrors up there so
they could work on their dance routines in front of
them. They also had a white baby grand piano carried
all the way up the steps. Billy Ward knew what he was
After we signed with Universal, our bookings
improved some and “Please” started to break in the
North. All this while, King kept releasing one record
after another, trying to capitalize on “Please” but
really working against it. In January of 1957,
“Chonnie-on-Chon” and “I Won’t Plead No More”
came out. They wanted “Chonnie-on-Chon” out
because it was supposed to sound like a Little Richard
record. I think I managed to get my own style into it,
though. “I Won’t Plead No More” was supposed to be
the answer to “Please Please Please.” Mr. Nathan kept
saying, “Give us another ‘Please Please Please.’”
That’s typical of a white record company; they want
you to keep cutting something just like your first hit. I
gave them that, but I didn’t want to. They did not want
to change. They didn’t change until “Papa’s Got a
Brand New Bag.” The whole world didn’t change
until then. They were still playing the same thing.
Some people are ahead of their time.
Tommy Sands was ahead of his time, but the industry
wouldn’t let him pull away either: “Teen-Age Crush.”
He was good-looking—a kind of short Tony
Curtis—and super, super talented. I think Bobby
Darren tried to take off on him later, but he couldn’t
do it. Bobby Darren was confused; he tried to be like
Little Richard, then like Sinatra. He was multitalented
but he didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing.
Like Sammy Davis. Sammy Davis is multitalented,
but he never did himself.
There are very few original people. Perry Como was
original. Bing Crosby was kind of original, but he had
a lot of Louis Armstrong in him. James Dean was
original all the way. Fabian was a copy. He was just
good looking. What killed Fabian was he started
losing his hair. Same thing killed Tony Curtis. Hair is
the first thing. And teeth are second. Hair and teeth. A
man got those two things he’s got it all.
Mr. Nathan wouldn’t let us be original, and when the
other records didn’t do as well as “Please,” he started
to get down on us. I think some of the fellas in the
group were getting discouraged. Sometime in early
1957 Universal called us into the office to discuss
what we ought to do. Mr. Bart said he saw something
in me that he wanted to see fulfilled. He decided to
call the act James Brown and the Famous Flames
instead of just the Famous Flames. Ever since
Sylvester and Bobby had pushed me out front, that’s
what it had been anyway, but with all the work we’d
done, the disappointments with some of the records,
and the jealousy in the group, the change was too
much. Everybody except me quit and went back home
to Toccoa. That was the end of the group.
I was sorry. I was heartbroken. We’d been together a
long time. But I think they didn’t know any better.
They couldn’t see that we were really just getting
started. There’s not much more I can say about it
except that they went home, and when they went
home I kept going.
Try Me
After the breakup I spent the summer playing around
Florida with Fats Gonder and pickup bands, playing
every place there just like I’d played every place in
Georgia. That’s what you do; you just keep working.
It’s just like I do now.
During this time King was putting out things that I’d
recorded with the original group. In April “Gonna
Try” came out. You can hear gospel in it, but it’s a
very tired song. It was up-tempo in those days, but it’s
tired because it’s based on an old takeoff rhythm. The
sax player on the record was Little Richard’s man,
Wilbert Smith, who later became Lee Diamond when
he started fronting the Upsetters. In July, King put out
“Love or a Game” and “Messing with the Blues,” one
of the few blues tunes I’ve ever recorded. In October
they released “You’re Mine, You’re Mine” and “I
Walked Alone.” “You’re Mine, You’re Mine” comes
out of gospel, too. It might seem like a blues to some
ears, but the harmony is gospel and that keeps it from
being blues. Some of the records did pretty good, but
none was really a hit and King wouldn’t let me record
any new material. Really, they had dropped me.
Nobody calls you up and tells you they’ve dropped
you. They don’t call you at all. That’s how you know.
But I wasn’t worried. It just made me work that much
Then in October 1957, Little Richard, big as he was,
retired from rock ’n’ roll right in the middle of a tour
of Australia. Just quit. He said he wanted to devote his
life to the Lord. I can understand that and I don’t fault
him, but he left his manager, Bumps Blackwell, with a
lot of bookings to honor. Mr. Blackwell called Mr.
Brantly and asked him to get me to take over some of
the southern bookings. I agreed to do it, but I made
sure it would be as James Brown this time. I got
together with the Upsetters and the Dominions again,
and we did the dates. To tell the truth, when those
audiences saw what I could do with the dancing and
everything, I don’t think they missed Richard too
When my part of the tour was done, I recruited a new
set of Flames out of the Dominions. I knew that to do
my own stuff right I needed my own group. I got Bill
Hollings, Louis Madison, and J. W. Archer, taught
them the songs and the routines, and started working
as James Brown and the Famous Flames again. As
singers they were the best group of Flames I ever had,
but a later group of Flames was better all around as a
stage act.
When Mr. Nathan found out how I went over on the
tour and saw that I could still put a group together, he
agreed to let me record one more time. Only this time,
he wanted us to use somebody else’s material. We cut
“Begging, Begging” and “That Dood It.” Rudolph
Toombs, who wrote “One Mint Julep,” was one of the
writers on both of them. “Begging, Begging” was a
kind of slow Hank Ballard type thing, but I put my
own stamp on it. “That Dood It” is rockabilly,
influenced by Louis Jordan. It’s a humorous story
about a man who goes on a treasure hunt, tries to dig
some gold, looks back, and there’s a big monster
standing behind him. I didn’t cut many comic songs
like that, and when I did they didn’t come out as
Meantime, I was still doing one-nighters all over the
South. Whenever I got near Toccoa, I saw Velma and
the boys. Before long we had another son, Larry. As
busy as I was, I couldn’t get home as often as before,
and when I did get home, I could tell Velma and I
were drifting apart. More and more I came home a
stranger. She was the best home woman I’ve ever had,
and she never tried to stop me from making it. She
could see what was happening, and she didn’t try to
fight it at all. She always had a kind word to say. And
later on, she never tried to turn the children against
me. After a while I started living with another woman
in Macon. Her name was Dessie. We got a house and
everything, but she didn’t break up Velma and me. It
was time. Time and distance. I still visited, but it just
couldn’t be put back together. Through it all, though,
we tried to stay friends, and we are friends right today.
“That Dood It” came out in February 1958 and
“Begging, Begging” in May. When these two records
didn’t do anything, Mr. Nathan really lost faith, telling
people, “James Brown is through, washed up. He’ll
never record for me again.” For almost a year I didn’t,
but I didn’t think I was washed up. I thought I was
getting better, but it seemed I was always having to
prove myself. After eight or nine months went by
without any more recording dates, I could see that Mr.
Nathan wasn’t going to do anything, so I decided I
better do something.
I had been doing a new song on stage for a while, and
I thought it could be a big hit. Back then I always
stage-tested my own material; before recording
something, I made sure audiences liked it. As we went
around doing all our one-nighters I tried different
arrangements of the same song to see how the
audiences reacted, and then I decided the best way to
record it. This particular song was “Try Me,” really a
pop tune. I had heard “Raindrops” by Dee Clark and
“For Your Precious Love” by Jerry Butler and the
Impressions, so I wrote my song to fit between them.
Audiences loved it. Mr. Nathan hated it. When I took
it to him he wouldn’t even let me record it.
“I’m not spending my money on that garbage,” he
“Okay, Mr. Nathan,” I said, “I’ll pay for a demo
myself, and then you’ll see.”
I booked the studio time at King, paid Mr. Nathan in
advance, and cut the demo later in the summer. At the
same time I cut “Bewildered,” a song I’d sung for a
long time. When I heard how strong it was on the
playback I decided not to let Mr. Nathan hear it. I
didn’t want him putting it out with “Try Me” and
messing both of them up. I’d seen disc jockeys
confused by all my records before, and I knew
“Bewildered” could be a hit on its own. So before Mr.
Nathan came down from his office to listen to what
we’d done, I packed away the tape of “Bewildered”
and played “Try Me” for him. He still didn’t like it.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“But, Mr. Nathan, it’s going to be a hit.”
“I don’t want it,” he said. He waved me aside with his
cigar and walked out of the control room.
Here I’d spent my own money and I was being
dropped by the record company, but I didn’t even try
to argue with him. I still had my tape, and I knew it
was good. I took it over to Nolan studios and had it
made into an acetate, the kind that plays inside-out,
like I’d done with “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” back in
Toccoa. Only this time I had a whole bunch of copies
made, took them around to the disc jockeys I knew,
and got them to play it. Big Saul and Hamp Swain
played it in Macon. John R, in Nashville, played it
over WLAC where half the country could hear it.
After a while I got it around to a whole lot of jocks,
and it was getting good air play even as an acetate.
When Mr. Nathan found out the stations were playing
it, he still wasn’t satisfied. He claimed he’d like to put
it out but I’d been bumped from the Federal roster
because it was full. He had officially dropped me.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “the stations aren’t just
playing it, it’s one of their most requested songs.”
“Prove it,” he said.
“Okay, Mr. Nathan,” I said, “I’ll prove it to you. And
you’re going to change your mind about James
I went to see all the jocks and asked them to call Mr.
Nathan to tell him how the song was doing on their
stations. After they’d all called him I went back to see
him. He’d changed his mind, like I predicted. Wasn’t
because of the jocks, though, but because he
discovered King had already received orders for
twenty-two thousand copies, and the record hadn’t
even been cut yet.
“Well, James,” he said, “I’ve decided to give the song
a try.
“That’s fine, Mr. Nathan,” I said.
“Good,” he said, “now where’s the tape?”
“Oh, you don’t want that tape, Mr. Nathan. It’s just a
demo, a little something I paid for myself.”
“That’s what they’re playing on the radio,” he said.
“Yessir, I know, but a record sounds a little different
when you play it at home; the bad parts show up more.
I think we need to recut it with some real musicians
and careful production.” I smiled a big crocodile grin.
He could see I had him over a barrel, so he arranged a
session for the middle of September at Beltone
Studios in New York. He wanted to get the song cut
and get it out. Mr. Nathan was even going to send
Henry Glover, his top A & R man. Over the years
Henry had worked with jump bands like Buddy
Johnson, Tiny Bradshaw, and Lucky Millinder. He did
a lot of arranging, songwriting, and producing. But
Henry wouldn’t come; he didn’t think we were
popular enough. He sent Andy Gibson instead. That
turned out to be fine with me because Andy stayed out
of my way, and that’s what I wanted. They hired some
experienced musicians from the New York area for
the session. Hal “Cornbread” Singer played tenor sax;
he got his nickname from the big instrumental hit
“Cornbread” that he had in the late forties. Kenny
Burrell, the jazz guitarist, was on guitar, and if you
listen closely to the record you can hear that it’s his
In a way, it was a new start for me, but in another way
it was a last chance. I hadn’t recorded in almost a year,
the new Flames hadn’t recorded with me but one time,
and I knew Mr. Nathan expected something really big
out of this New York session. I also knew we already
had something big; I was certain enough that I wrote
“Tell Me What I Did Wrong” to replace
“Bewildered.” If I’d been worried about it, I’d have
cut “Bewildered” right then, as insurance, but I didn’t.
We recut “Try Me” on September 18 and released it in
October. It went to number 1 on the R & B charts
immediately and to number 48 on the pop charts.
Everything was fixing to change for me again.
Apollo One
The first thing that changed was my deal with King.
Mr. Nathan didn’t have any contract with me
anymore, and when I had a number 1 record, he
wanted to join up again. The deal I had had with him
before was terrible; I think I received half a cent a side
for writer’s royalties and maybe another half a cent for
performance, partly because in the original contract
everything was split evenly among all the Flames and
Mr. Brantly. The record companies were always
under-reporting sales, exaggerating breakage, and
charging for everything, so you never really knew
what you were making.
My new deal was made with Hal Neely, the
vice-president of King, who had come to Cincinnati in
1958 to help Mr. Nathan run things when he was sick
a lot with heart trouble. Mr. Neely had been a
bandleader and a trumpet player and knew something
about music. On the new contract he jumped me to a 5
percent royalty, although 3 percent was standard in
those days, and he made me a better publishing deal.
The new contract didn’t help me with “Try Me,”
though. They already had that. I think I made about
$3,600 in royalties from “Try Me,” even though it was
number 1. I believe I got that $3,600 all at once and
thought I was rich. I went to see Fats Domino one
night in County Hall in Charleston, South Carolina,
thinking how wealthy I was. That’s when I realized I
needed hit records because every time Fats Domino
opened his mouth he had a hit record coming out of it.
While watching the show, some of the people wanted
me to go up and do a number, so I went on stage and
ran Fats Domino off his own gig with my own record.
Paid to see him, then run him off the stage. That
started me thinking what I might do with a lot of hit
Universal signed me again, too. Mr. Bart flew down to
Macon to do it. See, they want you to prove yourself
and then they want to jump back on the bandwagon.
Meantime, I recruited a new band because I knew I
was going to need a permanent backup group to do my
music justice on the road. I met J. C. Davis in
Burlington, North Carolina, and put a band together
behind him: Bernard Odum played bass, Nat Kendrick
played drums, Roscoe Patrick played trumpet—you
can hear him real good on “You’ve Got the Power,”
and Les Buie played guitar after Bobby Roach left.
Les was a great guitarist. When we cut “I Don’t
Mind,” he made a mistake, but it sounded so good I
told him to play it again for the final recording. Albert
Corley, the alto sax player, was the greatest who ever
lived; he beat Cannonball and everybody. He used to
roll out of his bed, pull on his clothes, and tune up his
horn coming down the stairs. He’d walk in still putting
on his tie and blow everybody out of their seats. Fats
Gonder and I still played keyboards. It was a good
band. Later, though, J. C. started to think it was his
band and jumped ship and went with Etta James.
As soon as I re-signed with Universal, they set up a
schedule of sixty one-nighters in a row. I think I had
one day off in that time, a Sunday. During this tour I
went into Masters Studio in Los Angeles and recorded
“I Want You So Bad.” The new set of Flames was on
the record and so was Johnny Terry, who came in and
out of the group for the next several years. In January
1959, King released the Please Please Please album
and at the end of the month I recorded “Bewildered”
and an instrumental called “Doodle Bug” at Beltone. I
didn’t tell Mr. Nathan about the tape of “Bewildered”
I’d already done; we just recut it from scratch.
It’s funny, the past was starting to come back on me,
even in those tunes. “Bewildered” was a song I used to
sing when I had the Cremona Trio as a kid, and
“Doodle Bug” took me back to my days in the woods,
sitting under the house, playing with the doodle bugs.
I was thinking about my mother a lot, too; figuring she
must have heard about me from some of my aunts. I
thought she might try to get in touch with me now that
I was getting well known. She didn’t, and for a long
time I felt bad, but that wore off. I understood that she
had been going through quite a strain, and I thought it
was more important to see her than to wait for her to
come to me.
From Uncle Perry, the man who helped my father
steal my mother away, I got an address in Brooklyn:
312 Monroe Street. It was all he knew about where
she was. On a cold winter day I went out there to a
kind of old, funny looking two-story building, the kind
that gives you a weird feeling. I walked up the steps
and rang the buzzer. Nobody answered. Somehow I
couldn’t leave. I stood on the stoop and waited for the
longest time. I hadn’t dressed warm enough, and by
the time it started getting dark I was shivering. It
didn’t really look like anybody was living there, but I
waited anyway. Finally, I gave up. The next day I was
back on the road. I told Uncle Perry to keep sending
the word out through the family that I wanted to find
my mother.
I thrived on the one-nighters, but I was having a lot of
problems with the Flames—some drinking problems
and a drug problem. J. W. Archer was the really
difficult one. He was difficult and I tried to keep him
from drinking, and every time I tried he wanted to
jump on me and fight. One night we were in
Charleston, South Carolina, and I’d had enough. I
said, “Let’s have it out right now. We’re gonna fight
barefisted.” He was a big fella, weighed about 195,
while I weighed about 135. We started duking it out.
When he saw it wasn’t going to be so easy to take me,
he ripped a coatrack off the wall, an iron strip with
four or five coat hooks in a line on it. He gripped it in
his fist so that the hooks stuck out between his fingers.
Every time I hit him with my fist, he hit me with that
rack. I was bobbing and weaving, but he still busted
me above the eye with that iron. That was the only
way he could fight me. I still beat him to the floor.
I’m not a violent man, but I know how to be violent. I
can beat a big man like J. W. real fast. I take a big
man, pick him up, and run with him. Run him into the
wall and near break his back.
Sometimes you have no choice. After a show in
Kansas City, during this time, some of the cats who
were in the gangs around there jumped on my bass
player, Bernard Odum, outside the Streets Hotel and
beat him up pretty bad. When he managed to run
away, they turned on me. They were mad because
their girlfriends were crazy about us on stage, and they
wanted to show us up in front of them.
“You better leave me alone, fellas,” I said. Usually, in
situations like that, when they looked at me funny I’d
put the eye on ’em and they’d leave me alone, but this
one fella who had jumped on Bernard wouldn’t back
off. He was cursing me and threatening me, so I said,
“You hobo your way over here, I’m going to pay it
back.” “Hobo” means when somebody jumps on you
they get a free ride, like a hobo jumping a train. He
came at me, and I hit him thirty licks just like
lightning. As a boxer I was always real fast with my
hands and my feet. I finished him off with the old
bolo, Kid Gavilan’s punch, the one where you wind up
like a whirlwind and throw it like an uppercut.
Anywhere it lands, it hurts. After that, none of the
other cats wanted to continue the discussion.
Lots of entertainers face problems with cats who want
to fight ’em in front of their girlfriends. You just have
to live with it and go on. Problems within the group
are another thing; you’ve either got to solve the
problems or break up, or solve them by breaking up.
The problems with the Flames came to a head one
night in Oakland, California. I had a big argument
with ’em about discipline in the group. They didn’t
like it, so I left and they stayed. You can say they quit
or they were fired, either way, but it was the end of the
second set of Flames. It was unfortunate because they
were all very good singers.
When I got back to Macon, I found out from Mr.
Brantly that Universal had me booked into the Apollo
for a week beginning April 24. There was no reason I
shouldn’t have been booked in there—I had a number
1 record—but the date couldn’t have come at a worse
time: no Flames and only a couple of weeks to get
ready. People were advising me to put it off, to wait
until I had a new group and had toured with them for a
while. I said no, I was going to put on a good show no
matter what. I figured the more people who could see
me on stage and see what I could do, the more it
would help me. A hit record gave me the opportunity
to be in front of more of them, and in better places.
You take your opportunities when they come.
I went on to New York with the band and started
putting things together. Johnny Terry was still with
me, and I had a young man named Baby Lloyd
Stallworth who used to work around the Palms in
Hallandale. He shined our shoes or went out for food,
whatever needed doing. He must have been twelve
years old at the time. When we left the Palms I asked
his mother if he could go on the road with us and work
for us. I promised her I’d look after him like a son,
and she let him go. I sent him back to Hallandale
when the first set of Flames broke up, but after I
started touring he came to live in my house in Macon
to help Dessie while I was gone. In New York I
started showing him the routines, too. He had seen
them so often on the road that he picked them up real
fast. Then, while we were rehearsing one day, I
noticed J. C. Davis’s valet, Bobby Bennett, hanging
around. I stopped the band.
“Can you dance?” I asked him.
“Not as good as you, but I can dance some,” he said.
“Show me.”
I gave the band a downbeat, and they played a little
vamp while he did some mashed potatoes. He was
pretty good, and he was a nice-looking cat besides.
“Okay,” I said, “you open at the Apollo Theater next
week. It took me five years to get there, it took you
five minutes. Congratulations.”
I told Johnny to take him back to the Hotel Theresa,
where we were staying, and to rehearse him around
the clock in the routines. I was starting to think we
might actually get the thing together in time. Then
Byrd showed up.
After the breakup of the original Flames, Bobby and I
stayed in touch. I had told him about a job in the King
stockroom, and he had been doing that. I asked him to
let me know about any good new tunes that came in in
case I wanted to cut them. Pretty soon Mr. Nathan had
him doctoring songs. If they received a tape they
thought was promising, Gene Redd and Bobby might
rework the melody a little bit or change the lyrics and
cut one of the King artists on it. One time they
received a tape from a couple of unknown songwriters
named Sam Moore and David Prater, who later
became Sam and Dave. The song was called “The
Sweetest Letter.” At that time Bobby didn’t know how
people felt about having their music messed with; he
worked on it, and it eventually became a hit for Little
Willie John as the flip side of “Sleep.”
Mr. Brantly had called Bobby and told him about the
Apollo gig. When he showed up, I wasn’t surprised to
see him. I knew he still had performing in his blood.
All I said to him was “Byrd, we open in two days.” He
said: “Let’s get to rehearsing.”
I was a seasoned performer, but under the
circumstances I was a nervous wreck. The Apollo was
a special place: It was the venue for black entertainers;
it made a lot of people, but it broke a lot, too. For one
thing, the schedule was grueling. You got there at ten
o’clock in the morning because the first show was at
eleven, and you might do as many as six or seven
shows in one day. You ate there, slept there, and kept
rehearsing when you were not on stage. The audience
was very tough, too, and if they didn’t like you, they
let you know. Immediately. They made you work. The
other performers made you work, too. Everybody was
always trying to outdo everybody else. When you
went on, you tried to make it impossible for anybody
to follow you. I think that’s why its standard of
entertainment was so consistently high. We thought
about all this as we rehearsed. And then we rehearsed
Little Willie John was headlining the bill that week,
and he was hot. He had a string of hits: “All Around
the World,” “Let Them Talk,” “Talk to Me,” and
“Fever.” He was on King Records, too, and they were
lucky to have him because Mr. Nathan had once
turned him down. He was recommended to King at the
same time as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. When
Mr. Nathan signed them, he wouldn’t have anything to
do with Little Willie John. But Little Willie John was
a determined cat. He walked into King Records one
day and said: “I want to sing.” Mr. Nathan said, “What
can you sing?” He said, “I can sing anything.” And he
started singing right there in the office.
They signed him up right then and there, and he was
their pet for a long time. With all his hits, he
frequently headlined at the Apollo.
The Upsetters, fronted by Lee Diamond now, were on
the show, too, and I knew they could play. The rest of
the bill had the comedy team Butterbeans and Susie,
Verna White, the Senators, Vi Kemp, and me. To set
the record straight: the first time I played the Apollo
was on that Little Willie John bill the week of April
24, 1959. When Sandman Sims, who was the Apollo’s
stage manager for a lot of years, says he gave me a
shirt and shoes to use on amateur night, he’s telling
stories. I never competed on amateur night there.
By the time we got ready to hit the stage for the first
time that week, I had whipped the group into shape,
but we were way down on the bill. Little Willie John
didn’t want us to come on anywhere near him—he
knew what we could do—so they had us opening the
When they got through playing the Apollo theme
music and the curtain went up, I came out smoking.
The audience went wild. I don’t think they’d ever seen
a man move that fast. I put them on Little Willie
John’s case right away. During that time I closed my
set with “Please” and came out with a red suitcase that
said, “Please Please Please” on one side and “Baby,
Take My Hand” on the other. I fell to my knees and
one of the Flames patted me on the back, threw a coat
over my shoulders, and helped me off the stage. Little
Willie John couldn’t hardly handle it. When we came
off he said I was using tricks to get over.
We kept rehearsing between shows, getting sharper
and sharper. We were getting over so good that Frank
Schiffman, the owner of the Apollo, promised to move
us up to the co-starring spot before the week was up.
We really thought we had it going then. Here I’d
started out the week with almost no show and was
fixing to move up to the co-star slot. But something
went wrong. On the fourth or fifth day we were still
opening the show, and it didn’t seem right. The
audience had let us know how it felt, and when the
Apollo audience lets you know, it lets you know in no
uncertain terms.
I decided to make a move. After one of our sets, while
the audience was still stomping and cheering, I turned
to the fellas.
“Pack up the stuff,” I said. “Everybody grab a piece.
We’re leaving.”
Bobby grabbed a cymbal and the snare stand, Nat
Kendrick took more of the drum kit and Fats took
some stuff. The Flames each took a piece of
equipment, and we walked off the stage and straight
up the aisles, heading for the door. Mr. Schiffman saw
right away what we were doing. He stopped us at the
back of the theater.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he said.
“One Hundred and
Schiffman,” I said.
“You hear what those people are doing? We can’t
even get the other act on the stage with all the noise
they’re making.”
“That’s why we ought to be co-starring, sir,” I said.
He took a piece of drum out of one fella’s hands and
started back down the aisle with it. “As of now, you
are co-starring,” he said.
The next day we went on in the slot just before Willie
John. He couldn’t hardly stand it. He was a balladeer,
and I ate him alive. He could sing, though. Later on I
got where I could outsing him, too, but back then I
didn’t stop just to sing—I danced and sang and played
keyboards and drums and did everything. He was mad
because I beat him out. I can understand a fella getting
mad; nobody wants to be beaten out.
By the time the week was up I felt like the Apollo was
my natural home. We’d done so well that we were
already booked to make the rounds of the other big
theaters on the circuit—the Howard in Washington,
the Royal in Baltimore, and the Uptown in
Philly—and I figured that the Regal in Chicago would
fall into line pretty soon. The day after we finished at
the Apollo I was in my room at the Theresa, fixing to
leave for Washington, when somebody knocked on
the door.
“Come in,” I said.
I was gathering up my belongings, not really watching
the door. I heard it open, real slow, but that was all.
After a minute, when I realized how quiet it was, I
turned around. There was a small woman standing
there, not young, not old. I hadn’t seen her since I was
four years old, but when I looked at her I knew right
away it was my mother. I had no idea she was coming
to see me that day or any day.
“I’ve been looking for you for a long time,” I said.
“I’m glad to see you.”
She started to smile, and when she did I could see
she’d lost all her teeth. All I could think to say was,
“I’m going to get your mouth fixed for you.”
She didn’t say anything. She just walked toward me.
We hugged, and then I kissed my mother for the first
time in more than twenty years.
The Circuit
We went into the Howard in Washington still
co-starring with Little Willie John. I really thought I
had something going then, and I started doing a little
preaching before I sang, kind of doing the gospel
thing. I talked about situations like when you went to
see a lady and she had another boyfriend, blah, blah,
blah, and then I started singing “Please don’t go.” Or
you came home and she was getting ready to leave, or
something like that. Cats in the audience yelled,
“Don’t preach, sing.” Later on in the show, when I
leaned out over the footlights, singing, slapping hands,
sweating, really working, I loosened my tie and threw
it out. They threw it back to me. I said to myself,
“James, you got some work to do.”
The same thing happened to me later on at the Apollo.
The audiences on the whole theater circuit could be
tough, especially on amateur nights. At the Apollo
amateur night on Wednesdays, Sandman Sims sat up
in a side box wearing a big sombrero with Christmas
tree lights all around it. When the audience didn’t like
an act, they yelled up to Sandman. He blew on an old
trombone, and a cat called Porto Rico came out
wearing a hula skirt or something and chased the act
off the stage with a cap pistol. Anyway, with an
audience riled up like that, it could carry over to the
featured act.
At the Apollo you opened on a Friday, and amateur
night wasn’t until the next Wednesday. You had all
that time to win them over and let the word get out
about how good you were. At the Royal Theater in
Baltimore, where we went next, you opened on
Monday and amateur night was on Tuesday, so you
had only one day to establish yourself.
We got through the first night in Baltimore fine. Had
’em eating out of our hands, nothing to worry about,
even when we saw the audience coming in Tuesday
night. They came in rowdy and ready, with their
baskets of eggs, lettuce, tomatoes. It was their night to
howl, and if you did something they didn’t like, they
let you know. We had been warned: These people
come to throw. We weren’t worried, though. We knew
if we kept them up in the air all the time, hollering and
clapping, they wouldn’t have a chance to throw. We
did our stuff, singing and dancing and getting them up
out of their seats, when all of a sudden there came a
bottle. Bonk. Hit Bobby Bennett in the head and
knocked him flat. I looked over and saw Byrd and
them kind of dancing around him, trying to make it
look like part of the act and trying to get him up at the
same time. We started dancing harder. Bobby Bennett
got to his feet and began kind of dancing. Then came
the rest of the groceries. Byrd got hit with a
hard-boiled egg and a head of rotten lettuce. Tomatoes
went by. We were dancing and dodging, dodging and
dancing. We looked like boxers up there, bobbing and
weaving and looking out for the next shot.
After the show we were down in the dumps. We
couldn’t understand it. We’d killed ’em Monday night
and hadn’t nothing changed in the act, and here they
had thrown at us. We sat in the dressing room trying
to figure it out.
“It was all coming from one section,” I said.
“And most of it was at the Flames,” Byrd said.
Johnny Terry looked at Bobby Bennett. “And most of
that,” he said, “was at you.”
Bobby Bennett looked uncomfortable, and not just
from the bump on his head. He mentioned something
about some girls he’d been messing with when we
were in Washington. Finally, he admitted that it was
the girls and their friends who had done the throwing.
They’d come over to Baltimore from Washington.
After he told us that, we wanted to hit him with a
The rest of the week at the Royal went fine. We closed
Sunday night, took one day off, then went into the
Uptown in Philadelphia. I met a local disc jockey
there who talked to me about maybe getting “Try Me”
to Dick Clark to play on American Bandstand, which
at the time was still done in Philadelphia.
At the Uptown we were on a bill with the Drifters, the
Vibrations, and the Isley Brothers. Harold Melvin and
the Blue Notes, when they were called just the Blue
Notes, were there too. They did a big opening with the
chorus line and then came on later and did a few
tunes. This was still the era of the nice looking top hat
and cane groups like the Blue Notes; the rough
looking macho thing that we had hadn’t come into
style yet.
We weren’t headlining—the Isley Brothers were—but
we weren’t opening anymore, so on opening night we
sat in the wings and watched the first few acts. Fine.
Then here came the Vibrations—Carl Fisher, James
Johnson, David Govan, Richie Owens, and Don
Bradley. We had never seen them before, and we
couldn’t believe it. We thought we were the only ones
who jumped over each other and went into splits or
cut flips and wound up in a split, but the Vibrations
did it, too. They worked as hard as we did, and they
were nice-looking, too.
We sat there wondering how we were going to follow
this. When the Vibrations came off the stage, the
people were hollering so loud for them that you
couldn’t hardly hear our name announced. As we went
on I told the Flames to really work on our closing with
“Please.” We went out and did our show, and when
we got to the end they brought out the red suitcase. I
dropped to my knees, singing “Please,” and they
patted me on the back and put the coat over my
shoulders. I got up and then fell to my knees again.
We kept doing it, and the people became aroused. The
curtain closed, then it opened back up, and we went
out to take our bow. The people were on their feet,
stomping and cheering and yelling for us. We came
off saying, “Okay, we did pretty good; we got nothing
to worry about.” Then we saw the Isley Brothers
coming from the back of the theater, swinging on
ropes, like Tarzan, onto the stage. They hardly had to
sing at all. They’d already killed ’em. Between the
Vibrations and the Isley Brothers, we had some real
competition. Now we were saying, “Aw, naw, we got
nine more days of this.” But we perfected our closing,
and by the end of the run we put a pounding on both
of them.
By then the disc jockey was saying he’d take “Try
Me” to Dick Clark. I was very excited about it, until
he charged me $1,000 to do it, the rat. I love that
particular disc jockey to this day and I’d do anything
in the world for him right now, but he was a rat to do
that. I paid it, though.
Back in Macon we watched “Try Me” played on
American Bandstand. We had heard it was going to be
on, so we were all sitting around the Two Spot, Mr.
Brantly’s club, waiting for it. They played it on the
portion of the show where the kids rated the records.
One little girl said she liked it because you could
dance close to it, but she was the only one who said
anything good about it. The rest low-rated it pretty
bad. I think we got a thirty-something, a low
thirty-something. Man, it destroyed us. We were going
crazy, saying, “Naw, naw, this can’t be true.” I was
thinking; “I paid that jock a thousand dollars for
this?” Mr. Brantly, God bless his soul, cut us all off.
“Look,” he said, “this doesn’t mean the record can’t
be a hit. It already is a hit. So y’all just go on about
your business and keep it a hit.”
I knew Mr. Brantly was right. Keep working. And
that’s what we did, playing dates all over the South.
Some weren’t even our dates. We were playing a
place in Birmingham with the Primes—the group that
later became the Temptations—when Mr. Bart called
to say Hank Ballard had stayed too long recording in
Cincinnati and couldn’t make a date in Jackson,
Mississippi, at the Stephenson Ballroom. Mr. Bart
wanted us to replace them.
“But, listen,” he said, “don’t tell the audience who you
are. Since you’ve never played there and neither has
Hank, they won’t know the difference.”
“You want us to say we’re Hank and them?”
“Don’t say you are and don’t say you’re not, don’t say
anything. Just go on and do the gig.”
I thought I was through pretending to be other singers,
but we went over there to help out Mr. Bart. The
Stephenson Ballroom was a classy place where all the
nice looking groups with the hats and canes went. The
audience wasn’t ready for what we did; as a matter of
fact, they weren’t ready for Hank and them, either. All
they’d ever seen was the Flamingos and Billy Ward
and the Dominoes. We went out and threw the three
Midnighters’ tunes up front—“Work with Me,
Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby,” and “Annie’s Aunt
Fanny.” Then we jumped into our own thing. As soon
as we did our baseball routine with “Good Good
Lovin’,” we killed ’em. They gave us a standing
ovation. We’d already recorded “Good Good Lovin’”
but it hadn’t been released yet, so they still thought we
were the Midnighters. I stepped up to the microphone
and said, “This is our tune,” and we went into “Try
Me.” They recognized that. We did our own stuff the
rest of the evening, and naturally we closed with
“Please.” From that night on the Stephenson Ballroom
was ours. Every time we turned around after that, we
were back there.
Ever since the Uptown we’d worked on our closing
routine with “Please.” I’d fall to my knees and out
would come the coat to go around my shoulders. At
first, we used anybody’s coat that was laying around.
Might belong to one of the Flames or one of the fellas
in the band. It worked fine until people started hiding
their coats; cleaning bills were mounting up, and
didn’t nobody want their coat to be the one. So they
started bringing me a towel, like for a boxer. That was
effective, too. Then one night in Chattanooga on a bill
with B. B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland they brought
me the towel, and after a little bit I threw it into the
audience. They loved it, so we did it that way for a
good while.
Later on in that tour, when we were in Atlanta, we sat
around the hotel one day watching wrestling on
television. Gorgeous George was on, and when he got
through killing whoever he was killing, he started
walking around the ring taking his bows. A handler
followed him and threw a robe over his shoulders.
Gorgeous shook it off, went to another side of the
ring, and took another bow. The fella threw the robe
over him again, and George shook it off and took
another bow. Watching it, I said, “We got to get a
robe.” So we went out and got some store-bought
robes. Later on we got capes that I designed and had
tailor-made, but the whole thing really started coming
together while watching Gorgeous George.
Willie John or somebody might have said we were
using more tricks to get over, but they didn’t
understand that everything was developing at
once—the stage show, the band, the dancing, the
music. There were a lot of different aspects to what we
were doing. I wanted people to appreciate them, so I
decided to record the band on an instrumental and
kind of popularize the mashed potatoes at the same
time. Most entertainers today never really understand
that show business means just that, show business.
I’d been doing the mashed potatoes for years but I’d
never put a name to it. The dance had been around for
years, kind of of in the public domain, but nobody
ever did all the things with it that I did. My mashed
potatoes is really a combination of a lot of dances: the
applejack, the dolo, and the scallyhop. The scallyhop
takes off from the Lindy hop, the dolo is kind of like a
boxing routine, a slide, almost like the skate, and if
you put it all together, you have the James Brown.
Plus, I have a nerve control thing that I do that makes
my whole body tremble, and that adds a little bit more
to it than most people can do.
I knew that an instrumental built around the dance
could be a hit, but Mr. Nathan didn’t believe me. He
refused to let me cut it. I didn’t even argue with him
this time. I took it to Henry Stone who had Dade
Records in Miami. I knew him from my days at the
Palms there, and we had talked from time to time
about doing something together. Sometime late that
year, 1959, I cut the band on “(Do the) Mashed
Potatoes, Parts One and Two.” I did the vocal part and
then got a disc jockey, King Coleman, to dub his voice
over mine so I wouldn’t violate my contract with King
(if you listen close you can hear my voice under his).
We put it out under the name Nat Kendrick and the
Swans, and I used the name Rozier for my writing
credit. It was released in February 1960, made the R &
B top ten, and caused a lot of other people to put out
mashed potatoes records. I knew it was going to be a
hit, and so did Henry. Mr. Nathan should have, too.
I didn’t hold it against him, though. In November
1959 I cut “I’ll Go Crazy” and “This Old Heart” in
Cincinnati. The Try Me album was released, but it was
all stuff I did from 1956 to 1958. We kept touring,
which helped the records everywhere we went, and we
went everywhere. At the end of the year we went into
the Regal Theater in Chicago in the dead of winter. I
think we were on a bill with Gladys Knight and the
Pips and a few others, but what I remember best is that
we liked to froze walking just the one block from our
hotel to the theater every day.
On December 11 we went back into the Apollo for a
week with the Drifters, who had “True Love” and
“Dance with Me,” and Little Willie John, who had
“Let Them Talk” and “No Regrets.” The Apollo
couldn’t figure out who to headline so they headlined
all of us. I had done a lot of soul-searching and
fact-finding about different ways to get to an audience,
and we had gotten together and vowed that we would
work harder than anybody else while we were on
stage, no matter what. We still didn’t have all the hit
records Willie John and the Drifters had, but we were
getting over better than either one of them.
Consequently, this time at the Apollo was the one that
really got us straight in New York.
While we were there I went to Brooklyn to see my
mother again. From then on that’s what I did
whenever I went into the Apollo, so we could get to
know each other. At first she was a stranger to me
because she hadn’t raised me, but I knew it wasn’t her
fault. The whole thing was her and my father’s
business, and I stayed out of their business. All I cared
about was that she was my mother. I saw her, we
talked and talked, and eventually we got back into a
mother-and-son relationship. One thing I never did,
though, was tell her what I’d been through with the
house on Twiggs, prison, and parole. I wouldn’t do it.
I didn’t want to cause her a lot of pain and grief. She’s
my mother.
A Thousand and One Nighters
I worked all the time now, as many as 350 nights a
year, most of them one-night stands. I played every
place—arenas, auditoriums, clubs, ball parks,
armories, ballrooms, any place that had a stage or a
place you could put one. Pretty soon I became known
as the King of the One Nighters. I think I took the title
from Hank Ballard. But the more famous name that
came out of that time was given to me by Fats Gonder.
Fats used to emcee the shows, and one night—I don’t
even remember where we were—he introduced me
and ended up with: “And now, ladies and gentlemen,
here he is, the haaaaardest working man in show
business, Jaaaaaames Brown.”
A lot of the places I worked during that period don’t
exist anymore. After the municipal buildings opened
up to black performers, most of the black clubs
disappeared. By the mid-sixties integration killed them
off. Performers could go into a city auditorium and do
one show in front of five or ten thousand people,
instead of doing a whole bunch of shows every night
for a week in front of a few hundred. The Palms in
Jacksonville, one of the biggest clubs, held maybe two
thousand people, but the Jacksonville auditorium held
seven thousand. Before the clubs went under in Texas
you could work fifty days in fifty different places, and
it was the same thing in Georgia, South Carolina,
Mississippi, and Florida. After integration took hold,
those places just evaporated.
But before they did, I played them all, and when the
auditoriums and armories opened up, I played all of
them, too. When I played I gave good value for the
dollar, presenting a complete program and staying on
stage for hours at a time. When you’re on stage, the
people who paid money to get in are the boss, even if
it cost them only a quarter. You’re working for them.
I was on stage about eighty hours in an average
month. Wore out a lot of shoes that way and lost a lot
of weight, too. Every night I sweated off anywhere
from seven to ten pounds. In those days I built the
fluid back up by drinking beer after the show; later on
I took a saline and glucose solution intravenously.
Today, I drink Gatorade.
I started out on the road in Guy Wilson’s beat-up
station wagon in Toccoa, moved up to some
brand-new station wagons with Mr. Brandy, to a
Cadillac and a bus, to commercial airliners, and then
to three different private jets. It doesn’t matter how
you travel it, it’s still the same road. It doesn’t get
easier when you get bigger; it gets harder. And it will
kill you if you let it. There are lots of ways it can kill
you: accidents, shootings, drugs. If you don’t have the
stamina, you can even work yourself to death, like
Jackie Wilson did. The road has killed a lot of good
people: Jackie, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, all those
great entertainers.
But even if you live, you have to see to it that you last.
I wanted to last. I’d been a shoeshine boy, a jailbird,
and a janitor, and I had less than a seventh-grade
education: I knew there weren’t a lot of opportunities
for somebody like that. That’s reality. Reality is what
drives me. When I go around the streets of Augusta
today, the same streets I grew up on, it makes me
return to the stage and work that much harder.
To last you have to think about more than the
performance. I started carrying an entire show,
working every night, learning everything I could about
the business. When you travel with a whole show it
costs a lot more to run. You’ve got to draw and you’ve
got to make it pay for itself. One way you draw is to
have a good show in the first place; we had a good
one, and it was getting better all the time. You have to
be smart, too. Mr. Bart and I came up with all kinds of
ways to make the whole thing work. Most acts hooked
up with a regular promoter who gave them a
guaranteed amount of money for the date. Acts who
traveled all the time liked that system because they
knew in advance how much money they were going to
make and whether they’d have enough money to pay
their people and get to the next town. It was
comfortable, but it was limited. I thought we should
promote our own shows. You take a bigger risk, but if
you’re good and smart, you can make a lot more than
a guarantee.
A lot of the promoters were in trouble financially. An
entertainer can always tell what shape the economy’s
in by how the promoters are doing. Hard times don’t
affect attendance that much, but they affect promoters.
I could tell from all the trouble promoters were having
coming up with guarantees in 1958 that the country
was in a recession. You’re just traveling, not thinking
about things like economics, but you can always tell.
Instead of working through a promoter we sometimes
rented the venue ourselves, taking all the risks—and
the profit. A lot of times, we co-promoted with local
disc jockeys (I think we were the first in the R & B
field to do that). The jocks had the placards put up and
made sure the tickets were on sale at all the outlets.
There was no Ticketron or Chargit then; independent
people sold the tickets—drugstores, barbershops, and
things. Someone had to make sure the tickets were
distributed and that we received a correct count.
Counterfeit tickets were a big problem then, too, and
somebody had to stay on top of that.
We worked with disc jockeys because we knew they’d
make sure the people heard about the show coming in,
and it created good will with the jocks so they’d play
our records before and after our arrival. I knew how
little jocks got paid and co-promoting was a way to
help them stay honest. See, the people who ran the
radio stations created the whole payola thing by
underpaying the jocks, knowing the jocks could get
money from the record companies. They let the whole
payola situation develop, but when the time came for
somebody to take the fall, it was the jocks, not the
owners. By co-promoting with jocks, I helped them
make the kind of money they deserved—honestly.
After I got me a Cadillac to travel in, I started doing
some of the advance work myself. The show traveled
in the bus while Mr. Bart, Byrd, and I, and maybe
Johhny Terry, raced on ahead in the car. I went to the
next town as soon as I could and visited the radio
stations and did interviews. I talked to program
directors, telling them how well our records were
doing. If they didn’t believe me, I called Roy Emory,
King’s promotion manager, and got him to tell them
how many orders we had for a particular record. Mr.
Bart checked with the ticket outlets, and Byrd went to
the hall and straightened out the band when it got
there. Then I went over to the hall, checked out the
sound, and rehearsed the group if I thought we needed
it. It might look like riding in the car made things
easier for me, but really it made it harder because it
allowed me to do all that extra work.
On the way to the next town, Mr. Bart and I discussed
how the gig went, how we could make it better, and
how we ought to promote it the next time. The funny
thing was that he wasn’t even managing me then.
Officially, he was my booking agent, but we were
becoming more like partners even then in 1959 and
1960. He had other acts at Universal, but he spent all
his time out there with me, and we developed a special
relationship. He called me Jimmy—just about the only
person who ever did—and I called him Pop. He was
like a father to me; we had mutual respect and we had
One time he said to me, “Jimmy, you’re going to
outlast them all—Jackie, Clyde McPhatter, Little
Willie John—all of them.”
“What you talking about, Pop?” I said.
“You’re going to last in this business longer than
anybody else,” he said.
“Why you say that, Pop?”
“Because you’re intelligent.”
I couldn’t understand that then. Still can’t. But I was
smart enough to know that a big group had to have
discipline to succeed, like Billy Ward had with the
Billy had a rule that everybody had to be inside the
theater forty-five minutes before they were supposed
to hit. That way, if anything was wrong, you had time
to take care of it. Billy lined up his group and
inspected the uniforms and shoes. He carried a long
tablet, and if a uniform was wrinkled or shoes weren’t
shined, he recorded a fine by the person’s name. I
watched him do this backstage once when Jackie
Wilson, the lead singer then, came in about four or
five minutes late. Billy chewed him out right there,
saying, “This is the second time you’ve done this. You
do it again, and the substitute will take your place.”
Billy always traveled with an extra person who could
go on as a substitute. Jackie said, “I’m sorry. It won’t
happen again,” and then went out and did a fantastic
With the original Flames I didn’t worry about that
stuff too much because we had all come up together
and everything went smooth naturally. But when my
show got bigger and I was hiring people, I saw that we
had to have discipline. I put in a system of fines—so
much for a dirty uniform, for unshined shoes, for
being late. If somebody showed up drunk, he sat out
and might get fired. Some of the cats resented the
fines, but I think it gave me the tightest band in show
business. I abided by the rules, too. I fined myself.
When I fined somebody else, I didn’t keep the money
but put it in a pot to pay for parties later. I wouldn’t
take anybody’s money.
When we had a chance and were in the right city, we
recorded. When we were traveling out west, we
recorded in Hollywood; up North, we recorded in New
York; in the South and Midwest we went to the King
studios in Cincinnati; and we recorded in Miami, too.
A session might last thirty or forty minutes, or it might
last twelve hours, however long it took. Usually it
didn’t take too long, though, because by the time I
went in the studio I knew what I wanted. The material
had already been worked over every kind of way on
stage and in rehearsal. Most times we came out of a
recording session with at least three masters; then
King had a stockpile of material to draw on for
Out on the road I probably had as much fun as most
and more fun than the poor, but I never abused it.
Besides, I still lived with Dessie back in Macon. Later
on I tended to go with whoever was my lead female
singer on the show at the time. So, on the road, she’d
be with me.
I smoked like the rest of ’em, but I didn’t get any
further than that because I think cigarettes are worse
than marijuana. I didn’t use hard drugs; I never
wanted to get so deep into something that it got me. I
know some of the fellas from the old school who
smoked marijuana all their lives, but they didn’t get
any further than that. Those are the people who are
still around.
At one time I was into the whiskey drinking thing. Put
seven shots of whiskey and one shot of wine in a
glass—it was called a zombie. Boy, drink one of them
and you start flipping over, and you can’t imagine
what you had or hadn’t done. That’s another kind of
Every once in a while we had trouble traveling in the
South, but not too much. I always conducted myself
like a gentleman, and I think people respected that.
We didn’t go looking for trouble, either. But
sometimes we were on a tour with white acts like the
Dovells or Jay and the Americans, and at certain
places where we stopped to eat we had to send them in
to get the food. Once in Jackson, Mississippi, those
two groups and the Hollywood Argyles, the ones who
did “Alley Oop,” checked into a hotel and got our
rooms, too. Then here we come, all these black folks.
The desk clerk gave a phony smile and said he’d made
a mistake; he didn’t have as many rooms as he
thought, and we couldn’t stay there. The other groups
standing there heard this, so one of the boys in Jay and
the Americans came over to the desk and told the
clerk, “Well, I think I made a mistake, too. My group
is checking out.” One of the Dovells came right
behind him. “We made the same mistake. My group’s
checking out.” One of the Argyles came over and said,
“Well, I guess that makes it unanimous. Check us out,
too.” The desk clerk liked to had a fit. He called the
manager over, and they spoke together a long while.
Then the manager sent the clerk away, came over, and
checked us all in himself like we’d just walked in the
More often I had trouble with transportation or with
promoters. Next to his instruments, the most important
thing to an entertainer is his transportation. Maybe
more important because he can always borrow or rent
equipment for the gig, but first he has to get there. The
original Flames had all kinds of trouble when we were
using Guy Wilson’s raggedy station wagon. We were
late to a gig at a club in Birmingham because the car
was acting up. When we finally got there, we pulled in
front instead of going around to the back like we
usually did, grabbed our stuff, and went on in. The
people were already seated, waiting for us, so we went
right to the stage and killed ’em—one of the best
shows the original Flames ever did. When we were
done we went out to the station wagon, but it wouldn’t
crank. We started pushing it, but now the people were
coming out. We didn’t want them to see us pushing
our car, so we put our shoulders to the back of it and
ducked our heads down by the side, hiding. We got
the thing rolling, and Byrd jumped in so wouldn’t
nobody see him. I jumped in, too. I wasn’t going to let
’em see me, either. Some of the other fellas hopped in.
Now the station wagon was picking up speed. Cats
were diving in through the back window. We were
rolling down a hill, fixing to pop the clutch and kick
the motor over. We thought we’d got away clean, but
when we peeped over the back of the seat we saw
Sylvester and Nash running after us in their uniforms
with their bags. They were holding their arms straight
down at their sides, trying to run real dignified. The
people were standing there cheering ’em on. When
they caught up to us and jumped in, the people
See, you’re an entertainer, trying to be a star, and you
think you have to keep up appearances. During the
“Try Me” period, when I got a brand-new 1959 red
Cadillac, we kept the windows rolled up to pretend we
had air conditioning, no matter how hot it was. We
had the name of the group painted on the car and on
the trailer that we pulled behind it, and we wanted
people to think we had that cool air. If we stopped in
traffic, the windows were zipped up tight. We even
did it out west, crossing the desert. If a car came up
behind to pass us, up went the windows. Luckily,
there wasn’t much traffic on those western highways.
When we pulled in for gas or something, we had the
windows shut. One time we stopped at a gas station
somewhere in the desert; I don’t remember where it
was, but it felt like Death Valley. We sat there, and the
service station attendant moved real slow so we
started to sweat. This little old white lady in her car at
the next pump watched us. We smiled and sweated,
sweated and smiled. Now it was really getting hot.
The service station man disappeared, going after our
change—we just did crack the window to pay
him—and we were boiling. But we weren’t going to
lower the windows. When she couldn’t stand it
anymore, the little old lady jumped out of her car,
jerked open one of our doors, and yelled, “Get out
quick before all you niggers die in there.”
On that same trip, on a long flat stretch of highway,
cruising along, we all felt kind of drowsy in the heat.
The car was so crowded that sometimes Bobby
Bennett rode in the equipment trailer, which had vents
in it and wasn’t any hotter than the car, and it gave
everybody else more room. I was driving, just
daydreaming, when I thought I saw something pass us.
It was beginning to get dark so I couldn’t really see
good, but I thought it was kind of a strange-looking
vehicle and it was passing us on the desert, not on the
road. I said to Byrd, who was dozing, “Byrd, it’s a
funny looking kind of something going by out there.”
He glanced out real casual, yawning. “Look kind of
like our trailer, don’t it?” he said.
“Sure do,” I said.
“Matter of fact, it look exactly like our trailer.”
We jerked around in the seat and looked behind us.
Nothing but empty highway stretched out back there.
Byrd looked back at the trailer bumping over the
desert with Bobby Bennett in it. “I thought the car was
running awful smooth all of a sudden,” he said. The
trailer mowed down a few cactus before it finally
stopped. We had to pull Bobby Bennett out from
under a pile of drums, but he was all right. He didn’t
want to ride in the trailer again, though.
That California trip was the first time we ever ran into
Ike and Tina Turner, too. We were playing a place
called the Five Four Ballroom in Los Angeles when
they walked in to catch our show. Ike was already well
known by then, and Tina was just getting out there
good. They watched us a while, and then when I was
singing “Good Good Lovin’,” Tina jumped up on
stage and joined in, singing it like she’d been doing it
all her life. The Flames backed off and let the two of
us go to work. She stayed right with me. I did a spin,
she did a spin. I did a slide, she did a slide. We were
bringing down the house and I wanted it to end with a
bang, so I spun around, backed up, mashed potatoes
over to the piano, jumped on top of it while she was at
the microphone singing, and then flew off the piano
and landed in a split on the stage. I thought that ought
to just about do it. But she wasn’t finished. She spun
around, backed up, mashed potatoes over to the piano,
jumped up on it, and then she jumped off onto the
stage and landed in a split. We really upset the place
that night. Ike came up and sat in on a song, and then
Tina and I did “Please”; and she got down on her
knees and everything. That lady knew what to do on a
stage from the first.
The next day Tina brought the newspaper by our
motel to show us the big write-up we’d gotten. We
used to stay at a place called the Nighty Night Motel,
and when we weren’t making too much money the
manager let us stay for free. Like a lot of people, he
saw something in us and wanted to help, and he was
fascinated by the fact that the maids didn’t have to do
any cleaning in our rooms. We emptied the trash,
swept, whatever.
I think that write-up was probably the first we’d ever
seen about us. It said we were “the picture of
entertainment,” and when it got to Tina it said, “Don’t
tell me what a woman can’t do.” We talked to Ike and
Tina about doing a tour together. They were getting
ready to spend a lot of time in the studio, so they
couldn’t do it right away, but we all agreed we’d like
to someday. We never did get it together. On the road
after that, it always seemed like they were right behind
us or right in front of us.
Seemed like a lot of things were always happening to
us in California. I was playing the El Monte Legion
Hall for Alan Freed in Compton once when the bus
was broken into. A lot of equipment was taken and
some of the fellas’ uniforms. You can replace
instruments on short notice, but not uniforms. Some
red suits and some blue ones were taken, so I had the
cats go on in whatever suit they had. Afterwards,
people told us how fantastic the mixed colors looked,
so we kept it in the show.
At another gig I got to the club a little late, and the
band was already on stage doing their set. They
usually opened with “Do the Mashed Potatoes,” and
that’s what they were playing when I showed up. I
couldn’t understand it because I knew they’d been on
for a good while already, but later I found out they’d
played it over and over because of a cat sitting at the
front and center table. Each time they finished playing
it, he requested it again and flashed a pistol at Nat
Kendrick. Couldn’t nobody see the gun but the fellas
on the stage. After they’d played it five or six times,
the cat stood up and said: “I sure do like that tune.”
Then he left.
Promoters can cause you problems on the road, too.
Most times, you’ve never seen ’em in your life until
you show up for the gig, so you don’t have any idea
whether they’re honest. I was playing a club in North
Carolina one time—I was up on stage, doing my
show—when I saw the promoter leave the door with
the cash box, so there was nobody on the door, and it
looked to me like a bunch of people were coming in
free. I spun around and mashed potatoes over to Byrd,
and he did a slide over toward me; we talked it over
while we were dancing.
“That man’s done left,” I said.
“Who are all these people coming in?” Byrd said.
We danced and talked about it some more—you can
do a lot of talking that way—and I said, “Let’s stop.”
So we stopped right in the middle of the song. I went
to the mike and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we want
to finish our show, but I don’t see the promoter on the
door. I don’t even see a doorman over yonder, and all
these people are coming in. We have to get this
straightened out before we go on.”
By now the people had been drinking a long time and
were having fun, and they didn’t want to hear nothing
about no money or stopping no music. Some of ’em
started toward the stage. I gave the band a downbeat
and the music started. I mashed potatoes back over to
Byrd for more conversation. “They look like they’re
getting ugly,” he said.
I looked over at the door, at the stream of people
coming in. Finally I said, “Man, I’m not going for
this,” and I stopped the music again. The people
started booing then. Some started throwing bottles,
glasses, and stuff like that. Windows started busting
out. Before long it was a complete riot. We fought
them off the bandstand and tried to protect ourselves.
During this time I had a bodyguard called Baby
James. He saw what was fixing to happen and he ran
out to the bus and got a .22 rifle we had fixed so it
would shoot like a machine gun (nineteen rounds with
one squeeze of the trigger). He came running back in
and shot a burst, brrrrrrppppp, right across the ceiling.
The people spread out then, and he was able to get to
us. He gave me a pistol while the other fellas grabbed
as much of our stuff as they could. We went charging
out of there; me in the lead with the pistol shooting,
pow, pow, pow, into the ceiling, and Baby James
bringing up the rear with the rifle, brrrrpppp.
Everybody ran out and jumped on the bus, and it
started to pull out. But the cats carrying the amplifiers
couldn’t keep up, so we slowed down for them to
jump on. The people came pouring out of the club and
piled into trucks and cars and started after the bus.
Now they had their guns and were shooting at us.
Somebody yelled, “Get on the floor. Everybody lay
down.” We hit the floor and rode all the way out of
town that way, window glass busting over our heads.
We never did get our money. Never did go back to
that town, either.
A similar incident happened in Kentucky during the
same period—the promoter walked off the door with
the money. But this particular club had glass all
around the back and I could see him leaving, so I
stopped the band like I’d done in North Carolina. This
time I said to the fellas, “Everybody, put something in
your hand.” They all grabbed mike stands, drum
stands, anything they could hit somebody with. A
bunch of us walked off the bandstand and cornered the
man outside while Fats explained from the stage about
the previous incident in North Carolina. This time the
audience cheered. They didn’t do anything to us
because they knew the promoter was a crook. He was
always promoting shows with big names and then
switching the bill to unknowns at the last minute and
refusing to give refunds.
But somebody had called the police. Before they got
there, Baby James had gotten me to the airport and on
the plane for Cincinnati with our money. I had started
flying on ahead of the rest by then so I could do
advance work and be rested for the show. I hadn’t
wanted to do it at first, but Byrd and them insisted. He
said that no matter what else happened, if I was rested
then we knew we had a good show.
It turned out that one of the policemen was related to
the promoter, and the others knew him well. He told
them the cats were trying to rob him. That was it.
They took the band, the Flames, and everybody to jail
and charged ’em with armed robbery. On top of that,
the police found a five-dollar bag of reefer on one of
the cats in the band. Back then, a five-dollar bag
wasn’t some little sandwich wrapper full, it was a bag.
Now the fellas were really in trouble.
I was up in Cincinnati trying to get them out. They
finally got out by giving up all the watches, rings, and
money they had on them. But they wouldn’t let out the
cat who had the reefer. To get him out I had to send
back to the promoter the money we’d made on the gig.
We found out later that the promoter also got the
fellas’ watches, rings, and money.
No matter what happened on the road, I was always
developing the show, picking up new ideas, new
sounds. There was one sound, though, I couldn’t hear
anywhere but in my head. I didn’t have a name for it,
but I knew it was different. See, musicians don’t think
about categories and things like that. They don’t say, I
think I’ll invent bebop today or think up rock ’n’ roll
tomorrow. They just hear different sounds and follow
them wherever they lead. Let somebody else give it a
name. Like they’d named the stuff we’d been doing
rhythm and blues. It would take the world a long time
to catch up to what we were fixing to do, but when
they did, they gave it a name, too: soul.
Apollo Three, Four, Five...
You can hear the thing starting to change on the
records I put out during the beginning of 1960. I was
changing before that, but that’s when you can hear it.
“I’ll Go Crazy” came out in January; “Think” and
“You’ve Got the Power” were released in May. “I’ll
Go Crazy” is a blues, but it’s a different kind of blues,
up-tempo, a kind of jazz blues. “Think” is a
combination of gospel and jazz—a rhythm hold is
what we used to call it. Soul really started right there,
or at least my kind did. See when people talk about
soul music they talk only about gospel and R & B
coming together. That’s accurate about a lot of soul,
but if you’re going to talk about mine, you have to
remember the jazz in it. That’s what made my music
so different and allowed it to change and grow after
soul was finished.
Recording “Think” was the strangest thing because the
Five Royales were good friends of mine. Lowman
Pauling, the leader of the group, wrote the song, and
they had a pretty good R & B hit with it in 1957. King
Records wanted me to cut it in 1960 at the same
session I did “You’ve Got the Power,” but I didn’t
want to. I knew that if I did, it would hurt the Five
Royales. They were good, but they were still doing
straight R & B while I was reaching for a different
I held off until they cut “Please Please Please,” then I
decided it would be all right to cut “Think.” The
record turned out to be my third million seller and it
did even better than “I’ll Go Crazy.” Unfortunately,
“Please” didn’t do anything for the Five Royales. It’s
a funny thing about that song. Nobody else could ever
do anything with it. Tina Turner cut it and Barbara
Lewis cut it, but it was like a death song for
them—when they sang it, they sang their own epitaph.
“You’ve Got the Power” was a duet with Bea Ford,
Joe Tex’s ex-wife. I met her not long after they broke
up, and we started dating, but I didn’t know she’d
been married to Joe, and she didn’t tell me. That was
the beginning of a lot of misunderstandings between
Joe and me. He died thinking I’d messed with his
woman. Bea stayed with the show for most of 1960,
but that was the only time we recorded together.
Really, 1960 was the year my hard work started
paying off. I played all those one-nighters around the
country, and worked more and more on the stage
show, and recorded all the time. In August “This Old
Heart” and “Wonder When You’re Coming Home”
came out. In the fall, while we were playing gigs in
California, we went into United Recording Studios in
Hollywood and cut “I Don’t Mind,” “Baby, You’re
Right,” “Come Over Here,” “I Do Just What I Want,”
“Tell Me What You’re Gonna Do,” and an
instrumental of “Hold It.” In November “Please” and
“Why Do You Do Me” were re-released, and “The
Bells,” and “I Do Just What I Want” came out.
“The Bells,” which the Dominoes did back when
Clyde McPhatter was still with them, was my first
release on the King label. Everything else for Mr.
Nathan had been on Federal. Being on King meant
you got more support from the company. Mr. Nathan
finally realized I was too strong for Federal, and he
had to put me on King.
But the more the music changed, the less some of Mr.
Nathan’s people understood it As soon as the band
started playing for the first take when we were cutting
“I Don’t Mind,” Gene Redd and I got into it about the
arrangement. It opens with a 13, goes down to a C9,
then goes to a G7 and to the A7. He couldn’t
understand that. He stopped us and said, “That’s a
wrong note.”
“If you could hear it,” I said, “you’d know it was
right. I can hear it, and I’m telling you it’s right. And
that’s the way we’re going to record it, or we’re not
going to record it at all.”
He backed off, and we went on and did it like we’d
been doing it on the road for months, except for the
mistake Les Buie made on guitar that sounded so good
I made him leave it in.
By the time I went back into the Apollo in December,
all the hard work had earned me the headliner’s spot.
It wasn’t because of a particular record but because of
hard work. Hard work got me there, and I knew hard
work would keep me there and maybe take me beyond
On that particular bill we also had Maurice Williams
and the Zodiacs, who had “Stay”; the Olympics, who
had “Western Movies”; Wini Brown; Larry Williams;
Sam “The Man” Taylor, the sax man who did a lot of
session work on those good Atlantic records; and
Pigmeat Markham, the comedian who was best known
for his “here come de judge” routine.
For my first time headlining at the Apollo I wanted to
do a spectacular finale for each show. I’d been
jumping off the piano into a split for a while, but this
time I had them move the piano nearer the edge of the
stage. Finale came and I got up on the piano and
jumped. Everybody thought I was jumping onto the
stage. But I cleared the stage and went on and plunged
down to the main floor way below the stage. I hit it
clean and came up out of it fine, but I didn’t make it
back to the stage like I’d planned. As soon as I came
out of the split, the people were on me, tearing me
apart. The Flames had to come down to help get me
out of there.
After the first show, Pigmeat came to my dressing
room and told me how much he liked the jumping off
the piano. Then he came up with the idea that for the
midnight show I should swing out over the crowd on a
wire like Peter Pan—a thin wire so that the audience
wouldn’t see it. Make it look like I was flying. I said
no, that really would be using tricks to get over.
Pig was one of the greatest entertainers to hit the
stage. He had a lot more material than the judge
routine, but that’s the one everybody saw him do later
on Ed Sullivan. Like a lot of comedians, Pig was a
serious man offstage; it was like night and day. He did
all that wild vaudeville stuff, and when he came off he
was very self-possessed. I think he must have been
educated, too, because he was very well-spoken. I was
honored to have him on my show because as a kid I
had seen him in movie shorts and always admired
The next week I met Louis Jordan, another idol I had
seen in the movies. He was following us into the
Apollo, so I stayed over for a day to see him. It was
the first time I’d ever watched him live. He was a very
sick man, but he still put on a great show. Afterwards,
I got a chance to talk with him for a few minutes and
told him what he’d meant to me as a performer. Told
him that, beginning when I was a kid, I’d probably
sung “Caldonia” almost as many times as he had. He
was a good man, and he still hasn’t gotten his due.
Less than three months later I was back at the Apollo
again. In the meantime, I recorded “Lost Someone,”
“Dancin’ Little Thing,” “You Don’t Have to Go,”
“Night Train,” and “Shout and Shimmy.” All of those
tunes were recorded on one day, February 9, 1961, in
the King studios. With “Lost Someone” I was trying
to get a pop hit; I based it on the chord changes of
Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” which
was popular at the time. The next day I recorded five
more tunes at King. We really had a groove going, and
I didn’t want to stop. When we were ready to cut
“Night Train,” Nat Kendrick, the drummer, said he
had to go to the bathroom.
I said, “Naw, I got the feel and I want to cut now.”
“But, man, I got to go,” he said.
“All right,” I said, “you go on, and I’ll play drums.”
He stepped out, and I cut it with me playing drums
and singing and that’s the version that became a hit.
It didn’t become a hit right away because we had so
many tunes in the can that some of them wouldn’t be
released for a year or more. “Night Train” didn’t come
out for thirteen months. Consequently, a lot of times
I’d find myself with a big hit a year or two after I cut
it and several years after I wrote it and first put it in
the show. It didn’t make any difference; no matter
when they came out the records were still ahead of
their time. Matter of fact, I also released “Bewildered”
during this time, the tune I had cut on the “Try Me”
session and hid from Mr. Nathan for a long time.
The engagement at the Apollo was in place of Jackie
Wilson. A lady fan had shot Jackie in a hotel room in
New York; he was hurt pretty bad and had to stay in
Roosevelt Hospital for a while. When it looked like he
wouldn’t recover as fast as they thought he would, Mr.
Schiffman booked us in there. By this time Jackie had
left the Dominoes and was doing well as a single. He
had “To Be Loved,” which Berry Gordy wrote,
“Lonely Teardrops,” “That’s Why,” and “I’ll Be
Satisfied.” He had a pretty good stage show, too, but I
don’t know why anybody would say he influenced me.
He didn’t influence me. Jackie tried to copy from me.
I got nothing from him; he had nothing for me to get
from him. He was singing pop stuff, and I didn’t want
to do that.
I used to come by and see Jackie when he was
working, but it caused too much tension. See, I had
caught up with Jackie real quick. And he knew that. I
knew more about music than he did, I had more of a
gospel background than he did, and I wrote all my
own material. It intimidated him when I came around.
He got shaky and couldn’t perform.
What got Jackie through was his complexion. During
that time, if you were light-complexioned, you had it.
I was the one who made the dark-complexioned
people popular. It’s like Ethel Waters and Lena Horne.
Ethel Waters was more popular with black people than
Lena Horne, but Ethel was dark skinned and
dark-skinned people couldn’t make it. Eventually
dark-skinned people did make it, but it took a long
time for the change to come about. It started
happening with Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole
probably did more for the dark-skinned man than
anybody of his era. After I came out in 1968 with
“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” it was all
over. The dark-skinned man had all of a sudden
become cosmopolitan.
But I loved Jackie. He was a nice person. I liked him
ever since I saw him singing with the Dominoes. The
best one to come out of that group, though, was Clyde
McPhatter, not Jackie, but Clyde was too dark.
Just before we went into the Apollo this time, we’d
gotten five specially tailored new uniforms I designed
for me and the Flames. They cost $500 apiece, which
was a lot of money for stage uniforms. When a
newspaper columnist found out I had insured the suits
for $2,500 for the week-long engagement, he wrote
that I must not trust my Harlem fans. I guess he was
saying that I thought they’d steal the suits, but he
didn’t realize that when I jumped off the stage and got
down in the audience, they’d tear at my clothes, like
audiences have done to a lot of entertainers. He was
trying to make the whole thing into an insult because
he didn’t understand the kind of love audiences can
have for entertainers.
By this time Bea Ford and I had broken up, and she’d
left the show. She was replaced by Sugar Pie De
Santo, who had been part of a duo called Sugar Pie
and Pee Wee. Etta James was on that Apollo bill, too.
Etta had been big in the mid-fifties, then had quit
recording for about five years because of some
personal problems. But she’d come back big with
tunes like “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “My Dearest
Darling,” “At Last,” and “Trust in Me.” She was
always a dynamic performer, and a beautiful woman,
too. A lot of times, though, her personal problems got
in the way of her performing. Promoters and club
owners always told me how much trouble they had
with her; they couldn’t count on her to be in shape to
go on. They couldn’t handle Etta. Nobody could talk
to her but me—she believed in James Brown. On the
first show of the week she wasn’t able to get through
but one number. I took her to my dressing room and
talked to her for a long time about what she was doing
to the show and what she was doing to herself. For the
rest of the week she didn’t have any problem.
When we weren’t playing the theaters, we were doing
the one-nighters, traveling all the time. You see a lot
of the country that way; you see it but you don’t see it.
You often don’t know what’s really going on in a
particular city. In May 1961 we were doing a lot of
southern gigs that it was easier for me to drive to than
fly to. One day I stopped with Byrd, Bobby Bennett,
and one or two others to eat at the Trailways bus
station in Birmingham. Black entertainers traveling
around the South frequently ate at bus stations. Their
cafeterias were segregated, so you knew where you
stood—you knew you could get something to eat
without any hassle.
We walked into the “colored” side, sat down, and
started eating. Pretty soon we heard hollering and
cursing coming from the white side. We stood up and
looked over the little partition separating the two sides
to see what was going on. All these black people were
standing around the door waiting to get a seat on the
“white only” side. Most of ’em looked like they might
be college kids, and there were a few whites with
them. Byrd and I recognized one white boy who had
been president of a fraternity the original Flames had
played for. One of the white men sitting at the lunch
counter got up and left in a hurry. You could see he
didn’t want any part of whatever was going to happen.
As soon as he got up, a black kid went over and sat
down. The white man next to him said, “What’re you
doing sitting here, nigger? You can’t sit by me. What
do you think you’re doing?” And then bap, the white
man knocked him off the stool. The minute he was
knocked off, another came over and sat down. Then
all hell broke loose. People started beating up the kids,
throwing things, tearing up the place.
We took off for the car. Outside, there were all these
people who had come down on the bus. Turned out
they were the Freedom Riders. The college kids inside
had come out to help them integrate the diner. We
didn’t know what a Freedom Rider was; all we knew
was that there was a bunch of bleeding and beat-up
people staggering around, trying to get back on the
bus, and a whole bunch of white folks was coming
after ’em with clubs.
We jumped in the car and pulled out onto the street.
The bus pulled out right behind us, getting right on our
tail, honking and trying to get around us. We moved
over and let it go by, then we looked around behind
and and saw why it wanted to get around us so bad:
Chasing the bus were trucks and cars full of white
folks waving axe handles and baseball bats. Now we
were between them and the bus, and we knew they
weren’t going to care which side of the cafeteria we
were sitting on. Now we were right on the bus’s tail
and trying to get around it. The trucks were on our tail
trying to go through us. Soon as we had a chance we
turned off and got away, and kept on going until we
were sure none of the trucks had turned off after us.
We found out later that they caught the bus, burned it,
and beat up the people real bad.
It’s hard to believe, but we didn’t encounter much
racial trouble back then, except when we were out on
the road with white groups. Then we ran into
discrimination at hotels and places to eat, but because
we were in show business, I think people mostly just
left us alone.
As soon as we finished playing all over the South, we
were up North again and into the theaters. In the last
week of September we were headlining at the Apollo
again on a bill with Ben E. King, the Spinners, Lee
Dorsey, and Pigmeat. Ben E. King left the Drifters the
year before and already had hits with “Spanish
Harlem” and “Stand by Me.” The Spinners was a new
group, put together by Harvey Fuqua, the one who had
the Moonglows; Lee Dorsey had a song called
“Ya-Ya” that was taking off for him; and Pigmeat did
his thing. Sugar Pie De Santo was still doing her spot
as part of my show, but she was about to leave. She
was under contract to another record company, and I
couldn’t cut her on anything with me, so it was best
for both of us for her to go on her own.
During this round of the theaters we were on a bill
with the Chantels at the Uptown in Philadelphia. One
of the young ladies singing with that group, Yvonne
Fair, impressed me by how hard she worked. I could
see she was conscientious, always on time, always
ready to go on no matter what happened. I really dug
that because the bigger the revue got, the more
problems there were. A lot of people think that what’s
hard is when you’re first starting out and playing all
the little juke joints and everything, but it’s not so. It’s
a lot harder when you have a big organization to run.
Somebody who’s reliable is a big asset in that
situation, so I asked Yvonne to join my show. She
finished up her work with the Chantels and joined the
revue about two weeks later in Phoenix. I also added
the Hortense Allen Dancers to the show, and they
joined us in Phoenix, too; later on I renamed them the
While we were in Philadelphia that time, the Flames
and I appeared on American Bandstand for the first
time. I was glad to make American Bandstand; it was
going to be my first time on national television, and I
was nervous. Dick Clark did everything he could to
make us comfortable. He said, “Now that you’ve
gotten used to playing big places, does it bother you to
have people standing close to you while you
“Nosir,” I said. “After all the small clubs I played, it
makes me nervous when they’re not crowded in on
We lip-synced “I Don’t Mind” and “Baby, You’re
Right” with no band, and they had a few couples
dancing close while we did it. The lip-syncing was
easy, we’d done the songs so often, but I was still
nervous inside, saying to myself, “Lord, let us be a
hit.” We were still worried when we got through
because some of the fellas had gotten behind the lyrics
and some had gotten ahead, and we were afraid it
would look bad. Then we saw the tape. All the little
hand gestures the Flames did went across their faces,
so it was all right.
We talked to Dick. He was a good man, always has
been. A real gentleman. He was concerned about the
kids who danced on the show going straight home
afterward. He said sometimes the parents called, and
he felt responsible. That’s the kind of man he is.
We introduced ourselves to the little girl who had
given “Try Me” a high number when everybody else
low-rated it. We gave her tickets to the show we were
doing that night in Philadelphia, and we took her, her
mother, and her little brother to dinner.
In January 1962, after the western swing, I cut Yvonne
at Dukoff Studios in Miami on a song called “I Found
You.” It’s practically the same song I had the hit on in
1965 called “I Got You (I Feel Good).” When I cut it
myself, I just changed the lyric slightly. She did a
good job on the song, right down to the holler.
In the spring the revue played all around California
again. In Los Angeles we were at the Shriners
Auditorium on a bill with Aretha Franklin, Tito
Puente, Chico Hamilton, and several others. I met
Aretha for the first time. She had a real strong gospel
background—her father was the Reverend C. L.
Franklin—and she could really sing from the first. At
that time she had hit with “Rock a Bye Your Baby to a
Dixie Melody.” We became close after that show.
What I liked about her right away was how smart she
was; you could tell just talking to her once. I guess
you could say that she was my girlfriend for a while,
but it was hard for us to get together because we were
both working all the time. We managed to see each
other only about three or four times over the next year
or so.
The same show, with all the other acts, went over to
Long Beach, where it was picketed by the Muslims.
Whenever they felt there were enough good black acts
to fill out a show that had white acts, they picketed. I
think they objected to the Latin acts on this particular
show. I knew about the Muslims from back when I
was growing up around them in Augusta, so I didn’t
let it bother me. I just ignored it and went on about my
business. Whenever we were around the L. A. area we
always counted on the Five Four Ballroom for a
booking, but the Muslim thing was really getting
heavy. They had a shootout with the police in front of
their mosque on South Broadway near the Five Four.
One Muslim was killed, and several Muslims and
police were wounded. The city closed down the Five
Four for a while, so we lost the gig.
We worked our way back east and wound up the tour
at the Apollo the last week in May. The Olatunji
Troupe, with singers, dancers, and drummers, was on
the show. Yvonne did her solo spot. The Sensations,
the guitarist Curley Mays, and Pigmeat with Edna
May Harris, and Chuck Thompson were the rest of the
The show went real good—“Night Train” was finally
out and was a big hit, and the audience was better than
ever—but I wasn’t satisfied. Even with all the shows
we gave every day for a solid week there, only a
limited number of people could get in. People who
couldn’t get to one of my shows, especially an Apollo
show, missed that special thing that always happened
live. I guess some of the people who did get into the
shows missed that special thing when they listened to
the records. I knew there was a lot more to what I did
than could be recorded in a studio anyway. By the
time we wound up the week there, I knew I wanted to
do a live album so that people could at least hear what
kind of a show I had. I started hinting about the idea to
a few people, to get them ready for it. Except for
Byrd, everybody told me I was crazy. That’s when I
knew I had something.
Mr. Nathan was dead set against a live album. “You
mean you want to record your stage show live?” he
“That’s right,” I said.
“James, you can’t keep on recording the same songs
over and over again. Nobody’s going to buy that.”
“But Mr. Nathan, they sound different when I sing
’em live. You ought to hear the way the audience
“I’m not going to spend money on something where a
lot of people are going to be screaming. Who wants a
lot of noise over the songs?”
“But it’ll be like you’re right there at the show.”
“What if somebody yells something out of the way?”
“If you can’t bleep it out, then just leave it in.”
“Then it couldn’t even be played on the radio.”
“But Mr. Nathan, it’s going to be good.”
“No, James, we’re not doing it.”
That was it. That man didn’t want to hear any more
about it. He’d been in business a long time, he’d made
plenty of money, and he didn’t see why he should do
anything but the conventional thing. See, there just
weren’t many live albums in R & B or popular music
then. It was a new thing, and he didn’t understand it.
I didn’t argue with him any more that day, but I didn’t
give up on the idea either. I’d been booked on
American Bandstand for June 11 and thought I’d have
more leverage after I appeared there again. I did
“Night Train” and “Shout and Shimmy” that day, and
like the other time, the bookings got better and better
after that. But Mr. Nathan still didn’t want to hear
anything about a live album.
Some of the bookings were around Ohio, and that’s
when I started seeing the Supremes and the
Temptations. They came over to our shows in the
Cleveland hockey arena and talked about getting on
my show, but they were already working with Berry
Gordy, who had started the Motown and Tamla record
labels. Berry had written some of Jackie Wilson’s
Teardrops”—and he’d written “You Got What It
Takes,” a big hit for Marv Johnson. He’d decided to
send his acts around in a package tour called the
Motortown Revue. His record company and most of
his artists were still pretty new, and he was trying to
get a better foothold in the business. He approached
Mr. Bart to see if I would take them out as part of my
show for a while. I agreed to do it because I thought so
much of Berry. It turned out to be the only time the
Motortown Revue was headlined by somebody who
wasn’t a Motown artist.
It was a great show: the Miracles, who had “Shop
Around”; Mary Wells, who had “The One Who Really
Loves You”; the Marvelettes, who had “Please Mr.
Postman”; the Contours; Marv Johnson; Marvin Gaye;
the Supremes; the Vandellas; and Little Stevie
Wonder, who was only twelve years old at the time. I
believe we started in Shreveport, Louisiana, and did
forty one-nighters with maybe two Sundays off. We
actually slept in hotels maybe one or two nights the
whole tour; the rest of the time we were on the road on
our way to the next town.
I traveled in my car and we had two buses, one for my
people and one for the Motown people. Some of ’em,
though, like Marvin Gaye and Marv Johnson, drove
their own cars. Marvin had a brand-new red Cadillac
exactly like mine. He was married to Anna Gordy,
Berry’s sister, and she loved me so much she made
him buy a car just like mine. He’d driven it straight to
Shreveport from Detroit; it still had the price sticker
and the drive-out tag on it. When we went out to the
parking lot after opening night, we saw that someone
had taken a brick to the front and back windshields
and a side window. Smashed ’em all out. Marvin had
a fit. Really, though, I think whoever did it thought it
was my car. Whenever you start to get well known
there are people making anonymous threats against
you, and I was getting some, even back then.
In Silver Spring, Maryland, someone stole Marv
Johnson’s car. They hotwired it, took it for a drive,
and left it running in the parking lot. Kids had done it,
and the police caught them right away. Instead of
filing charges, Marv took them to dinner and talked to
them about what they’d done. He kept in touch with
them and later one of the boys finished school and
went on to do very well for himself.
The road was a new experience for most of the
Motown acts. Some, like Diana Ross, were kids,
really. I don’t remember too much about her from that
tour; she was very shy and withdrawn, but you could
already see she was very talented. She spent a lot of
time with Johnny Terry, and Mary Wells was going
with Baby Lloyd.
All those Motown people were talented, but the music
they played was different from mine. Their stuff
wasn’t so strong and driving. They did lightweight,
pop soul, very soft, and by being soft it crossed over
into the pop market a lot easier. My music was raw,
and it has never been popular to be too raw. I was
always loyal to my musical roots, even when I was
taking the music in a new direction. I have a lot of
respect for Motown, a very strong organization and
badly needed in the business, because they have that
other sound. They were a good organization. When
my part of the tour with them ended in Atlanta, I had a
talk with Mr. Bart while we were sitting around the
hotel room.
I said, “Pop, why don’t you handle my business from
now on?”
He said, “I am handling it.”
“I don’t mean booking, I mean managing. Why don’t
you manage me?”
He laughed and said, “No, Jimmy, my wife says I
spend too much time on the road with you as it is.”
“I want you to handle the business because I know
you know how. I don’t care about the money, I care
about the business. If I make fifty million dollars, I’ll
just keep one and you take the other forty-nine as long
as the tax is paid up.”
He laughed again.
“I’m serious, Pop,” I said. “I want you to be my
He thought it over for a while and eventually agreed to
do it. He worked it out with Mr. Brantly and then
turned over Universal’s booking to his son Jack.
As soon as Pop became my manager, I told him there
were two things I wanted to do right away: Make a
live album and change the deal I always got from the
Apollo. “I’m booked into the Apollo starting October
19,” I said. “Let’s take care of both things at once.”
I went back to Mr. Nathan about doing the live album,
but we had another big argument. He just didn’t want
to spend any money on something he didn’t know
about. Finally, I said: “All right, Mr. Nathan, I’ll pay
for it myself.”
“Fine,” he said. “If you want to do it, James, you do it,
but I’m not spending one red cent for it.”
So I wound up paying for recording Live at the Apollo
out of my own pocket. It cost me $5,700, a lot of
money to me then because I really didn’t make that
much. It was expensive to carry around the big show I
did, and there was still something funny about my
records and publishing money.
Next, we had to work on Mr. Schiffman about the deal
with the Apollo. Before I became really popular at the
Apollo, Mr. Schiffman said we were partners, which
meant I received a percentage of the door after
expenses and everything had been taken out. I didn’t
always do a whole lot of business there, and when I
did draw well, it seemed like expenses always ate up
the gross. Besides that, it was hard to get an accurate
count of the house because people stayed all day for
all the shows on one ticket. But once I really caught
on at the Apollo, I could see I was doing good
business. I thought this arrangement was finally going
to pay off for me, but when I got my money it was the
same amount I had gotten before. When I went to Mr.
Schiffman about it, he said, “Oh, we’re not partners
anymore. We’re hiring you this time for a flat fee.” I
said, “Whaaaaat?” I couldn’t believe it.
Later, after Pop found out about it, they came up with
a few more dollars, but I wasn’t going to take that
again, so I said to Pop, “When we go in there this next
time, we’ll rent the theater.”
“Jimmy, nobody has ever rented the Apollo.
Schiffman is not going to go for it.”
“Tell him he reneged on his agreement and that the
only way I’m coming in there is if I rent it.”
Mr. Schiffman didn’t want to do it, but when I
wouldn’t back down, he gave in. Once I got the place
rented, I decided to put the ushers in tuxedos and the
concession people in uniforms. I wanted the audience
to feel that a James Brown performance was
something special, and I wanted the people who
worked at the Apollo to be clean and presentable,
which is something I have always been particular
about. Ever since I was little and didn’t have anybody
to do for me, I thought a lot about cleanliness. I even
tried to iron my pants when I was in prison.
Once Mr. Nathan saw I was going to go ahead with
the live recording, he started cooperating. Mr. Neely
took care of getting the equipment from A-1 Sound in
New York, the only ones who had portable
stuff—Magnacorders, I think. Matter of fact, Mr.
Nathan started cooperating too much. He sent word
that he wanted us to use cue cards to direct the
audience participation. I said, “Now if y’all are going
to pay for it, then I’ll do it the way y’all want to, but if
I’m going to pay for it, then please leave it alone. All I
want y’all to do is tape the stuff.” That was the end of
We had opened on the nineteenth and were building
up to recording on the twenty-fourth, a Wednesday,
which meant amateur night. I wanted that wild
amateur-night crowd because I knew they’d do plenty
of hollering. The plan was to record all four shows
that day so we’d have enough tape to work with. I
think Mr. Neely and Chuck Seitz, the engineers, had
six or eight mikes, two crowd monitors in front, one
above the crowd, and then the mikes on me, the band,
and the Flames.
The other acts on the bill were Olatunji, the
Sensations, Curley Mays, and Pigmeat Markham.
Yvonne Fair had a solo spot, and so did Baby Lloyd.
On the twenty-fourth I was going around backstage
telling the Flames and the band not to get nervous, and
I guess I was probably the most nervous of all. I
wasn’t worried about performing; I was worried about
the recording coming off good. I had a lot riding on it,
not just my own money but my reputation because
here I was having to prove myself to Mr. Nathan and
them all over again, just like when I had to demo “Try
Me.” I was standing in the wings thinking about all
this when Fats stepped up to the microphone and did
his intro:
“So now, ladies and gentlemen, it is startime. Are you
ready for startime?” Yeah! “Thank you and thank you
very kindly. It is indeed a great pleasure to present to
you at this particular time, nationally and
internationally known as the Hardest Working Man in
Show Business, the man that sings, ‘I’ll Go
Crazy’”...a fanfare from the band: Taaaaa! “‘You’ve
Got the Power’” ...Taaaaa! “‘Think’” ...Taaaaa! “‘If
You Want Me’”...Taaaaa! “‘I Don’t Mind’”...Taaaaa!
“‘Bewildered’”...Taaaaa! “million-dollar seller ‘Lost
Someone’”...Taaaaa! “the very latest release, ‘Night
Train’”...Taaaaa! “Let’s everybody ‘Shout and
Shimmy’”...Taaaaa! “Mr. Dynamite, the amazing Mr.
‘Please Please’ himself, the star of the show... James
Brown and the Famous Flames.”
Then the band went into the chaser—the little
up-tempo vamp we used between songs—and I hit the
stage. As soon as I was into “I’ll Go Crazy” I knew it
was one of those good times. That’s a hard feeling to
describe—being on stage, performing, and knowing
that you’ve really got it that night. It feels like God is
blessing you, and you give more and more. The
audience was with me, screaming and hollering on all
the songs, and I thought, “Man, this is really going to
do it.”
It’s a funny thing, though. When I’m up on stage I’m
very aware of everything that’s going on around
me—what the band and the backup singers are doing,
how the audience is reacting, how the sound system’s
working, all that. When you work small clubs you
watch the door, check out how rough the crowd looks,
listen for little pitch changes in your one little
amplifier that tell you it’s about to blow out. You can’t
just be thinking about the song or how pretty you look
up there. You learn to be aware.
As the show went along I started noticing little things
and filing them away in my mind. Every now and then
the band made a mistake or the Flames were a half
tone off. Sometimes I hollered where I usually didn’t
in the song, and some of the audience down front was
too enthusiastic. A little old lady down front kept
yelling, “Sing it mother----r, sing it!” She looked like
she must have been seventy-five years old. I could
hear her the whole time and knew the overhead crowd
mike was right above her. Mr. Neely had strung it on a
wire between the two side balconies. Most times none
of those things would’ve mattered, but we were
recording and I was thinking, “Oh, Lord, this take’s
During a quiet stretch of “Lost Someone” the woman
let out a loud scream, and the audience laughed right
in the middle of this serious song. I thought “Well,
there goes that song, too.” Then I thought I had better
try to fix it some kind of way so I started preaching:
“You know we all make mistakes sometimes, and the
only way we can correct our mistakes is we got to try
one more time. So I got to sing this song to you one
more time.” I stretched out the song, hoping we could
get something we could use; then I went into “Please.”
Mr. Neely brought the tape into a back room between
the first two shows and played it for us on a little tape
recorder. As soon as we heard the little old lady, we
all busted out laughing. He didn’t understand. All he
could hear was her high piercing voice, but he didn’t
really understand what she was saying, even though it
was clear as a bell. Finally, somebody told him. Then
he understood.
“Oh no,” he said. “I can’t have that. I have to get it out
of there and make sure she’s not here for the other
shows, too. This is terrible.”
He was getting all worked up, while all the cats were
listening to it over and over, laughing, having a great
time, and getting other cats to listen to it. After a
while, watching everybody carry on, Mr. Neely settled
himself down and said, “Hey, maybe we’ve got
something here.”
He found the lady down front and told her he’d buy
her candy and popcorn and give her $10 if she’d stay
for the other three shows—he didn’t tell her why. He
moved the overhead mike so it wouldn’t pick her up
so strong. We were using two-track, which meant
practically mixing as we went along. She stayed for
the next three shows and hollered the same thing every
time I did a spin or something she liked. It was like it
was on cue. I think the shows got even better as the
day went along. By the end of the last one we had four
reels of tape. Mr. Neely was so excited he brought the
master up to the dressing rooms and passed around the
headphones for us to listen. None of us had ever heard
ourselves live like that. It sounded fantastic. We knew
we really had something.
By this time we had completely forgotten about the
finale, where all the acts change clothes and come out
on stage together to close the show. Everybody else
had changed and was waiting backstage, but we were
listening to the tape over and over. Never did do that
Getting the Power—and Losing
When Mr. Nathan heard how good the tape was, he
wanted to get the album out real quick. I had to tell
him it wasn’t his tape; it belonged to me. I said I paid
for it, and if King wanted it, they could buy it from
me. We argued about it for a good while until I think
he finally cross-collateralized it in my royalties. The
funny thing was he hadn’t even heard the tape and
here he was already squabbling about it.
I wanted to get the record out fast, too, but first they
had to do a lot of editing. Meantime, I kept on
working—touring, recording, and writing—the whole
conglomerate of being an entertainer. I was always
working on the revue, too, changing it, adding people,
keeping the music current. Baby Lloyd and Byrd
started doing solo spots in the first half of the show.
Bobby Bennett and Baby Lloyd also did an act called
“Johnny and Bill,” so called because originally I had
Johnny Terry and Bill Hollings doing it. Johnny had
brought me a singer named Danny Ray who later took
over the announcing because of his great announcing
voice. He’s been with me ever since, and he and his
voice are famous all over the world.
Right after doing the live recording I added a very
special young lady named Tammi Montgomery to the
show. Later, as Tammi Terrell, she had some big hits
on Motown with Marvin Gaye, but when I met her at
the Uptown in Philadelphia, where she was from, her
name was Montgomery. She was the niece of Bob
Montgomery, the fighter who’d had the matches with
Beau Jack to sell war bonds during the war. She was
just a kid really, and I helped her all I could to learn to
be a performer. We became very close very quickly,
and then I fell in love with her.
In December I did a session at Bell Studios in New
York where I recorded four tunes with chorus and
strings, arranged by Sammy Lowe. I did it because
Mr. Nathan didn’t think I could sing a ballad, and I
wanted to prove him wrong again. “You can’t sing
ballads,” he said, “all you can do is holler.” The tunes
eventually wound up on the Prisoner of Love album
that came out in the summer of 1963.
A lot of people don’t understand about the hollering I
do. A man once came up to me in a hotel lobby and
said, “So you’re James Brown. You make a million
dollars, and all you do is scream and holler.”
“Yes,” I said, very quiet, “but I scream and holler on
I was branching out in a lot of directions. At the end of
1962 I formed my own song publishing company, Jim
Jam Music, and got King to give me my own label,
Try Me. I had already been producing on Federal and
King and Dade and wanted to bring it all together on
Try Me. I wasn’t content to be only a performer and
be used by other people; I wanted to be a complete
show business person: artist, businessman,
entrepreneur. It was important to be because people of
my origin hadn’t been allowed to get into the business
end of show business before, just the show part.
By this time Mr. Neely had finished editing the Live at
the Apollo tape. He had a good mix of the
performance and the audience, and he had fixed all the
cussing so it wasn’t right up front. He figured it would
become an underground thing for people who knew
what the lady was screaming; he was right, too. He
worked on the tape a long time and did a fantastic job
of mixing it.
When Mr. Nathan finally heard the tape he hated it.
“This is not coming out,” he said. “We have a certain
standard, and we’re going to stick with it.” What he
didn’t like now was the way we went from one tune to
another without stopping. He just couldn’t understand
that. I guess he was expecting exact copies of our
earlier records, but with people politely applauding in
between. He had all kinds of theories about how
records should be. He wanted the hook right up front
because he knew that disc jockeys auditioned
hundreds of records every week by putting the needle
down and playing only the first fifteen or twenty
seconds. If that didn’t grab them, they went on to the
next record. The same thing happened in record stores,
where they usually let you hear fifteen or twenty
seconds on a record player on the counter. A lot of my
things were more like stage numbers, and he couldn’t
understand that. After more conversation, he finally
agreed to put the album out. I think Mr. Neely was the
one who finally sold him on it.
After all the editing and all the arguing it was January
1963 before Live at the Apollo was finally released.
Then discussion began about what singles to release
off it. Byrd thought “Think” should be spun off it,
especially since the live version was so different from
the version we’d put out before. Some people thought
“Try Me” was going to do it again, some people had
faith in “Lost Someone.”
The idea of a smash album was far from anybody’s
mind. Those were the days when most popular albums
had only one hit on them plus filler. Mr. Nathan was
waiting to see which tune the radio stations were
going to play from the album, and then he would shoot
it out as a single. I said, “What do you mean? We’re
not going to take any singles off it. Sell it the way it
“James,” he said, “all the money I’ve made in this
business I made off singles. That’s how it’s done. As
soon as we get the reports from the radio stations,
we’re going to start releasing singles.”
“Nosir, Mr. Nathan,” I said. “No singles.”
“You’ve been paid. You have no say in it anymore,
I didn’t give him no more argument. I still had faith in
the album. While he was waiting to see what would
break off the album, King put out the “Prisoner of
Love” single in April; it crossed over into the pop
market and made it to the top twenty. It was very
different from the raw stuff on the Live album, which
was starting to build momentum.
When Mr. Nathan checked the radio stations to see
what was being played off the album, he got a
surprise. They told him that there wasn’t a tune the
stations were playing. They were playing the whole
album. It was unheard of for a station to play a whole
album uninterrupted, but a lot of stations with black
programming were doing it. You could tune in at a
certain time each night to some of them and they
would be playing it. Mr. Nathan couldn’t believe it,
but it convinced him to let the album keep going on its
In May my show went back into the Apollo for a
week. Olatunji, the Ward Jubilee Gospel Singers,
Jimmy Pelham, “Johnny and Bill,” and Tammi were
all part of it. Ever since my first time at the Apollo the
audiences had been good to me, and along about the
third time I really felt the place was mine. But this
time there was something different. I could feel it
from the stage. I could tell that the album was really
beginning to catch on because the audience seemed
excited even before we started. It was like a lot of ’em
had come to see what they’d heard on the live record.
And it was like the ones who’d seen it before couldn’t
get enough of it.
Right after we left the Apollo this time, the Live album
showed up on the charts, but by then the Prisoner of
Love album, with the strings and things, was out, too. I
was competing with myself again, and that album
didn’t really take off. But the Live was really building
now. I even tried to find the woman who’d done all
the screaming to thank her, but I couldn’t find her.
I toured all around, putting together various shows. I
think this was when we did a show in Richmond and
had Otis Redding on it. I knew Otis from the talent
shows at the Douglas Theater in Macon, and he now
had his first hit with “These Arms of Mine.” During
our first rehearsal I found out Otis didn’t have any
charts. At that time, St. Clair Pinkney, who played
sax, was my bandleader. I had known him in Augusta
when we were kids. He joined me sometime in 1961
and wrote the charts for the band. Certain parts of the
show were written out, and Byrd rehearsed the band
until they had it memorized. I didn’t believe in music
stands on the stage. To play in my band you had to be
able to play and dance at the same time, and you can’t
do that with music stands in your way. Anyway, I got
St. Clair to do charts for Otis, the first ones he ever
had, and I think they really helped him get over.
On October 4 I went back in the studio. Records were
being released all year, but I hadn’t actually recorded
since the “Prisoner” sessions back in December. I
recorded only one song that day—“Oh Baby, Don’t
You Weep”—because I had a gig to get to. I based the
song on the Davis Sisters’ version of the gospel tune
“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Right away I got into a
big argument with Gene Redd about it. I was playing
piano, and he didn’t like what I was doing. I had
arguments with him like that lots of times. He didn’t
know what he was talking about. Neither one us
would back down, and I was in a hurry to get to my
“Let’s call Mr. Nathan,” I said, “See what he says.”
We called him at home. It took him only a minute to
make up his mind—I had been right so many times
Mr. Nathan was on my side. He told Gene Redd that
everybody better do whatever James Brown wanted or
they were fired immediately. That was the last time
anybody at King gave me any trouble about the way I
recorded—except Mr. Nathan himself.
Somewhere during this time I cut Tammi on my Try
Me label. I was crazy about her by then, but I think
her family wanted her to do something else. They took
her away from me because she had a lot of talent. I
think they wanted me to groom her, not fall in love
with her. I wanted to keep her with me, but I couldn’t
stop it. They took her away. But she always kept
coming back whenever she got the chance and tried to
talk to me. It was painful to me. I found out she even
talked to the woman I was living with later on, saying
to her, “You have the best man in the world, and if
you ever have a problem, I’ll come back and take him
from you.” She still loved me.
I was glad when she had all those hits with Marvin:
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing
Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get
By.” But she was just a kid that people ran too fast and
took advantage of. She was very talented and very
warm, and they used her. She was operated on for a
brain tumor, and they put her back on tour again. She
collapsed in Marvin’s arms on stage in 1967. While
she was trying to recover I had her brought to the
Apollo and made comfortable in the wings to watch
the show and see her old friends. She was seriously
incapacitated, and it was sad to see her like that. Three
years later she died. Her death affected me very badly.
It still does.
By the time I came back into the Apollo in November,
she had left the revue and Anna King had replaced
her. On that show I had Major Lance, who had
“Monkey Time”; Betty Harris, who had “Cry to Me”;
the Chiffons, who had “He’s So Fine”; Jackie and the
Starlites; and Pigmeat and his group. “Johnny and
Bill” had their spot in the show, and Byrd had his.
Sometimes Bobby Bennett did some comedy routines
with Pig, too.
We were all sitting in our dressing rooms before the
first show of the run when Sandman Sims, the stage
manager, came around and told us we ought to take a
look outside the theater. “Man, y’all got ’em lined up
around the corner,” he said. “You got to come see
this.” Byrd, Baby Lloyd, and I, and a few others, went
out to the lobby, but the minute the people outside saw
us they started hollering, screaming, and going crazy.
We couldn’t go out that way, so we went to the back
door. It was the same thing on 126th Street. We
ducked back inside. I said, “I want to see how long the
line really is.” The only time you ever saw lines was
on amateur night, and this was the middle of a
workday, a Friday—and it was cold out, too.
We got some big old hats, sunglasses, and overcoats
and went out the back door and got in a car. We went
down 126th and whipped out onto Eighth Avenue. A
line went way down Eighth. We turned onto 125th to
check out the front of the place. Police barricades
were up and the line was doubled so that it stretched
the other way, too, down to Seventh Avenue. We cut
up Seventh to see the line going up to Small’s
Paradise. We drove back around to the stage door and
ran back inside the theater. We hadn’t even seen the
part of the line that stretched down Eighth below
125th. We had lines like that the whole week we were
there. Smashed all the attendance records.
I knew the Live album was doing well, but I wasn’t
ready for that. It stayed on the charts for sixty-six
weeks and eventually made it to number 2. That
means a bunch of white folks must have been buying
it, too, but the funny thing was that white stations
weren’t playing it at all. Somehow the word had
gotten around, though. As a result of that album things
just got bigger and bigger, bigger than I had ever
imagined. I was ready to do things I never thought I
would be able to do. But just like after “Please,” I had
to go through a whole lot of changes first.
Lost in a Mood of Changes
First thing, I moved out of the South—for good, I
thought. I wasn’t bitter or anything like that, I just
wanted to be closer to the center of the entertainment
business. It’s funny about the South. It did a lot to me,
but it also made me what I am. My roots, my religion,
and my music all come out of the South. Generations
of my family, as far back as I can trace them, lived
around one little area in South Carolina. I never even
traveled outside the South until that first recording
session at King.
I moved my father into the house I had on Ell Street in
Macon and bought a big twelve-room Victorian place
in St. Albans, Queens, in New York City. I bought it
from Mr. Bart and Cootie Williams, the great trumpet
player with Duke Ellington. The Ell Street house was
available because Dessie and I had broken up.
She was a good woman—we were together for a lot of
years—but she did a lot of wrong things. I guess I did,
too. We fought a lot. She went through a lot of money,
but she didn’t know any better. She often played
pinball, the kind that pays off—if you win; otherwise,
you lose money. She lost a lot—a lot. She also bought
presents for men with my money. Once she bought a
present for a fella in the hospital and didn’t even buy
one for me. She was a hardworking girl, but she didn’t
know any better.
The house in St. Albans needed a lot of work—the
basement was full of water, things like that—so I
hired a bunch of people to work on it while I went on
tour. The move was just one part of several big
changes I was getting ready to make. First, though, I
wanted to do another live album.
Even before the Apollo record got so big, I was talking
to Pop about doing another. I wanted to do it in
Washington at the Howard because I figured that was
a good audience for me. Fop said, “It doesn’t matter
where you cut it, Jimmy, you’re going to have a wild
audience now.” So in November, after we left the
Apollo with all the long lines and everything, we went
into the Royal and cut Pure Dynamite: Live at the
Royal. At just about the same time, Atlantic Records
was recording all their people live at the Apollo: Otis
Redding, King Curtis, Ben E. King, Doris Troy, Rufus
Thomas, and the Coasters.
I think Pop was wrong, though. It did matter where we
cut the album because we had some acoustic problems
with the Royal. The album didn’t sound bad, but it
didn’t sound as good as the Apollo recording. Live at
the Royal was kind of lost in the shuffle anyway
because when it was released in February 1964 the
other record was still climbing the charts, hanging in
there much longer than anybody thought it would.
A big hit album like that changes things. One thing it
was changing was my audience. It was bigger,
naturally, and the racial makeup was changing. Before
that, the audience was almost exclusively black. A few
hip whites came, but not many, not like they did for a
rock ’n’ roll singer like Richard, say. I remember one
young man, a white kid, who slipped backstage at a
gig in Florida in 1959 when I was still scuffling. He
knew everything on the Please album. I couldn’t
believe it.
In 1963 there must’ve been a whole lot of white kids
like him because the crowds at places like the
Maryland beaches were about 35 percent white, and I
know the Apollo album wasn’t being played on white
radio stations. For a performer, getting popular like
that brings pressures and opportunities at the same
time. Lots of times, it’s hard to tell ’em apart.
There was talk about changing the show. Some people
thought we should put in more stuff for the white
audience. Pop was against it from the getup. “Listen,”
he said, “the whites are coming to see exactly what
you’ve been doing for blacks, the gutbucket stuff.
You’ve discussed this only with black people. You
don’t know how white folks think about it. You’re
seeing them and they’re out there and they seem to be
having a good time, so what do you want to change
for? If they wanted Bobby Rydell, they’d go to see his
show.” At first we didn’t listen to him. We threw in
some tunes like “The Wanderer” by Dion and some
pop tunes that were hot then. It didn’t take us but a
minute to realize they were out of place. We jumped
right back into our own thing.
I was anxious, though, to break out in some kind of
way. Didn’t look like I was going to do it on King.
And Mr. Nathan wouldn’t pay me the money I thought
I had coming, and every time I asked for any kind of
big advance against royalties, he wouldn’t give it to
me unless I let him extend the contract. But it looked
to me like if anybody owed anybody, King owed me.
And I was tired of fighting Mr. Nathan all the time. I
loved him like a father, but I was tired of fighting him.
It was a time of change at King, too. Mr. Nathan had
been sick for a while, but when he got his health back
he would be running the company full time again. His
ideas about artist development and promotion were
old-fashioned, not like Mr. Neely’s. Around this time,
there was a chance Mr. Neely would buy him out, but
when it didn’t come through I was ready to go.
Around the end of 1963, after the Royal album, Pop
and I formed a company called Fair Deal Productions,
to be run by Marty Machat, the lawyer who handled
the Rolling Stones and others. I signed with Fair Deal,
and Fair Deal signed me to a production deal with
Mercury/Smash Records. Mr. Machat took the
position that my contract with King had run out. He
also got me signed to an American Federation of
Musicians contract. See, my contract with King was a
personal services contract for vocals, which was
standard in those days to keep the company out of
trouble with the union. My name never showed up on
the session reports as a musician even when I did play,
but King Records, like most of the other companies,
was subject to the AFM union contract. Later on,
when it all wound up in court, Mercury based their
case on signing me as an AFM artist.
The first thing I did for Smash was cut Byrd on a tune
called “I’m Just a Nobody,” and it became a nice little
regional hit for him. Then I cut him and Anna King on
a duet—“Baby, Baby, Baby”—that came out in March
1964. The first tune by me on Smash came out in
April—“Caldonia.” It seemed right to start out on the
new label with the song that started me out as a
performer way back when I had the Cremona Trio. I
was also cutting things for the Showtime album that
came out on Smash a little later and for the Grits and
Soul LP for them that was all instrumental.
Meantime, King released “Oh Baby, Don’t You
Weep” in January, reissued “Please” in February, and
put out “Again” at the same time “Caldonia” came out
on Smash. Then Mr. Nathan filed a lawsuit to keep me
from recording for Mercury. While the thing was tied
up in the courts, I kept cutting on Smash.
I kept on touring, too, and in late May I was back in
the Apollo. Anna, Bobby, and Sugar Pie were
featured, and we had Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles,
too. At that time they had a big hit with “Down the
Aisle.” Patti’s real name was Patti Holt, from
Philadelphia. The rest of the group was Cindy
Birdsong (who later joined the Supremes when
Florence Ballard left), Sara Dash, and Nona Hendryx.
Sara and Nona later became solo acts on their own.
They were with the revue for quite a while. Patti was
as fantastic then as she is now.
It was the same thing at the Apollo as the last
time—lines in all directions as far as you could see. It
was nice because I was able to sleep in my own house
and drive in to work in the morning. New York was
home. I guess that’s why it seemed like the right time
to do a homecoming concert in my other hometown,
Now that I was off parole and was really making it, I
was looking forward to going back there—until I
found out the audience in Bell Auditorium would be
segregated. I wasn’t heavy into the human rights thing
yet, but I knew I didn’t want to play a segregated
show in my own hometown, especially after the crowd
had integrated itself when I played Jennings Stadium,
the baseball park there. When I had played it a few
years before, the audience had been segregated, as
usual, but during the show the white kids started
coming down toward the stage. Before long there were
white kids and black kids crowding around the stage,
dancing and hollering and having a good time. They
had integrated themselves. I didn’t want to turn right
around and let ’em be resegregated. I had grown up
with the signs that said “White Drinking Water” and
“Colored Drinking Water,” and it always seemed to
me that water didn’t have any color.
There was a long discussion with the promoter. He
said it was the city. I said I wouldn’t do the
show—contract or no contract. That was the way we
left it. The way Bell Auditorium was set up in those
days there was a little section of about one thousand
three-hundred seats behind the stage that was used for
small affairs. The rest of the seats, several thousand of
them, were on the exact opposite side of the stage. If a
big black show was in there, the main seats would be
for blacks and the other one thousand three hundred
would be for whites. If it was a white show, it would
be the other way around. You had to play to two
audiences at once; when you were facing one, you had
your back to the other. The stage had two curtains, one
on each side, but I didn’t know that. When I had been
there to see a show or whatever I had never seen
another side.
When the show started, we ran out and faced the
audience—the major side that we thought was the
only side—but we heard people yelling and screaming
from both sides. I turned around, and there were all
the white folks on that side. And a lot of ’em knew
me, were friends of mine, yelling “James, hey James!”
That got to me. They were friends of mine and the
black folks were friends of mine, but they couldn’t sit
together. I finished the show, but I said to myself,
“Never again!”
We had a few days off after the show, and I got all the
fellas to hang around so I could show ’em where I was
born and raised, and I took ’em all around, showing
’em the canal, the house on Twiggs, and the
Richmond County Jail.
Next we went to Macon for a show at the Auditorium
there. Over the years we had played in all the clubs in
the area, but we hadn’t played the Auditorium but one
or two times back when I had “Please” and “Try Me.”
This was kind of a homecoming for me, too, because I
had moved away. I had played the Macon Auditorium
about two years before, with the audience segregated.
The way it worked, if a white act was appearing, then
the whites got to sit on the main floor and the blacks
in the balcony; if it was a black act, then it was blacks
on the main floor and whites up top.
We got into Macon a few days before the show and
found out that it was going to be segregated like
before. I had just been through all that in Augusta and
I wasn’t going to go through it again, not in my
second hometown. I told Pop and Mr. Brantly, “I’m
not going to do it. Not no way.”
“The advertising’s all out,” Mr. Brantly said. “The
tickets have all been sold.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m not going on. And if they
say the people aren’t going to be separated and I go on
and see they are, I’m walking off.”
Pop said, “Jimmy, just close your eyes to it. Just take
the money and get out of town. Why come in here and
try to change these people’s policy?”
“Because it’s not right, Pop.”
The funny thing about it was that integrating for a
black show would benefit the white people in the
audience; they would have the same chance at the
good seats as the black folks. I was determined to do
my show that way or no way. But I didn’t want to just
sit there and refuse, I wanted to get it done. So I went
to see a friend of mine, a very influential white fella
who ran a car lot in Macon, and told him the situation.
“Let’s just try it this one time,” I said. “All people are
going to do is walk in together and sit down. Most
folks are escorted, so they’re with their man or their
woman. After the show, everybody goes home.
Meantime, all they’re doing is standing around in a
place together. Nobody’s going to bother nobody.”
He said he’d see what he could do. I think he went
around and talked to some of the city officials and got
them prepared for what was going to happen. Didn’t
make a lot of noise about it, just explained things. The
audience didn’t know anything about it until they got
there for the show. What we did was close the balcony
until the main floor was filled. Then we opened the
balcony back up. The show went off without a hitch. I
think a lot of people were surprised that the building
was still standing afterwards, but I wasn’t.
The next time I went back to Augusta for a
show—about five or six months later—I went to the
leaders of the white community and the black
community and talked to them about what had
happened in Macon, saying that we could do it in
Augusta, too. So we closed off the small rear seating
section and the balcony in Bell Auditorium until the
main part was filled, like we’d done in Macon. It came
off fine. The next day the papers wrote it up, saying it
was the first time there’d been an integrated event and
complimenting everybody. After that, the audiences
were integrated for all the shows. A little later,
President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights bill
that outlawed segregation in public places, but it took
a long time to take full effect in show business; it was
more than a year later before a lot of venues in the
South quit segregating the audiences.
In June I went into the Mercury studios and cut “Out
of Sight” and “Maybe the Last Time.” Like everything
else for me that year, they were an ending and a
beginning. “Maybe the Last Time” was a heavy
gospel-based number, all about appreciating friends
and everything while you can because each time you
see somebody may be the last time, you don’t know.
Turned out that session was the last time I ever used
the Famous Flames on record. They were a good stage
act, but they couldn’t really sing all that good. With
recording becoming more sophisticated every day, this
showed up more on records. Sometimes in the studio
some of them had been on dummy mikes anyway;
they didn’t know that at the time because I didn’t want
to hurt anybody’s feelings. After the “Last Time”
session, I used only Byrd and those I told him to hire,
so musically and as far as personnel went, the song
was another kind of ending for me.
“Out of Sight” was another beginning, musically and
professionally. My music—and most music—changed
with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but it really
started on “Out of Sight,” just like the change from R
& B to soul started on “Think” and “I’ll Go Crazy.”
You can hear the band and me start to move in a
whole other direction rhythmically. The horns, the
guitar, the vocals, everything was starting to be used
to establish all kinds of rhythms at once. On that
record you can hear my voice alternate with the horns
to create various rhythmic accents. I was trying to get
every aspect of the production to contribute to the
rhythmic patterns. What most people don’t realize is
that I had been doing the multiple rhythm patterns for
years on stage, but Mr. Neely and I had agreed to
make the rhythms on the records a lot simpler.
“Out of Sight” went out of sight on the charts when it
came out. It didn’t take time to build, it didn’t make it
first on the R & B chart and then cross over, it just
took off across the board. But even though “Out of
Sight” was the biggest hit I’d ever had up to that point,
I didn’t put out a single new vocal release for almost a
year afterward because of the court fight with King. It
was almost like the period between “Begging
Begging” and “Try Me,” except this time the dry spell
was after a big hit. There were still plenty of James
Brown releases because with all the masters they had
stockpiled King was able to put out a lot of my stuff.
And they reissued a lot of my old stuff. They put out
“So Long” and “Dancin Little Thing” right before
“Out of Sight” came out, and later on they released
“Tell Me What You’re Gonna Do” and “I Don’t
Care.” They reissued “Think” and “Try Me” and put
out a record with a medley of three songs on one side
and “Fine Old Foxy Self” on the other. It went on and
on like that for the next year.
In October, just about the time that I should have put
out a new song, King got an injunction that prohibited
me from releasing any more vocals on Mercury/
Smash. Mercury even withdrew the Out of Sight
album that had just come out. The case eventually
went up through the courts; on appeal, the appellate
division said I could only sing on King and play on
Mercury. They divided me in half. If I wanted to sing,
I was going to have to go back to Mr. Nathan. Just
when I should have been reaping the rewards of ten
years of hard work, I was stuck.
Nothing could stop me from performing, though.
Right after the injunction I went back into the Apollo,
but it was strange because Little Willie John was
supposed to be there. But he had gotten arrested for
killing a man at a party in Seattle. It was sad because it
happened at Little Willie John’s engagement party.
The man he killed refused to give up a seat to a lady;
Willie got on him about it, they got into an argument,
and Willie wound up stabbing the man. I went back a
long way with Little Willie John—my first gig at the
Apollo, recording on King together, and playing a lot
of shows together in the early days. We always had a
friendly rivalry, and I loved him. I knew he was
looking at some hard time, and I was worried because
he was a little cat and I didn’t think he could survive
too long in prison.
That week at the Apollo the people were lined up like
always, even though it was cold and snowing. The
Apollo’s business had been down to about a fourth of
normal since August when a policeman had shot and
killed a fifteen-year-old boy and a riot had broken out.
Even after things settled down again, people were
staying in, but they had come out for me in spite of the
weather and everything. Looking out at those lines,
thinking about Little Willie John and everything he
was going through, and thinking about what I was
going through, I suddenly realized how grateful I
should be. See, back then a ticket to the Apollo was
good for the whole day and night; you could stay for
as many shows as you wanted. So a lot of the people
out there were going to have to wait indefinitely to get
in, but they were willing to do it.
I rounded up everybody on the show and told them to
put on their coats and hats—we had some work to do.
We had urns of coffee made and got some plastic
cups, and then we went outside and went up and down
the line, serving coffee to the people who were
waiting to get in. I told them I appreciated their
waiting in the snow and that I would try to do a good
show for them. We did that for the rest of the week
there, and when any act wasn’t on stage, it was out
there serving more people during the shows. I think
they were grateful to us; I know I was grateful to them.
Looking back on it, I think 1964 was a strange year. A
lot of tragedy came to a lot of people I went way back
with in the business. Rudy Lewis, who’d been in the
Drifters for five years, died of a heart attack at age
twenty-seven. Not too long after Little Willie John got
arrested, Ray Charles was busted at Logan Airport in
Boston for heroin, and not too long after that Sam
Cooke was shot to death in Los Angeles under
peculiar circumstances.
I was bouncing around between two labels and wasn’t
sure I was going to sing on record again, but I had to
feel blessed. It seemed like a lot of things from the
past were slipping away, a lot of changes were coming
around, to me and to everybody, but I was surviving.
And I believed in the future. It was like standing at a
crossroads. There I was playing the Apollo with the
Five Royales, a group I had imitated when I first
started out Little Willie John was probably gone for
good, and it seemed like a lot of cats were dying.
Yesterday was gone. But I had faith in the direction of
my music. And at the end of the year I knew I’d seen
the future when I encountered two new acts: the
Rolling Stones and the Jacksons.
Papa’s New Bag
I saw the Rolling Stones the first time when we were
on The T.A.M.I. Show together. It was a TV film with
a whole lot of acts that were popular then: Chuck
Berry, Bo Diddley, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson
and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and
Dean, Gerry and the Pacemakers. We taped it at the
Santa Monica Auditorium in November 1964, and I
think it came out early the next year. It was directed
by Steve Binder, the cat who directed Elvis’s
television special in 1968.
My group and I got to the auditorium to rehearse
about eight in the morning. I think we did our segment
three times all the way through in rehearsal. The
production crew was taping all the rehearsals and
blocking the show out, and then later in the day we
were going to do the actual performance in front of an
audience made up of mostly white teenagers. Motown
had gotten very hot by then, and there were a lot of
young white kids hanging all over the Motown stars.
When Byrd and some of the other fellas saw what was
happening, they started worrying. “Man,” they said,
“it doesn’t look like we’re going to get such a good
reception.” I said, “Don’t even worry about it. Once
we get through, we aren’t going to be able to get out
of this place.” I think the other acts knew it, too, even
if the audience didn’t. They made it plainly
understood they didn’t want to come anywhere after
us. They knew what we could do. So the Stones, who
were really big already, were scheduled to follow us.
They came in around one in the afternoon, with a
bunch of guards, went straight to their dressing room,
and didn’t let anybody get near ’em. Meantime, we
were out there doing another rehearsal. When we did,
a lot of people came out of their dressing rooms to
watch, Mick included. I think he’d heard about us
already, but when he saw what we did, he couldn’t
believe it. After he saw me, he didn’t even want to
rehearse. Some discussion started then about them
going on sooner. I heard that Mick smoked a whole
pack of cigarettes, he was so nervous. We thought that
was a good sign, but we knew we still had to deal with
the audience of young, young kids.
A funny thing happened when the actual show went
on. Lesley Gore went out and did two songs. When
she came off, a bunch of people crowded around
asking for her autograph. Then this older lady—I
don’t know if it was her mother, her keeper, or
whoever—said, “Oh, no, don’t bother her, don’t
bother her. She’s tired now. Wait until she rests.” We
had already been out there and nearly killed ourselves
twice already, and she hadn’t even done any
rehearsals. When the lady said that, we all looked at
each other and said, “There must be something we
don’t know.”
We went on, a little nervous because we didn’t think
this audience really knew us, but when we went into
“Out of Sight,” they went straight up out of their seats.
We did a bunch of songs, nonstop, like always. For
our finale we did “Night Train.” I don’t think I ever
danced so hard in my life, and I don’t think they’d
ever seen a man move that fast. When I was through,
the audience kept calling me back for encores. It was
one of those performances when you don’t even know
how you’re doing it. At one point during the encores I
sat down underneath a monitor and just kind of hung
my head, then looked up and smiled. For a second I
didn’t really know where I was.
The Stones had come out in the wings by then,
standing between all those guards. Every time they got
ready to start out on the stage, the audience called us
back. They couldn’t get on—it was too hot out there.
By that time I don’t think Mick wanted to go on the
stage at all. Mick had been watching me do that thing
where I shimmy on one leg and when the Stones
finally got out there, he tried it a couple of times. He
danced a lot that day. Until then I think he used to
stand still when he sang, but after that he really started
moving around. Anyway, after they were finally able
to get on the stage, they got over real good. At the end,
all of the people on the show came out and danced for
the finale. Later on, Mick used to come up to the
Apollo and watch my shows. I used to make him come
on the stage, and he became a good friend of mine. I
like Mick, Keith Richards, and all the guys. I don’t
think of them as competition; I think of them as
I’m not sure when I first met The Jacksons, but I think
it was around this time, too, late 1964 or early 1965, in
their hometown of Gary, Indiana. They were called
the Jackson Family then—Jackie, Tito, Jermain,
Marlon, and Michael, who couldn’t have been but
about six years old. I think they were playing talent
shows and amateur things around Gary. Their father,
Joe, came to see me about getting them on the revue.
Joe had played guitar with the Falcons, the group that
Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, and a lot of other people
came out of, and he knew about the business. Joe
wanted me to carry them around for a while, get them
some exposure and some seasoning, but I did not want
to take them out of school. I thought that if they didn’t
make it as entertainers, they’d regret not getting their
formal education. I was hesitant also because of the
record label fight I was in. If I wasn’t going to be able
to get any new vocal releases out, I was afraid it
mighty eventually affect the popularity of the revue,
so it didn’t seem to be a good time to expand the
payroll. I did put them on one of the shows in Gary,
and they were fantastic. They could really dance,
especially Michael. Their choreography was smooth,
and they sang real nice. You could see Joe had really
trained them to be professional.
It was about a year before I saw them again, in
Chicago, when I was playing the Regal. By that time I
wasn’t playing the theaters anymore except for the
Regal and the Apollo. I think Al Green was on the
show, and Jackie Wilson, too. Jackie had gotten wild
and crazy after being shot—he was drinking a lot and
using drugs pretty heavy. They had to lock him in the
dressing room and make him stay there until he got
straight, then he came out and did a great show. But it
was terrible to see Jackie in such bad shape.
The Jackson Family wasn’t booked on the show, but
they were backstage. Joe came to see me about letting
them go on. The show was very tight, but I said they
could go on at intermission. I knew the Regal would
be a good shot for them—a lot better than those
hometown gigs. They did another fine job. A few
months later, when I went back into Chicago to
McCormick Place, which was much bigger than the
Regal, they were booked on the show. I think they had
a record on a little local label by then, and they were
even better than before.
About a year after the McCormick Place gig, some of
my people helped them get booked into the Apollo,
around July 1968. Joe sent some money ahead for
their hotel rooms and to see they were well looked
after, since they were still just kids. Baby James, the
cat who worked for me as a bodyguard, was supposed
to take care of it, but something came over him and he
spent the money instead. Now the kids get into New
York for the first time; they’re supposed to debut at
the Apollo the next morning, and they don’t have any
place to stay, and no money to eat on. Baby James was
afraid to tell me what he had done; instead he took
them over to Byrd’s apartment on Lenox Avenue. By
this time Byrd had married Vicki Anderson, who’d
joined the revue as a singer in the spring of 1965.
Bobby and Vicki took in the Jacksons and fed them.
After dinner they all sat around the piano and played
and sang. The next morning when the kids got dressed
and ready to go, they told Bobby and Vicki they
wanted to sing them a song. They gathered around the
piano and sang a song that had “thank you” in it. It
started out ‘Thank you for this, thank you for that,’
and it ended with them all harmonizing on ‘and we all
thank you.’ Byrd told me he didn’t know if it was a
song they knew or if they had put it together right that
morning, but it was the prettiest song he had ever
heard in his life.
That’s the kind of kids the Jacksons were. Here they’d
had all their money spent up and they were just
grateful for what they did get. They were always well
mannered—it was always “yessir” this and “no,
ma’am” that. You could tell they’d had a good
upbringing and had a lot of discipline instilled in
them. They’re like that right today.
On top of meeting great acts like the Stones and the
Jacksons around this time, I met another great one in
Vicki Anderson. She lived in Houston and had already
cut a record. Her manager played her tape for me
when I was in Houston. I bought the tape from him
with the idea of recording her myself. When Anna
King left the show a few months later, I asked Vicki to
come to Miami where I could record her, and then she
joined the revue. She walked into the studio while the
band was putting down the tracks for a song called
“Baby, I Love You.” Byrd was in the corner writing
the words for it. She recorded it right then.
I’ve known a lot of singers, a lot of different kinds of
singers, but I will say this flatly: I’ve never met a
person in the world who sang better than Vicki. I used
to call her Songbird. She could outsing anybody I
know. Any day. Standing flat-footed. She can beat
Aretha Franklin, and I love Aretha to death. Aretha is
Soul Sister Number One, but she cannot beat Vicki
singing. Vicki can sing “People” better than Streisand.
She was not just the best singer I ever had with the
revue, she was the best singer, period.
I also met another special person during this time—the
lady who would later become my second wife. Her
name was Deirdre, but I called her Deedee. She was
from Baltimore, and I think we first met when I was
playing one of the Maryland beaches, but I’m not sure.
It wasn’t one of those love-at-first-sight things. We
met several times, and things just grew from there. We
became very close, and she eventually joined me in
New York. We couldn’t get married because Velma
and I had never gotten around to getting a divorce.
Deedee and I weren’t ready to be married anyway; we
split up a few years later and didn’t get back together
for a good while after that. But we started out good.
Around the same time I added more key people to the
band: Jimmy Nolen on guitar, Melvin Parker on
drums, and Maceo Parker on alto sax. Jimmy Nolen
came from Johnny Otis’s band, and Melvin and
Maceo were brothers I had heard one night in the El
Morocco Club in Greenville, North Carolina. I really
wanted Melvin but I figured I had to hire Maceo, too,
if I wanted to get his brother. Of course, Maceo turned
out to be fantastic—an aggressive, dynamic player and
a real worker. Over the years he has quit and been
fired more times than either one of us can count, but
he’s still with me right today.
Elsie Mae “T.V. Mama” was another regular on the
revue around this time. She was funny and talented,
and very, very large. She sang “Take All of Me” and
took off her skirt; she had tights on underneath. She
was very big but very shapely. She was a comedy act,
but she also sang well, like Big Mama Thornton or
The show was tight, and I tried to keep it that way. We
still had the system of fines, but now it covered fluffed
notes and mistakes on the dance routines. See, a lot of
the routines were worked out while we were on the
road. We worked them out in rehearsal, went to eat,
came back, rehearsed a little bit more, and then hit the
stage. I wanted it all absolutely right. When I was
dancing on the stage, I could see everything going on.
If I caught a bad mistake, I’d mash potatoes over to
where the person who’d messed up could see me and
I’d flash my open hand once for each $5 fine—five
times for a $25 fine, and so on. I did it right on the
beat of the music so it looked like part of the act, but
the person being fined knew what was happening.
Some of the fellas might have thought it was a little
rough, but it worked. I think we had the tightest band
and the tightest show out there.
I was keeping busy on the road, recording a lot of the
acts, doing instrumentals, and doing some television
like The Lloyd Thaxton Show and Where the Action Is.
The Flames and I did a cameo in a Frankie Avalon
movie, Ski Party, dressed up in ski outfits. I was a
little suprised at how much work it is to make a
movie, but Frankie was a very easy person to work
with. I never had any burning desire to be a movie star
the way a lot of singers have—Elvis, Sinatra, or
Frankie Avalon, for that matter. It wasn’t something
that was open to people of my origin at that time
anyway. Louis made a lot of movies, but he always
played himself and was never really the star of them.
Meantime, it was a standoff between King Records
and Mercury. I started to think there was something
funny about it; Mercury seemed more interested in
putting Mr. Nathan out of business than in recording
me on vocals. The doors at King were all but closed;
they had beat him, he had nothing to fight with. I felt
bad about it, so I went to Arthur Smith’s studio in
Charlotte, North Carolina, cut “Papa’s Got a Brand
New Bag,” and sent the tape to Mr. Nathan. It was
done underground—I had to sneak the tape to him.
The song started out as a vamp we did during the stage
show. There was a little instrumental riff and I
hollered: “Papa’s got a bag of his own!” I decided to
expand it into a song and cut it pretty quick to help
Mr. Nathan, so when we went into the studio I was
holding a lyric sheet in my hand while I recorded it.
We were still going for that live-in-the-studio sound,
so we cranked up and did the first take.
It’s hard to describe what it was I was going for; the
song has gospel feel, but it’s put together out of jazz
licks. And it has a different sound—a snappy,
fast-hitting thing from the bass and the guitars. You
can hear Jimmy Nolen, my guitar player at the time,
starting to play scratch guitar, where you squeeze the
strings tight and quick against the frets so the sound is
hard and fast without any sustain. He was what we
called a chanker; instead of playing the whole chord
and using all the strings, he hit his chords on just three
strings. And Maceo played a fantastic sax solo on the
break. We had been doing the vamp on the show for a
while, so most of it was fine, but the lyrics were so
new I think I might have gotten some of them mixed
up on the take. We stopped to listen to the playback to
see what we needed to do on the next take. While we
were listening, I looked around the studio.
Everybody—the band, the studio people, me—was
dancing. Nobody was standing still.
Pop said, “If I’m paying for this, I don’t want to cut
any more. This is it.”
And that was it. That’s the way it went out. I had an
acetate made and took it to Frankie Crocker, a deejay
in New York. He thought it was terrible, but he put it
on the air and the phones lit up. Then he admitted I
was right about it.
“Papa’s Bag” was years ahead of its time. In 1965 soul
was just really getting popular. Aretha and Otis and
Wilson Pickett were out there and getting big. I was
still called a soul singer—I still call myself that—but
musically I had already gone off in a different
direction. I had discovered that my strength was not in
the horns, it was in the rhythm. I was hearing
everything, even the guitars, like they were drums. I
had found out how to make it happen. On playbacks,
when I saw the speakers jumping, vibrating a certain
way, I knew that was it: deliverance. I could tell from
looking at the speakers that the rhythm was right.
What I’d started on “Out of Sight” I took all the way
on “Papa’s Bag.” Later on they said it was the
beginning of funk. I just thought of it as where my
music was going. The title told it all: I had a new bag.
Sex Machine
While the fight between King and Mercury was still
going through the courts, Mercury put out “I Got You
(I Feel Good)” on Smash. The injunction was still in
force, though, and they had to withdraw the record
right away. Finally, the lower court ruling was upheld
on appeal: I could do instrumentals on Smash, but if I
was going to sing, it had to be on King. That was all
right with me. I had made my point with Mr. Nathan,
and I didn’t want to see him driven out of business.
When I came back they tore up the old contract and
gave me a new one, so I came back on good terms and
with a lot more power than I’d had before. You need
power to get freedom. You need freedom to create.
The new contract was a ten-year personal services
contract with a royalty rate of 7 percent, I think, but it
wasn’t too long before they raised it to 10 percent.
Except for people in the classical field, I think I was
the first 10-percent artist. The publishing companies
were restructured, too. The key point, though, was a
weekly payment: King had to give me $1,500 a week
no matter what. They could charge it against my
royalties, but they couldn’t withhold the payment. The
$1,500 figure wasn’t that important; it was the
principle of the thing. This way we could avoid all the
squabbling over royalties and the contract extensions
that caused the whole problem in the first place. Later
on, in my tax case, the government came along and
took all that money away from me, but at the time I
was very happy about it. Mr. Nathan was happy, too;
one day he said to me that if the company was ever
sold I ought to get 10 percent.
So I came back to King in the summer of 1965 with
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” The funny thing was,
Mr. Nathan didn’t like that song either. He was so
disgusted he threw an acetate of it on the floor. I just
laughed. It became my first international hit.
I had an actual new bag of my own, too. After I went
back to King, every time I recorded a bunch of sides I
got the masters and put them in a bag I had. I carried it
with me everywhere. When I wanted to release
something, I pulled the master out of the bag and gave
it to the record company. I wanted to control the
releases, and I didn’t want to get into a situation in the
future where King would have a stockpile they could
draw on like they had when I was over on Smash.
From then on I called all the releases.
At the end of October I went into the Apollo and had
the long lines again. I think we set the Apollo record
that week. A ticket at that time didn’t cost but $2 and
you could still stay all day on it, but we grossed about
$70,000 anyway. One night while we were there we
heard Ed Sullivan was in the audience. I understand he
often came up to the Apollo to check out performers
for his show. I think he knew how tough the Apollo
audience was, and he figured if somebody could get
over at the Apollo he could get over with his audience.
Not too long after that I heard I got the booking on his
I followed up “Papa’s Bag” with “I Got You (I Feel
Good).” It was a much hipper, up-tempo version of “I
Found You,” which I had cut Yvonne on. It was
another smash. Things were getting bigger and bigger,
but Pop still wasn’t satisfied. He was always trying to
come up with some kind of promotional idea to give
us that extra boost. A lot of times, we gave away cars,
television sets, all kinds of things at concerts, but he
was looking for something other than pushing a single
concert. One day a bunch of us were sitting around his
office at Universal Attractions discussing ideas. Pop
was offering suggestions, and I was rejecting them as
fast as he came up with them. Finally, he said,
“Jimmy, I know what I can do, but you’re not going to
like it.”
“What’s that, Pop?”
“That thing we discussed before.”
He wouldn’t say what it was because he didn’t want
Byrd, who was sitting there, to know about it. I knew
what he was talking about, though.
“Pop,” I said, “just don’t embarrass me. Don’t make
me look silly.”
The next thing I knew there was an item in the gossip
section of a magazine that insinuated I was going
across the water to have a sex-change operation. So I
could marry Bobby Byrd. Once the rumor was started,
there wasn’t much I could do about it. If you deny it, it
just makes it bigger. Pop said to keep quiet and see
what happened. Meantime, Byrd hadn’t heard about it,
and I didn’t want to be the one to tell him. I said,
“Listen, Byrd, Ben has come up with a lot of good
ideas. Let’s all go along with him and see what he
comes up with. He’s liable to make us both hotter.”
When it first came out, I think we were in Raleigh,
North Carolina. People were yelling from the audience
about it. I was wearing a lot of makeup then, and that
added fuel to the fire. After the show, Byrd and I went
out the stage door together. We couldn’t hardly get to
the car for all the people lined up to check us out.
They were hollering at Byrd: “There he is! Look at
him!” Byrd said to me, “Boy, I must have killed ’em
When we got back to New York, I called him at his
hotel, I think it was the Great Northern on 57th Street.
I said, “Byrd, was there a bunch of people around
y’all’s hotel?”
“Yeah,” he said, “when the tour bus pulled up, a big
crowd was waiting for us, and they were all yelling at
me and talking funny. Something peculiar is going on
’cause I don’t have a record out now.”
“I told you I was going to make you hot, Byrd.”
He found out later that day what was happening.
Somebody told him about the magazine story. At first
he was mad about it, then he figured it didn’t matter
what people said about you as long as you know what
you are. The thing did make him hot. All these people
were coming to the show to see what the truth was.
Once, in California, there were people jumping up on
the stage to dance, and some of ’em were trying to
grab me between the legs. After it all died down, we
had a good laugh about it. It was all in good fun; Byrd
didn’t hold it against me, and I didn’t hold it against
Pop. But just about the time I got back with King, Pop
and I got into some very heavy disagreements about
other things. They were just artist and manager type
problems, but they got out of hand. We had both been
under a lot of pressure, and we said a lot of things we
shouldn’t have.
“Jimmy, I’m pulling out,” he said.
“That’s fine, Pop,” I said. “I don’t need you. You
never did that much for me anyway.” We both knew
that wasn’t true, and I think it hurt him for me to say
“Okay, fine,” he said. “But you’re going back into the
clubs now because I’m going to lock up everything
He almost did, too. I wasn’t really locked out of all the
coliseums, but the prime bookings were harder to get.
It was amazing how much power he had. He even
stopped a show in Cincinnati one night and attached
the box office. I bridged the gap by doing a lot of TV
shows in the States and in England. It was never any
real hardship, it was just that someone like Pop meant
a lot to a black entertainer at that time. Plus, he meant
a lot to me personally, and I hated to see us split up
like that. It was like a family fight: Nobody knows
how it starts, and nobody knows how to stop it.
Finally I went to him, we smoothed it over, and he
came back. When he did, he said, “Jimmy, I’m going
to take out a million-dollar life insurance policy on
you.” It was a humorous thing to cement our getting
back together, so I said, “Okay, Pop, if I can take out a
million dollars on you.” I thought he was as valuable
to me as he thought I was to him. We took out the
policies, and after that he always joked, “You’re going
to die before I do, Jimmy, because you work too
hard.” I’d say, “Naw, Pop, you’re going to die first
because you don’t work hard enough.”
The first thing we did when we got back together was
plan a concert at Madison Square Garden for March
20, 1966. It was hard to put together. People didn’t
think I could draw well in such a big place by myself,
so to quiet ’em down I added Len Barry, Lou Christie,
Slim Harpo, the Shangri-Las, and the Soul Brothers to
the bill. By the time it was publicized most of the
tickets had already been sold.
Right before the date, I went to England and did the
Ready Steady Go television show. While I was there
taping it several British acts came by to say hello—the
Beatles, the Kinks, the Animals. I think a couple of the
Stones came by, too. These groups had a real
appreciation for where the music came from and knew
more about R & B and blues than most Americans. I
played the Palladium and the Walhamstow, and then
we hopped over to Paris and played the Olympia. I
wasn’t really prepared for the reception we got in
Europe. In London they had to put us on one floor of
the hotel, clear the floor above and below us, and put
guards there. During that trip the English people
yelled at Byrd about the rumors they had heard, but by
that time I think he was used to it.
As soon as I got back to the States I went into the
Garden. It was a sellout. Things were just getting
bigger and bigger real fast. “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s
World” came out in April and took off. Then came a
booking on the Ed Sullivan Show.
I rehearsed with Bob Beck, his son-in-law, three times
to see what I was going to do so they could block it.
They had to know exactly how long each act would
last because it was going to go out live. They kept
saying: “Once you shit, that’s it.” I did “Good Good
Lovin’” with the baseball routine and “Please.” Mr.
Sullivan wouldn’t let me do “Don’t Be a Drop-Out.” I
hadn’t released it yet, but I’d already written it and
thought it was an important song. I wanted it to go on
network television, figuring with that large an
audience I should try to do something that might help
people. He refused to let me do it. He was nice about
it, but he never explained why he didn’t want me to
sing it.
The Supremes were on the show, too. We did the
rehearsal, and after the dress rehearsal when it was
time for the live show Mr. Sullivan couldn’t get the
people to stay quiet. I was hot for the dress rehearsal,
and the Supremes were, too. The live version that
went out over the air wasn’t as good as that dress
No matter how good or how big the bookings got, I
still played the Apollo, but with the size of my show
now—the band was twenty pieces—I couldn’t play
under the old arrangement where people stayed all day
for the price of one ticket. I told Mr. Schiffman, “You
got to put these people out after each show.”
“I’ve been running this place for forty years,” he said.
“You can’t do that.”
“They’ll do it if you tell ’em,” I said. “I’ll give ’em a
complete show, and then they’ll get up and leave.”
They had to make the tickets good for one show only
and increase the price to $3. I hated to do it, but it was
the difference between playing there and not playing
there. I knew I could get people to leave feeling
satisfied when a show was over. That’s what I taught
the people who ran the Apollo: completion.
Besides Byrd and Vicki, I had the gospel group the
Swanee Quintet on the show. I did a lot of split shows
with gospel acts during that time. People always said
you couldn’t bring together church people and people
who dug music like mine, but I thought you could. I
used to have the Swanees, the Mighty Clouds of Joy,
the Angelic Gospel Singers, Clara Ward, all of them. I
had the gospel people on the first part of the show,
then an intermission, and then my show. Singing is all
about spirit anyway—doesn’t make any difference
what kind of singing.
The pace I’d been keeping was beginning to wear me
down. I was tired and had some kind of virus when I
started that week at the Apollo. I worked so hard on
stage I was dehydrated a lot of the time and didn’t
even know it. I drank beer after the show to get more
fluids, but I didn’t know that alcohol dehydrates you
even more. It all caught up with me on Saturday
night’s midnight show. I had already done several
shows that day. I was doing “Please”—collapsing onto
my knees—when I felt all the muscles in my legs
freeze, then start cramping real bad. I started twitching
all over, my breath got short, and I fell out right there
on the stage. I thought I had done it to death for real.
When the Flames helped me up, they weren’t acting. I
tried to continue but was too weak. I guess some of
the people in the audience thought it was part of the
act, but a lot of ’em could see I was in trouble and
became very disturbed and started screaming. The
Flames got me into the wings.
Calloway—everybody called him Dr. Bill—took one
look at me and knew what was wrong. They put me
into a car or an ambulance—I can’t remember
which—and took me to his office on 135th Street. He
said I had low-salt syndrome, that I had sweated out
too much sodium and potassium; he gave me an
intravenous solution of sodium lactate to rehydrate
me. Meantime, a lot of people had followed us there
from the Apollo. They were outside trying to get in,
almost breaking the door down. Honi Coles or
somebody went out and got them to stop before we
had to call the police to protect ourselves.
After that I took an intravenous solution whenever I
got really exhausted. I needed the salt and the fluids,
sometimes as much as four pints, which would take
two or three hours. I went to Dr. Bill’s and lay there
on the table until I was done and felt better right away.
That’s when people started saying I was a junkie
because they saw the needle mark in my arm.
I thought the traveling might be taking a lot out of me,
too, and things were starting to move so fast that Pop
and I decided to get a jet. Right after the Apollo gig
we leased full time a six-passenger Lear model 24. I
think I was the first person of my origin to do that. We
had it painted green and white, with “Out of Sight”
written along the fuselage. With the plane I could
work an eight-day week: I could get to the next gig
quick, hit the disc jockeys, and still have plenty of
time to rest before the show. Same reason I’d started
riding in the car instead of the bus, only now
everything was on a bigger scale.
We played the L.A. Sports Arena, the Cow Palace,
Braves Stadium, Miami Stadium, and places like that.
I played Shea Stadium for a Murray the K show that
became a television special. I came down into the
stadium by helicopter and climbed down a ladder onto
the infield. Scared a bunch of people.
While I was doing the L.A. Sports Arena I went on
Bandstand again—by this time it had moved to
Hollywood—and sang “Man’s World” and “Money
Won’t Change You,” which had just come out in June.
Jackie Wilson was playing at the Trip Club, and I
dropped in on his show and did some numbers. The
next night Jackie came on my show at the Arena.
I think it was on this trip to the coast that Elvis and I
finally got together. We kept up with each other
through mutual friends in the business, but we could
never get together. He came to see my show a few
times. He came in disguise, after the house lights were
down, and left right before it was over. I’d get word
through Mr. Neely that he’d been there. And I knew
he watched The TA.M.I. Show over and over.
At a big party he threw in the Hyatt Continental, I
think, when it got late, we threw everybody out of the
room, and Elvis and I sang gospel together. We sang
“Old Jonah,” “Old Blind Barnabas,” all the ones I’d
been singing since I was little. He knew the
harmonies, too. That’s how we communicated—by
singing jubilee, the real upbeat kind of gospel. He told
me he wanted to use my band to record. He said he
wanted the horns and things behind him, but he
wanted them strong. When he first started he was
copying B. B. and them, but finally they didn’t have
enough fire for him. That’s when he really got into his
own thing. Elvis was great. People still said he was
copying, but he found his own style. Elvis was
rockabilly; he wasn’t rock ’n’ roll, he was rockabilly.
He was really a hillbilly who learned to play the blues.
Cats complain all the time about white people learning
music from blacks. It’s true we’ve kind of had a
monopoly on certain kinds of music, but everybody’s
entitled to it. They shouldn’t steal it, but they’re
entitled to learn it and play it. No sense in keeping all
the drive on one side, because if you’re teaching
people, you’re teaching people. They should
remember, though, that when a man teaches you, he’s
your best friend, but if he keeps you in the dark,
you’re in trouble.
Elvis and I both hit the charts at the same time, 1956;
he had “Hound Dog” and I had “Please.” But that
night in Los Angeles we were just two country boys
singing the stuff we grew up on. I could tell Elvis had
a strong spiritual feeling by the way he sang that
music. We sang together a long time that night.
After California we went into Kansas City and a
whole bunch of mess. We got involved in a riot there
when the police stopped my show for obscenity. It
was funny, really. The dancers usually wore very short
shorts, cut way up, with a bare midriff. In Kansas City
they didn’t put seats on the auditorium floor. You
could crowd right up to the bandstand, which a lot of
kids did. That upset the cops because the girls hadn’t
shaved under their arms and you could almost see
some of their pubic hair when they kicked their legs
up—and a lot of the routines involved kicking. The
police didn’t want to see no hair nowhere. So they
stopped the show.
The crowd got upset, yelling, “Leave ’em alone. Let
’em dance. We want the show.” This white kid
jumped on the stage and pushed the cop off. When
that happened, everybody with the revue left the stage.
Then the fighting really started. Kids fighting the
cops, cops beating up on people. The whole thing got
a lot of publicity, but the obscenity charge was
nothing. Kansas City had just gotten to be a very strict
town, not wide open like it was in the days of Count
Basie and them.
The sex-change rumor might have had something to
do with the police’s attitude when we were there. I
think they were expecting a dirty show. I never gave a
dirty show in my life. The rumor had a life of its own,
though. Later on I heard that a popular version was
that I was going to marry my drummer. That’s funny
because I used to drum on three of the tunes we did.
Anyway, I never married my drummer. Never married
Bobby Byrd, either. He was already married.
Getting into It
In the midst of all this running around in the jet and
playing in all those big places, I was starting to get
involved in public issues. I guess it started when I
integrated the concerts in Macon and Augusta. But it
really went back to the “White Water” and “Colored
Water” signs I saw when I was little. I wanted to be
more than just a person who screams and hollers on
stage. I wanted to use my position to help people, and
I wanted to have something to say about the country I
lived in.
During the week I collapsed at the Apollo, Roy
Wilkins came on stage one night, and Pop, Jack Bart,
and I took out lifetime memberships from him in the
NAACP. The organization was trying to get new
members, and I was trying to help by joining publicly.
We met for the first time when Mr. Wilkins came by
the dressing room beforehand. I told him I thought he
was a fine man, and I was proud of the things he’d
done to benefit humanity. Out on stage he talked to the
people about a lot of things that were going on in the
struggle for human rights, things I didn’t know about.
He was opening my eyes a little more.
A few days later—on June 6, 1966—James Meredith
was ambushed during his “March Against Fear” in
Mississippi. Meredith had integrated Ole Miss back in
1962: He tried to register four or five times, and each
time the governor of the state or state troopers stopped
him. It finally took several hundred U. S. marshals to
get him registered. And then there was a riot, a couple
of people got killed, and the army and the National
Guard had to come stop it. This time around he was
planning to walk from Memphis to Jackson,
Mississippi, to convince black people in the state not
to be afraid to register to vote. He wasn’t but a few
miles inside the state line when somebody shot him in
the back. Like a lot of people, I was upset by it, and I
wanted to do something to help. I was in Cincinnati
when I heard about it. As soon as he was well enough
to receive visitors, I flew to Memphis in the new plane
and visited him in the hospital. We just talked and
laughed. It was the first time I’d ever met him. He was
a very nice fella and a very brave one, too—an Air
Force veteran, I think. I told him I supported and
admired what he was doing.
In Tupelo I did a show for all the people who were
coming together and continuing the march. Dick
Gregory was there, and Martin Luther King and his
group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Stokely Carmichael and his group, the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had joined in,
too. There was a lot of ferment going on, and a lot of
tension inside and outside the movement. Martin was
trying to keep things going in a nonviolent way, and
Stokely and them were starting to talk about Black
Power—and upsetting a whole lot of people with it,
too. Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins pulled out of
the march because of it. Black Power meant different
things to different people, see. To some people it
meant black pride and black people owning businesses
and having a voice in politics. That’s what it meant to
me. To other people it meant self-defense against
attacks like the one on Meredith. But to others it
meant a revolutionary bag.
I wanted to see people free, but I didn’t see any reason
for us to kill each other. Why should we kill each
other, I thought, when we can talk it out? Stokely said
I was the one person who was most dangerous to his
movement at the time because people would listen to
me. Personally, I’ll take a lick on one cheek, but I
won’t take it if it comes to the second cheek. The
Bible speaks of self-defense; you’re not supposed to
let another man take your life. But I was out there to
preserve life, to extend it, not to take it, and I didn’t
want to see the country torn up, either.
I wanted to do something constructive. Not long after
the Meredith thing, I wrote “Don’t Be a Drop-Out.”
That was something I knew about firsthand because I
didn’t have any formal education myself and knew
how it could hold you back. The record came out in
October and did pretty well, too, but I wanted to do
more than just put out a record. I wanted to build a
whole campaign around it. As soon as the record was
pressed, I took the first copy to Vice President Hubert
Humphrey at the White House and told him what I
had in mind. I guess you could say he was my first
politician. He was a good man, always had good
things to say, meant well, and was close to the people.
He said a stay-in-school campaign had come up
before, but it never got off the ground. He was glad to
see someone do something besides talk about it, and
he said he’d help all he could.
I visited schools and talked to kids. I told them to stay
in school, listen to their teachers, and stay close to
their books. They were there to take care of business. I
told them about my own background, and I think that
made it more vivid. If I hadn’t been blessed with
musical ability, I said, I’d still be a janitor. I put out a
newsletter to kids and started “Don’t Be a Drop-Out”
clubs. And I tried to get kids who had just dropped out
to go back. Adults, too. I even put a routine in the
show. Some of the others on the show acted like they
were in school. Byrd played a drop-out, reading a
book upside down. I talked to him at the mike, and
then he turned the book around and acted like he was
ready to go back to school. The point we were trying
to make was that it didn’t matter how old you were,
you could always go back and get an equivalency
diploma. The band played the vamp of the tune while
we did this, then we sang it from the top.
During one tour, as part of the campaign, we gave
away $500 scholarships to whatever black college was
in the area we were working. The kids were
nominated by their high schools through whatever
radio station was helping to promote the show. We
gave away five scholarships a show, four shows a
week, for about six months. Every now and then I saw
what I was up against, though. Once, in Dayton, Ohio,
I was talking to one of the winners after the show, like
I always did. I’d encourage them and tell them to work
hard in college and all. This one kid said, “Hey,
James, why don’t you just give me $500 in cash, man,
so I can buy some sharp clothes and be hip like you.” I
didn’t know whether to cry or hit the kid. Some of
them just didn’t understand, and it broke my heart to
see it.
I spent a lot of time and money on that campaign, but
it’s hard to know the results of something nationwide
like that. We heard from a lot of places that people
were going back to school and pledging to stay in
school. But we still have problems right today with
people dropping out of school. And there are a lot of
poor schools that should have their curriculum
upgraded so they can be on a competitive basis with
the wealthy schools. It’s not just the black kids who
are suffering but poor white kids and Hispanics and
I was happy to do what I could to help, but once you
start becoming a public figure and are seen with
politicians, it can get tricky. People sometimes try to
use you, and other people misunderstand. Later on I
found out what can happen when you get involved,
but it was already starting back then.
In November, the next time I was in the Apollo,
Lionel Hampton dropped by and came on the stage
during the show. I introduced him to the audience, and
then he said some of the boys wanted to come out and
say hello. I thought he meant some of the boys in his
band, and I said fine. He waved to the wings, and out
came Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was running
for re-election at the time. He walked over to me and
shook hands right there on stage. When he did, a
photographer with him snapped a picture. It was a
complete surprise to me.
I said to him: “Okay, you got what you wanted, now
go.” I wasn’t for him or against him. I was just trying
to do my show.
With all the politicians I’ve endorsed over the years,
this will surprise a lot of people: I don’t vote. I’ve
never voted. In my life. I’ve tried to tell people which
way they ought to vote, though. Sometimes you teach,
see. A preacher says, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”
I’ve always tried to guide, but I’ve never voted
myself. I cast my vote another way. I cast my vote
with ideas and concepts. I never marched in my life,
either. I tried to go a step beyond being a local
statesman. I’m a humanitarian, not a politician. I’m
just glad God showed me the way to take that other
Through the “Don’t Be a Drop-Out” program I
became very good friends with Vice President
Humphrey. We met several times after that, for
official ceremonies and things, but behind the scenes
we were doing a lot of serious talking. The country
was going through some heavy changes, and there was
a lot of unrest. Right after the Meredith march there
were riots in Cleveland and Chicago and Brooklyn.
Martin was leading marches for open housing in
Chicago. That’s when people saw for the first time
that the problem wasn’t just in the South, it was
everywhere. In September there were riots in Dayton
and San Francisco. Stokely was arrested in Atlanta for
inciting to riot there.
All that turned out to be just a taste of what was
coming the next year, in 1967. Mr. Humphrey and Mr.
Johnson knew what might happen, and I think they
sincerely wanted to avoid it. As I traveled around the
country I talked to Mr. Humphrey on the phone and
told him in plain language what was going on.
Sometimes after a concert I talked to one of his aides
about it, I told him the people were angry and that I
was afraid there was going to be a bloodbath. I could
feel it everywhere I went. I think I was providing the
Democrats with one of the few non-white views they
had of things from the street. They didn’t really have
anybody to give them that view. Dr. King himself
wasn’t a street person. I was. I came from a ghetto and
was close to the people in the ghettos all over
I was in touch with Martin and his people a lot, too.
We ran into each other in the Atlanta airport and
talked, and I spoke with Andy Young and Hosea
Williams, who were Martin’s aides at the time. They
told me what they were doing and what they had to do
it with, and I told them what I was seeing around the
country, just like I had told Mr. Humphrey. I told them
which way I thought the politicians I spoke to were
Adam Clayton Powell was a friend of mine, too. He
was a very intelligent man. After they barred him from
Congress and he was living on Bimini, he came to see
me whenever I played Miami. I remember once the
two of us and Mr. Neely sat around my hotel room
talking politics and the whole racial situation. We
were jumping from subject to subject, the way you
will, when all of a sudden Adam became very serious.
He started talking about Martin and about how much
he admired him and how devoted he was to Martin’s
philosophy of nonviolence. That was the kind of man
Adam was, though a lot of people have a different
picture of him.
In the midst of all this, I was working as hard as ever.
I cut a bunch of Christmas songs at the end of 1966,
and in January of 1967 I cut another live album, Live
at the Garden. I did that one at the Latin Casino in
Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I was cutting singles and
re-releasing stuff and doing instrumentals for Smash
and cutting Byrd on Smash and cutting Vicki on King.
The producers for the Broadway show Hallelujah,
Baby saw Vicki on the revue and wanted to put her in
the show. I wanted her to stay with me, though, and I
think Leslie Uggams wound up playing the part. In
April the Raw Soul album came out, most of it
recorded in 1966 and January 1967.
I was still playing one-nighters, but now they were
almost always in stadiums and coliseums. I rented
those places myself, promoted the show, and took all
the risks. Like Braves stadium—I rented it and put
twenty-seven thousand people in there. But I still
played places like the Fox in Brooklyn and always
stayed close to the Apollo. They had a birthday cake
for me on stage in May; I wasn’t performing there that
week, they just did it as a compliment. At the end of
the month I did another big show in Madison Square
Garden. This time I was able to convince people I
didn’t need extra acts. I did put the Mighty Clouds of
Joy and Joe Cuba on the bill, but the rest of it was the
James Brown Revue. I think I probably put the Mighty
Clouds on because the show was on a Sunday. I
wanted people to have fun, but I wanted them to have
religion, too.
At the end of June I was back in the Apollo, fixing to
record another live album there. This time, though, we
had much more sophisticated equipment and a remote
truck out back. Around the same time we did that
recording, I released “Cold Sweat.” It was a newer,
up-tempo version of a song I’d first put out on an
album back in 1962 called “I Don’t Care,” and it was
a slow, bluesy tune then. It was good that way, but I
was really getting into my funk bag now and it
became an almost completely different tune, except
for the lyrics. It had the scratch guitar, the fast-hitting
sound from the bass, and the funky, funky rhythms
played by Clyde Stubblefield. “Cold Sweat” has a
pattern that hasn’t been duplicated yet.
Around this time I got the name Soul Brother Number
One. The word “soul” by this time meant a lot of
things—in music and out. It was about the roots of
black music, and it was kind of a pride thing, too,
being proud of yourself and your people. Soul music
and the civil rights movement went hand in hand, sort
of grew up together. I think Soul Brother Number One
meant I was the leader of the Afro-American
movement for world dignity and integrity through
A lot of strange things were happening in the country.
Besides Adam getting barred from Congress,
Muhammad Ali refused to go into the army, got
arrested, and had his title taken away. The war in
Vietnam was starting to tear the country apart. Martin
even came out against it and upset everybody; they
said he should only talk about civil rights. In the
middle of July there was a bad riot in Newark.
Twenty-six people were killed. Not a week later an
even worse riot broke out in Detroit. Forty-three
people were killed, thousands were hurt, and many
black people’s homes and businesses were burned.
Federal troops were called in. The whole summer of
1967 was like that—riots of some kind or another in
cities all over the country. I think there were more
than a hundred. It was like I had been telling Mr.
Humphrey and them—the whole country was burning
At the end of the summer I toured Europe. By the time
I got back to the States, the cities had quieted down,
but there was more tension and argument in the
movement than ever about the best way to go. By the
first of November, when I was back at the Apollo for
three days only, I ran into Rap Brown, and we had a
discussion about it. Byrd and I and some of the fellas
were coming out of the fish and chips place by the
theater. We had just finished eating and were fixing to
go back to the theater for the evening set. Rap was
coming down the sidewalk behind us and hollered. I
don’t think I’d ever met him before, but I recognized
him. He’d taken over as chairman of SNCC after
Stokely, and I think he was already under indictment
for inciting to riot in Maryland. I waved him inside the
theater with us where we could talk.
It was very cordial, but it was very direct. He told me
about some of the things he’d been doing and what
they were planning. I said, “Rap, I know what you’re
trying to do. I’m trying to do the same thing. But y’all
got to find another way to do it. You got to put down
the guns, you got to put away the violence.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “You just travel
from town to town without staying long enough in one
place to find out what’s really going on. I’m out in the
neighborhoods, working with people. All you know is
what you can see from the stage.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but I can see pretty good from there.
I know what’s happening, and I understand why. I
probably come from a much poorer background than
you do.”
“Then you should understand how people feel. You
have an enormous following in the ghettos. You ought
to get them to take action.”
“I’m not going to tell anybody to pick up a gun,” I
said. “Besides, even if we did start a revolution, our
people couldn’t do nothing but lose. We’re outgunned
and we’re outnumbered.”
He talked about urban guerrillas and a lot of things
like that. Finally I said, “I agree with you, Rap, we got
to get justice. But people shouldn’t have to die. They
shouldn’t have to die.”
That was it. There was no more to discuss. We wished
each other luck and parted company. I headed for the
dressing room. He headed back out into the street.
Doing It to Death
A lot of people at that time besides Rap and me were
looking for ways to get justice. Not too long after that
Apollo engagement Otis Redding called me in
“Bossman”—Otis always called me that—“I’ve got an
idea I want you to help me with.”
“What’s that, Otis?”
“I want us to form a union of all black entertainers.
We can start by getting all the singers and musicians
that we know, and then we can get actors and dancers
and the rest later on.”
“What do you want to do that for?”
“Well, it would give us all more leverage in the
business. No more getting messed over by the white
promoters and managers and people in the record
“Naw, Otis,” I said. “I don’t want to go that way. You
remember when the musicians union was like two
separate unions, one for white and one for black? We
just wound up second-class citizens. I don’t think we
ought to risk going back to that.”
“It wouldn’t be like that, Bossman. If the big stars
stuck together, they could see to it that a lot more
black entertainers got work and got treated fair.”
“I can’t do it, Otis. I don’t believe in separatism. I
think that’s going backwards, and I don’t want to be
part of that.”
He dropped the subject, and we talked about the road
and things we were planning to do. I told him I was
fixing to get a new jet; he told me he was thinking
about learning to fly the plane he was using, a
twin-engine Beech 18.
“Leave that alone,” I said. “Leave that to the pilot and
the co-pilot. I’ve been flying a long time. I know. Let
them do it.”
That was the last time I ever talked to him. A few days
later his plane crashed in a lake during a snowstorm in
Madison, Wisconsin. It killed him and his band, the
Bar-Kays. He was twenty-six years old.
I used to warn him about that plane all the time. On
the last morning we talked I said, “That plane is not
big enough to be doing what you’re doing. It can’t
carry all those people and all that equipment. You
shouldn’t be messing around with it like that.”
“Aw, it’s all right, Bossman,” he said. “We’ve had a
few problems, but it’s doing okay.”
Somebody was fooling Otis. They tried to do the same
thing with his twin-engine that I did with a Lear jet,
and they couldn’t do it. That plane was an old plane,
with a bad battery and a lot of service problems, and it
had no business flying in that kind of weather.
His death was tragic to me. I knew him from way back
in Macon when he was just a kid. My band did his
first charts for him. I’d see him out on the road, and
we always talked about how much we missed Georgia.
I remember one time in Houston when I was at the
Civic Center on the same night Otis was booked into a
place I used to play called the Palladium Ballroom.
The Civic Center held about fourteen thousand and the
Palladium about twenty-five hundred. Before the
concert that night Otis came by to see me and said,
“Man, with you in town I’m not going to have
anybody at my gig.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “you’ll have plenty of people
there. You’ll have a packed house. I guarantee it.”
When I finished my show I said to the audience, “Give
me time to shower and change, and I’ll see you at Otis
Redding’s show at the Palladium.”
By the time I got there the place was packed. Otis
invited me on stage, and we did a bunch of numbers
together. There wasn’t much security at the Palladium,
and we both liked to got our suits torn off.
About the same time Otis was killed I heard that
Tammi was very sick in Philadelphia. It was the start
of the brain tumors that killed her three years later. It
was as tragic as Otis. Both of them were so young and
just hitting their peaks, and I loved them.
All of that was a bad end to a strange year. There had
been the riots, the killings, the arguments in the
movement, and it seemed like the music and the
musicians were caught up in something big, too.
Something no one could really control. It was like the
country was coming apart, and everybody was going
to suffer. I didn’t think a year could be any stranger
than 1967, but there was a lot worse to come.
My music was changing as fast as the country. The
things I’d started doing in “Papa’s Bag” and “Cold
Sweat,” and other tunes around that time, I was taking
even further now. In the middle of 1967 Nat Jones left
the band and was replaced by Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis
as musical director. He was really in sync with what I
was trying to do. He played alto, tenor, and some
keyboards. Maceo, after a hitch in the army, came
back in April that year. I still had St. Clair Pinkney
and L. D. Williams on saxes. Joe Dupars and
Waymond Reed played trumpets; Jimmy Nolen and
Alphonso Kellum gave me that distinctive scratch
guitar sound; and John “Jabo” Starks and Clyde
Stubblefield were two of the funkiest drummers you
could find. They did it to death.
I started off 1968 by buying my first radio station. I
got into the radio business because of all the things
going on in the country. I believed in human
rights—not civil rights, human rights of all people
everywhere—and I loved my country. But I would
speak out for my people, too. That was part of loving
my country. I thought we needed pride and economic
power and, most important of all, education. So I
bought WGYW, which I changed to WJBE, in
Knoxville, Tennessee.
I know people might not believe it, but I didn’t go into
it to make money. First, I thought black communities
needed radio stations that really served them and
represented them. The station I bought in Knoxville
had been a black-oriented station, but it had gone off
the air. When I put it back on I kept a format of soul
and gospel and jazz—the whole spectrum of black
music. We had talk shows, too, and editorials and
programs directed at the kids to get them to stay in
school. We directed a lot of it at their parents, too,
encouraging them to give their kids the support they
Second, I wanted my station to be a media training
ground so black people could do more than just be
jocks. I wanted them to learn advertising,
programming, and management at all levels. Third, as
owner I wanted to be a symbol of the black
entrepreneur. All three of these reasons were, to me,
part of education. That was real black power.
Eventually I bought two more radio stations, WEBB
in Baltimore and WRDW in Augusta. At that time
there were around five hundred black-oriented radio
stations in the country, but only five of them were
owned by black people—and three of those were
mine. I did the same thing with my other two stations
that I did in Knoxville. We used to joke that WEBB
stood for “We Enjoy Being Black.” WRDW was
really special because that was in my hometown.
We did many political things on the stations, editorials
that irritated a lot of people. Sometimes I would cut an
editorial and just say what I was really thinking. I
wasn’t a radio professional, so some of ’em were a
little too raw for the FCC and they got on us every
now and then. With the war in Vietnam and the unrest
at home, you couldn’t avoid politics during that time.
In Vietnam the Tet offensive convinced a lot of people
that the war was going to go on for a long time. I
admired the bravery of the boys who were over there,
and I knew a large proportion were black. I had been
trying for a long time to get the government to let me
go over there to entertain the troops. I knew the black
soldiers were complaining that the USO didn’t send
enough acts they could identify with, and I wanted to
change that. I offered to pay all my expenses and
everything if they’d just let me go, but for some
reason they didn’t want me to go. I don’t know if they
thought I would be too political or what.
At home, Governor Wallace announced he was
running for president and President Johnson
announced that he wasn’t. Senator Robert Kennedy
and Senator Eugene McCarthy were already running,
and Mr. Nixon looked like he’d be it for the
Republicans. I knew one thing: I wanted to have some
say this time in who ran the country, so I was
watching it all real close.
Then another personal tragedy struck. On March 5,
Mr. Nathan died. We had fought a lot, but it was like
arguments between a stern father and a headstrong
son. He was gruff on the outside but soft on the inside,
and underneath it all he believed in me almost before
anybody else did. We squabbled over money and
business and all kinds of things, but Syd Nathan gave
this poor country boy from Georgia the vehicle to do
everything he’d ever dreamed of doing.
In the middle of all these serious events I got into a
comical conflict with Joe Tex. Over the years we had
this rivalry thing going. It was all in good fun. We’d
say things about each other or do things, and they’d
show up in Jet or another magazine. One time I heard
he had “Soul Brother Number One” painted on the
side of his bus and was going around the country that
way. Next time I saw him, I stopped that real fast.
Wasn’t any harm in it, it was just part of the joking
with each other. But this time around he stopped his
show at the Uptown in Philadelphia and told the
audience I was paying disc jockeys not to play his
song “Skinny Legs and All.” He went on Georgie
Woods’ radio program later and repeated it, saying I
did it because I thought the song was insulting to
black women. I answered him when I went into the
Apollo for four days the last week in March. Before
the show started I went out on stage, sat down on a
stool with a mike, and told the people I didn’t have a
fight with Joe over “Skinny Legs and All.” I said he
was a good friend of mine, I thought the world of him,
and I had ordered my radio stations to play all his
A lot happened during those four nights at the Apollo.
One night there was a riot outside the theater of people
trying to get in. Another night a television crew taped
the show for a special they were doing.
On March 27, the third day of my run, Little Willie
John died in the penitentiary in Washington. Honi
Coles came in the dressing room and told me. I bowed
my head. I loved Willie, and I spoke about him that
night on stage. Two years before he died, I started a
campaign to get Willie released from prison on parole.
Had a lot of papers written up. Signed things. Mr.
Neely and I actually got him out for a short time, but
he went down to Los Angeles, which was a violation
of his parole, and they put him right back in. I knew
all about how that felt. I think it broke him. When St.
Clair Pinkney, Pop, and I went out to the prison to see
him later that same year, they brought him to us in a
wheelchair. He had pneumonia.
“Don’t worry, Willie,” I told him, “we’re going to get
you out of here again.”
“Naw,” he said, “I’m going to die in here. I know that
now. But thanks just the same.”
It hurt me to see him so downhearted. See, the people
who were all at King together were like family.
Sometimes we even fought the way families will. Mr.
Nathan had been like a strict father. Mr. Neely was
like a favorite uncle. Willie was like a brother. When I
heard he’d died, I decided while I was still at the
Apollo that I wanted to record a tribute album the first
chance I got. I did, too, and the album came out at the
end of the year: Thinking About Little Willie John and
a Few Nice Things.
There was a lot on my mind during those few days at
the Apollo—Willie’s death, Mr. Nathan’s, the things
that were going on in the country. During one show I
brought out my accountant to present a check to
CORE and another check to the H. Rap Brown
Defense Fund. I disagreed with Rap about a lot of
things, but I also didn’t like the way the government
was harassing him. And bad as things were getting, I
thought we needed to stick together. I was against
violence, but I was not against self-defense. At the last
show of the run I closed with another speech about all
the things that were going through my mind at the
time. I was getting ready to go on my first trip to
Africa, and I was thinking about the elections and
human rights and my own origins and where I was
“I will never get too big to remember I’m still a soul
brother,” I said. “I know I am black, always will be
black, and you are my people. The way things are
going in this country... I don’t know... I may try to run
for president. But no matter what, remember: Die on
your feet; don’t live on your knees.”
But I never told people to burn. I told them to organize
and become involved and unified. I was saying build,
and Rap and them were saying it, too, but they had a
shorter fuse than I did and at some point they were
driven to say destroy. A short fuse is dangerous when
you have a lot of people listening to you. You can be
forced into creating things you can’t control. I’m glad
I was never pushed to that point, but I could have
A few hours after I closed at the Apollo I was on an
Air France jet headed for the Ivory Coast by way of
Paris. It was the first time I’d ever been to Africa.
When I got there and got off the plane, I felt I was on
land I should have been on much earlier. The Africans
were full of pride and dignity, and they were very
warm, too. It was hard to believe that they knew my
music. It wasn’t in their language, and most of them
probably didn’t have much extra money to spend on
records and things. We were there for only two days,
but I was overwhelmed by the spirit of the place. I
think it made me understand some things about my
roots as well. Later on I found out a lot of my roots
were in China, a lot in Mexico, some in Germany.
It was really a whirlwind trip: We left on Friday and
got back the next Tuesday, the second day of April. I
intended to rest because I had a big show scheduled
for the Boston Garden on Friday, April 5. Boston had
always been a good town for me—I’d had ten
thousand at the Garden the time before—and I was
feeling kind of changed after that first trip to Africa
and looking forward to the show. I spent Wednesday
trying to get my sleep straightened out. Thursday, too,
until I heard the news later that day: They had killed
Dr. King in Memphis during a garbage strike.
There’s a Riot Going On
When a great man is killed for no reason and he
happens to be your friend, you feel the loss twice over.
In Martin’s case, it was all one feeling because with
him it was like the nation had lost its greatest friend.
That’s what Martin was—America’s best friend. And
a lot of Americans didn’t even realize it.
When the shock wore off I called Mr. Neely and
talked to him for a long time about the assassination.
Like a lot of people, I knew it was going to bring a
great deal of violence, burning, and death, and I knew
everybody would lose by it. I didn’t want it to happen,
and I knew Martin wouldn’t want it to happen. I told
Mr. Neely I wished there was something I could do to
prevent it.
When I hung up I thought there was one thing I could
do. I called my radio stations in Knoxville and
Baltimore and had them put me on the air live. I urged
the people to stay calm, to honor Dr. King by being
peaceful. Then I made more taped messages like that
and instructed the station managers to play them until
the trouble passed. I believe they had some effect
because those two cities had less trouble than most.
The next day, Friday, I was tied up taping some
segments for a television special—the same special
they had filmed my Apollo show for. I didn’t want to
do it that day, but it was scheduled to go on the air in
early June and I didn’t have any other time I could do
it. I went from the studio directly to the airport and
flew to Boston. I wanted to go through with my
concert there because I thought it would give me an
opportunity to keep some people off the streets that
night—the night everybody was predicting the worst
rioting for—and to talk to them about the situation.
I was met at Logan Airport by Mayor Kevin White’s
limousine and a city councilman named Thomas
Atkins. I believe he told me he was the first black ever
elected to city-wide office in Boston. As we drove to
the Garden, he filled me in on the situation. The night
before hadn’t been too bad in Boston—everybody was
still in shock—but they were worried about that night.
The National Guard was on alert and standing by. He
said city officials had spent the morning arguing about
whether to let my concert go on. The mayor wanted to
cancel it, but Atkins told him that would just make
matters worse. If many people from Roxbury showed
up downtown at the Garden and found a lock on the
door, trouble would start. Atkins said he told the
mayor he’d be lucky if his own office was left
standing. Then somebody came up with the idea of
televising the concert live. That way people could stay
home and see the show, and the people who showed
up wouldn’t find a locked door. So Atkins got in touch
with a disc jockey named Early Byrd on WILD, the
local soul station, and Early Byrd contacted my people
in New York and told them that it was either televise
the concert or the mayor was going to cancel it. While
they were trying to get to me, others in the mayor’s
office persuaded WGBH, the local public TV station,
to put the concert on live. They needed some lead time
to get set up, and the mayor’s office needed time to
get the word out about the broadcast.
My people couldn’t reach me because I was taping the
television program, but they gave Early Byrd a
tentative okay, subject to my veto. Atkins passed the
word to the mayor’s office, but he told them there was
no guarantee that I would agree—and then they’d
really have a mess on their hands. Once the mayor got
the tentative okay, Atkins told me, it was “off to the
races.” The mayor put out a press release announcing
that the concert would be televised. Taped
announcements went out over WILD urging people to
stay home and watch James Brown on television. The
TV people were laying cable at the Garden.
“That’s where it stands now,” he said.
“I really want to help,” I said, “but there’s a very
serious problem. I just taped a television special, and
the contract prohibits me from performing on
television for a certain period of time before and after
the show is aired and in certain geographical areas.
That period of time is now, and one of the areas is
Boston. If I go on TV here tonight, I’ll have lawsuits
and trouble every which way. I’ll cooperate in any
way I can, but I cannot do a show on television.”
I was very disturbed. Here the people had been told
they could see the show on television, and if it wasn’t
on, I knew they’d feel tricked and then get mad. If the
mayor cancelled the show entirely, there would be
more trouble. We rode along not saying anything. It
was rush hour, but the streets were deserted. Sort of
like the calm before the storm. After a while we both
started talking about how we felt about Dr. King.
“You know,” I said, “I want to do a show tonight
because I want to dedicate it to him. I didn’t always
agree with him, but he was a great man and he did a
lot for all of us.”
“He was remarkable.”
“Yes, he was,” I said. “If I was faced with some of the
same situations he was—people beating me, throwing
things at me, cursing me, spitting on me—I don’t
know if I could stay nonviolent, not as a matter of
“I know what you mean,” he said. “I once spent an
entire night in Mississippi in 1964 arguing that point
with him. I’m nonviolent if I have to be, but I don’t
want anybody to ever make the mistake of thinking
they could hit me and get away with it.”
“Brother, that’s where I’m at,” I said. “But I had the
deepest respect and love for him.”
When we got to the Boston Garden I could see that
people were coming in droves to get refunds on their
tickets because they’d heard it was going to be on TV
live. They didn’t want to be out that night, and if they
could see it free, it made sense to them to get refunds.
The Garden had also stopped selling any more tickets.
Now things were really a mess. For the first time I got
really mad.
“Without my permission this thing has been
announced, and the announcement has now had the
clear effect of killing the gate. I would at least have
been able to get through to the fourteen or fifteen
thousand young people who would have been here. I
think it would have made a difference. But now I’m
going to play to an empty house; I’m going to have to
pay for it myself, and the thing can’t even be seen on
television. The people who had tickets and the people
who are excited about seeing it at home are going to
be very angry. Instead of cooling things off, it’s going
to heat them up. The whole thing is a disaster. I want
to stop riots, not start them.”
I didn’t blame Atkins. He was a good man and wasn’t
responsible for the mess. He wanted to try to fix it
some way, and so did I. In a few hours people were
going to turn on their TV sets expecting to see James
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll do everything I can to get released
from my contract so I can be on television here
tonight. It’s not going to be easy this late on a Friday,
but I’m going to try. Now tell me what you’re going to
do about the losses you’re inflicting on me.”
“I’ll undertake to see that the city guarantees the
gate,” he said.
“Fair enough,” I said. “Let’s get to it.”
We found an office and got on the phones. I called my
people in New York, and he tried to locate the mayor.
I told my people to do whatever was necessary to get
the release and have the TV people call me
immediately if there was any problem. Within an hour
they had it worked out. I told Atkins. He told me he
was having trouble getting the mayor to go along. The
mayor said to him, “We’re crazy to even be talking
about this. If it ever gets out that we were discussing
paying the city’s money to some rock ’n’ roll singer,
we’re both through in politics.” The mayor hadn’t
been mayor that long, but people were already talking
about running him for vice president.
I could see Atkins felt bad about the whole situation. I
believe he was starting to feel used. He got back on
the phone with the mayor and told him I had acted in
good faith from the very first and that the city had
caused the problem and ought to solve it. Finally, the
mayor agreed—but he didn’t want to. Then, I
understand, they had a very interesting discusson
about what it meant to guarantee the gate. Atkins told
him it would be the difference between what we took
in at the box office and the amount we would have
taken in based on a sellout. The mayor didn’t like that
either, and Atkins had to explain to him that I would
have sold it out. When Atkins told me that we had an
agreement, I was very appreciative. I would have gone
on and done the show anyway and taken the losses,
but by then I thought the city ought to do something
right, so I accepted the offer.
I went to my dressing room and changed, the band set
up, and the TV people finished getting the cameras in
place. Even with all the announcements about the
concert being televised, about two thousand people
showed up at the Garden. The mayor showed up, too,
wanting to go on the air to ask for calm. That was fine
with me. Atkins introduced me, and I introduced the
mayor. I think I even called him a “swinging cat.”
“All of us are here tonight to listen to a great talent,”
he said, “but we’re also here to pay tribute to one of
the greatest of Americans—Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr. Twenty-four hours ago Dr. King died for all of us,
black and white, that we may live together in
harmony, without violence, and in peace. I’m here to
ask for your help—let’s make Dr. King’s dream a
reality in Boston. No matter what any other
community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr.
King in peace.”
I said I seconded that. “Let’s not to anything to
dishonor Dr. King,” I said. “Stay home. You kids,
especially, I want you to think about what you’re
doing. Think about what Dr. King stood for. Don’t
just react in a way that’s going to destroy your
Throughout the show, between songs, I talked about
Dr. King and urged the people to stay calm. I
announced a song title and tried to work the title into a
little rap about Dr. King and the whole situation. I
talked about my own life and where I’d come from. At
one point, when I was reminiscing about Martin, I
started to cry—just a few tears rolling out, you know,
nothing anybody could really see—but it was like it
was all starting to really sink in what we lost. But I
pulled myself together—I thought that would do the
most good—and went on with the show.
“I’m still a soul brother,” I said at one point, “and you
people have made it possible for me to be a first-class
man in all respects. I used to shine shoes in front of a
radio station. Now I own radio stations. You know
what that is? That’s Black Power.”
While the show was going on, the mayor and others
backstage were monitoring the situation around the
city. The police said the streets in Roxbury were
almost empty. Not only was there no trouble, there
were fewer people out than there would be ordinarily.
Police said it was eerie. It was working so well that
somebody got the idea of showing the whole thing
over again as soon as we finished. I said that was fine
with me. Near the end of the program I announced that
the whole thing would be repeated immediately.
When we went into our finale, some of the fans at the
Garden jumped up on the stage. They started dancing
and shaking hands with me. That upset the police.
They started to move in. I knew that all it would take
to destroy everything I’d been trying to do all night
long was for there to be an incident with the police
and have it televised. I stopped the music and asked
the police to back off. “I’m all right,” I said, “I’m all
right. I want to shake their hands.” I shook some more
hands and then asked the people politely to leave the
stage. They did, and we finished the show without any
problem. As soon as we finished, the television station
started running a complete tape of the show. It wasn’t
over until two o’clock in the morning. By that time the
danger was past. Boston got through the weekend
almost without any trouble at all.
Washington, D.C., wasn’t so lucky. There was looting
and burning all over the city Thursday and Friday
nights. They had a curfew, but nobody paid any
attention to it. They had something like three hundred
fires the first two nights. The burned-out buildings
were collapsing and injuring people. Over two
thousand people were arrested, and one person was
killed Thursday and four more the next night.
Stokely was there, going around the streets trying to
cool things off, I think. But it was kind of strange. I
heard he was talking at Howard University on Friday
and kept telling the people, “Stay off the streets if you
don’t have a gun because there’s going to be
shooting.” He said it over and over, and then he
whipped out his own gun and showed it to the crowd.
On Saturday they called out twelve thousand troops
and put them all around the city. That morning Mayor
Walter Washington and some of the other officials
decided to ask me to come down there. They called
Dewey Hughes, the news director of station WOL,
who got in touch with my people. By that time I had
received several requests like that from different
cities, but I went to Washington because it was really
the symbol of the whole country.
I couldn’t believe the destruction: buildings smoking,
smashed glass all over the streets, stores with their
windows busted out. I don’t think I ever saw anything
like it until I got to Vietman. “Soul Brother” was
written on many black-owned stores to protect them,
but in a lot of cases it didn’t do any good. They were
looted, too. What disturbed me the most was the
people dying. I didn’t want to see any more people
die, white or black.
I went on live television from the Municipal Center. “I
know how everybody feels,” I said. “I feel the same
way. But you can’t accomplish anything by blowing
up, burning up, stealing, and looting. Don’t terrorize.
Organize. Don’t burn. Give kids a chance to learn. Go
home. Look at TV. Listen to the radio. Listen to some
James Brown records. The real answer to race
problems in this country is education. Not burning and
killing. Be ready. Be qualified. Own something. Be
somebody. That’s Black Power.”
I talked a lot about Martin, too, like I did in Boston.
“He was our hero. We have an obligation to try to
fulfill his dream of true brotherhood. You can’t do that
with violence.”
When I got through, I met with the city officials and
then went on WOL radio to make some more appeals.
While I was there, Lady Bird Johnson called me to say
thanks. Her daughter, Mrs. Luci Nugent, called a little
later. I think that was an audience the station didn’t
usually get.
My next gig was in Rochester, so I went there ahead
of time and went on the air to try to cool things down.
I was glad to do it. I was glad to do it in all those
cities. I would have gone to more if I could. Nobody
gained anything from all that destruction. I knew it
then, but a lot of people didn’t like the kind of things I
was saying at that time. I think they understand now.
My place card at the White House dinner said:
“Thanks much for what you are doing for your
country—LBJ.” I think that upset some people
because they thought it was like a pat on the head for
helping cool off the riots. I don’t think they
understood everything I had been doing—the
stay-in-school campaign, the lobbying with the vice
president about job programs, and things like that.
And in less than a month—the dinner was on May
8—I was going to Vietnam to entertain the troops.
I also had a song, a patriotic song, about to come out
called “America Is My Home.” I called it my
contribution to “the long cool summer.” I didn’t know
it at the time, but that record was going to disturb a lot
of people. They were going to get very heavy with me
over that song. Today, all anybody says about it is that
it was the first rap record.
The state dinner was in honor of the prime minister of
Thailand. Besides him and President Johnson, there
were senators, congressmen, and other government
officials: Vice President Humphrey, Sentator Birch
Bayh, Senator Sam Ervin, Representative John
Anderson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of
Defense Clark Clifford, Eugene and Walter Rostow,
William Bundy, General Maxwell Taylor, Cyrus
Vance, and a lot more. Edward Bennett Williams, Earl
Wilson, Allen Drury, and a few other private citizens
were also there.
I was standing in a group with the president and others
when Earl Wilson, the columnist, said, “Won’t they
call you Uncle Tom for doing this?”
“No,” I said.
“Why not?”
“Because I’m not.” And Mr. Johnson winked his eye.
I didn’t talk to Mr. Johnson very much. He was eating
a lot of food. That man was hungry. I was honored to
be there, but mostly I was just interested because I was
getting ready to go to Asia and most of the people at
the dinner were concerned with what was going on
there. The president had just said he wouldn’t run for
re-election. He had stopped the bombing and was
about to send some people over to start peace talks. I
think he really wanted peace, but I think he wanted to
reassure Thailand, too. He got up to toast the prime
minister and said, “We will never abandon our
commitment or compromise the future of Asia at the
negotiating table.”
During the meal I was seated on the other side of the
room from Mr. Humphrey. Afterward, a Secret
Service man came to my table and said, “The Vice
President of the United States would like to see you at
his table.” It sounded like an order.
“Please inform the vice president,” I said, “that James
Brown is not his boy. I will not walk across the room
to his table.” The Secret Service man looked shook up
now. “But you can tell him,” I said, smiling a big
crocodile smile, “that I’ll meet him halfway.”
The Secret Service man looked like he didn’t believe
what he was hearing. He stood there for a minute, then
walked across the room, with me watching him the
whole way. He leaned down and whispered to Mr.
Humphrey. When he was finished, Mr. Humphrey
caught my eye and started laughing. We met halfway.
It was all in good fun, but I was not his boy. I had
been thinking about the election a lot since Mr.
Johnson withdrew. Mr. Humphrey hadn’t really
jumped into it that strong yet, and I had just about
decided to endorse Senator Robert Kennedy. He was a
good man and was doing very well in the primaries,
and I thought he was going to get the nomination
eventually. He was a young man with young ideas,
and at that time we needed a leader that young people
could identify with. I didn’t discuss my plans with Mr.
Humphrey that night, but I intended to explain it to
him before I went public with it.
The only other entertainer at the White House that
night was Bob Hope—one of the finest men I know. I
think he was partly responsible for my finally getting
to Vietnam. I had volunteered a long time before and
offered to pay my own way and everything, but the
government kept putting me off. Mr. Hope told some
of the USO people, “If you’re going to get anybody to
perform for the troops, James Brown is the man.” Not
long after that, I received the word to go.
When I got the dates for the Vietnam trip, I cancelled
$100,000 worth of bookings. We left at the beginning
of June and went to Korea first. I took the whole revue
over there. We stayed near Seoul and did a couple of
shows a day for several days all around the country.
When we went to Vietnam we could only take seven
people—five musicians, me, and Marva Whitney. The
musicians were Maceo Parker on sax, Waymond Reed
on trumpet, Jimmy Nolen on guitar, Tim Drummond
on bass, and Clyde Stubblefield on drums.
Tim was a white bass player I had used on some
sessons in Cincinnati at King. I’d been asking him to
join the band, and when he heard we were going to
Vietnam he said yes. He told me he wanted to show
the soldiers over there that some white and black
people back home were getting along. He was a
playing cat—good God a’mighty, I never could get
enough of Tim.
Marva was a singer on the show, and she was also my
girlfriend at the time. Deedee and I had broken up by
then, and she’d left. Another woman named Florence
had become my girlfriend, and she was with me in
New York. We lasted about two years, until Deedee
and I got back together. But Marva was my girlfriend,
too. She was a fine woman. I wrote a song for her
called “It’s My Thing and I Do What I Want to Do
and You Can’t Tell Me Who to Sock It To.” I think
she was the strongest of all my girlfriends. Any time a
woman can go to Vietnam and go through what she
went through, she must be stronger than anybody else.
They gave us a bunch of shots, fatigues to travel
around in, and steel-reinforced boots in case of booby
traps, and then they put us on a plane for Saigon. The
funny thing was the identification cards they gave us
that said we were noncombatants. If we somehow got
captured by the Viet Cong, we were supposed to show
them these cards and everything would be cool. We
laughed about that the whole time we were there.
We got there not too long after Tet, and the day
before, the Viet Cong had launched the biggest attack
on Saigon up to that time. They shot something like
135 rounds of 122-millimeter rockets into the city.
Flying into Saigon you could see all the blown-up
buildings and damage that had been done. Except for
the gun emplacements and the sandbags everywhere,
though, Saigon was a beautiful city. They put us up at
the Continental Hotel, I believe, not too far from the
presidential palace. The day we got there, a mortar
shell hit a few doors down the street and killed
seventeen people. They dropped ten rockets on Tan
Son Nhut Air Base, right outside the city, that
morning. We performed there that afternoon. From
Saigon we traveled around the country by helicopter,
did our shows, and then came back there to sleep. At
night you could hear the American bombs hitting a
few miles out in the countryside: You could feel ’em,
too—the bed would shake.
We did two, sometimes three, shows a day—one in
the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night.
Really, it was harder than any tour I’d ever done. For
one thing, it was unbelievably hot. Being up on that
stage dancing and singing in 100 degrees, the jungle
sun beating down, I’d be so depleted that I’d get my
intravenous after almost every show. Clyde lost a lot
of fluid, too, working out on those drums. After one
really hot show I said to him, “Try this.” He said okay.
They brought in an old field nurse who was used to
seeing worse things than dehydrated musicians, and
she took the needle and jabbed it into him. She didn’t
have any finesse at all. Clyde let out a holler, jerked
the needle out of his arm, and ran out of the tent. He
didn’t want any more intravenous.
The reception we got was incredible, they were so
glad to see us. The shows all kind of ran together, but
I’ll never forget the one we did for the Ninth Infantry
Division. It was called Bearcat, I believe. They had
the place dug out of the side of a hill—like the
Hollywood Bowl—and there must have been forty
thousand people there. Around the rim, at the top,
tanks were pulled up like at a drive-in, with guys
sitting in the hatches looking down on the show.
It must have been 115 degrees on the stage. We didn’t
care. Those guys went wild, all forty thousand in full
field gear. About halfway through the show we heard
this ack-ack-ack-ack, boom, boom, BOOM coming
from somewhere behind the stage. It turned out
Americans were firing at somebody. I didn’t have any
thoughts of stopping the show, but we must have
looked concerned because the guys in the front yelled,
“Don’t worry, we won’t let Charlie get you.”
After a show we mingled with the troops for a little
while, then we jumped in the helicopter and headed
for the next show. A soldier always sat in the open
door of the helicopter with a grenade launcher
watching the ground to see if anything moved.
Sometimes we drew some small-arms fire. One night
we were choppering back from a show and tracers
came at us. It was kind of pretty if you didn’t think
about the fact they were meant to kill you.
When we got back to the airfield at night, they took us
off the chopper and put us in a bus. The windows on
the bus had screens so no one could throw a grenade
in while we were riding along. One night we were
standing by the chopper and overheard a guy on a
walkie-talkie yell, “Get ’em out of there. A mortar
attack is coming in.” They hustled us onto the bus and
made us lie on the floor as we drove away. I started
laughing, thinking about the time in North Carolina
when all those people chased us out of town, shooting
at us, and we had to lie on the floor of that bus.
Another time we had to take a plane instead of a
helicopter because we were going to an air base way
up north. That’s the only time we traveled by plane.
They put us in one of those planes you always see go
down in a Tarzan movie, an old prop job. They could
tell we didn’t like the way it looked because they said,
“Don’t worry, this plane’s a workhorse. It’ll go
anywhere.” We weren’t in the air ten minutes when
one of the engines caught fire. We came limping back,
about fifty feet off the ground. We made an
emergency landing—barely making the end of the
runway. They ran out to the plane and got us off
quick. While we were waiting in a Quonset hut for
another plane, we heard this BOOM, BOOM,
KABOOM. An officer in the hut said, “Hmmm, must
be an air strike.” Our planes were attacking the area
we’d just brushed over. I guess we’d aroused some
Viet Cong.
The whole time in Vietnam there was always a chance
we’d get shot down or mortared, but nothing I did was
as hard as what our soldiers had to do. Every day. For
months. Some for years. A lot of ’em looked like
seventeen- and eighteen-year-old kids, but they
weren’t kids. They were men. They had to be.
Before we left for Vietnam I had instructed Bob
Patton, one of my promotion men, to make contact
with Senator Kennedy. They met in the Ambassador
Hotel the day of the California primary. Mr. Patton
told the senator that I wanted to endorse him. He said,
“That’s great. Tell James I appreciate it. I’ll talk to
you about it a little later, but right now I have to make
a speech.” Mr. Patton left; I think he went to see the
Righteous Brothers who were doing a show nearby.
When he came back to the Ambassador later that
night, he ran into a big commotion. Senator Kennedy
had been shot. He died the next day. I don’t remember
where I was when I got the news from Mr. Patton but,
for some reason, after that, Vietnam didn’t seem so
dangerous to me.
Say It Loud
By the time I got back from Vietnam people were on
my case about “America Is My Home,” calling me an
Uncle Tom, saying the song was a sellout, things like
that. Some of the more militant organizations sent
representatives backstage after shows to talk about it.
“How can you do a song like that after what happened
to Dr. King?” they’d say. I talked to them and tried to
explain that when I said “America is my home,” I
didn’t mean the government was my home, I meant
the land and the people. They didn’t want to hear that.
I told them I was all for self-defense, but it made no
sense for us to burn down our own communities. They
didn’t like that, either.
I was taking flak about having a white bass player,
too. Over the years I have had several white cats in my
bands, but Tim Drummond was the first and it upset a
lot of people. When he first joined, we were playing
the Regal. There were certain people I thought would
get very heavy with him if they saw him on stage, so I
told him to set up offstage and watch me for cues
during the show. Right before the show, though, I
said, “No, let’s get it over with. You go on out there.”
During the band’s set, before I came on, there was a
big, mean looking cat in the wings motioning to Tim
to get off the stage. Tim ignored him for a while.
Finally, during one of Maceo’s solos, he laid down his
bass and came off. The fella told him, “You’re not
supposed to be on this stage.” Tim asked him who he
was. He let on that he was with the union and with the
Regal, so Tim came to my dressing room while the
band was still on and told me about it. I cornered the
cat and said, “You don’t want him to play because
he’s white. Well, he’s going to play, and if he doesn’t,
I’ll pull my show out of here right now. I don’t care if
you’re with the union or the theater or who. Now get
out of my sight.”
Another time, in Washington, I received an unsigned
telegram that said, “You have a white man working
for you and a black man needs a job.” A lot of people
didn’t like the rap I gave in the show, either. I talked
about my background—going from shining shoes to
running radio stations and owning a jet. I talked about
the importance of education. “Learn,” I said, “don’t
burn. Get an education, work hard, and try to get in a
position of owning things. That’s Black Power.” I said
we had a lot of problems in the black community that
we had to solve ourselves—wasn’t anybody could do
it for us.
A lot of people didn’t want to hear that and didn’t
understand it. There were bomb threats, death threats.
Once we were ordered by the police to evacuate a
hotel in Atlanta. Sometimes there were threats about
disrupting concerts with stink bombs, things like that.
Some of the threats came to Mr. Neely and King
Records. I didn’t pay any attention to them. You
couldn’t. Entertainers get threats like that all the time.
You can never really be sure where they’re coming
from anyway—it could be political or somebody with
a personal grudge or people trying to muscle in on the
business. It’s hard to tell.
Pop wanted me to back off doing political things, too.
From the time I first got into integrating concerts, we
got into long discussions about it. They got a little
more heated now.
“Why jump off into that?” he said. “Wait until your
real hot run is over, then if you want to dabble in
politics, do it as a kind of elder statesman, but not
now. You can’t do anything for anybody else if you
don’t have anything.”
“If anybody’s going to listen to me, it’s going to be
now. It would be a shame to have this big audience,
with all that’s going on, and not try to do some good.”
He was afraid it would hurt my popularity. He turned
out to be right, but he didn’t understand that I didn’t
care. I had to say what I thought either way—whether
it upset Afro-Americans or Caucasian Americans.
Meantime, my music was getting funkier and funkier.
What I’d started on “Get It Together” and “I Can’t
Stand Myself,” I took even further with “Licking
Stick—Licking Stick.” Pee Wee Ellis, Byrd, and I put
it together, and I released it at the same time as
“America Is My Home.” It was another one-chord
song like “I Can’t Stand Myself,” but it had even more
of a funk groove. It was a rhythm section tune and
exactly what the title said, a licking stick. If the people
who were on me about “America Is My Home”
wanted to know who James Brown was, all they had
to do was listen to “Licking Stick.” My music said
where I stood.
There were some changes in the band, too. When Tim
Drummond came down with hepatitis from Vietnam,
Charles Sherrell replaced him on bass. “Sweet”
Charles we called him. He hasn’t gotten the credit as a
bass player that he should have. A lot of the stuff that
Bootsy Collins and some other bass players did
later—like thumping the strings—Sweets did first.
Fred Wesley replaced Levi Raspbury on trombone and
turned out to be a real innovator and a real creator as
an arranger. Around the same time trumpeter Richard
“Kush” Griffith and a third drummer, Nate Jones, also
I got back from Vietnam on June 17 and five days
later played Yankee Stadium. Pop and I had a
discussion about that, too. He wanted me to add a
whole lot of extra acts to the show so I wouldn’t
embarrass myself with an empty stadium. I told him I
wanted to prove a soul act could fill a place like that. I
believe I had forty-eight thousand people there. I
dreamed a lot of dreams in my life, but I could never
have imagined playing Yankee Stadium. I called the
show the National Soul Festival and took it around to
huge places that summer like Soldier Field to show
that somebody besides the Beatles could fill venues
like that. I thought it would give a sense of pride to
little black kids like the one I overheard at Yankee
Stadium who said, “The Yankees can’t even fill
Yankee Stadium.”
At the end of July I campaigned for Mr. Humphrey in
Watts. That wasn’t too popular, either. Mr. Humphrey
didn’t even have the nomination yet, and a lot of
people blamed him for the way the war in Vietnam
was going. And a lot of Afro-Americans, including
me, had really been behind Senator Kennedy, and it
was hard to get over his death, coming so soon after
Dr. King’s. Some couldn’t forgive Mr. Humphrey for
being against Senator Kennedy. It’s funny, though.
When the election rolled around, Mr. Humphrey
almost won. It took all that time for people to see he
was his own man and that he was a good man.
He campaigned in Watts for several days. It was very
difficult. The Saturday before I joined him, some
militants booed him off the stage there. His security
people didn’t want him in Watts at all. When I joined
him the following Monday, the security was
unbelievable. Police were on all the rooftops looking
over the crowd with binoculars. There were dozens of
other policemen and Secret Service men all up and
down the street and mingling with the crowd. I’m not
sure, but I think maybe they had to know from their
own informers about the threats I’d been getting.
I didn’t just get up and endorse Mr. Humphrey flatly. I
tried to get him into a discussion right there on the
platform. I wanted him to make some promises not
just to me but to the people. I said to the crowd, “I
won’t endorse Mr. Humphrey unless he promises to
give the black man what he wants—ownership. He
wants his own things: houses, banks, hotels. He wants
to be able to walk into a bank and see people of all
origins working there so he’ll feel comfortable asking
for a loan. When he goes to a hospital emergency
room, he wants to see priority given to the people with
the worst ailments, not the lightest skin.”
Mr. Humphrey stepped up to the mike and said he had
been for those things for years. “If you elect me
president,” he said, “you’ll get them. I promise you
“I got the feeling,” I said. “I endorse him.” The band
they had there struck up, and I even got the vice
president to do a little dance. “You can do the
boogaloo, man, if you have soul.”
While I was in Los Angeles I planned to cut
something that had been on my mind a long
time—“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” There
was a vamp we’d been playing on the show for quite a
while, and during my last tour I wrote some words for
it while we were flying from Canada to Seattle. I was
ready to go into the studio with it, but I needed some
kids to be a chorus. I got all the fellas in the band and
people traveling with the show to invite their friends
and relatives with kids to come to the studio in
Hollywood that night.
People were still getting very heavy with me about
“America Is My Home” and the Humphrey thing, and
the night we were supposed to cut, a strange thing
happened. I was in my hotel room fixing to go to the
studio when I heard a loud knock on the door. When I
went to answer it, nobody was there, but sitting on the
carpet was a grenade with “James Brown” painted on
it. I’d seen enough grenades in prison and in Vietnam
to know it wasn’t live, but it was the thought that
We were late getting started and most of those who
were supposed to bring kids didn’t show up. That was
okay because I knew the thing needed a lot of work,
and it was going to be way past bedtime for most kids
anyway. We worked on the arrangement and I kept
changing the lyrics, stopping the rehearsal and
working on them. Somebody suggested we just put
down the instrumental track and come back later for
the vocal. I said no because I thought it ought to have
a live feel to it to be inspiring, the way I intended it.
We worked all night until I was satisfied. Then I was
ready to cut, and when I’m ready, I’m ready. But we
didn’t have any kids. I told everybody to scatter
outside the studio and just get kids off the street. Byrd
got a bunch from a Denny’s restaurant nearby. Other
people brought them in from here and there. After a
while we had about a dozen. We rehearsed them and
explained about being quiet when they weren’t
singing. Each time I sang “Say it loud” all they had to
do was answer with “I’m black and I’m proud!” The
funny thing about it is that most of ’em weren’t black.
Most of ’em were white or Asian.
The song is obsolete now. Really, it was obsolete
when I cut it, but it was needed. You shouldn’t have to
tell people what race you are, and you shouldn’t have
to teach people they should be proud. They should feel
it just from living where they do. But it was necessary
to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of
good for a lot of people. That song scared people, too.
Many white people didn’t understand it any better
than many Afro-Americans understood “America Is
My Home.” People called “Black and Proud” militant
and angry—maybe because of the line about dying on
your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if
you listen to it, it sounds like a children’s song. That’s
why I had children in it, so children who heard it
could grow up feeling pride. It’s a rap song, too.
The song cost me a lot of my crossover audience. The
racial makeup at my concerts was mostly black after
that. I don’t regret recording it, though, even if it was
misunderstood. It was badly needed at the time. It
helped Afro-Americans in general and the
dark-skinned man in particular. I’m proud of that.
There It Is
While I was in Los Angeles I got a call one morning
from my office in New York. I don’t remember who it
was, but the person told me Pop was dead. He was
playing golf with his son Jack and had a heart attack
and died right there on the golf course. I couldn’t
believe it because it seemed like lately his health had
been better. But in another way, I could believe it:
Otis, Little Willie John, Mr. Nathan, Dr. King, Senator
Kennedy, and now Pop. That was probably one of the
lowest points of my whole life. We were all family.
Byrd and I and some of the other fellas used to lay
around his house like it was ours, just like he’d come
and lay around ours. For most of us, being from
Georgia, Pop was the first white person we really felt
comfortable with. Of all the acts he handled, I was the
only one he ran with. We spent all those nights
together on the plane after concerts, talking. We
played tonk and talked until we got to the next city.
His wife always wanted him to come off the road and
be home more, but he loved me like a son and
couldn’t stay away.
Usually, no matter what happens, I hold my grief in. I
didn’t even cry much as a kid. Didn’t cry when I was
taken to jail or when I went away to prison. But the
day I heard about Pop I cried. The only thing I was
glad about was that the insurance policy I had on him
had lapsed. I couldn’t have taken the money. His death
affected me very deeply. I never will forget Pop.
Not long after Pop died I started having problems with
the Internal Revenue Service. While I was playing
basketball with my son Teddy one day the mail came,
and there was a letter from the IRS. I stopped playing
ball for a minute and opened it. It said I owed
$1,870,000 in back taxes. I just laughed and kept on
playing basketball. See, earlier in 1968 I had asked
them to help me with my taxes because I did not
understand them. I wrote letters to Mr. Humphrey,
President Johnson, and Attorney General Ramsey
Clark. “I can’t handle it,” I wrote. “I need some help.”
They did not reply, not Mr. Humphrey or anybody. I
wrote to Internal Revenue and to Mr. Richard
Kleindienst, who later took over after Ramsey Clark.
All this was after I helped stop the riots and
everything, and they didn’t answer.
I didn’t think it would be a big problem. I thought it
was a misunderstanding that eventually would be
cleared up, so I went on about my life. I was about to
get into the franchise restaurant business and was
negotiating to buy station WRDW in Augusta. At the
same time I asked the Federal Communications
Commission to help other Afro-Americans get radio
stations so they could reflect community views. The
FCC listened to me real polite, but they didn’t do
Meantime, by the first of October, “Black and Proud”
had gone to number 1 on the R & B chart. It stayed
there for six weeks. It even got up to number 10 on the
pop chart, but a lot of people still didn’t understand it.
They thought I was saying kill the honky, and every
time I did something else around the idea of black
pride another top forty station quit playing my records.
Mr. Patton would come back off the road from
promoting the records and tell me what was
After a concert at the Washington, D.C., Armory there
was a riot, which caused more misunderstanding. A
fight broke out in the armory just as we finished the
show, and then some people started throwing bottles
and chairs and things. Several hundred people got
mixed up in it. The police hustled the crowd out of the
building, but outside it turned into a general
disturbance, and it took them a half hour to bring it
under control. That should’ve been the end of it, but
the next day a rumor went around that a white sniper
had shot and killed me. That set things off again the
next night. By this time I was in Los Angeles and
didn’t know anything about it. The city called in all
the police shifts and used tear gas and made several
arrests. Station WOL broadcast over and over that the
rumor about me wasn’t true, but nobody believed it.
So they phoned me, and I made a tape for them to
play. I said I was fine and “in good health and alive in
living black color.” The next day they played the tape
every two hours and things cooled down, but I think a
lot of people associated the whole incident with
“Black and Proud.”
No matter what people thought, I had to say what I
believed needed saying and do what I believed needed
doing at the time. I was getting ready for a big concert
in the new Madison Square Garden and took out a big
newspaper ad with the headline “Say It Loud—I’m
Black and I’m Proud.” I think a lot of people only saw
the headline without reading what was under it. It told
the story of my life and then said: “James Brown is
totally committed to black power, the kind that is
achieved not through the muzzle of a rifle but through
education and economic leverage.” It explained what
I’d done in my career and in business, and then ended
with: “James Brown has won his fight, but that isn’t
enough. He is now fighting for his soul brothers, and
the heavy odds don’t discourage him.” But it didn’t
matter what it said; people took it the way they
wanted. See, just having an ad like that confused
people because entertainers didn’t usually advertise
concerts with a lot of political commentary like that.
Count Basie and the Ramsey Lewis Trio were on the
Garden bill. It was an honor to have Count Basie open
up the show for me. I think I had met him somewhere
before, but this was the first chance I had to really talk
to him. We were all standing backstage in awe of him,
but that wore off pretty quick because he was very
friendly, just one of the fellas.
“It’s a pleasure just to be standing here with you,” I
said. “When I was little I was always trying to play
‘One O’Clock Jump’ on the piano. Never could get it
right, but I always admired your music.”
“You’d make a good jazz player,” he said. “I’ve heard
your stuff.”
“Can’t make any money over in jazz,” I said.
He laughed. “I know what you mean,” he said. “But,
see, the trick is to become an institution, like me. I can
work until I die, even if I don’t have another record.
That’s what you should do—become an institution.”
He did a fantastic job on the show. And that band was
tight. The cats in my band stood and watched them. It
was like seeing where you came from.
I liked playing those big places, the Garden and
Yankee Stadium, but I still played the Apollo. I closed
out 1968 with three days there in December. I had a
special band shell built for the whole stage around the
theme of “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I think the
audience knew what I was doing. I was a symbol of
pride for people who had been deprived of their civil
rights and their human rights. That’s what it was all
At the end of the year, Cash Box magazine named me
the best pop male vocalist of the year. That was the
first time in the thirty years the magazine had been
doing it that they chose a black man. It was kind of
funny to be chosen as the top pop vocalist because I
didn’t compromise my music and try to go pop.
People just picked up on it for what it was.
In January I played Mr. Nixon’s inaugural gala. I had
supported Mr. Humphrey, but it was an honor to be
asked to do the gala and I went—along with Duke
Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Hines, Hines and Dad,
Andre Watts, and Barbara McNair. There was only
time to do a couple of numbers; I did “Up Tight” and
“Black and Proud.”
In February they held a James Brown Day in Augusta.
Miss Garvin, my seventh-grade teacher, and Mr.
Myers, the principal of Floyd School, arranged it.
There was a parade in the afternoon, and then that
night I did a benefit concert for Paine College, a black
college there in the city. Their administration building
had burned down in August, and they were trying to
raise money to rebuild it. Unfortunately, I had to fly in
from California, I believe, and after all expenses were
paid there wasn’t as much money left as there
normally would have been. I think some of the people
at the college got upset about it.
I was sorry about any misunderstanding because
Augusta was my hometown, and I was planning to
move back there. It was impossible for me to live in a
house in New York anymore. I couldn’t get any peace.
Kids and fans were always jumping the fence and
coming in the house and creating a disturbance. At
Christmas lines of cars would come, full of people
wanting to see the black Santas I put out front. I knew
they meant no harm, but it was getting to be too much.
Most important, Deedee and I had just gotten back
together, and she wanted to get out of New York and
move somewhere secluded so we could have
something like a normal life. When I started talking
about going back to Georgia, a lot of the cats couldn’t
believe it. They said, “What? You’re moving back to
Disgusted, Georgia.” That’s what they called it.
I had just about closed the deal for WRDW; it opened
under my ownership officially on April 30. I was
particularly proud of buying it because I used to shine
shoes in front of it, and now I owned it. See, shining
shoes has a lot of meanings for Afro-Americans,
especially this Afro-American, because I actually did
it. When the B’nai B’rith gave me their Humanitarian
Award for 1969, I carried a shoeshine box with me to
their award ceremony. “You made it possible for me
not to have to carry a shoeshine box,” I said in my
speech, “but I carried the box just the same.”
We found a house in Augusta and moved in
temporarily while I looked around for something more
suitable. Meantime I released “Give It Up or Turnit a
Loose” at the beginning of the year and “I Don’t Want
Nobody to Give Me Nothing” in March. “Mother
Popcorn” came out in June.
On July 3 I played the Newport Jazz Festival with Jeff
Beck, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, and
Sly and the Family Stone. I think that was the only
time they had those kinds of performers for the
Newport Festival—before or since. On July Fourth I
was back in the Garden, and the next week I co-hosted
the Mike Douglas Show for the whole week. I had
Beau Jack on and a lot of other people who meant a
lot to me.
Somewhere during this period, while sitting in my
office in New York one day, a fella walked in
unannounced. Didn’t introduce himself or anything.
He just said, “Who the hell is Velma Brown?”
“Excuse me,” I said. “Who the hell are you? If you
don’t get out, I’m going to throw you out.”
He could see I meant it and he left. He turned out to be
from the IRS. After I threw him out he got a vindictive
thing going against me. He was the same one who
later on got the same thing against Mr. Nixon for his
Velma and I had been separated since 1964 but we
were still married, and that’s why he was asking who
she was. Later on he came back and said he was head
of the criminal investigations division of the IRS in
New York. Then he presented some papers.
“You have a tax problem,” he said.
“No, you have one,” I said. “I wrote the government
and asked them to help me. I asked for help, and you
didn’t help me.”
The government is responsible for it because they
didn’t allow me to go to school. I have an elementary
school education and didn’t even graduate from there.
They have no legal boundaries over me. By the
Constitution of the United States. The people who
represented me had shingles and sheepskins, and I
didn’t have any of ’em. So I owe nothing. My kids
owe taxes because they finished high school. You pay
tax when you’re represented. You pay tax when you
exercise all of your rights. I didn’t exercise rights. I
didn’t have a chance to. I lived with the word can’t, so
I can’t pay tax. They had better forget every tax case
they have with people who weren’t allowed to go to
school because we can sue the government. They’re
messing around with men like me and Ali and others,
people who weren’t allowed to go to school and had
problems. They should go to the high school graduates
from now on and leave us alone.
Besides the taxes there were a lot of strange things
happening during that time. I had the feeling
somebody besides the IRS was watching me. Later on
it came out that the FBI under Mr. Hoover had a
program during this time to destroy black nationalists.
They were infiltrating several groups, spying on
people, taping them, like they did to Martin. Mr.
Hoover wrote instructions to his agents to “prevent the
rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the
militant black nationalist movement.” I think “Black
and Proud” probably got their attention. So did my
radio stations and my political raps and activities with
my shows. Then Look put out a cover story on me
headlined, “Is This the Most Important Black Man in
It was silly, really. I stop trouble, not start it. They
should’ve known that from what I did in Boston and
Washington. I don’t even think that way. I’m for
peace; always have been. I will protect myself. I
would take a life if I saw mine was going to be taken,
but I don’t believe you should tear up the country. I
believe you should come to the table and talk out your
differences. Just be fair.
The record I put out in March of 1969 explains where
I’ve always been. It’s called, “I Don’t Want Nobody
to Give Me Nothing.” “Just open the door,” it says,
“and I’ll get it myself.” It’s like “America Is My
Home” and “Black and Proud” put together. Equality.
If I become a bum, don’t label me a nigger bum, let
me be just a bum. Equal opportunity both ways. If I’m
a criminal, let me be an equal criminal. Don’t have a
race and tell me it starts at ten o’clock when it has
already started at eight o’clock and expect me to win
it. The song was supposed to be the next step after
“Black and Proud.” I wanted to let the black people
know that nobody owed you anything for being an
Afro-American, and I wanted to let the white people
know that all anybody wants is a fair chance. Don’t
give me a welfare check; give me a job so I can fare
In July I was hit with a paternity suit. A young lady in
California claimed I had relations with her one time
while I was out there and that her child was mine. I
can’t say much about it except I denied it at the trial
but agreed to support him until he was twenty-one.
About the same time those charges came up I was
finally getting a divorce from Velma. We’d been
officially separated since 1964 and had been apart a
lot longer than that. We had stayed in contact with
each other, and I spent a great deal of time with the
kids. The wounds had healed by then, and we were
able to go through with it as friends. We’re still good
friends today.
A lot of good things were happening, too: concerts,
records, WRDW, my business generally. I opened up
two Gold Platter restaurants in Macon; Dick Clark
wanted to produce a film of my life; I recorded half of
the Sex Machine album live at Bell Auditorium in
Augusta and wound up the year back at the Apollo.
But I was taking a lot of mess with the taxes, the
paternity suit, the surveillance, and everything. That’s
why I announced after a concert in Memphis that I
was going to retire from live performing. See, a lot of
the tax problem came from the fact that the IRS didn’t
understand how the expenses worked on my tours.
King Records paid a lot of ’em, but they were
cross-collateralized in my royalties so I eventually
paid those expenses myself. These were legitimate
deductions. I was tired and mad and just said I was
going to quit, but when I cooled off I felt it might all
be worked out without a lot of mess. But, really, it was
just beginning.
Home Fires
One day my real estate man in Augusta showed
Deedee and me the kind of house we’d been looking
for. It was on Walton Way, one of the best streets in
the wealthier part of town then. It was in a white
section of town, but that was all right with me—I
wasn’t prejudiced. It had enough room and enough
yard that we could have some privacy and peace and
quiet when I came off the road, which is what Deedee
wanted. It didn’t matter to me who the neighbors
were, and it shouldn’t have mattered to them. I told
the agent I’d take it.
When word got out that I was going to buy there,
some of the people in the area became very disturbed.
They did not want a man of my origin to buy a home
on Walton Way. I once had millions of dollars
transferred from a New York bank to an Augusta bank
in a single day, but they didn’t want me living where I
wanted to. They got up a campaign to keep me out,
but I refused to be intimidated. They approached the
real estate agent and tried to stop him from closing the
deal. He told them that if he didn’t sell me that house
he was going to turn around and sell me some other
house nearby, so they might just as well get used to it.
I bought it and gave my old house to my father.
Meantime, I talked Byrd into moving to Augusta, too.
I helped him find a nice place on Silverwood Drive,
not too far away. Only problem he had was visitors all
the time—me. Whenever I’d get an idea I wanted to
discuss, I went over and talked it out with him. Kept
him up all night lots of times. Liked to drove him
After I moved in on Walton Way, some of the people
approached me to try and buy me out, offering me
twice what the house was worth. I turned ’em down
flat. After I lived there for a while it all died down and
everybody forgot about it. But the results of that kind
of thinking were fixing to break out real bad in
Augusta. There was a lot of frustration, a lot of anger
waiting to be touched off. You could feel it. I grew up
on those streets and I knew.
When the spark came I was doing a gig in Flint,
Michigan. I received a phone call at my hotel at about
six o’clock on a Monday evening from Governor
Lester Maddox. He told me there was a riot going on
in Augusta. The city was in flames. There was looting,
vandalism, and sniper fire. The local authorities had
lost control of the situation, and he was sending in the
National Guard and the Highway Patrol, He said the
sheriff advised him to call me and see if I would come
home and use my radio station and my personal
influence to do what I could to stop it. I promised to
meet him in Augusta in the morning to discuss the
The whole thing had started a few days before when a
sixteen-year-old black kid was beaten to death in
Richmond County Jail—the same jail I turned sixteen
in. A lot of people in the black community claimed
he’d been beaten by the guards. The sheriff said his
two cellmates did it, beating him with a shoe and belt
and banging his head on the wall. Some of the black
people said that even if that was so, it was the
authorities’ fault for not supervising the prisoners
There had been a peaceful protest on Saturday in front
of the jail. On Monday there was a march through
downtown. Everything was fine until the march
reached the Municipal Building. That’s when a
student from Paine College hauled down the Georgia
state flag and burned it. I think some police tried to
move in, some rocks got thrown, and things got out of
hand from there. Windows were broken, looting
started, and some gunshots went off. Fires started. The
Augusta police force and the sheriff’s deputies started
sealing off the Terry, all 130 blocks of it.
At first the looting was mostly around Ninth and
Gwinnett, but it spread to Broad Street and all over the
downtown. During the night there were fires all over
the area and they spread, too, because the firemen ran
into sniper fire. Eventually the guard showed up with
live ammunition and bayonets. They rolled in with
jeeps, half-ton trucks, and armored personnel carriers
with machine guns mounted on them. They set up
blockades, and searched cars, and tried to contain
I flew in on the Lear jet early in the morning with
Byrd. From the air I could see flames and clouds of
smoke; it looked like some of the scenes I had seen
from the helicopter in Vietnam. I went to my father’s
house to get ready to meet with the sheriff to find out
what was going on. I was getting into a car when the
police pulled up and said they’d take me in their car. I
said, “No, that’ll just make people madder. I don’t
want any police cars near me. I know the way to the
jail. Nobody’ll bother me.”
The street around the jail was lined with guardsmen. I
went inside to talk with the city officials. They assured
me the boy had been beaten to death by his cellmates.
I told them I didn’t want to choose sides in the thing, I
just didn’t want to see any more bloodshed. When we
came out of the building, television cameras were
waiting and I made an appeal to all Augustans. “Don’t
save face—save your city,” I said. “We can’t be
bull-headed. We all have to deal as one, to do unto
others as you would have them do unto you.”
From the jail I went to my radio station offices out on
Eisenhower Drive to meet with Governor Maddox. It
grandstanding or threats or arguments on either side.
The sheriff and the Community Commission chairman
briefed us on the latest developments, then the
governor told me what he intended to do.
“I was advised by my intelligence people that this was
going to happen,” he said. “Now that it has, I’m
bringing in the necessary personnel to protect lives
and property. It doesn’t make any difference to me
whether the rioters are Republicans or Democrats,
black or white. My purpose is to preserve the peace,
and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“I understand that,” I said.
“But we need your help. I can’t communicate with the
black community on this, but you can. If you would
appeal to the people over your radio station to stop the
burning and shooting, I think it could be a major
contributing factor to restoring order.”
“Governor,” I said, “I can’t back up in supporting my
people and their grievances. I’m sure you recognize
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“But I don’t want to see any more lives lost, either. So
I’ll do better than an appeal; I’ll broadcast appeals
around the clock. I’ll go out in the streets, I’ll talk to
whoever needs talking to until this thing is over.”
I went on the air immediately, asking the people to
think about what they were doing. I tried to make the
same point I made in Boston and Washington—that it
didn’t make sense to burn up your own neighborhood.
“This is your city, too,” I said. “This country is as
much yours as it is the white man’s. Don’t let anybody
tell you it’s not.” I appealed especially to women and
children to stay off the streets. At the same time I said
that the establishment had better listen to the black
citizens of Augusta. They needed to talk to the people
themselves, not to so-called leaders who didn’t really
represent the black community. Most of the rioters
were young men and teenagers, and I tried to talk
about their grievances: unequal treatment in jobs,
education, and just generally not having a chance at
the finer things in life.
We broadcast around the clock. Some of the appeals
were live, some taped. I made some tapes to be played
on station WBBQ, too. Byrd went on the air, too,
directly appealing by name to friends of ours, white
and black, to come out to the station—we’d put them
on the air and they’d talk about their feelings about
what was going on and how they hated to see it. We
put down rumors and got people to check things out in
different areas and call in to tell us if things were calm
and warn us if anything looked like it was about to
start up. WBBQ loaned us a remote unit, and we went
around the streets and broadcast back through my
station with it. I spent a lot of time in the streets. I
drove around in the riot area, and when I saw cats
running in groups I got out and talked to them. “What
are y’all doing?” I’d say. “You’re burning down
businesses that belong to black people. Can’t you see
you’re making things worse for us, not better?” Most
of them listened; they’d break up and get off the
streets. But you couldn’t talk to some of them and they
were mad at me for doing what I was doing. And there
were some elements who wanted me out of the way, I
think. There wasn’t anything I could really do about it.
The police had a few plainclothes black officers out
there with me, but if someone wanted to shoot me,
nobody could’ve stopped him.
By Tuesday night things were a little calmer but still
smoldering, ready to break out at any second. On
Wednesday I went to Paine College and talked to the
students. Some of them had been involved in the
marches—that was fine—but I tried to get them to
leave the rioting alone.
The police and sheriff’s department were giving me
all the information they had so I’d know what I was
talking about. As time went by the nature of the thing
was changing. At the beginning of the riot, a lot of the
Chinese merchants were burned out of their stores and
homes, people I had worked for when I was a kid. I
felt bad about that because the Afro-Americans and
the Chinese had always gotten along. Then a lot of
black businesses got torched, out of ignorance. The
looting changed, too. At first the Afro-Americans
were doing it, but after it got started, the sheriff’s
department told me whites were driving across the
Savannah River from South Carolina and looting
stores and then trying to get back across the bridge
before they got caught. The police started arresting
almost as many whites as blacks. According to the
sheriff’s people, there were also some militant
whites—Klan elements and people like that—who
wanted the thing to really blow up. They hoped the
Guard and maybe the police themselves would declare
open season on Afro-Americans. The intelligence
people were watching them to see they didn’t make a
I started picking up hints from some of my sources in
the black community about some things before they
happened. There was talk about members of certain
groups—the Panthers or others—heading for Augusta.
I got in contact with people I knew around the country
and found out it was true. There were some heavy
political cats—I don’t want to call their names or the
names of their groups—who were coming to Augusta.
I thought that was the last thing we needed—people
who didn’t have any stake in the community coming
to tear it up. I’m not talking about that old “outside
agitators” jive. The agitation had already happened—a
lot of it, like I said on the radio, for good reason. What
I was hearing about was people who just wanted to
incite killing and burning. I felt all that would come
out of that was black people in Augusta suffering and
As soon as I confirmed the information, I turned it
over to the sheriff’s department. Under their
emergency powers they closed the airport and the bus
terminal; for the next week no bus or airplane could
unload in Augusta, Georgia. It was strange because
Warren Martin, deputy sheriff at the time, later told
me they received the same information from the FBI
after I gave it to them. I always wondered if the FBI
was just slow or if they got the information in the first
place by listening in on me.
The whole cooling-off process must’ve taken about
two weeks. Things smoldered that long. There were
disturbances in other places around that time that had
people stirred up generally. The week before the
Augusta riot, the Ohio National Guard had killed four
students at Kent State, and four days into our trouble
some police in Mississippi fired into a dormitory at
Jackson State College and killed two black students.
Eventually, though, things went pretty much back to
normal in Augusta. But they couldn’t be perfectly
normal, not after something like a riot. That’s when
the real work began—reopening lines of
communication, negotiating with the city and the state
about all the local issues that had everybody upset in
the first place, trying to encourage good will on both
Augusta is my home. I grew up there and saw a lot of
changes between the time I was a kid and the time I
moved back there. I made a lot of changes myself. But
I could still see a lot of changes that needed to be
made. See, you try to make things better where you
are. You don’t turn your back because some place or
somebody has caused you pain. You work. That’s why
I bought the radio station; that’s why I tried to make
the best of a bad situation during the riots. I moved
back there in the first place to be close to my roots, to
be close to my memories, good and bad, to be close to
my father and to people I’d known all my life. And to
make a difference.
That’s why, when I released the Sex Machine album
the September after the riots, the album cover said:
“Recorded live at home in Augusta, Georgia, with His
Bad Self.” Bell Auditorium, where I recorded it, kind
of makes my point about me and the city. I started out
there doing battle royals as a kid. Later on I played
segregated shows there. Then I integrated the place.
Then I recorded live there—and called the record Sex
Machine. Any way you look at it, for better or for
worse, Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia, is mine.
On October 22 I got even closer to my roots when I
finally married Deedee in Barnwell, a few miles from
where I was born. The probate judge, who performed
the ceremony at her house, had never even heard of
me. She told Jet magazine later: “I married them out
there on the front porch. I got a real nice front porch. I
marry most of my colored couples out there unless it’s
raining, then we come inside.” Roots can be real
Hot on the One
At the same time I was getting back to my roots in my
private life I was branching out in my career. I started
1970 by playing the showroom of the International in
Las Vegas and ended the year with an extensive tour
of Africa. The International had just been built to be
the most luxurious hotel in Vegas; fifteen hundred
rooms and thirty stories high. Barbra Streisand opened
the showroom, and Elvis made his comeback as a live
performer there. Matter of fact, Elvis was scheduled to
be back there as soon as I closed. Colonel Parker was
at my show with Mr. Neely to see what he could pick
Playing Vegas can create problems for a performer.
The main room of the International is huge and spread
out. I wasn’t worried about that because I’d played
stadiums and other spaces where you really had to
work to connect with the audience. The biggest
problem was going to be the kind of audience; it was a
lot different from what I was used to, and I was a lot
different from what they were used to. I knew this
because I’d first played the Flamingo there back in
1967. Vegas audiences were a lot older and mostly
white, and my music was funky and raw. Rock ’n’ roll
never had succeeded in Las Vegas, much less R & B
or soul. You had to figure out a way to get over to that
particular audience. I found out you can go too far.
I expanded the band, adding some strings and other
things, and put in more ballads and songs like “If I
Ruled the World” and some traditional show songs.
There were smoke machines and other stuff that later
became commonplace even in rock shows. Rehearsal
went fine except for this fella who worked as a booker
or something like that for the hotel. He didn’t like
what he saw.
“If I’d wanted Frank Sinatra,” he said, “I would’ve
hired Frank Sinatra. I was told that everywhere you go
you have audiences standing on their seats. Well, I
want to see this audience standing on these seats.”
I told him not to worry. I probably told him to get out.
We went on with the rehearsal and got the cues for the
audio and the lights worked out, the choreography,
On opening night the house was packed. I think I
started with “If I Ruled the World.” The strings were
going, the smoke machines were pumping. I did “It’s
Magic,” “September Song,” and other tunes like that.
They thought I was crazy to sing those songs. They
didn’t want that from me: They wanted the gutbucket
Like I say, when I’m on stage I’m aware of everything
from the shine on the band’s shoes to how the people
in the back row are reacting. That night they weren’t
reacting well. The applause came, but it was too
polite, too restrained. After a little while I got that
feeling every entertainer has had at one time or
another: I felt like I was dying out there, and here it
was opening night.
I decided to redo the show on the spot. I called
different songs to the band, I flashed hand signals to
Byrd and the others, and just rebuilt from the ground
up. I started giving an Apollo show. I don’t think
anybody knew what I was doing, but I knew what I
was doing. Mr. Neely caught on, though. When he
saw what was happening he jumped out of his seat and
ran upstairs to the control room. Nobody up there was
calling the lights because now the key sheets from
rehearsal didn’t mean anything anymore. The union
people didn’t want to let him do it, but he started
calling the lights and the sound anyway. He’d seen me
work a hundred times so he didn’t have any problem.
Pretty soon all those people in their minks and suits
were up on their seats, hollering and carrying on. I
never worked harder in my life, and we killed ’em.
Between shows the booker came in again. “Great
show,” he said. Then he looked kind of embarrassed.
“But, uh, listen... if they get up on the seats of their
own accord, that’s okay, but would you mind not
telling them to?”
During our time there, Diana Ross and the Supremes
were closing at the Frontier down the street. Between
my two shows one night I caught their last show. For a
long time people had been saying that Diana was
leaving the group, but I didn’t know this was going to
be their last performance together. The show went
along fine, but Diana was talking a lot. She was saying
how they’d gotten together, how long they’d been at
Motown. Then she said, “Whatever we do or wherever
we go, we’ll still be family.” Then they broke off into
“Someday We’ll Be Together.” When they got to the
chorus, the crying started. I think Mary Wilson broke
down first. She turned around, hung her head, and
cried. Then Cindy Birdsong started crying. That was it
for Diana. Tears started streaming down her face, and
she walked into the wings, crying. After a minute she
came back on, and they all pulled themselves together
and finished the song.
Backstage there was more crying. Berry was trying to
console them. “It’s not like you’re breaking up,” he
said. “We’re getting bigger. We’re going to have two
acts—the Supremes and Diana Ross.” I talked to each
one of them myself, telling each one she was fixing to
make a big change and had to be strong.
It’s a different thing, but I lost my own band soon
after that. I was doing a gig in Columbus, Georgia,
when the band threatened not to go on. They wanted
more money. I wouldn’t give in to a threat like
that—never. You cannot lose control of your group.
Once you give in to that kind of thing, there’s no
stopping it.
I found out what was going on that afternoon while I
was still at the hotel. I called Byrd in Cincinnati. He
was doing some work at King and was supposed to
join us in Corpus Christi in a few days.
“Byrd, you know the band we’ve been working with
on some of the sessions? Do you think you could get
hold of ’em right away?”
“Sure, James. Why?”
“Because I’m fixing to do something with them.”
“Fantastic, James. I could sign ’em up right now.”
“Sign ’em up right now.”
“What’s the rush?”
“Just do it.”
They were called the Pacesetters and were all from
Cincinnati. They’d hung around King for a while and
then started doing session work there. I had used them
myself on several things. Bootsy Collins (who later
went on to become a big star with the
Parliament-Funkadelic Thang and his own Rubber
Band) was the bass player; his older brother, Phelps
“Catfish” Collins, played guitar; Frank “Kash” Waddy
played drums; Robert McCullough played sax; a fella
called Clayton “Chicken” Gunnels played trumpet.
At around six o’clock it still looked like my band
wasn’t going to budge. I called Byrd back.
“Bobby, you think they’d like to come down here?”
“And play on that show? I’m sure they would.”
“See if you can get a flight out. I’ll call you from the
My band showed up at the auditorium and set up their
stuff on the stage, but they still refused to go on unless
I gave in. I called Byrd again. There were no flights
that could get them there in time.
“Okay,” I said, “go out to the airport. I’ll send my
plane from here. You come, too.”
In case the Pacesetters couldn’t get all their stuff on
the Lear, I called a place that rented musical
instruments and amplifiers. By now the auditorium
was full of people. It wasn’t yet time for us to hit, but I
knew there was going to be a delay so I went out and
asked the audience to bear with us. Then I fired my
entire band.
When Byrd got there with the new band I told him to
take them straight to the stage and set them up. While
they got set up, Maceo, his brother Melvin, Jimmy
Nolen, and the rest carried their stuff off. The
audience was beginning to wonder what was going on.
So was Byrd. I gave him a rundown of the show and
told him to take the new men downstairs to run over it
with them. They had played some of my stuff on their
own gigs and knew most of it anyway, but they didn’t
know the vamps and things like that and how we
stretched out on some of the stuff in live performance.
He took them down there, wrote out some of the licks
for them, and sketched out the arrangements. We were
a little late starting, but the show went on.
Bootsy and the others turned out to be the nucleus of a
very good band. They were studio musicians so when
I hummed out solos and things they knew how to give
me what I wanted. I think Bootsy learned a lot from
me. When I met him he was playing a lot of bass—the
ifs, the ands, and the buts. I got him to see the
importance of the one in funk—the downbeat at the
beginning of every bar. I got him to key in on the
dynamic parts of the one instead of playing all around
it. Then he could do all his other stuff in the right
places—after the one.
Out on the road I’d call Bootsy into my dressing room
just to talk to him. He wasn’t but sixteen or seventeen
years old at the time, and I kind of felt like a father to
him. He reminded me a lot of my son Teddy. I was
trying to keep him straight out there because he was a
kid who was suddenly pushed into all this show
business craziness—thousands of people screaming
for you every night, money, women, drugs. All of
those possibilities. So many different ways to go
crazy. It was hard to discipline him and keep him in
line; I couldn’t spank him, so I lectured him. He
wasn’t bad or anything; he was just determined to be
wrong. I saw a lot of spunk in Bootsy, a lot of life.
One night I called him in to give him a present. When
I’d first seen him at King, the bass guitar he had was
nothing but a regular guitar—a $29 Silvertone he had
converted into a bass. It was a weird greenish blue
color with a white pick guard. A very strange looking
instrument. But it was all he could afford at the time. I
knew his family was having a hard time paying the
rent because they were moving every month. When he
came out on the road with me, he was able to fix that
situation, but he still had that $29 guitar. He didn’t use
it on the road; he had borrowed another cat’s, but I
knew he couldn’t keep it forever. What I couldn’t
understand was why he didn’t take the money he was
making and buy himself an instrument. He’d get paid
and spend his money but wouldn’t buy a bass. That
night I called him in and gave him a Fender bass, kind
of exasperated like you’d be with a difficult child you
really loved. He said a whole bunch of thank yous, but
he didn’t really know what to say. What’s funny is
that when I saw how it affected him, I didn’t know
what to say. I wasn’t ready for that.
I started to build the band back up pretty quick. Maceo
and some of ’em stayed out there on their own as
Maceo and the Kingsmen, but I got several of the
fellas to come back: Fred Wesley, guitarist Hearlon
“Sharp Cheese” Martin, Clyde Stubblefield, and
drummer Jabo Starks, which gave me three drummers.
I added a couple of trumpet players called Hasaan and
Jasaan. Everybody called them the dancing trumpet
players because they danced and twirled their horns.
When the band jelled I cut them on several records of
their own. I was still cutting Byrd and Vicki and lots
of other artists, and still playing lots of gigs, in
addition to all the stuff going on in Augusta and
getting married and taking care of my radio stations
and restaurant business.
Not long after I got married I toured Africa and
Europe. In Africa we toured the Ivory Coast, Zambia,
Nigeria, all over. In Zambia, President Kenneth
Kaunda invited us to a state dinner to welcome us to
the country. We had a long talk about soul music. He
knew about my music and about Aretha, Otis, and Joe
Tex. He could name all the songs and everything, but
he said he had to listen to it secretly now that he was
What surprised me the most over there was that
everybody knew our music everywhere we went. One
time we were riding through the countryside on a bus
to a remote city, and a little kid came running out of
the bush. He ran alongside the bus holding up one of
my records. The funny thing was that he didn’t have
any way to play the record, but he had it anyway.
We got to Nigeria not too long after the Biafran war,
where so many people starved. Things were still torn
up from the fighting. We were supposed to play a big
soccer field in Lagos, the capital. The day before the
concert there was a group of us standing around the
hotel, which was not too far from the field. We kept
hearing gunshots, then bursts of cheering and
clapping. We asked a Nigerian what was going on.
“Oh, nothing to worry about,” he said, “just some
public executions at the soccer field.”
The next night there must’ve been eighty thousand
people in the stadium for our show, a lot of ’em
pressing toward the stage. For security there were
soldiers everywhere, and they were very rough with
the crowd. Anybody who got out of line at all got
jumped on and beaten very severely with the billy
clubs. We didn’t know all this was going on until we
got on stage, and once my show started, it was
nonstop to the end.
I remember there was this one blind fella trying to get
close to the stage, and I could hear him hollering, “I
want to see James Brown! I want to see James
A guard said, “You want to see James Brown? I’ll
show you James Brown.” Then he hit him with the
club—bop, bop, bop.
I was very disturbed by the brutality and spoke to
some of the officials about it after the show. They
said, “Well, we’ve just had a war, and many of these
people are not what you think.”
I believe the audience was just trying to express its
appreciation. When Vicki was on, this very strange
looking old woman approached the stage. None of the
soldiers bothered her; they kind of stepped back to let
her pass. She came straight toward Vicki and offered
some kind of long silk shawl or garment of some kind.
It turned out that it had some kind of spiritual
significance. We didn’t know it at the time, but you
could tell just by the way the woman was acting. Vicki
accepted it but didn’t really know what to do with it,
so she twirled it over her head in a circle three times.
We found out later that was exactly what she was
supposed to do—pass it around her body three times.
The lady pressed money on Vicki’s forehead, an old
custom they had there when they heard a performer
they really liked.
While we were in Lagos we visited Fela Ransom
Kuti’s club, the Afro-Spot, to hear him and his band.
He’d come to hear us, and we went to hear him. I
think when he started as a musician he was playing a
kind of music they called Highlife, but by this time he
was developing Afro-beat out of African music and
funk. He was kind of like the African James Brown.
His band had a strong rhythm; I think Clyde picked up
on it in his drumming, and Bootsy dug it, too. Some of
the ideas my band was getting from that band had
come from me in the first place, but that was okay
with me. It made the music that much stronger.
It’s a funny thing about me and African music. I didn’t
even know it existed. When I got the consciousness of
Africa and decided to see what my roots were, I
thought I’d find out where my thing came from. My
roots may be imbedded in me and I don’t know it, but
when I went to Africa I didn’t recognize anything that
I had gotten from there.
From Africa we went to Europe and played London,
Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Berlin, and a few other
places. The Europeans loved us, like always. They’d
be on their feet from the minute we hit until way after
we left the stage. We checked out their music scene,
too, and I thought it was very strange at the time: The
disco thing had already started there. These huge
places, especially in Germany, were packed with
people dancing to records. At some of the places we
played they were doing disco before we came on.
There were always clubs where you could dance to
records, but this was a whole different scene and a
different music. In a way it was very disturbing
because it was so popular, even with people who
could afford to hear live music. Working musicians
don’t like to see that. The music was very lightweight,
just bits and pieces from everybody, including me,
taken and made very simple, especially the rhythm.
It didn’t worry me, though. I didn’t think it would
make it across the water to America. I thought it was
so popular in Europe because they didn’t get enough
of the real thing. And the music itself was nothing. My
music had passed that a long time before. Real quick.
Disco just didn’t make any sense.
Signed, Sealed, and Delivered
When I got back from Europe I went into the Copa in
New York for two weeks—and left after one. I saw
myself in there trying to do something the audience
didn’t really want to accept—the raw, gutbucket thing.
The man who ran the place didn’t like it, either. That
was not the place for my kind of music. I saw myself
playing to these people, and there weren’t many of
them, so I said, “Well, what am I doing here?” I gave
the man back his $25,000 for the second week and
said, “Here’s your money, sir. I don’t want to work
here anymore.”
At the end of the engagement Mr. Neely came into my
dressing room.
“James, I think it’s time to redo the band,” he said.
“They’re a super band, but it’s time for a change.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. “We’ve gone about as far
as we can go.”
Mr. Neely and I knew I needed to change bands from
time to time to get new energy and new ideas. I think
Bootsy and some of the others were ready to leave
anyway. They’d gone to school in James Brown and
they wanted to graduate and go on their own. A lot of
times, too, a band will start trying to dominate and
dictate to me, and I don’t like that. Or they’ll think the
music is all them. That’s why I’ve had stormy times
with my bands over the years. Plus my strict rules. Mr.
Neely was right; it was a great group. You can hear it
on the things they did with me and the things I cut
them on by themselves: “The Grunt,” “Across the
Track,” “These Are the JB’s.”
Bootsy and the four cats he brought with him
eventually hooked up with George Clinton and the
Parliament-Funkadelic. Later on they spun off from
that as Bootsy’s Rubber Band. I revamped my group
with Fred Wesley as the leader. Clyde had left, but
Jabo stayed on drums and St. Clair Pinkney on sax.
Byrd stayed, singing and playing keyboards. They
were the real nucleus. Jimmy Parker played alto sax.
On trumpets, Jasaan stayed, and Russell Crimes came
in. “Sharp Cheese” and Robert Coleman played
guitars. Fred Thomas played bass guitar. John Morgan
eventually came in as second drummer. Johnny
Griffin played congas. I cut that group of JB’s on a lot
of good stuff, too.
Bringing Fred out front changed my sound somewhat.
I think it made it even funkier than when Pee Wee
Ellis ran it. Pee Wee was a reed man, and Fred played
trombone, which is on the same clef as the bass, piano,
and guitar. So Pee Wee and Fred, as arrangers and
band leaders, would come up with two different
concepts of voicing the stuff. Rhythmically, Fred had
more than Pee Wee did.
I think the first thing of my own I recorded with the
new band was “Hot Pants (She Got to Use What She
Got to Get What She Wants),” and it was one of my
biggest records. It came out in July 1971 and went to
number 1 on the soul charts and number 15 on the pop
charts. At the same time I recorded another live album
at the Apollo, Revolution of the Mind, a two-record set
that came out in December. In August I followed up
“Hot Pants” with “Make It Funky,” which went to
number 1 on the soul chart, and with “I’m a Greedy
Man,” which went to number 7. Those songs did well
on the pop charts, too. Most of my music right on
through the mid-seventies did, but a funny thing was
happening to music on the radio then. It was starting
to get segregated again, not just by black and white
but by kinds: country, pop, hard rock, soft rock, every
kind you could name. Radio formats became very
rigid. Because of that and because of my political
thing, about 80 percent of the popular stations in the
country would not play James Brown records. But my
sales were so strong to Afro-Americans and some hip
whites that they couldn’t keep me off the pop charts.
Matter of fact, in all of the seventies I tied with Elvis
for the most charted pop hits—thirty-eight. The bad
thing about it is that I was making some of my
strongest music during that period, and I think most
whites have been deprived of it.
My son Teddy was getting into the business a little bit
now. He was very talented and could do almost
everything I could do. He could sing and dance. In
Toccoa he formed a group called Teddy Brown and
the Torches, but I didn’t really want him to pursue a
show business career. I didn’t think he was that
serious anyway because the name of his group showed
he was trying to ride on my coattails. I knew how hard
the business was, and if he didn’t make it and had no
education, he wouldn’t have anything. I wanted him to
go to college. The plan was for him to get that degree
and then go to law school and become a music lawyer.
I started carrying him with me in the summers so he
could see the music business from the inside and start
learning about it.
He had a chance to learn a lot right away because I
was getting ready to wind up on Polydor Records.
What was left of King was about to be dissolved.
After Mr. Nathan died, Mr. Neely exercised his option
to buy King Records and turned it into Starday-King.
In late 1968 he sold it to Linn Broadcasting as a
wholly owned subsidiary with headquarters in
Nashville. He took me with him into Linn. I was still
under a personal services contract to Mr. Neely that
had six or seven years to run, but he didn’t like the
arrangement with Linn. A lot of their radio stations
wouldn’t even play my records. I don’t know if they
were worried about a conflict of interest or what, but it
was frustrating and something was going to have to
Meantime, Jack Pearl, an attorney with King for a
long time, said to me, “James, there’s a company
moving into the American market called Polydor, and
I think you should be with them. I think they’re going
to be very big in the businesss.”
“They can be what they want to be, Mr. Pearl,” I said,
“but I don’t want to be with them.” He couldn’t talk
me into it.
Then two fellas named Julian and Roy Rifkin started
talking to me about signing with them. I thought they
had their own company, but it turned out they had a
production deal with Polydor. They talked me into
going with them before I really realized it was
Mr. Neely thought I should go to Polydor, too. He got
fed up with Linn and exercised a buy-back of all the
music assets he’d sold them, including my masters. He
was planning to sell my contract, my masters, and my
share of the publishing companies Dynatone and
Chri-Ted to Polydor. Dynatone had been owned half
by King and half by me. Mr. Neely and I personally
owned Chri-Ted, which was named after his son Chris
and my son Teddy. Polydor had bought Mercury so
they already had all my Smash stuff.
When he told me what he wanted to do, I said, “I have
to decide what I want to do with my life. I don’t want
to go along with it.”
He said they could do the deal so that Polydor didn’t
just pick up my contract but had to renegotiate a new
contract with me. Mr. Neely was close to Polydor
anyway because they distributed King records in
England and Germany. See, Polydor is part of a
worldwide conglomerate of record companies which
at that time was owned by N. V. Philips, a Dutch
electronics company, and Siemens A. G. of West
Germany. After the people with the parent companies
saw the response to my shows when I toured Europe
the last time, they wanted to sign me up. Polydor got
into the American market in 1969 and hadn’t done
much in their first two years even though they’d spent
millions of dollars. By signing me up they could get a
foothold in the American market real quick.
I had a lot of doubts about it, but if I could negotiate
the new contract then I thought it might be all right.
The week before I recorded the third Apollo album,
Mr. Neely sold everything to Polydor. He took the
money he made on the deal and bought the rest of
Starday-King from Linn. He also made good on Mr.
Nathan’s verbal promise to me that I would get 10
percent of the sale price of the masters. After the
transfer of the personal services contract and title to
the masters, we negotiated a new long-term contract
with Polydor that gave me a substantial advance, a
production company, a separate office so I could be
independent from them, and artistic control of my
work. I wasn’t overjoyed to go to Polydor—King
Records had been my family for fifteen years—but it
was a very favorable deal, and there was some talk at
the time that Mr. Neely might move over with Polydor
a little later. So I signed.
Right after that a rumor got started that I was going to
play in South Africa along with Brook Benton, the
Isleys, and Muhammad Ali. I saw a newspaper article
that said I’d be playing to black audiences only. I put
out a statement through Jack Bart right away, saying:
“I am unwilling to undertake a tour of the Union of
South Africa under any circumstances because of the
policies of that country with respect to the black
members of the nation.”
I was still playing the coliseums and the auditoriums
anywhere there was one. I was back in the Apollo in
early November, instead of my usual thing of finishing
up the year there. I was doing a lot of television, too;
before the Apollo gig I had a special on WPIX in New
Because of my stuff, Polydor was really starting to hit
the singles charts for the first time. My first album for
them, Hot Pants, came out soon after I signed.
Revolution of the Mind came out in December. At the
beginning of 1972 I released “Talkin’ Loud and
Sayin’ Nothing” and “King Heroin,” which was a rap
song like “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and
“America Is My Home.” But, really the very first rap
in my career was a thing I did back in 1963 called
“Choo-Choo (Locomotion).” We were in the studio at
King one night recording it, and it just wasn’t
happening. It was about two or three in the morning,
and Mr. Neely said, “Why don’t you just play
conductor and call off the names of the towns and talk
about them?” So that’s what I did.
In August 1972 I opened the Festival of Hope at
Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. It was the first
rock festival held to help an established charity, the
Crippled Children’s Society. It was a big show: us,
Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, Billy Preston, Sly
and the Family Stone, Stephen Stills, Jefferson
Airplane, Commander Cody, and so on. The festival
didn’t bring in as much money as everybody hoped,
but it was worth it if it brought in anything. I had
visited an Easter Seal summer day camp in Albertson,
New York, and my heart went out to those kids.
Right before the festival I put out “Get on the Good
Foot.” Afrika Bambaataa says it’s the song that people
first started break dancing to. I feel solidarity with the
breakers and rappers and the whole hip hop thing—as
long as it’s clean. Their stuff is an extension of things
I was doing for a long time: rapping over a funky beat
about pride and respect and education and drugs and
all kinds of issues. I did what I said in the songs: I got
up, got into it, and got involved. I was determined to
have a say, and I thought anybody with a big
following had a responsibility to speak out like I’d
done with “America Is My Home” and with “Black
and Proud.” Even if it hurt, like those two songs did. I
guess they prepared me for the next big storm:
endorsing Nixon.
Mr. Humphrey was my first choice for president in
1972, but as the process went along it looked more
and more like he wasn’t even going to get the
nomination. Meantime, President Nixon’s people
contacted me sometime in late 1971. Robert J. Brown,
who was special assistant to the president, was visiting
black-owned businesses around the country, and I met
him when he came by WEBB in Baltimore. He was
very interested in how I got into the radio business and
in the prospects for other blacks to get into it. We
talked generally about the need for Afro-Americans to
own things if we were ever going to have any real
equality. He said the administration was pushing black
capitalism even though some said it would never
work. People said Nixon was trying to substitute it for
domestic programs, but Mr. Brown said that wasn’t
what they were going to do at all.
From there we kind of struck up a relationship. He
came down to visit me in Augusta one time, and when
I was near Washington I stopped in at the White
House and had lunch with him and some of the other
people on the senior staff. We discussed several issues
that concerned me. They talked about what they were
trying to do in the whole area of minority enterprise.
Mr. Brown explained the Philadelphia Plan they had;
it was supposed to get more blacks hired in the
construction industry where they’d always been
discriminated against. They talked about being the
first administration to ever funnel large amounts of
money to private black colleges, and they revoked the
tax exemption for schools and colleges that practiced
Sometimes I said hello to the president or talked with
him for a few minutes. His working office was right
across the hall from Mr. Brown’s in the old Executive
Office Building. The president knew about the
discussions Mr. Brown and I were having, and he
talked about what he was doing in those areas. Talking
to Mr. Nixon, you could see he was very
knowledgeable, very aware, even if you didn’t agree
with him. He knew what was going on in the
One time I brought up the subject of making Dr.
King’s birthday a national holiday. I felt very strongly
about it. I told the president what Dr. King meant to
me and to so many other people. “A holiday in his
honor would make a lot of people feel more a part of
the country,” I said, “and it would stop a lot of
“I think he should be honored, too,” the president said,
“but I have to wait until after the election to do it. If I
do it now, people will say it’s calculated just to get
As the election got closer I was thinking more and
more about which way I ought to go, especially after
Mr. Humphrey lost the nomination. When the real
campaign started in the fall I could see that Mr. Nixon
was going to win in a landslide. Everybody could. A
situation like that puts somebody who’s sort of a
spokesman in a dilemma: You can either try to get
inside and have some influence, or you can stay
outside and be pure and powerless. Either way you’re
going to get criticized, especially if you’re a black
When I went to the White House again, on October
10, the election wasn’t but a month away. I still hadn’t
completely made up my mind what I was going to do.
I had lunch with Mr. Brown, and we continued our
discussions. After lunch we met with the president. I
told him that Mr. Humphrey was my first choice but
that I supported what he was doing for minority
enterprise and black colleges, and in minority hiring.
He said that was fair enough. I talked about drugs, too.
It was something that was on my mind a lot then. I had
given support to drug prevention programs in
Georgia—Governor Jimmy Carter had honored me for
that—and I was very concerned about young people
staying off drugs. Mr. Nixon talked about a White
House task force that was working on it. I told him I
would like to see more drug clinics in places where
they were really needed. He said he would support
After our meeting I went to a press conference at the
offices of the Committee to Re-elect the President. “I
say don’t quit the boat in the middle of the stream,” I
told them. I spoke about some of the things Mr. Nixon
was doing that I supported. “And we talked about a
subject very dear to me,” I said, “making Martin
Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. He said he
couldn’t do it now because people would say he was
just trying to get the black vote, but he said he plans to
do it after the election.”
I knew what people were going to say about me
endorsing Mr. Nixon. People were saying he was
buying endorsements with the black capitalism grants
and contracts. I tried to deal with it up front. “I’m not
a sellout artist,” I said. “I never received a government
grant. I never asked for one and don’t want one. I’m
not selling out, I’m selling in. Dig it?”
A lot of people couldn’t dig it. The attacks on me and
on other Afro-Americans who endorsed Mr. Nixon
became vicious. Sammy Davis, Jr. almost got booed
off the stage at Jesse Jackson’s Black Expo show in
Chicago. Jesse had to quiet down the crowd himself
before Sammy could sing. People announced boycotts
of Jim Brown’s movies—he’d endorsed the president,
too. Floyd McKissick, who had been director of
CORE, was called a sellout.
Less than a week after I endorsed Mr. Nixon I did a
show in Baltimore. There were pickets outside the
arena discouraging people from coming to see my
show. Usually I sold out all thirteen thousand seats
there, but that night only about two thousand five
hundred people showed up. I was disappointed. People
just didn’t understand. Even Mr. Neely, a Republican
himself, said to me one time, “I don’t think endorsing
Nixon was a very smart thing to do.”
“I didn’t do it to be smart,” I said.
After the show in Baltimore, Mr. Brown came
backstage. I could see he looked kind of down about
what had happened with the pickets and the small
“Look,” I said, “it makes no difference to me. I’m
going to do what I think is right You’re pushing
people away from drugs, you’re helping black
colleges and black businesses. Y’all keep on doing
that. That’s why I’m endorsing the president. I think
he can do those things better than anybody else right
now. It makes no difference what happens.”
A lot of the stuff was aimed at me because of a picture
of Sammy Davis hugging Mr. Nixon. The picture was
in newspapers and in Jet and it made a lot of black
folks mad. But somehow the rumor got started that I
was the one hugging the president. That caused more
mess, pickets and threats and boycotts, so Mr. Patton
and other promotional people went around to the
program directors of black-oriented stations and
explained that it wasn’t me. The jocks started talking
about it on the air, cooling that down. Meantime, I
went about my business, touring and performing.
There was still plenty of resentment, and people got
right in my face about it. There was heckling and
booing in the audience. I think they wanted to see how
strong I’d be. I always told ’em I’d do it again.
I spent most of November and December putting
together the soundtrack for the movie Black Caesar.
In the middle of December a very disturbing incident
happened after a concert in Knoxville. There had been
some kind of incident at a black concert a few weeks
before I came in, so the city wanted to put restrictions
on other black concerts, including mine. That was like
waving a red flag in front of me. Since I had a radio
station there, I voiced some very strong opinons, and
they didn’t like it.
After my concert, I was standing in the parking lot
signing autographs and rapping with the fans about
community things. There was an old fella who ran the
Knoxville Coliseum and he wanted me away from
there. He called the police and told ’em a story about
inciting a riot. All of a sudden a bunch of police cars
came sweeping into the lot, and the officers came out
with shotguns. One started snatching me around and
pushing me around. It was strange because I had a .38
in my pocket that I carried for protection. I had started
carrying it during the days when I first started
speaking out about politics, wanting to protect myself
against somebody trying to shoot me or do something
stupid, because there is always a fool in the crowd.
The police beat two of my people, Bobby Diaz and my
road manager, Freddie Holmes, but they didn’t beat
me. If they had, I’d be dead today because I would
have shot ’em, and then they would’ve mowed me
down with those shotguns. They told me to get in the
car, and I did. They took me downtown and booked
me for inciting to riot and threw me in a cell. The
funny thing was they didn’t search me. They locked
me up with that .38 in my pocket. If they had come in
the cell that night to beat me, I would have shot them
coming in. I never could figure out why all that
happened because they were just dead wrong from the
start. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it. The
only thing I could figure was that it was because I had
the radio station there. The whole incident, coming
when it did, really depressed me because it turned me
against the system a little bit.
In January 1973 the Nixon people asked me to play
the inaugural. I asked for money for the band; I
thought they should be paid for their performance, at
least, even if I wasn’t. The Nixon people wouldn’t
pay, so I refused to do it. I thought they had funds for
things like that.
When I went back into the Apollo in May, the Nixon
thing still hadn’t died down. I had SRO crowds, but
there were thirty or forty pickets outside the theater
with signs that said, “James Brown—Nixon’s Clown”
and “Get the Clown out of Town.” Some of the people
who bought tickets and came in were still upset about
the Nixon thing, too. Some heckled and hollered
things, so I stopped the show and tried to talk to them.
“You can’t change a house from outside,” I said. “You
have to be inside the house. That’s why I endorsed
Mr. Nixon. I’m trying to sell us in. I’m trying to put
pressure on the government not to forget about us. I’m
trying to do some good. I think in time you’ll see
Some people responded to that, some didn’t. The
protests outside the theater went on, but there was
something funny about them. They were run by a
black cat who called himself Rabbi Judah Anderson.
He was supposed to be head of an organization called
the Harlem Salute Committee and said that they
wanted to raise money to do something to honor black
heroes, like build a museum in Harlem or something
like that. He said he was picketing me because I had
“repeatedly refused to cooperate with black groups in
Harlem in their previous efforts to honor our black
heroes.” What I’m convinced he really meant was I
wouldn’t do a benefit show for his group and that the
whole thing was really just a shakedown.
I met with him but decided he wasn’t legit, that if I
simply gave him money he would back off. After a
few days somebody did give him some money, and
the protests stopped. I saw him every now and then
after that, and when our eyes met I think he could see
what I thought of him. I didn’t hate the man, but had
no respect for what he stood for.
There were still a lot of people who didn’t like what
I’d done, and they picketed a lot of shows. Many
never forgave me. I think it cost me a lot of my black
audience, just like “Black and Proud” had cost me a
lot of my white audience.
After the election I went to see Mr. Nixon again about
making Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. My
father was with me.
“People talk about a national holiday costing too much
money, but I think you can get around that by making
it on a Sunday,” I said. “He was a minister, a spiritual
man. He should be honored on Sunday, like Christ.”
“I’m going to do something better,” he said. “I’m
going to see to it that a fitting monument to him is
“In Washington?”
“No, in Atlanta.”
I didn’t think that was enough. I thought there should
be a holiday in Dr. King’s honor. But I don’t think Mr.
Nixon wanted to take that step.
Death and Taxes
I was at home in Augusta on the morning of June 14,
1973, when I received a call from someone at
WRDW. I can’t remember who it was, whether it was
the station manager or who, but whoever it was told
me that he thought a relative of mine, maybe a cousin,
maybe one of my sons, had been hadly hurt in a car
wreck somewhere in upstate New York. He knew my
son Teddy had been killed, but he was trying to break
it to me gently. By acting confused he gave me time to
run a lot of things through my mind, to prepare myself
for whatever it was. I was grateful he did it that way; I
think it kept me from collapsing completely when he
told me the whole truth.
I was in shock while hearing the rest of what he said,
and not hearing him, too. He said I needed to go up
there and identify the body. I put down the phone. I
couldn’t believe it. My oldest son, so talented, and I
was hoping to get him to go to college. He’d been
living with me and working with me on the road, and
we’d become close even though I missed a lot of his
early childhood. I was hard on him sometimes, but it
was because I loved him so much. When I heard the
news, it was like the end of the world for me.
Teddy was in New York with two friends from
Toccoa visiting some cousins. At around six that
morning they were on the New York State Thruway,
about 120 miles north of Albany. I’m not even sure
where they were going. The police thought that the
boy driving might’ve fallen asleep. When he did, the
car veered off a wet shoulder and crashed down a
forty-foot embankment. It kept going for another
hundred yards, hit an abutment, and turned over on its
top. All three of the young men were killed.
I moved like I was in a dream. Somehow I got in
touch with my pilots, and they met me at my plane.
We flew to New York, but when I got there the
officials, seeing how disturbed I was, wouldn’t let me
go in to identify my son.
Starting the night after Teddy was killed I was
supposed to do three one-nighters in a row: Columbus,
Dayton, and Buffalo. My people were ready to cancel
them, but I told them to wait, I needed to think about it
first. Those three dates weren’t anything special, and
under the circumstances I knew nobody would hold it
against me for cancelling. But that’s not what was on
my mind. What was on my mind was preserving my
sanity. I thought if I continued on with my life right
away, then maybe I wouldn’t have a total breakdown.
And I was afraid that if I didn’t go ahead with the
shows, I might never be able to get on a stage again. I
decided not to cancel. I tried to look past the fact that
I’d lost a son by telling myself I had a show to do.
When I got to the show in Columbus, very few people
showed up—maybe five hundred. Normally, I would
have three thousand people there, but I think they
thought I wasn’t going to make it. I went ahead with
the show that night and the next two nights, too. I
think those shows probably weren’t as good as they
should have been because people were looking at me
with pity. But I was glad I had that stage to turn to.
Performing was the only thing that drove what had
happened out of my mind. Those shows preserved me.
At the funeral in Toccoa it all came flooding back. I
managed to get through the service all right—I was
trying to keep my composure and not lose all my
senses—but on the way to the cemetery I broke down.
Later on I went to Velma’s house, and we sat and
talked and tried to console each other, but she was
well out of it, like I was.
The thing that haunted me, that still haunts me, was
that Teddy and I had been arguing a lot right before it
happened. He’d been living in Augusta with me for a
while, but then he’d gotten himself into something and
had gotten a little wild. He didn’t want to go to school.
I had him set to go to Centre College of Kentucky, but
he was determined not to go. I stayed upset with him
about that. I said to him one day: “You know, you’re
kidding yourself. Your classmate Mike is going to
school, and he’s going to beat you out.” Teddy and
Mike had a kind of friendly rivalry thing going.
Teddy said, “He could go to school the rest of his life,
and he still couldn’t beat me out.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. “There’s no such thing as that,
son. If you don’t go to school, he’s going to beat you
I was also trying to get him out of Augusta because he
was writing some bad checks. I felt he was ducking
me and didn’t want me to see him because he knew
how hard I’d be on him. I just didn’t want him to go
through what I’d been through when I was his age. He
came from a broken home, like me, and a broken
home is a bad thing. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a
broken home that’s poor or one that’s well off. It
keeps you so upset when you’re young that you’re
never really yourself. Maybe I could have straightened
him out; maybe I would have made it worse, I don’t
know, but he was ducking me. I never saw him again.
Not too long after Teddy died, Byrd left me. Vicki had
left a year before and Lyn Collins, a fine singer,
replaced her. I cut Lyn on many tunes throughout the
mid-seventies. I think Bobby was despondent about
several things; his mother was very sick, and he felt
like he wasn’t getting enough credit for his
contribution to the group. I think I probably said
something like, “Well, I don’t need him anyway; he
never did anything for me,” just like I had when Pop
and I fell out. But, really, I was sad about it. We’d
been together for twenty years and were like brothers.
We didn’t have a big break or anything like
that—we’d been through too much for something like
that. He moved to Houston, and when I came through
Texas he joined the show and stayed with it through
Dallas and maybe Corpus Christi, but that was all.
Every now and then I enticed him back to do one thing
or another.
Pretty soon he had a nice hit with a song called “Back
from the Dead,” and he was playing a club in Miami. I
went to see his show—he had Bootsy and them as his
band—and got up on the stage with him. We did “Try
Me,” and then, before I could even say it, he had the
band hit “Sex Machine.” It was like he’d never left.
Backstage we got to talking about the early days and
all the things we’d been through. After we both got to
feeling real sentimental, I told him I was getting ready
to tour Europe. “Why don’t you come along, Byrd?” I
“I don’t know, James,” he said. “I don’t think I want
to go back out there with you. You know how I feel.”
“It’ll be like old times, Byrd,” I said. “Come on.”
After a while he finally agreed to it. I said, “Fantastic!
Johnny Terry will be here tomorrow with your
“Johnny’s coming back?”
“He’ll have the shoes and everything.”
I’d already bought ’em. Byrd just shook his head and
laughed. We did eleven days in Europe—Brussels and
then all around Germany—but when we came back he
went back with his band. That Europe trip was the last
time we were ever out there together.
Meantime, the government was getting very heavy
about the tax case. They were saying I owed $4.5
million in back taxes for 1969 and 1970. At first I
didn’t really know they were doing a big investigation,
but then my office started receiving calls from
Treasury people all around the country. I found out
somebody was trying to make it a criminal case
instead of a civil one; they were going to charge me
with fraud.
I had always heard fraud started with intent and intent
starts with knowledge. Without knowledge, you can’t
commit fraud because there’s no intent. See, I hired all
these people with sheepskins and shingles and had
them handle my business—with a seventh-grade
education, I’d be crazy to do anything else—but the
government held me responsible. By the time all the
trouble started, all those people who’d worked for me
were gone. I had to fight it along with two of my
people, Fred Daviss and Al Garner, two of the finest
people I know. They stayed with me and fought it for
as long as they could.
I think it started when one of my accountants mixed
some of the corporate stuff in with my personal return.
He just noted on the form that some of the things on
the personal return were business deductions. That
was like waving a red flag in front of the IRS. They
went crazy. They came into my office and confiscated
a truckload of documents and records, and I just let
’em do it. There was no way they could give me a
receipt for all of it. Then it was my word against
theirs. They called all the time, saying, “Prove this and
prove that,” but they had the records. After a few
years of this, they said, “Come and get your stuff.”
Mr. Daviss went to New York, and on a table in a
conference room there they had two boxes. He said,
“Where’s all the material?” They said, “This is it.”
Most of the argument was about the money from my
shows. The government went around to all the
coliseums and auditoriums and figured how much I
made on each show, and they built up a net worth
picture from that. They didn’t consider payroll,
expenses, travel, and all of that. A lot of those things
had been paid by King Records and then
cross-collateralized against my royalties, but the IRS
just went by the 1099 forms I received from King
saying I’d earned so much money each year. Those
forms just showed earnings; they didn’t show all the
business deductions for hotel rooms, salaries,
maintaining the jet, and all the other expenses. An
overhaul of the jet engine cost $50,000. The monthly
payment for the plane was about $12,000. King paid
those things, then charged me for them. So my people
had to try to reconstruct all my expenses without most
of the documents. On top of that, we got into an
argument about the $1,500 a week King had paid me
since I came back from Smash. King couldn’t
withhold it from me, but it was still charged against
my royalties. The government couldn’t understand
that. The money was in a special account, and the
government took it.
I tried not to let it get me down, but I could see we
were in for a long fight. What I didn’t see was how it
was eventually going to affect my ability to function
as an entertainer. It was going to keep me and my
people tied up to the point that we couldn’t take care
of our other business—which was to keep all the
things I did as an entertainer and artist moving
forward. And it hurt my people personally. Mr. Daviss
told the government they were wrong, and he took it
on the chin. They ran him ragged until his family
begged him to leave me, but he stayed and fought and
lost his family. And I eventually lost my family, too.
But I don’t blame the government. I don’t hold a
grudge. The government hurt my business a lot, a
whole lot. But they didn’t destroy me. Polydor did
Papa takes some Mess
My relationship with Polydor went sour almost from
the beginning. I made some very good records for
them—“Make It Funky,” “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’
Nothing,” “Get on the Good Foot,” “The Payback,”
“Get Up Offa That Thing,” “It’s Too Funky in
Here”—but they didn’t know how to promote or
distribute them. It was basically a German company,
and they didn’t understand the American market. They
weren’t flexible; they couldn’t respond to what was
happening the way King could.
They weren’t flexible about creativity, either. They
expected you to go into the studio on such and such a
day at such and such an hour and finish up at a certain
time. Like a factory. At King we went into the studio
and put together arrangements and worked at all hours
until we had it right. Polydor back then didn’t work
that way. They had no respect for the artist, no
personal feeling for the artist, no concern for what he
had in mind. They would say this is what’s going to
happen: blah, blah, blah. And what the artist felt
meant nothing.
I’d mix a song until I thought—until I knew—it was
right, but they would want their machines to say
whether it was right or not. It had to register certain
numbers on the machines. It didn’t matter whether the
track was alive and moved; all that mattered was the
numbers. I had a warmth in my sound I was trying to
preserve, and I wanted the track to be an instrumental
before it was a vocal. I wanted it to have the right feel
before I put any words to it. It’s like having a good
bedspread but wondering if the mattress is
comfortable. They wanted a pretty bedspread. I
wanted to make the mattress comfortable.
In the early years with them I was hitting the singles
charts in spite of the company. The songs were hits
because I forced them through the company and made
them hits myself. I was supposed to have creative
control, but they started remixing my records. I mixed
them, but when they came out they didn’t sound like
what I’d mixed. The company didn’t want the funk in
there too heavy. They’d take the feeling out of the
record. They didn’t want James Brown to be raw.
Eventually, they destroyed my sound.
It took them a dozen different presidents of the
company to do it, though. Every time a president came
in that I got tight with—like Jerry Schoenbaum—he’d
be replaced. They were always sending in somebody
to put a bridle on James Brown.
Their artist promotion was strange, too. To me, they
didn’t want a man of African descent to appear
sophisticated. They did not want him to come across
as a man. They wanted the female Afro-American
artists to look good, but not the men. That’s the
vibration I picked up from the company, but when you
pinned ’em down one-on-one, you didn’t get that. Dr.
Vogelson, who was head of the whole thing, was a
fine man, though, and he treated me like a gentleman.
But I never got that warmth from the company. Not
one time.
Whatever King Records had been about, Polydor was
the opposite. Every King act was individual; Polydor
tried to make all of their acts the same. King wanted to
be an independent company with individual artists;
Polydor wanted to be a conglomerate. King wanted to
be a little company with big acts; Polydor wanted to
be a big company with little acts.
The funny thing was Polydor had great facilities and
Mr. Nathan didn’t, but we made great records at King
anyway. To me, Polydor didn’t have a musical
background. If you check the whole concept of the
company, you see they weren’t in the record business;
they were in telecommunications and electronics. But
they paid me; I can’t get away from that. They gave
me more money than anybody ever gave me. Mr.
Nathan didn’t pay me; he was a good man, but he
didn’t pay me. Polydor would pay me, but they
wouldn’t give me the freedom Mr. Nathan did.
Polydor might have been fed some bad information
about me being difficult to work with. I am difficult if
you want to change me from being James Brown. If I
had been a new artist, it would have been different.
But I had a track record—everything was a hit.
Everything that Polydor did turned the other way
unless I forced it. Once the door was open to them in
the American market, they had no more need for me.
Besides groove tunes like “Make It Funky,” I was
doing a lot of message things during my first few
years with Polydor. “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’
Nothing” was aimed at the politicians who were
running their mouths but had no knowledge of what
life was like for a lot of people in this country. It was
also aimed at some of the cats on their soapboxes—I
won’t call their names—who were telling the people
one thing while manipulating their emotions for
personal gain.
I was getting a lot of visions during those years. “King
Heroin” was something that I foresaw. I wasn’t using
drugs, but it was like I had lived it anyway. During
that time I had an office at Polydor, and I maintained
an apartment in New York, too, but I lived in Augusta.
I was seeing New York and then getting away from it
and writing about it. But producers don’t know the
truth. They write about what they think is happening. I
was writing about what I was living.
“The Payback” was originally supposed to be a tune
for the soundtrack of It’s Hell Up in Harlem, the
answer to Black Caesar, but the producer said the tune
wasn’t funky enough.
I said, “What did you say?”
“It’s not funky enough. We can’t use it.”
That was all I wanted to hear. “I’m going to put it out
as a single, and you’ll see,” I said.
I knew the song wouldn’t make sense without the
movie, so I came up with a story line that you could
see. It came out in February 1974 and went to number
1 on the R & B chart and 26 pop.
Somewhere during this time I picked up the name the
Godfather of Soul. Fred Williamson in Black Caesar
was supposed to be the Godfather of Harlem. I was
talking to the disc jockey Rocky G about the movie
one day, and he said, “You’re the Godfather of Soul.”
I think some of the jocks started using it on the air,
and it kind of stuck.
I was still playing everywhere, but I was getting ready
to cut back on all the one-nighters. I did a benefit in
Madison Square Garden on July 4, 1974, for the
National Youth Movement. It was a self-help group
for teenagers run by Reverend Al Sharpton. When I
lived in St. Albans, he was just a kid, and he’d come
over and we’d rap. I encouraged him and the other
kids around there to stay in school and work hard and
have pride. He took it to heart and started his youth
movement. I think he was only about nineteen when
we did the July Fourth date.
In September I went to Kinshasa, Zaire, for the music
festival that was supposed to coincide with the
Muhammad Ali–George Foreman fight there. The
Spinners, the Crusaders, B. B. King, the Pointer
Sisters, and I arrived in Kinshasa at two o’clock in the
morning. When we landed thousands of fans were
there to greet us. So were Foreman and Ali. The fight
had to be postponed, though, because Foreman got a
bad cut over his eye while sparring, but they went
ahead with the music festival.
In October I was back in the Apollo for six days. By
this time the Apollo was in trouble. A lot of the big
acts wouldn’t play it anymore because it wasn’t
profitable enough. I could see it wasn’t going to make
it, and I said that this show might mark the end of an
era in black music. I think a lot of people realized it.
Mick Jagger and Ahmet Ertegun showed up for the
Friday show; they knew what was happening. Not too
long after that, the theater closed. It reopened a few
times, but it didn’t stay open. I didn’t play it again for
almost four years.
I released another message song around this time, too:
“Funky President (People It’s Bad).” It was about
President Ford, who had taken over from Mr. Nixon in
August. Every time he made a speech, it gave people
the blues. He was a nice man, but he talked a lot and
didn’t say anything. He was there as a caretaker after
Watergate, and I think he did that. He was a good
man, but I never looked at him as a president.
In February the next year I went back to Gabon in
Africa and played for President Bongo’s birthday
party. We had some discussions about building a
recording studio and a pressing plant there but never
got any further than that. In July I was back in the
Garden for Reverend Sharpton’s National Youth
Movement again. I had Tito Puente, Joe Bataan,
Tyrone Davis, Lyn Collins, and the Swanee Quintet
on the bill. Charles Sherrell had a solo spot, too. He
has a sweet, high voice, and I had cut him on an album
called Sweet Charles: Music for Sweet People.
By the middle of 1975 disco had broken big. Disco is
a simplification of a lot of what I was doing, of what
they thought I was doing. Disco is a very small part of
funk. It’s the end of the song, the repetitious part, like
a vamp. The difference is that in funk you dig into a
groove, you don’t stay on the surface. Disco stayed on
the surface. See, I taught ’em everything they know
but not everything I know.
Disco was easy for artists to get into because they
really didn’t have to do anything. It was all electronic
sequencers and beats-per-minute—it was done with
machines. They just cheated on the music world. They
thought they could dress up in a Superfly outfit, play
one note, and that would make them a star. But that
was not the answer. It destroyed the musical basis that
so many people worked so hard to build up in the
sixties. The record companies loved disco because it
was a producer’s music. You don’t really need artists
to make disco. They didn’t have to worry about an
artist not cooperating; machines can’t talk back and,
unlike artists, they don’t have to be paid. What disco
became was a lawyer’s recording; the attorneys were
making records.
Disco hurt me in a lot of ways. I was trying to make
good hard funk records that Polydor was trying to
soften up, while the people were buying records that
had no substance. The disco people copied off me and
tried to throw me away and go with young people.
You can’t do that. You have to come back to the
source. Disco hurt live music in general. The black
concert business was already hurting. Whites wouldn’t
come even if the black artist had big record sales.
Black America was in a serious recession; there was
just no money in the black community. Later on, that
situation hurt records sales, too. For everybody.
By this time I was in semiretirement anyway. I still
did big shows in Europe, Africa, and Japan, but I cut
way back on American appearances. I was mad and I
was tired and I was disgusted. The tax thing was
making it hard to function, I was fighting my record
company all the time, and the music business was all
going one way. It was similar to the period after
“Begging, Begging” or the time I was caught between
Smash and King—I was stopped, but I wasn’t
finished. I was going to pull back and wait for it all to
work itself out. After the Nixon thing, Teddy’s death,
the taxes, disco, and the bad blood with Polydor, I
didn’t see what else could happen. But a lot did.
Before too much longer I thought I might be stopped
and finished.
Prisoner of Love
Part of the reason I pulled back from show business
was my wife. Deedee wanted me to be at home more
and be a good father to our children. We had two
sweet little daughters, and they meant everything to
me. They were a kind of consolation to me after losing
Teddy. Staying home was what would make my wife
happy, and that’s what I did. We even moved out of
Augusta to a big, secluded piece of land not too far
from where I was born. If I was really going to be a
family man, I wanted to do it on the same ground my
family was on when I was a child. It was almost like I
was trying to make good at what my own parents
hadn’t been able to.
I had gotten back to my roots. In 1973 Big
Junior—Mr. Willie M. Glenn—started working for me
in New York. We’d always stayed in touch, but he’d
been working in the numbers game in Harlem for ten
or twelve years until he finally got tired of being
arrested. He was just trying to support his family, but
one Christmas Day when he was shoveling snow on
Riker’s Island, he decided the risk of working policy
wasn’t worth it anymore. He drove a cab for a while
after that and then joined me.
Honey was still living in Augusta, and I saw her all
the time. I wanted to build her a nice house, but she
wouldn’t let me. She said she wanted to stay where
she was, among the people she’d known all her life.
When she died in 1974 it almost destroyed me. I think
she took so many of those headache powders all her
life that it just took everything out of her. Looking at
her at the funeral home, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I
reached in and hugged her, and Junior had to pull me
Not long after Honey died I heard that Mr. Brantly
was very sick in Macon. I went to see him and found
out there was nobody to take care of him or pay his
medical bills. He was more than eighty years old by
then and needed constant care. I had him brought back
to Augusta and put him in a convalescent home where
he was comfortable up until his death a few years
During this time I kept my hand in the business. I
started a television show, a syndicated dance program
called “Future Shock” that lasted from 1974 through
1976. But it was done in Augusta and later on in
Atlanta, so it didn’t take me too far away. It was a
strong show—I invested over a million dollars in
it—but I couldn’t get sponsors for it. The same thing
happened to my radio stations. I had the numbers but
not the ad billings.
I was still recording and producing right along, but a
lot less than before. The hardest thing for me to do
was to get Polydor to release a record. They were
paying me to be inactive. I still did gigs occasionally
in the States, but it was tough because I was really at a
very low point. That’s where “Get Up Offa That
Thing” came from—a gig when I was really down.
I was playing Fort Lauderdale at the Bachelors III,
owned by Joe Namath. The audience was sitting
down, trying to do a sophisticated thing, listening to
funk. One of the tightest bands they’d ever heard in
their lives, and they were sitting. I had worked hard
and dehydrated myself and was feeling depressed. I
looked out at all those people sitting there, and
because I was depressed they looked depressed. I
yelled, “Get up offa that thing and dance til you feel
better!” I probably meant until I felt better. My wife
came down later to join me, and when she saw me, she
liked to had a fit, I was in such bad shape. Nothing
was going right.
There was more turnover in the band. Fred Wesley
and Maceo left to join Bootsy in P-Funk. I think they
wanted to work more than they were doing with me. I
was sorry to see them go, but I didn’t blame them.
There were lawsuits against my radio stations. Every
time you play a record you’re supposed to pay so
much money to the performance rights societies like
ASCAP and BMI. ASCAP had put in five or six
lawsuits against WEBB for nonpayment of the money.
That was just part of the trouble I was having in the
radio business. The people I bought WEBB from in
the first place were suing me for money they said I
still owed them from the sale. Also, no matter how
good my numbers were, I couldn’t get national
advertising on my stations. I was pumping the money
from my record and songwriting royalties into the
stations to keep them going. I didn’t get into the radio
business to make money in the first place, but when
you have the numbers, you’re supposed to get the
advertising. I just couldn’t understand why we didn’t.
Then I got dragged into a payola trial. Frankie
Crocker—who had been on all the major radio stations
in New York, WLIB, WWRL, and WBLS-FM, where
he was program director—was indicted in Newark for
perjury. They said he didn’t tell the truth about a
$10,000 payment he was supposed to have received
from an independent record promoter and about
money he was supposed to have received from a
promo man from Philadelphia International. See, a
program director is very powerful because he
approves every record that’s put on the air. If your
record was played on WBLS at that time, it meant two
hundred thousand in sales in the New York area.
Charles Bobbitt, one of my managers, was subpoenaed
by the prosecution, and he testified that he paid
Crocker almost $7,000 to play my records. I didn’t
hold it against Mr. Bobbitt for testifying to that—he
probably had to give Crocker some money—but I
testified that the only money I ever gave to Frankie
was payment for emceeing my show. To pay
somebody to play a record is a little heavy, but I think
to pay him to do our shows was important. I guess Mr.
Bobbitt had to get my records played, and that’s what
independent promotion is about: You try to compete
against what the other people are doing. I guess he did
it with money instead of with drugs. I think they used
Mr. Bobbitt for a scapegoat for what others were
doing before Mr. Bobbitt even came on the scene.
Later on, his testimony was thrown out on a
The whole payola thing is a hustle. A main reason for
it is radio management. They underpay their people
and expect them to make up the difference in favors
from outside. With a lot of black-format stations, it
was usually black jocks who suffered and white
management who got off. A lot of it depends on what
you consider payola in the first place. If you give
some underpaid jock $50 to buy groceries, that’s
payola. If you’re a big record company handing out
$750 television sets as Christmas gifts, that’s not
payola. I always tried to have jocks emcee my shows
and legitimately pay them. That way, everybody knew
what was going on, just like the laws that make
politicians tell where their campaign contributions
came from.
Not too long after the Crocker trial I lost the jet. It was
a Sidley-Hawker 125, the third jet I’d owned since
Pop and I got the first one. There was a mechanical
bill due on it, and Polydor agreed to pay it, then
reneged. I wasn’t going to pay that kind of money
myself, so we let the plane sit while we discussed it.
Then they discovered a crack in the tail. I took it to
Newark, but they couldn’t fix it, so I had it flown to
Canada to be fixed. The authorities grounded it. When
they did that, I let it sit there. It was repossessed.
All these things happening made me pull back further
from the business and spend more time at home, like
Deedee wanted. I have a picture from that time in my
life that’s the only picture in the world that doesn’t
look like me. You can look at it and see how far away
I’d gotten from show business. I was still trying to
look sharp, to look debonair, but I look at that picture
and I don’t know who that man was. I just did not
know where I was going.
When Elvis died in August 1977, I think I got a clue.
For some reason his death hit me very hard. We were
a lot alike in many ways—both poor boys from the
country raised on gospel and R & B. “Hound Dog”
and “Please” both came out the same year. He had
lived in Hollywood a long time and then, like me, had
moved back home to try to preserve himself.
Somehow or another he just didn’t manage to do it.
They kept him shut away all the time; he couldn’t get
out and be with the people. I knew he was a poor boy
and never intended to go that way. When you’re poor,
you have survival in your mind.
When he died, I said, “That’s my friend, I have to go.”
I went to Graceland that night. The crowds had
already started gathering around the gate. Some agents
from the Tennessee Bureau of Identification put me in
one of their cars and got me in without anybody
seeing. I saw Priscilla and his daughter, and I saw one
of his aides who’d been a good friend of mine for
sixteen years. I talked to Elvis’s father, saying what I
could to help console him. But when I walked over to
the open casket, I needed consoling. I put my hand
over his heart and said with tears in my eyes, “You rat,
why’d you leave me? How could you let it go? How
could you let it go?”
It was very strange; that was only the second time in
my life I’d ever touched someone who was dead. It
made me think about the waste of such a great, great
talent, and it made me wonder what I was doing with
my own life and about everything that was going
wrong. During that time I couldn’t find any way out of
it. Like Elvis couldn’t find any way out of it except
I knew things were going to get worse, too, when one
day I found a book lying around the house. It was a
book about women’s legal rights. My wife was
reading it. She’d underlined the parts about
community property in divorce. I knew then she was
planning to leave; I knew it in my mind, but in my
heart I hoped it wouldn’t happen.
I was working somewhere—I don’t even remember
where—and I left early to be with my family on
Valentine’s Day. I wanted to have a candlelight dinner
and then a long talk about us to see if we could work it
out. When I came up the drive she already had the
station wagon packed and the two girls inside ready to
leave. I talked to her, I argued with her, but it didn’t
do any good. She left and took the girls with her. I
watched them go down the drive until they were out of
sight at the bottom of the hill, heading toward the front
gate. I stood there in the middle of all that land, by
myself, just listening to that car fade away.
She was a very good woman and we had a lot of good
years together, but she did not want a man who was in
the entertainment business. She might say there was
some other reason that we broke up, but I believe that
my being an entertainer was the real reason. If I had
been a man who came home every night, she would
have been much happier. I gave up a lot to be with
them, but she had no aspiration for my being in show
business at all. But that’s what James Brown is all
After she left I tried not to let it get me down. You
must be intelligent about it first. When a person leaves
you, the person has just expressed something to you.
Understand that before you understand anything else.
The person would never leave you without wanting to.
That’s hard to accept. She did what she wanted to do.
She went where she wanted to go.
I couldn’t think that way about the children, though.
They weren’t adults making up their minds of their
own free will. I missed them, and I couldn’t think it
through the way I could think through a grown-up
leaving me. I picked up the telephone and called
Deedee to ask if she wanted to come back. I knew she
didn’t, but I was really asking her for the children. If it
hadn’t been for them, I probably never would have
called her. After that, I didn’t call her anymore. I
accepted it and went on. But the girls—that was sad.
I was free to get back out there on the road if I wanted
to, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. It had been a long
time. A New York newspaper even had one of those
“where are they now” stories about me, so when a
group of Harlem businessmen bought the Apollo and
tried to reopen it, I agreed to play it. The place had
been closed for three years, and I hadn’t played it in
almost four. I already had a short tour of Europe
planned right before that, and I could go right into the
Apollo as soon as I got back. I scheduled two shows a
night for a week, thinking it might rejuvenate me and
the theater at the same time.
I opened on Wednesday, July 12, 1978. It was like
always—lines as far as you could see. There was so
much demand that I added two shows. It was like I’d
never left. The crowds were fantastic. I told them, “I
was here in the fifties, the sixties, and the seventies.
Now I got to get ready for the eighties.” I was starting
to think that maybe I should come back full-time. “I’d
rather play for my folks at the Apollo,” I said, “than
play the White House.”
Everything went smooth until Sunday night. When I
came offstage after the second show, there was a U.S.
marshal waiting for me with a bench warrant issued by
U.S. District Court Judge C. Stanley Bair in Baltimore
for contempt of court. It was connected to the civil suit
I was involved in with the people I’d bought WEBB
from. See, the court didn’t like the fact that I’d left the
country. It really got me down because I’d called the
judge to ask if I could leave to go overseas to do my
show. He refused to talk to me. When I went, he got
me for contempt.
The marshal arrested me right there and carried me to
Baltimore. I went into the city jail in handcuffs and
spent three days there. I couldn’t understand it; the
whole thing was about money in the first place, a civil
suit. I thought we were way past putting people in
prison for debt. What kept running through my mind
was the connection between being in jail when I was a
kid and being in jail as an adult. Here I was successful,
well known and, most of all, respected—and still in
jail. I’d come out of prison to do right and still wound
up in jail. I knew we still had some problems; the
same problems they have in South Africa still prevail
in some parts of this country.
I had to put the station into receivership. I’d already
sold WJBE in Knoxville, and the beginning of the end
at WRDW had come a month before when a fire
damaged it real bad. I posted my bond and got out of
Meantime, the show had gone on at the Apollo
without me. That was it. I could get out of jail, but I
could not get out of whatever had been happening to
me—for years, it seemed like. I could not find another
way to go. For the first time in my life I said
something I never thought I’d hear myself say: “I just
don’t care anymore.”
Dead on It
When you sit down, like I did, one of the things you
think about is the danger of freezing up. It has
happened to a lot of entertainers. They leave the stage,
and then after they’re away from it a while, they get
where they can’t go back even if they want to. It
crossed my mind that it could happen to me. Up to
that point I’d never retired completely. I had still
played huge arenas and stadiums in Europe and Japan
and Africa, and I still did American concerts
occasionally. But now I was ready to throw in the
towel entirely. It got to where I didn’t care about
freezing up. I wasn’t going back out there anyway.
Leon Austin, the childhood friend who first showed
me some chords on the piano and who I had cut on a
lot of singles from the late sixties on, came by and
talked to me. He’s soft-spoken, but he can be very
insistent and persistent. “You can’t quit,” he said.
“You can’t lay down.”
“I’m tired, Leon,” I answered. “I’m tired of fighting
the government and the record company and the radio
“You can’t let ’em beat you.”
I told him what I’d been telling myself. “I don’t care
anymore. I just don’t care.”
“You got to care,” he said.
“I wish I could, Leon. I wish I could.”
He kept coming by, kept talking to me, arguing with
me, encouraging me. I wouldn’t budge. He could see
how far down I was, so he got off the retirement thing
and started talking to me about spiritual things. He
told me how he’d recently let God back into his life
and what a difference it made. He didn’t preach to me
or anything like that. He just talked real quiet about
what it meant to him personally, how it gave him
peace of mind.
I was always religious, even before I used to help
Charlie Brown, the crippled fella, to the different
churches on Sunday when I was a kid. I’d sung gospel
all my life. Gospel saved me in prison and got me out.
Over the years I presented a lot of gospel acts on my
shows, too, but somehow, I guess, I’d just been going
through the motions lately.
Really, a lot of the ways I communicate with people
and what I communicate I owe to the church. When
I’m on a stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring
people joy. Just like church does. People don’t go to
church to find trouble, they go there to lose it. Same
thing with a James Brown show. I’d always felt that as
an entertainer you shouldn’t bring your personal
problems to the stage. Your job is to send people
home feeling better than they did when they came in. I
wasn’t sure I could do that anymore.
Leon got me thinking about all that and gave me the
moral support I needed. We all need moral support;
we don’t get any bigger than that. When we don’t
need it, we’re in trouble. And we need to trust in
somebody, something bigger than ourselves. That’s
what I did. I rededicated myself to God. In a little
country church near where I was born, I was
rebaptized. I’d been baptized when I was a little boy,
but I wasn’t as serious then as when I went on my own
as an adult. Eventually I just let go and put things in
His hands.
The final turning point came one day when I walked
outside the house and found my father down on his
knees working around the walkway. It must have been
100 degrees in the shade.
“What you doing, Daddy?” I asked him.
“Pulling these weeds.”
“It’s too hot, Daddy. You don’t need to do that.”
“Somebody’s got to, Junior.”
“What you mean?”
“We can’t afford to hire nobody to do it.”
I got down beside him and started helping. Before
long I was sweating. The more I sweated, the harder I
worked, like he was doing. He had more energy than
any man I’ve ever known. He’d never been out of
work more than five days in his life, and anybody he
ever worked for would hire him back in a minute.
Something happened while I was down there beside
my father. He knew what I was going through, and he
straightened me out.
“You’re lucky, Junior,” he said. “The yard you pulling
weeds in belong to you.”
In his whole life he’d never stopped working. It didn’t
make any difference to him: turpentine, heavy
machinery, filling station work, picking vegetables.
That’s what he was about. And his son was about
working on the stage. God showed me the direction. I
knew it was time for me to get up and go back to
That’s what I did. But I had a lot to rebuild, a lot of
fights still ahead. In destroying my sound, Polydor had
cost me my audience, and it was around this time,
1979, that the record business in general collapsed.
Except for a few blockbusters every now and then,
you couldn’t give records away. The whole industry
was depressed. And disco had killed off live music
and a lot of middle-level venues with it. I could go out
of the country, where I was a superstar, but there was
no place for me to work at home.
Polydor got a couple of breaks with Saturday Night
Fever and Grease and had a chance to sell ten or
twenty million of each album while I sold maybe two
hundred thousand albums. That spoiled them. After
that, all they wanted was the blockbusters. But they
didn’t get them and they got off their acts that were
doing good but not spectacular.
They tried to take me over into disco by bringing in an
outside producer, Brad Shapiro. I was against it from
the first. Disco had no groove, it had no sophistication,
it had nothing. It was almost over anyway. I fought
against doing it but finally gave in. They called the
album The Original Disco Man. It wasn’t disco all the
way, but I was very unhappy with the result. Then
they had me do another one with Brad Shapiro called
People, but I wanted to release a live album I did in
When I made the decision to come back, I decided to
fight back, too. I got the lawyer William Kunstler to
help me. He came down to Augusta and discussed all
the aspects of the trouble I was having and decided
he’d take my case. In November 1979 we called a
press conference and charged Polydor with skimping
on my royalties; we talked about the discrimination by
national advertisers that had cost me two radio stations
already; and we charged the federal government with
harassing me through the FBI and IRS. I was trying to
protect some of the things that I thought were being
taken from me unfairly, including my career. The idea
was to fight on all fronts at once by bringing my case
to the attention of the public. One thing about William
Kunstler: He brings out all the injustices in a case and
gets a lot of press doing it. After a while I realized that
those injustices would make a lot of people angry, and
when they got angry they were going to defend James
Brown. I didn’t want it to get out of hand. Mr.
Kunstler even told me at one point, “You know, a lot
of the people I defend get killed.”
After that press conference I realized that the reporters
would ask me questions I really didn’t want to answer,
because the more you answer and the more you talk,
the more you hear yourself talk. Pretty soon, after all
that talking, you become bitter, and I did not want to
become a bitter person. So I backed off. I decided that
if there was any way to work things out, I would.
After the live Japan album Hot on the One came out,
Polydor and I separated. We’d renegotiated an
album-by-album deal, and they didn’t like the one I
gave them, so I took it to Henry Stone—the same one
who’d put out “Do the Mashed Potatoes”—and he put
it on TK Records with the title Soul Syndrome.
I think with Polydor I was caught in the middle of
some forces that you have in conglomerates that have
nothing to do with the record business. I don’t think
everybody in Polygram and Polydor was involved, but
if I had to summarize it, I’d do it this way: I think I got
caught in a fight between the Jews and the Germans in
the company. The Jews wanted James Brown to make
it; the Germans didn’t.
Meantime, I went back to work in America as a live
performer. It wasn’t easy. There were people who
wanted to put me on oldies shows. I refused. I said,
“I’m a contemporary artist.” I wouldn’t let ’em call
my greatest hits albums golden oldies, either. Called
’em Soul Classics.
For the first time in my career I played the rock club
circuit in New York, places like the Lone Star, Irving
Plaza, and Studio 54. Some places that size didn’t
want me because I refused to cut back on my band,
which was too big and expensive for the clubs. They
didn’t think they could make it pay. That’s why I’ll
always be grateful to the Lone Star. They were one of
the first places that would book me in New York when
I came back. They showed it could be done.
Mr. Daviss and Mr. Garner thought the clubs would be
a good place to expose me to people who’d never been
exposed to me before, and I wanted to go into the
clubs because while playing arenas and stadiums in
Europe I’d started to doubt myself. From the distance
of those big stages, I began to wonder if I was getting
over to the people. The clubs got me back in close
touch with audiences.
But I knew I’d eventually need some kind of wider
exposure than that. With all the problems I was having
with my record company it didn’t look like the
exposure was going to come from recordings. Only
place it could come from was a movie. Somebody
must have been reading my mind because not too long
after I went into the clubs I hooked up with the two
people who really turned it around for me: John
Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
I think John and Danny saw me at one of the New
York clubs and that hipped them to the fact that I was
back working. They contacted me through a talent
agent named Richard Dostal, who got the script for
Blues Brothers to me. It was a long time before I
looked at it because I was afraid of the way it might
portray Afro-Americans. Once I read it, I could see it
was going to bring back the blues and R & B
performers that people had tried to put on the shelf.
From the time they started putting the script together
they wanted me to play the role of the gospel-singing
preacher. I memorized my sermon and lines on the
airplane while flying out to California. On the lot at
Universal they’d built a church that was a replica of a
real church in Chicago. My sequence, with all the
dancing and with John somersaulting down the aisle,
took about three days to shoot because it was so
detailed. It’s funny: With all the gospel I’d sung in my
life, I’d never heard of the song they picked for me to
sing, but it was a genuine old gospel number. Danny
found a recording of it from the thirties that was done
at a tempo as fast as the one we used in the movie.
People who criticized John and Danny were confused.
They didn’t understand that the Blues Brothers were
actors pretending to be R & B performers. I know
Danny and John themselves weren’t confused about it,
and you could tell from the respect they gave the real
R & B performers on the movie that they knew what
they were doing. They were there for every take I did,
and they treated me fantastic.
The Blues Brothers is a funny movie, and it’ll never be
outdated because there’s a lot of information in it. It’s
as informative as The Godfather about the kinds of
things people are into. It’s somewhat political
too—like the part with the Nazi—and we don’t want
to face the things it’s saying.
In my scene I was supposed to pull off the robe I had
on, like the cape routine, but I wouldn’t do it. I was
playing a character, not James Brown, and I thought to
pull off the robe would destroy the character. After
some discussion John Landis, the director, agreed. I
think later on they were glad they did it that way.
When I did my dance I didn’t get down as much as I
would have if I’d been playing myself. I stayed gospel
and only moved from side to side.
John wanted to do a lot of his acrobatic things, and I
told him he should be careful. I’d done enough of that
stuff on the stage over the years to know how
dangerous it can be. He was doing a lot of those flips
in my sequence, and then they used a double to do
some more. John was very agile and had a lot of
energy and a lot of ideas, and he seemed to be a man
with so much talent that it was hard for him to define
himself. I think one of the things that got to him was
that he was putting on weight; he did not want to be
fat. I don’t think John had any kind of drug problem at
that time. If he did, I wasn’t aware of it. We talked
about some of the pressures and problems in show
business. He said to me, “I don’t think you’ve gotten a
fair shake in show business, but after this movie
comes out you won’t be able to walk down the street.”
He was right, too. That movie exposed me to young
people who’d never seen me before. I was performing
all the time again. Right after the movie came out I
was supposed to do a concert at Madison Square
Garden with the Rolling Stones, but it went sour at the
last minute. Bill Graham was promoting it. He was
supposed to be the world’s greatest promoter, and he
wanted me to play for $5,000. I don’t think he really
wanted me to come at all.
Around that same time—the end of 1980—I released
“Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses)” as a 45 and as a
twelve-inch. On that record I mixed rap and funk
together. I was rapping about the things that
“Payback” is about. It took off real strong on the
English charts, but it never did what it should have
here. I still wasn’t on a major label, and it’s hard to
make a record go under those circumstances.
The next year I started doing television
shows—Saturday Night, Tomorrow, Mike Douglas,
and others. I toured Germany and Italy. The Blues
Brothers had triggered all this, but since I only played
a character in the movie, people who saw the movie
hadn’t seen or heard the real James Brown. So I did
television and clubs and foreign tours, just like I’d
played one-nighters years before. I was determined to
prove that James Brown was still relevant.
Probably the most important thing in the whole long
process happened when I was on Solid Gold in Los
Angeles on February 2, 1982. I never will forget that
date because that’s when I met the very special lady
who’s my wife today. She was the hairstylist and the
makeup artist for the show. It wasn’t love at first sight,
it was recognition at first sight. Our souls had met a
long time before.
They tape three days every other week, so they do two
weeks’ worth of work in those three days. They have
lots of entertainers coming in and out of there. The
night I was on, most of the show had already been
done. I was sitting in the dressing room with the door
cracked when she walked by. Our eyes met. Right
there, we exchanged a long, intense look. I went out
and did my spot for the show. While I was working, I
wasn’t really aware of her. I didn’t know if she was in
the booth or where. We finished the taping late that
night. When it was over, all the girls, the dancers and
other women, were crowded around me. I looked over
their heads and saw her standing off to the side. I said,
“If I’m going to talk to anyone, I’ll talk to that one
there.” I don’t know why I said that. Then I saw a fella
standing behind her. He looked funny when I said that,
so I said, “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t think this fella likes
“He doesn’t mean anything,” she said.
He turned out to be her ex-husband who had come to
talk to her about filling out their joint tax form for the
last time. He was looking so mean, though, that I
didn’t say any more. After the wrap, I was standing
over in the wing, and she was over on the other side.
For some reason a spotlight split on me. I pointed over
toward the other wing, and it split on her. I found out
her professional name was Alfie Rodriguez and her
real name was Adrianne. I didn’t approach her,
though, because I didn’t want to come on strong or not
be a gentleman. I asked one of my backup singers to
see if she’d have dinner with me and with Reverend
Sharpton and his wife. She said no, she didn’t
socialize with entertainers. She didn’t like to get
involved with entertainers because they usually led
such strange lives. I found out later the only one she’d
ever dated before me was Elvis.
When I found out she was going to a cafe after the
show, I went back to my hotel and called her there. I
finally managed to talk her into coming over and
having a late dinner with me and the Sharptons in the
hotel dining room. She wouldn’t let me send the
limousine to get her, though. She insisted on driving
her own car over. We had a very friendly dinner, and
then she went home.
A week later I called her again and invited her up to
San Francisco. I let her know that Reverend Sharpton
and his wife would be there, but by this time I think
she could tell I was a gentleman. She came, and I took
her to a city that I like—Sausalito—and we had dinner
and talked some more. We danced through the streets
afterward, and then she went back to her hotel. We
dated right. I courted that lady.
After that I tried to fly her to meet me wherever I was
performing, but she had to get right back to all the
jobs she was doing for television shows. It got harder
and harder to be separated, but I could see she had a
good career going. She got a big offer from CBS, and
it didn’t look like we had a future together, so I called
her up one day and said that we should stop seeing
each other. She locked herself up in her house for
three weeks and just told everybody to leave her alone
while she tried to figure out what was what. She’d just
been through a divorce and then our breakup, and she
had all these job offers. Finally, she called me and
asked my advice about her offer to work on The
Young and the Restless for CBS. She was going to
keep the job she already had, too. I advised her not to
try to do two jobs. She didn’t listen. She took the job.
A month and a half later, after she’d done two shows,
I called her and she said, “I can’t take doing all this
“I can’t take being away from you anymore,” I said.
“I can’t stay away from you either.”
That was what I was waiting to hear. I went to
California for a week and flew her in to meet me after
each of my shows around the state. She had to be back
every morning, and we were both so tired that we
barely had time enough or strength enough to say
hello to each other. That was enough for a while, but
then I couldn’t take that anymore, so I said, “I tell you
what you do. If you love me, put your house up for
sale and come be with me.” Three days later she sold
everything inside her house and then sold the house
itself four days after that, and she joined me on July
Fourth. I think that surprised people who knew her
because they’d always known her to be very solid and
rooted where she was. She said, “I finally really love
somebody. If it doesn’t work, so what? It’s worth the
We found out we’re a lot alike. She’s got a lot of
different bloodlines, like me. She’s Italian and Afro
and Jewish and Hispanic. She could penetrate the
so-called white world or the black world. My wife and
I are Third World people, people who are part of all
the human races. When I go to a wedding or funeral in
her family, I see people of all colors, and I like that.
She was from a broken home, too, growing up in
Watts without her parents. That helped us really
understand each other. Most of all, she had already
been in show business for a long time, even though
she was very young. She was able to understand the
kind of life I live, and she started working with me.
And because she knew so much about makeup and
hair, she was able to give me a more contemporary
look. A lot of people don’t realize how important that
is to somebody who’s a visual act, like me.
During the time I was courting my wife, John Belushi
died of a drug overdose in a hotel room in Beverly
Hills. It was a tragedy to me. John and Danny both
had been very good to me, and I knew I was going to
miss him. The last time I’d seen him was at Studio 54
when I was playing there. Keith Richards and John
came backstage and sat around the dressing room
talking with me. But John was well out of it that night,
and I remember thinking I wish I could be with him
more and talk to him and help him straighten out.
When I heard that Danny’s brother Peter and John’s
wife Judy were planning a memorial at the Lone Star,
I knew I had to go. Flying up on the plane, I thought
for a long time about exactly what I was going to say,
but when I got there I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t
say any of it, so I let my performing speak for me. I
thought John would have appreciated that.
I don’t think I saw Danny again until he came to see
me at a club in Los Angeles. He was working on a
movie project called Dr. Detroit that he wanted me to
be in. I agreed right away. The next time I saw him
was on the set. He was distraught about John’s death,
very, very low. We talked about it, and I did my best
to support Danny any way I could. I explained to him
that I’d lost someone very dear to me when my son
was killed but that you had to go on.
The more we talked about it, I think the better it was
for him. He told me what he thought was bothering
John in his last days—that show business was stressful
anyway, that John had a lot of heavy pressures on him
at the end and just tried to escape them through drugs.
We talked for a long time about the viciousness of
coke and drugs like that. I’d known a lot of people in
the music business over the years that it had gotten to,
and it was always sad, especially because it always
seemed to get people so young.
Without his partner, Danny sounded like he was
doubting his own future in the business, too. I said,
“You’re very talented—you can write and act and do
it all—and now you’re going to have to prove it all
over again. People are going to wonder if you can do
it without John. If you’re as strong as I think you are,
you will.” I threw my arms around him and hugged
him. I missed John, and I felt terrible for Danny. They
really were like brothers. And they really did wind up
with the blues.
Living in America
Dr. Detroit was great, but the song I sang in it was an
old one, “Get Up Offa That Thing.” It took Rocky IV
and a new song, “Living in America” to complete the
process that started with the earlier two movies. At
first I didn’t want to do it, because I thought four
Rockys was too many. I didn’t think it would be able
to sustain its popularity. But Sylvester Stallone is a
strong force in the business; he knows what he’s
doing. He turned out to be an easy man to work with
and a concerned man, too. He told me he thought
Rambo sent a positive message to the Vietnam War
veterans and made people aware of the whole MIA
issue, but he was worried about its effect on kids. It
was making them go out and buy bows and big knives,
and he was against that. He said he didn’t want them
to dress up in that kind of outfit and pretend they were
bloodthirsty, savage killers.
We shot my scene for the movie in three and a half
days at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Part of that
time was spent shooting the music video. It was the
biggest production number they’d ever done for a
Rocky picture. The song was written by Dan Hartman
and Charlie Midnight, and, really, it could be about
my life with all the stuff about all-night diners and all
the cities in it. Richard Dostal put me together with
Dan, and thank God he did. Dan is my man. He helped
produce the recording session at Unique Recording in
New York, and he did a fantastic job.
During the filming, Sly said to me, “You think Blues
Brothers was something. I’m going to really show you
something.” He was right. The movie and the record
took off together. A whole new audience saw me for
the first time. The soundtrack went platinum, the
single went into the top five on the charts, and I signed
a new record deal with Scotti Brothers and CBS. They
understood that I’m a contemporary artist.
That movie gave me the final boost I was looking for,
but there were other things that helped, too, during the
time I was playing the clubs. Maceo came back into
the band in November of 1983. He’s a Pied Piper: He
plays so much horn that you could do with him what
Motown did with Junior Walker. Jimmy Nolen had
been back with the band, too, but he died of a heart
attack at the end of that year.
In 1984 I recorded a six-part twelve-inch with Afrika
Bambaataa called “Unity.” It was a message directed
to world leaders to get the nuclear thing under control
before people all over the world make ’em do it.
I admire the rap and the break dancing and all the stuff
coming out of hip hop. A lot of the records are
messages that express community problems. Used
right, those records could help prevent the riots of the
sixties from happening again. If you know how a
community feels about things, then you can do
something about it. I’d advise all elected officials,
policemen, and judges to buy those records and listen
to what they’re saying before we have the confusion
again. Nobody wants another 1968. All they have to
do to find out what’s wrong is get those records. That
could be their platform. If the president got up and
said, “Hey, I got some new rap for you,” imagine what
that would do. Or if the Pope said, “You know
what—I got a rap for you.”
That’s what my song “Brother Rapp” is all about. A
fella is calling on his lady and protesting at the same
time: “Don’t put me in jail before I get a chance to
rap. Hear what I’m saying. When you see me on a
soapbox out there complaining, don’t lock me up. Sit
down and join me.” And that’s what I’m saying about
these records. Let ’em testify. Let the brothers rap.
Another thing that helped me was that writers were
interested in me again and helped bring attention to
what I was doing and what I’d accomplished
throughout my career. Also, Polydor started putting
out a series of albums that told the story of my career
from the beginning. That was one thing they did right.
A lot of the younger performers came to see me, too.
During a show I did at the Beverly Theater in Los
Angeles with B. B. King, Michael Jackson and Prince
both came by. Michael sang “Man’s World” and
sounded fantastic. When we broke into “There Was a
Time,” it blew his mind. He sang and danced, and the
place went wild. Prince played some guitar, but I think
he was a little nervous because Michael fit into my
thing a little better since Michael had been studying
me for years. But later on Prince studied, and he got
into it real good. When I was in California later, he
came to a show and lay on the floor backstage and
watched my feet. Afterward, he asked me if I had
roller skates on my shoes.
But a lot of disturbing things were going down, too. I
was supposed to do an album for Island Records—I
went to Nassau and put down some tracks with Sly
Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare—but there were
problems, and the record never came out. Island
wanted me, but I don’t think they could deal with me.
They paid me, though, and so I think maybe Chris
Blackwell, who started Island, wanted to help sustain
me through that period.
I needed sustaining, too, because I was using whatever
money we made to keep the show—the big band and
all—going. My wife couldn’t understand how I could
work so much and when I got finished have no money.
She’d say, “Baby, when are we going to take some
money home with us?” I’d laugh. It never bothered
me. Keeping the show alive was more important to
I could have gotten a lot of money by playing South
Africa, but I wouldn’t do it. In 1980 they started
making these unbelievable offers to me through
Universal Attractions. They offered me almost
unlimited amounts of money; at one time the figure
was $3 million. One of the fellas in the Universal
office would relay the offers to me. I kept telling him
not to even mention it to me, but I guess he felt it was
his duty to do it Finally, I almost had to insult him to
show I was serious. He was Jewish, so I said to him,
“When you’ve had dinner with Arafat, I’ll go to South
Africa.” I didn’t hear any more about it.
I don’t want to go there because I don’t even want to
see why I’m not supposed to play it. I might be able to
go in and play and cleanse people’s nerves, but the sin
would continue. I wish they could bring it to a
harmonious end, but I’m afraid they’re going to have
to go through the bitter part first.
Another thing that disturbed me was the way my own
government treated me. The IRS never let up. They
still haven’t. A man named Mr. Roof came and took
all the cars out of my yard for no reason. I let him take
’em. They got seizure papers on my house. Mr.
Roof—that was a man who came to cause a problem.
One day he went through everything in my house. I
said, “Mr. Roof, you’re walking through my house,
pulling things out and disrupting things. Why’re you
doing this?”
They lied to me over and over, and I spent money over
and over, and kept paying. They don’t want to do
anything right. They just want to do what they want to
do. At one point I felt so bitter about it that I was
thinking of going to Canada. I even talked to a friend
of mine about arranging it. And once, when I was in
Italy, I started to just not come back. I had had
enough. But when I cooled off, I changed my mind.
America is my home. Why should Afro-Americans
leave it? We helped build it. The Afro-Americans and
the Chinese-Americans did more of the hard labor in
this country than anyone else. Someday we’re going to
have an Afro or Chinese or Indian president. I can
understand a president going back to his heritage like
President Reagan did when he visited Ireland, but a
true president won’t have to go anywhere to look for
his roots. They’ll be here.
For me, that American dream has been fulfilled. But
my trouble with the government tells the story of our
shortcomings, too. For the IRS to be on my neck
shows some of the things we still need to accomplish.
The South is the same story. The South made me what
I am. When I was coming up, there were still a lot of
diehard people in the South. That made me try harder.
The South made me an individual. There were no
avenues; they made me find an avenue that wasn’t
there. Later on, those diehard people grew up. Now
the South is more advanced in human relations than
the North is. That’s why I live where I do. I want to be
able to walk out of show business and come to a
relaxed atmosphere and breathe the good clean
country air and then go back to work and grab it again.
I couldn’t stay behind the plow, and that’s behind the
plow up there. Six o’clock is sundown, and I don’t
want to plow at night.
A few years ago I put my family back together. My
father was already in Augusta, and my mother had
been there off and on over the years. I finally got her
to move back permanently and be near me. For the
first time since I was four years old I had my mother
and father around me. I had a chance to be with them
for a little while before it was too late. More than
anything else in my life, I would like to have been
raised by both parents.
When Adrianne and I got married, that completed
things. To make it in life you and your wife need to be
in the same business. That has been my problem all
along. My wives didn’t know what I was doing. I
would come back home from the road to a stranger.
That’s no good. She has to know what I’m doing,
what I’m about. She goes on the road with me. We
come and go together, and it’s about that. My wife is
me and I am my wife. Anything else doesn’t mean
anything. But any time you have two souls like ours
coming together it takes a long time for them to
become one. She has a strong self, and I have a strong
self. I’m making her stronger and solid, and she’s
making me sharp and taking the rough edges off me.
I’m giving her energy, and she’s giving me the
finished product.
Meantime, everything that had been started by the
movies I was in and by “Living in America,” and,
really, by “Please Please Please” way back in 1955 in
the studio of WIBB in Macon culminated when I was
inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the
beginning of 1986. Ahmet Ertegun and the people
putting it together made me one of the first ten people
chosen. I went in with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Ray
Charles, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Bill Haley,
Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard.
I’ve never been a rock ’n’ roll singer, but I was glad to
be honored with all those other great people. That
night while I was being inducted, I think I felt for the
first time that the struggle was over. I was being
enshrined for posterity, and I had a record going into
the top of the chart on the same night.
But honors and gold records and all that aren’t what
I’m proudest of. I’m proudest of what I have become,
as opposed to what I could have become, and I’d like
to be remembered as someone who brought people
Not long after I was put in the Hall of Fame I was in a
restaurant with a white friend of mine. Another white
fella came up and said, “Elvis was the greatest and
you’re next.” That was from his side. Then a black girl
came up and said to my white friend, “The black
people love him—y’all like him—but he’s still ours.”
Between those two people, I bridged the gap.
Elvis was American as apple pie. Years ago I couldn’t
be American as apple pie. It took me four generations
to be apple pie. On the other hand, if you look on the
soul chart today, sometimes six of the top ten records
are by white artists. Nobody has a monopoly on soul,
just like nobody has a monopoly on apple pie.
People realize now they got to go the whole trip—all
cultures—to enjoy life. When I play a show now and
there are ten thousand people, seven thousand of ’em
are white. The reason is education. Unless they were
well educated, Afro-Americans never knew what they
really had right in their own community. Now I think
they’re going to know.
I don’t consider myself better than anyone. I consider
myself luckier than most. People say I have a big ego,
but I had to have an ego to make anything of myself in
the first place. I had to have an ego to stay out there
and continue to work no matter what, and I have to
have one now to say, “Yes, I’m James Brown, and it’s
still happening for me.” Because it doesn’t just
happen. You have to make it happen.
Where I grew up there was no way out, no avenue of
escape, so you had to make a way. Mine was to create
JAMES BROWN. God made me, but with the
guidance of a Ben Bart, I created the myth. I’ve tried
to fulfill it. But I’ve always tried to remember that
there’s JAMES BROWN the myth and James Brown
the man. The people own JAMES BROWN. That
belongs to them. The minute I say “I’m JAMES
BROWN” and believe it, then it will be the end of
James Brown.
I’m James Brown.
We hope you enjoyed this book.
For more information, click one of the links below:
James Brown
An invitation from the publisher
Compiled by Cliff White
The following section is a chronological listing of all
James Brown single releases credited principally to
James Brown as the performer, whether with or
without the Famous Flames, “featuring his band,” or
some other variation. Recording dates, where known,
follow titles. Numbers following titles indicate chart
position: Left is Rhythm & Blues ranking; circle O
indicates that it was in the top ten. Right is Pop
ranking; circle indicates that it was in the top forty.
I want to thank God first. And I want to thank my
wife, who gave me a new look and a new outlook. I
want to thank Macmillan Publishing Company for
going through with the project all the way and
realizing how important it is.
I want to thank Bruce Tucker for traveling around
with me, seeing me in all different kinds of situations,
and really getting to know James Brown so he could
bring out the real story. I want to thank Gerri Hirshey
for bringing me to the attention of other writers
interested in my story.
I want to thank all the members of my band, who gave
me the drive and the support that I need to demand an
audience—not command but demand.
I want to thank my mother and father. I hope their
son’s story will thank them more by doing a lot of
good things.
And I want to thank this country for allowing me to
tell my story and for making it possible for me to have
a story to tell. I’m also grateful to all the countries that
allow me to come onto their soil and do a show that’s
Americanized to a point that it could hurt some of
their culture—but they always take the good from it to
help their culture along.
I’d like to thank in advance the libraries and the
schools for a place on their bookshelves. And I want
to thank in advance any young kids who can use this
story as a role model. If this book helps somebody,
then it will have accomplished what I want to
Not many kids get to grow up and work with their
boyhood idol. For giving me that rare opportunity, I
have many people to thank. Jim Fitzgerald initiated
the project, and Roy Blount drew me into it. My agent,
Carol Mann, kept it going and, for the past year and a
half, kept me going as well. At Macmillan the support
of Hillel Black and the enthusiasm and incisive editing
of Dominick Anfuso made the idea a reality.
For me, nothing would be possible without the
unflagging support of my wife, Harriet Davidson,
who, while I was out there with the Godfather,
endured my frequent absences from home before and
after the birth of our daughter.
I, too, wish to thank Gerri Hirshey, author of the
incomparable Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul
Music. Her generosity with files and notes, her
unfailingly sound advice, and her strategically timed
encouragement helped immeasurably.
In Georgia, A. H. Dallas smoothed the way
throughout. Mrs. James Brown offered hospitality and
candor in equal measure. And if they gave Grammys
to secretaries for handling with sympathy and tact the
unceasing demands made on performers like James
Brown, Becky Blanchard Miller would win
My sister Mary Howell provided logistical support
during a crucial stage of the project. The indefatigable
Cliff White, on woefully short notice, produced the
exhaustive discography that appears at the end of the
book. Vicki Gold Levi gave me a crash course in
photo research. John H. Johnson of Johnson
Publishing Company generously made available
photographs from Ebony.
Thanks also to the many people who provided
information and interviews as aids to His Bad Self’s
own astonishing powers of recall: “Hoss” Allen,
Thomas I. Atkins, Leon Austin, Sydney L. Avery, Dan
Aykroyd, Johnnie May Wheeler Banks, Jack Bart,
Steve Bloom, Robert J. Brown, Velma Warren Brown,
Dr. William Calloway, William “Bootsy” Collins, Mal
Cook, Richard Dostal, Tim Drummond, Roy Emory,
Buddy Fox, Al Garner, Laura Garvin, Willie M.
Glenn, Delois (Keith) Haley, Sylvester Keels, Gwen
Kessler, Mike Lawlor, Ron Lenhoff, George
Livingston, Jr., Lester Maddox, Warren A. Martin,
Sparkie Martin, Mrs. Walter J. Matthews, Johnnie
Miller, Silas Moore, Hal Neely, Bob Patton, Dora
(Davis) Payne, Chuck Seitz, Reverend Al Sharpton,
Charles Sherrell, Hamp Swain, Donald E. Walters, Sr.,
Colonel Jim Wilson, Guy Wilson, Teddy Washington,
and Perry Williams.
Just as he made a major contribution to James Brown
and the Famous Flames, Bobby Byrd played a crucial
role in the realization of this book. With Bobby and
his wife, Vicki Anderson, two of the most generous
and gracious people I know, I passed many
pleasurable hours in my old hometown of Nashville.
It was there, back in 1962, after a rained-out James
Brown show at Sulphur Dell, that I jumped from the
fourteen-year-old already suffocating in surburbia, I
wanted to shake the hand of the man whose music
coming over WLAC late at night had blown away the
teen crooning, cha-cha-cha and Mouseketeer rock
found a little farther up the radio dial. Even then I
perceived, however dimly, that I was thanking James
Brown for far more than some enjoyable records.
Twenty-three years later, after an arduous day of
working together on this book, I tried to tell him all
that. “You’re kidding,” he said.
No, James, I’m not.
“Across the Track” (song), 223
Adams, Faye, 62
Africa, 181–82
African music, 221
Afrika Bambaataa, 363
Afro-beat, 221
Afro-Spot (Lagos), 221
“Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” (song), 23
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (song), 141
“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” (song), 141
Ali, Muhammad, 173, 226
“All Around the World” (song), 99
Allen, Hoss, 53
“America Is My Home” (song), 190, 196, 198, 227
American Bandstand (television show), 103, 104–105,
127, 130, 165
Anderson, Grover C., 33
Anderson, John, 190
Anderson, Rabbi Judah, 232
Anderson, Vicki, 155–56, 172–73, 221, 238
Angelic Gospel Singers (group), 164
“Annie Had a Baby” (song), 62, 105
“Annie’s Aunt Fanny” (song), 105
Apollo Theater (New York), 86, 97–102, 107–108,
121–23, 124, 126–29, 133–34, 139–40, 146, 150, 160,
163–64, 173, 180–81, 204, 226–27, 232, 242, 249
Archer, J. W., 90, 96
Argyles (group), 113–14
Armstrong, Louis, 22, 88, 124
Atkins, Thomas, 183–84, 186–87
Augusta (Georgia), 9–13, 209–13
Augusta Arsenal, 14
Austin, Leon, 22, 251–52
Avalon, Frankie, 157
Avery (prison guard), 39, 42
Avons (group), 50
Aykroyd, Dan, 255, 256, 260–61
“Baby, Baby, Baby” (song), 145
“Baby, I Love You” (song), 155
“Baby, Please Don’t Go” (song), 65
“Baby, You’re Right” (song), 121
“Baby, Don’t Do It” (song), 55
“Baby, Take My Hand” (song), 100
Bachelors III (Fort Lauderdale), 245
“Back from the Dead” (song), 236
Bair, C. Stanley, 249
Ballard, Hank, 62, 77, 84–85, 105, 109
Bar-Kays (band), 177
Barry, Len, 162
Bart, Ben “Pop,” 85, 86, 94–95, 110, 112, 132, 143,
160–61, 168, 180, 197, 267
death of, 201
Bart, Jack, 168
Basie, Count, 18, 22, 203
Bass, Ralph, 74–75, 78, 79, 82
Bataan, Joe, 242
Battey State (Georgia), 35
Bayh, Birch, 190
Beck, Bob, 163
Beck, Jeff, 205
“Begging, Begging” (song), 90
Behlings, Mony (grandfather), 2, 3
Behlings, Rebecca (grandmother), 2–3
Behlings, Susie (mother), 1, 96, 101, 265
Bell Auditorium (Augusta), 146–47
“Bells, The” (song), 121
Belushi, John, 255, 256–57, 260
Bennett, Bobby, 98, 103, 115–16, 137, 141
Benton, Brook, 226
Berry, Chuck, 152, 227
“Bewildered” (song), 26, 91–92, 95, 123
Big Junior. See Willie Glenn
Big Mama. See Adeline Hickman, 55
Big Saul, 92
Bill’s Rendezvous Club (Toccoa), 55–56, 68
Binder, Steve, 152
Birdsong, Cindy, 146, 217
Black Caesar (film), 231, 241
Black Expo, 230
Black Power, 169
Blackwell, Bumps, 72, 89
Blackwell, Chris, 264
Bland, Bobby “Blue,” 106
Bluebelles (group), 146
Blue Notes (group), 103
Blues Brothers (film), 256–57
Boatwright (prison guard), 38–39
Bobbitt, Charles, 246
Bootsy’s Rubber Band (group), 223
Bostic, Earl, 77
Boston, televised concert in, 183–88
Boys Industrial Institute (Toccoa), 45
Bradley, Don, 104
Bradshaw, Tiny, 77
Brandy, Clint, 69–70, 72, 73, 76, 79, 85, 86, 97, 98,
105, 244–45
Braves Stadium (Atlanta), 173
Break Dancing, 227, 263
“Brother Rapp” (song), 263
Brown, Charles, 26
Brown, Deirdre (second wife), 156, 213–14, 244
Brown, Estelle (aunt), 1
Brown, H. Rap, 174–75, 181
Brown, Horace, 58
Brown, James:
Africa trips, 181–82, 220–21
at Apollo Theater, 107–108, 121–24, 126–29, 139–40,
146, 150, 160, 163–64, 173, 180–81, 204, 226–27,
232, 242, 249
collapse, 164
arrest for breaking and entering, 30–32
arrest for contempt of court, 249–50
assassination rumor, 202–203
athleticism of, 26–27, 45–46
audition at Two Spot, 69–70
Augusta riots and, 209–13
birth of, 1
in Blues Brothers, 256–57
Boston televised concert, 183–88
boxing of, 37
breakup of first marriage, 90
break with Bart, 161–62
Byrd and, 53–54, 60, 62–63
car accident near Toccoa, 58
childhood, 5–6
civil rights movement and, 196–200
comeback of, 253–55
concern with drug abuse, 229
co-promoting with disc jockeys, 111
Cremona Trio, 25–26
death of son Teddy, 234–36
dice playing, 28–29
on discipline for show members, 112–13
divorce from first wife, 207
divorce from second wife, 248–49
Don’t Be a Drop-Out campaign, 169–71
early ambitions, 26–27
early musical background, 17–18
education, 15–16
employment at Lawson Motors, 49, 52
endorsement of Nixon, 227–33
Europe trips, 220, 221–22
in Ever Ready Gospel Singers, 50, 52
fights of, 96–97
fining system of, 156–57
firing of band by, 217–18
first demo, 72–74
first marriage (to Warren), 59–60
first organ, 12–13
first recording session, 77–79
first son (Teddy), 65
first song (“Goin’ Back to Rome”), 27
in the Famous Flames, 61–67
problems with, 96–98
gospel singing at churches, 50
on gospel songs, 42
integrated concerts and, 147–48
Kansas City concert, 166
King Records and, 75, 94, 149–50, 159–60
Knoxville Coliseum incident and, 231–32
in Las Vegas, 215–16
at Lenox Theater, 22–23
Little Richard and, 85–86, 89
live albums, 130–38, 143–44
on longevity, 110
loss of jet, 247
Madison Square Garden concert, 162–63
marijuana smoking of, 113
move back to Augusta, 208–209
musical exposure, 22
musical tastes of, 17–18
“Music Box” nickname, 44
newfound religious feelings, 252
at 944 Twiggs Street, 8–11
one-nighters, 109–19
parole for, 47–48
partnership with Bart, 132–33
paternity suit against, 207
piano lessons, 22
Polydor and, 253–54
prison term of, 35–43, 45–47
race consciousness of, 25
racial troubles and, 125–26
radio stations of, 178–79
suits against, 245–47
recording sessions of, 113, 121
relationship with father, 6–7
reunion with mother, 101
Scott and, 11
semiretirement of, 243–44
sex-change rumor, 161, 166–67
shoe shining by, 16
“Soul Brother Number One” nickname, 173
South Africa concert rumor, 226
stealing by, 28, 29–31
street experiences, 24–25
tax problems of, 201–202, 205–207, 237–38, 264–65
on television, 257–58
third wife of, 258–60, 266
in Toccoa Band, 56–58, 60–61
on traveling, 114–15
trial of, 32–33
Universal Attractions and, 86, 94–95
in Vietnam, 190–95
Washington, D.C., riots and, 188–89
Brown, Jim (actor), 230
Brown, Joe (father), 1–2, 5–7, 12–13, 21, 82, 95–96,
252, 265
gambling of, 7
James Brown in jail and, 33–34, 42
relationship with whites, 6–7
support of family, 28
temper of, 6
Brown, Larry (son), 90
Brown, Mattie, 2
Brown, Robert J., 228–30
Brown, Teddy (son), 65, 224–25, 234–36
Brown, Terry (son), 69
Brown, Wini, 122
Brownies (dancers), 127
Bryant, Perry, 2
Bryant, Susan, 2
Buie, Les, 95, 121
Bundy, William, 190
Burke, Solomon, 84
Burrell, Kenny, 93
Butler, Jerry, 91
Butterbeans and Susie (comedy duo), 99
“Buttermilk Sky” (song), 18
Byrd, Bobby, 53–54, 60, 62–63, 98, 100, 103, 137,
145, 146, 161, 174, 197, 208, 217, 224
departure of, 236
first meeting with, 46
living with, 49
reunion with, 237
Byrd, Early, 184
Byrd, Sarah, 50, 52
Cadillacs (group), 86
“Caldonia, What Makes Your Big Head So Hard?”
(song), 23, 26, 44, 145
Calloway, William, 164
Camel Walk (dance), 55
Camp Gordon (Augusta), 14
Carmichael, Stokely, 169, 171, 188
Carter, Jimmy, 229
Cash Box (magazine), 204
CBS (television network), 262
Chambers, R. Lee, III, 32–33
Chantels (group), 126
Chaplin, Charlie, 55
Charles, Ray, 83–84, 85, 151
Charms (group), 77
Chess, Leonard, 74
Chess Records of Chicago, 74
Chiffons, 141
“Chonnie-on-Chon” (song), 81, 87
“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” (song), 23
“Choo-Choo (Locomotion)” (song), 227
Christie, Lou, 162
Chri-Ted, 225
Civil rights movement, 173, 196–200
Clark, Dee, 91
Clark, Dick, 103, 104, 127, 207
Clark, Ramsey, 202
Clifford, Clark, 190
Clinton, George, 223
Clovers (group), 54, 62
Club 15 (Macon), 70–71
Coasters (group), 144
Cobb, Ty, 26
“Cold Sweat” (song), 173
Cole, Nat King, 124
Coleman, King, 107
Coleman, Robert, 224
Coles, Honi, 164, 180
Collins, Bootsy, 198
Collins, Lyn, 236, 242
Collins, Phelps “Catfish,” 218
Collins, Troy, 50
“Come Over Here” (song), 120
Commander Cody (group), 227
Como, Perry, 88
Conley, Edwyn, 81
Contours (group), 131
Cooke, Sam, 110, 151
Coolins, Bootsy, 217–19, 223
“Coon Shine Baby” (song), 13
Copa (New York), 223
Copas, Cowboy, 77
Corley, Albert, 95
Cremona Trio (group), 25, 27
Crimes, Russell, 224
Crocker, Frankie, 246
Crosby, Bing, 18, 88
Crusaders (group), 242
“Crying in the Chapel” (song), 54
“Cry to Me” (song), 141
Cuba, Joe, 173
Curtis, King, 144
Curtis, Tony, 88
Cutting acts, 65
Dade Records, 107
“Dance with Me” (song), 107
“Dancin’ Little Thing” (song), 123, 149
Darren, Bobby, 87–88
Dash, Sara, 146
Davis, Dora, 49–50
Davis, J. C., 95, 98
Davis, Nathaniel, 49
Davis, Sammy, Jr., 88, 230–31
Davis, Tyrone, 242
Daviss, Fred, 237–38, 255
Dean, James, 88
Dells (group), 86
Dessie (girlfriend), 143
Diamond, Lee, 89, 99
Diaz, Bobby, 231
Dickins, Jimmy, 18
Diddley, Bo, 152
Dink, Mr. (drum teacher), 17
Disc jockeys, 111
Disco, 221–22, 242–43, 253
Dr. Detroit (film), 260–61, 262
Doggett, Bill, 62, 77, 82
Dominions (group), 68, 72, 89
Domino, Fats, 94
Dominoes (group), 54, 87
“Don’t Be a Drop-Out” (song), 169
“Don’t You Know I Love You” (song), 54
“Doodle Bug” (song), 5, 95
Doolittle, Jimmy, 14
Dorsey, Lee, 126
Dostal, Richard, 256, 262
“Do the Mashed Potatoes” (song), 107, 117, 254
Dovells (group), 113–14
“Down the Aisle” (song), 146
Downtown gang, 28
Drifters (group), 103, 107–108
Drugs, 241
Drummond, Tim, 192, 196, 198
Drury, Allen, 190
Dunbar, Sly, 264
Dupars, Joe, 178
Dynatone, 225
“Early in the Morning” (song), 23
“Earth Angel” (song), 67
Economic slavery, 7–8
Ed Sullivan Show (television show), 163
Ellington, Duke, 22, 204
Ellis, Alfred “Pee Wee, 178, 197, 224
Ell Street house, 143
EI Monte Legion Hall (Compton, California), 117
“Ernie’s Record Mart” (radio program), 53
Ertegun, Ahmet, 242
Ervin, Sam, 190
Ever Ready Gospel Singers (group), 50, 52
Fair, Yvonne, 126–28, 134
Fair Deal Productions, 145
Famous Flames (group), 36, 70, 88
See also James Brown and the Famous Flames
Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 202
Felder, Ray, 81
Festival of Hope (New York), 227
“Fever” (song), 99
Field, Daniel, 14
“Fine Old Foxy Self” (song), 150
Fisher, Carl, 104
Five Four Ballroom (Los Angeles), 128
Five Keys (group), 54
Five Royales (group), 54–55, 77, 83, 120
Five Trumpets (group), 15
Flames. See Famous Flames
Floyd School (Augusta), 15
“Fool, Fool, Fool” (song), 54
Ford, Bea, 120–21
Ford, Gerald, 242
“For Your Precious Love” (song), 91
Fox (Brooklyn), 173
Franklin, Aretha, 128, 156
Franklin, C. L., 128
Freed, Alan, 117
Freedom Riders, 125–26
Frizzell, Lefty, 18
Funk, 197
“Funky President (People It’s Bad)” (song), 242
Fuqua, Harvey, 126
“Future Shock” (song), 245
G, Rocky, 241
“G. I. Jive” (song), 23
Gale, Moe, 85
Gale, Tim, 85
Gardner, Joe. See Joe Brown
Garner, Al, 237, 255
Garvin, Miss (teacher), 26, 204
Gaye, Marvin, 29, 131, 137, 152
Georgia Juvenile Training Institute (GJTI) (Rome), 35
Gerry and the Pacemakers (group), 152
“Get It Together” (song), 197
“Get on the Good Foot” (song), 227, 239
“Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” (song), 227
“Get Up Offa That Thing” (song), 239, 245, 262
Gibson, Andy, 92–93
Gilbert Manor gang, 28
“Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” (song), 205
GJTI. See Georgia Juvenile Training Institute
Gladys Knight and the Pips (group), 107
Glenn, Willie “Big Junior,” 10–11, 13–15, 29–30,
82–83, 244
“Glory of Love” (song), 54
Glover, Henry, 92
“Goin’ Back to Rome” (song), 27, 65
Golden Gate Quartet (group), 15
Gonder, Fats, 68–69, 85, 89, 95, 109
“Gonna Try” (song), 89
“Good Good Lovin’” (song), 74–75, 105, 116, 163
Gordy, Anna, 131
Gordy, Berry, 123, 131
Gore, Edison, 81
Gore, Lesley, 152, 153
Gorgeous George (wrestler), 106
Gospel songs, 42–43
Govan, David, 104
Grace, Bishop (“Daddy”), 18–20
Graham, Bill, 257
Graham, Robert, 17, 22
Graham, Robert, Jr., 17
Grease (album), 153
Green, Al, 154
Green, Silas, 23
Gregory, Dick, 169
Griffin, Johnny, 224
Griffith, Richard “Kush,” 198
Grits and Soul (album), 145
“Grunt, The” (song), 223
Guitar Slim, 83
Gunnels, Clayton “Chicken,” 218
H. Rap Brown Defense Fund, 181
Haines, George, 32, 47
Hall, Reginald, 81
Hallelujah, Baby (Broadway show), 172
Hamilton, Chico, 128
Hampton, Lionel, 171, 204
Harlem Salute Committee, 232
Harlem Talent Review, 26
Harlem Theater (New York), 26
Harpo, Slim, 162
Harris, Betty, 141
Harris, Edna May, 128
Harris, Wynonie, 26, 77
Hartman, Dan, 262
Hasaan and Jasaan (trumpet players), 219
See also Jasaan
“Have Mercy, Baby” (song), 54, 87
Hawkins, Hawkshaw, 77
“Help Me Somebody” (song), 55
Hendryx, Nona, 146
“He’s So Fine” (song), 141
Hickman, Adeline, 55
Hines, Hines and Dad (group), 204
“His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (song), 52
“Hold It” (song), 121
“Hold My Baby’s Hand” (song), 81, 82
Hollings, Bill, 90, 137
Holmes, Freddie, 231
Holt, Patti. See Patti LaBelle
“Honky Tonk” (song), 82
Hoover, J. Edgar, 206
Hope, Bob, 191–92
Horne, Lena, 124
Hortense Allen Dancers, 127
Hot on the One (album), 254
Hot Pants (album), 227
“Hot Pants (She Got to Use What She Got to Get
What She Wants)” (song), 224
“Hound Dog” (song), 24, 166, 247
House of Prayer (Augusta), 18
Hucklebuck (fellow prisoner), 42, 44
Hucklebucks (group), 62
Hughes, Dewey, 188
Humphrey, Hubert H., 169–72, 190, 191, 198–99,
202, 228
“I Can’t Stand Myself” (song), 197
“I Do Just What I Want” (song), 121
“I Don’t Care” (song), 149
“I Don’t Know” (song), 79, 81–82
“I Don’t Mind” (song), 121
“I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing” (song),
205, 206–207
“I Feel That Old Feeling Coming On” (song), 79,
“If I Ruled the World” (song), 216
“I Found You” (song), 127–28, 160
“I Got You (I Feel Good)” (song), 159, 160
“I’ll Be Satisfied” (song), 123
“I’ll Go Crazy” (song), 107, 120
“I’m a Greedy Man” (song), 224
“I’m Just a Nobody” (song), 145
Impressions (group), 91
Integration, 109
Internal Revenue Service (IRS), 201–202, 264
International (Las Vegas), 215
Island Records, 264
Isley Brothers (group), 20, 103, 104, 226
“Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t (Ma Baby)?” (song), 23
“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (song), 163, 165
“It’s Magic” (song), 216
“It’s My Thing and I Do What I Want to Do and You
Can’t Tell Me Who to Sock It To” (song), 192
“It’s Tight Like That” (song), 17
“It’s Too Funky in Here” (song), 239
“I Walked Alone” (song), 89
“I Want You So Bad” (song), 95
“I Won’t Plead No More” (song), 87
Jack, Beau. See Sidney Walker
Jackie and the Starlites (group), 141
Jackson, Bullmoose, 77
Jackson, Jesse, 230
Jackson, Joe, 154, 155
Jackson, Michael, 55, 263–64
Jacksons (group), 151, 154–55
Jackson State College (Mississippi), 213
Jagger, Mick, 153–53, 242
James, Baby (bodyguard), 118, 119, 155
James, Etta, 95, 124–25
James Brown and the Famous Flames, 90, 96–98
James Brown Day (Augusta), 204
James Brown Revue, 23
Jan and Dean (duo), 152
Jasaan, 219, 224
Jay and the Americans (group), 113–14
Jefferson Airplane (group), 227
Jethro Tull (group), 205
Jim Jam Music, 138
John, Little Willie, 77, 98–101, 106, 107, 150, 180–81
John S. (gambler), 10
Johnny and Bill (duo), 139, 141
Johnson, James, 104
Johnson, Lady Bird, 189
Johnson, Lyndon B., 172, 179, 190–91, 202
Johnson, Marv, 131–32
Jones, Grandpa, 77
Jones, Johnny J., 23
Jones, Nat, 178
Jones, Nate, 198
Jordan, Louis, 22, 23, 55, 62, 122
“Just Won’t Do Right” (song), 81, 82
Kaunda, Kenneth, 220
Keels, Sylvester, 50, 54, 60
Keith, Bill, 55
Keith, Delois, 55, 56
Kellum, Alphonso, 178
Kemp, Vi, 99
Kendrick, Nat, 95, 100, 107, 117, 123
Kennedy, C. D. (grocery wholesaler), 16
Kennedy, Robert F., 179, 191, 194–95
Kent State (Ohio), 213
Kessler, Gwen, 74
King, Anna, 141, 145, 146, 155
King, B. B., 17, 83, 106, 242, 263
King, Ben E., 126, 144
King, Martin Luther, Jr., 169, 171, 172, 174, 182–83,
187, 229, 233
“King Heroin” (song), 227
King Records, 75, 87, 89, 94, 120, 121, 145, 149–50,
159–60, 197, 225, 240
See also Syd Nathan
Kinshasa (Zaire), 242
Kleindienst, Richard, 202
Knox, Nash, 50, 54, 84
Knoxville Coliseum (Tennessee), 231
Ku Klux Klan, 9–10
Kunstler, William, 253–54
Kuti, Fela Ransom, 221
LaBelle, Patti, 146
Lance, Major, 141
Landis, John, 257
Latham’s (Greenville, South Carolina), 65
Lawson, Howard, 51
Lawson, J. C., 51
Lawson Motors (Toccoa), 49, 51
Led Zeppelin (group), 205
Lenox Theater (Augusta), 15, 22–23
“Let’s Make It” (song), 81, 82
“Let the Good Times Roll” (song), 83
“Let Them Talk” (song), 99, 107
Lewis, Barbara, 120
Lewis, Rudy, 151
“Licking Stick—Licking Stick” (song), 197, 198
Linn Broadcasting, 225
Little Richard, 67–69, 71, 72, 85–86, 89
Live at the Apollo (album), 39, 133, 143, 144
Live at the Garden (album), 172
“Living in America” (song), 262
Lloyd, Baby, 134, 137
“Lloyd Thaxton Show, The” (television show), 157
“Lonely Teardrops” (song), 123, 131
Lone Star (New York), 255
“Looking for My Mother” (song), 70
Look (magazine), 206
“Lost Someone” (song), 123, 139
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five (group), 23
“Love or a Game” (song), 89
Lowe, Cleveland, 81
Lowe, Sammy, 138
Lunceford, Jimmy, 85
Maceo and the Kingsmen (group), 219, 245, 263
See also Maceo Parker
Machat, Marty, 145
Mack, Clarence, 81
Macon Auditorium (Georgia), 147–48
Maddox, Lester, 209
Madison, Louis, 90
Madison Square Garden (New York), 162, 173, 241
Mae, Elsie, 156
“Make It Funky” (song), 324, 239, 241
“Man’s World” (song), 263
“March Against Fear” (protest), 168
Marijuana, 113
Markham, Pigmeat, 122, 126, 128, 134, 141
Martin, Hearlon “Sharp Cheese,” 219
Marvelettes (group), 131
Mashed Potatoes (dance), 106–107
Matthews, Walter, 39, 43, 44, 47, 59
“Maybe the Last Time” (song), 148–49
Mays, Curley, 128, 134
McCarthy, Eugene, 179
McCormick Place (Chicago), 154
McCullough, Robert, 218
McKissick, Floyd, 230
McNair, Barbara, 204
McNeely, Big Jay, 77
McPhatter, Clyde, 54, 87, 121, 124
Melvin, Harold, 103
Mercury/Smash Records, 145, 157
Meredith, James, 168–69
“Messing with the Blues” (song), 89
Midnight, Charlie, 262
Midnighters (group), 62, 77, 84
Mighty Clouds of Joy (group), 164, 173
Mike Douglas Show (television show), 205
Milburn, Amos, 26
Millinder, Lucky, 77
Miracles (group), 131, 152
“Money Won’t Change You” (song), 165
“Monkey Time” (song), 141
Montgomery, Bob, 27, 137
Montgomery, Tammi. See Tammi Terrell
Moonglows (group), 29, 62
Moon Walk (dance), 55
Moore, Johnny, 26
Moore, Sam, 98
Morgan, John, 224
“Mother Popcorn” (song), 205
Motortown Revue, 131
Motown, 132, 152
Mullican, Moon, 77
Muslims, 128
Myers, Mr. (principal of Floyd School), 204
N. V. Philips Company, 226
NAACP, 168
Namath, Joe, 245
Nathan, Syd, 77–79, 88, 92, 94, 98, 99, 107, 130, 133,
134, 137, 139, 141, 145–46, 159, 179
Neely, Hal, 94, 134, 136, 138, 145, 180, 183, 197,
216, 223
Polydor and, 225–26
Newport Jazz Festival (Rhode Island), 205
Nigeria, 220–21
“Night Train” (song), 123, 128, 153
944 Twiggs Street (Augusta), 8–11
Ninth Infantry Division, 193–94
Nixon, Richard M., 179, 204, 205, 227–33
“No, No, No” (song), 81–82
Nobles, Gene, 53
Nolan Studios, 91
Nolen, Jimmy, 156, 157–58, 178, 192, 263
Noles, Carl, 37
“No Regrets” (song), 107
Nugent, Luci, 189
Odum, Bernard, 95, 96
Oglesby, Doyle, 50, 54
“Oh Baby, Don’t You Weep” (song), 140, 145
Olatunji Troupe, 128, 134, 139
“Old Blind Barnabas” (song), 15, 165
“Old Jonah” (song), 17, 165
Olympics (group), 122
“One Mint Julep” (song), 54, 62, 90
“One O’Clock Jump” (song), 18
“One Who Really Loves You, The” (song), 131
Original Disco Man, The (album), 253
Orioles (group), 54
“Our Father” (song), 43
Out of Sight (album), 150
“Out of Sight” (song), 148–49, 153
Owens, Richie, 104
Pacesetters (group), 217–18
Palladium Ballroom (Houston), 177
Palms (Jacksonville), 109
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (song), 87, 149,
Parker, Colonel, 215
Parker, Jimmy, 224
Parker, Maceo, 156, 192, 219
Parker, Melvin, 156
Parliament-Funkadelic (group), 223
Patrick, Roscoe, 95
Patton, Bob, 194–95, 202, 231
Pauling, Lowman, 83, 120
“Payback, The” (song), 239, 241
Pearl, Jack, 225
Pelham, Jimmy, 139
Penguins (group), 67
People (album), 253
Perryman, William, 67, 69
Philadelphia Plan, 228
Piano Red. See William Perryman
Pinkney, St. Clair, 140, 178, 180
Platters (group), 82
“Please Mr. Postman” (song), 131
Please Please Please (album), 95
“Please Please Please” (song), 65, 72, 79–80, 82, 100,
145, 163, 166, 247
Pointer Sisters (group), 242
Polydor Records, 225–26, 227, 253–54
Powell, Adam Clayton, 172
Prater, David, 98
Presley, Elvis, 165–66, 215, 247, 266–67
Preston, Billy, 227
Primes (group), 105
Prince, 263–64
Prisoner of Love (album), 138, 140
“Prisoner of Love” (song), 139
Prohibition, 9
Puente, Tito, 128, 242
Pulliam, Fred, 50, 54
“Raindrops” (song), 91
Ramsey Lewis Trio (group), 203
“Randy’s Record Mart” (radio program), 53
“Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses)” (song), 257
Raspbury, Levi, 198
Ravens (group), 85
Raw Soul (album), 173
Ray, Danny, 137
Ready Steady Go (television show), 162
Recording sessions, 113, 121
Redd, Gene, 77–78, 98, 121, 140, 141
Redding, Otis, 110, 140, 144, 176–77
Reed, Waymond, 178, 192
“Reet Petite” (song), 131
Regal (Chicago), 154
Reidsville Penitentiary (Tattnall County, Georgia), 44
Revolution of the Mind (album), 224, 227
Richard, Little, See Little Richard
Richards, Keith, 153, 260
Richbourg, John “R,” 53, 92
Rico, Porto, 102
Rifkin, Julian, 225
Rifkin, Roy, 225
Riots, 183–89, 209–13
Ritter, Tex, 18
Rite (Toccoa), 66
Roach, Bobby, 95
Robinson, Harry, 28
Robinson, Smokey, 152
Rochester (New York), 189
“Rock a Bye Your Baby to a Dixie Melody” (song),
Rockefeller, Nelson, 171
Rocky IV (film), 262
Rodriguez, Alfie (wife), 258–60, 266
Rolling Stones (group), 151–53
Rome (Georgia), 28–34
Roof, Mr. (IRS agent), 264–65
Ross, Diana, 132, 216–17
Rostow, Eugene, 190
Rostow, Walter, 190
Royal Peacock (Atlanta), 67
Royal Theater (Baltimore), 102–103
Rozier. See James Brown
Rupe, Art, 72
Rusk, Dean, 190
Sands, Tommy, 87
Santo, Sugar Pie De, 124, 126, 146
Saturday Night Fever (album), 253
“Saturday Night Fish Fry” (song), 23
“Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week”
(song), 18
“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (song), 124,
199–200, 202, 204
Schiffman, Frank, 100–101, 133–34, 163
Schoenbaum, Jerry, 240
Scott, Baby Roy, 50, 54
Scott, Jack, 10–11
Scott, Nafloyd, 57, 71
Scotti Brothers, 262
Segregation, 37, 125
Seitz, Chuck, 134
Senators (group), 99
Sensations (group), 128, 134
“September Song” (song), 216
Sex Machine (album), 207, 213
“Sex Machine” (song), 236
“Sexy Ways” (song), 62
Shag (fellow prisoner), 42, 44
“Shake a Hand” (song), 62
Shakespeare, Robbie, 264
Shangri-Las (group), 162
Shapiro, Brad, 253
Sharpton, Reverend, 258–59
Sherrell, Charles, 198, 242
Shirley and Lee (duo), 83
Shoeshine King (Augusta), 16
“Shop Around” (song), 131
“Shout and Shimmy” (song), 123
Showtime (album), 145
Shriners Auditorium (Los Angeles), 128
Siemens A. G., 226
Sims, Sandman, 99, 102, 141
Sinatra, Frank, 18, 215
“Sincerely” (song), 62
Singer, Hall “Cornbread,” 93
“Sixty Minute Man” (song), 54
“Skinny Legs and All” (song), 180
Ski Party (film), 157
Slavery, economic, 7–8
Sly and the Family Stone (group), 205, 227
Smith, Arthur, 157
Smith, Wilbert. See Lee Diamond
Solid Gold (television show), 258
“So Long” (song), 69, 149
“Someday We’ll Be Together” (song), 217
Soul Brothers (group), 162
Soul music, 120, 173
Soul Syndrome (album), 254
Southland Record Distributing Company, 74
“Spanish Harlem” (song), 126
Specialty, 72
Spinners (group), 126, 242
Stallings, Henry, 22
Stallone, Sylvester, 262
Stallworth, Baby Lloyd, 97–98
“Stand by Me” (song), 126
Starday-King, 225
Starks, John “Jabo,” 178
Stephenson Ballroom (Jackson, Mississippi), 105–106
Stills, Stephen, 227
Stone, Henry, 107, 254
Streisand, Barbra, 156, 215
“String of Pearls” (song), 18
Stubblefield, Clyde, 173, 178, 192, 193, 219
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 169
Sullivan, Ed, 160, 163
Summerhill gang, 28
Sunset Homes gang, 28
Supremes (group), 130–31, 152, 163, 216–17
Swain, Hamp, 73–74, 92
Swanee Quintet (group), 164, 242
Swans (group), 107
Sweet Charles: Music for Sweet People (album), 242
“Sweetest Letter, The” (song), 98
T.A.M.I. Show, The (television show), 152–53
“Take All of Me” (song), 156
“Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” (song), 227, 239,
“Talk to Me” (song), 99
Tampa Red. See Hudson Whittaker
Tan Son Nhut Air Base (Vietnam), 193
Taylor, Maxwell, 190
Taylor, Sam “The Man,” 122
Teddy Brown and the Torches (group), 224
“Teen-Age Crush” (song), 87
“Tell Me What I Did Wrong” (song), 93
“Tell Me What You’re Gonna Do” (song), 121, 149
Temptations (group), 130–31
Ten Years After (group), 205
Terrell, Tammi, 137, 139, 141, 177
Terry, Johnny, 36, 40, 45, 54, 70, 95, 97, 103, 132,
137, 237
“Terry” section (Augusta), 9–10, 14
Tet offensive (Vietnam), 179
Tex, Joe, 120–21, 179–80
“That Dood It” (song), 90–91
“That’s Why” (song), 123
“There Was a Time” (song), 263
“These Are the JB’s” (song), 223
“These Arms of Mine” (song), 140
“Things That I Used to Do” (song), 83
Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice
Things (album), 181
“Think” (song), 83, 120, 139, 149
“This Old Heart” (song), 107, 121
Thomas, Fred, 224
Thomas, Rufus, 144
Thompson, Chuck, 128
Thornton, Willie Mae “Big Mama,” 24
Three Blazers (group), 26
Til, Sonny, 54
“Ting-a-Ling” (song), 54
TK Records, 254
“To Be Loved” (song), 123
Toccoa (Georgia), 44–45
Toccoa Band, 56–58, 6o–61
See also Famous Flames
Toombs, Rudolph, 90
Torches (group), 60–61
Trimier, Barry, 57, 58, 64, 69
Trinity CME Church (Toccoa), 50
Troy, Doris, 144
“True Love” (song), 107
Try Me (album), 107
“Try Me” (song), 91, 103–105, 139, 150, 236
Turbans (group), 84
Turner, Ike, 116–17, 227
Turner, Joe, 62
Turner, Tina, 116–17, 120, 227
Two Spot (Macon), 69–70
Uggams, Leslie, 172–73
United Recording Studios, 121
“Unity” (12˝ record), 263
Universal Attractions, 85, 94–95, 97, 264
Upsetters (group), 68, 72, 89, 99
“Up Tight” (song), 204
Uptown (Philadelphia), 103–104
Vance, Cyrus, 190
Vandellas (group), 131
Vibrations (group), 103, 104
Vietnam, 173–74, 179, 190–95
Vinson, Cleanhead, 22, 77
Vogelson, Dr., 240
Waddy, Frank “Kash,” 218
Walker, Minnie (aunt), 1, 8, 13, 21, 42, 82
Walker, Sidney, 26–27, 137, 205
Wallace, George, 179
Walters, Donald, 71–72
WAOK (radio station), 67
Ward, Billy, 54, 87, 112
Ward, Clara, 164
Ward Jubilee Gospel Singers (group), 139
Warren, Velma (wife), 59–60, 71, 90
Washington, D.C., riot after King’s death, 188–89
Washington, Dinah, 85
Washington, Handsome “Honey,” 10–15, 29, 42,
82–83, 244
Washington, Walter, 188
Waters, Ethel, 52, 124
Watts, Andre, 204
WMBL (radio station), 73
WEBB (radio station), 179
Wells, Mary, 131, 132
Wesley, Fred, 198, 219, 223, 245
WGYW (radio station), 178
Wheeler, Johnnie May, 50
Wheeler, Yvonne, 50
“When I Get to Heaven I’ll Be Looking for My
Mother” (song), 54
Where the Action Is (television show), 157
White, Verna, 99
Whitney, Marva, 192
Whittaker, Hudson, 17
“Why Do You Do Me Like You Do” (song), 79, 80,
WILD (radio station), 184
Wilkins, Roy, 168, 169
Williams, Cootie, 143
Williams, Edward Bennett, 190
Williams, Eva, 3
Williams, Hosea, 172
Williams, L. D., 178
Williams, Larry, 122
Williams, Maurice, 121–22
Williams, Otis, 77
Williams, Paul, 62
Williams, Perry, 3, 15–16
Williamson, Fred, 241
Wilson, Earl, 190
Wilson, Guy, 56
Wilson, Jackie, 87, 110, 112, 123–24, 131, 154, 165
Wilson, Lena, 49
Wilson, Mary, 217
WJBE (radio station), 178, 250
WLAC (radio station), 53
WLET (radio station), 50
WOL (radio station), 189
Wonder, Stevie, 131
“Wonder When You’re Coming Home” (song), 121
“Won’t Plead No More” (song), 81
Woods, Georgie, 180
“Work with Me Annie” (song), 62, 105
WRDW (radio station), 179, 205, 250
Wright, Billy, 67
Yankee Stadium (New York), 198
“Ya-Ya” (song), 126
“You Don’t Have to Go” (song), 123
“You Got What It Takes” (song), 131
Young, Andrew, 172
Young, Whitney, 169
“You’re All I Need to Get By” (song), 141
“You’re Mine, You’re Mine” (song), 89
“You’ve Got the Power” (song), 120–21
Zip guns, 45
Zodiacs (group), 122
About this Book
A man of many names: The Hardest Working Man in
Show Business, King of the One Nighters, Soul
Brother #1, The Sex Machine... but everyone knows
who they mean. James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.
Since his first chart-topper in 1956, he outperformed
all rivals. He was the funk-and-soul innovator and
rap’s driving spirit. His dazzling stage shows were
legendary. Now James Brown tells his own story, just
as he plays his music: loud, proud, and soulful. From
his dirt-poor childhood in an Augusta brothel to
wealth and world fame.
With brilliant anecdotes about Little Richard, Elvis,
Tina Turner, Otis Redding, Tammi Terrell, Michael
Jackson, and many others and an exhaustive
About the Author
JAMES BROWN was an American recording artist and
musician. One of the founding fathers of funk music
and a major figure of 20th-century popular music and
dance, he is often referred to as “The Godfather of
A Letter from the Publisher
We hope you enjoyed this book. We are an
independent publisher dedicated to discovering
brilliant books, new authors and great storytelling.
Please join us at www.headofzeus.com and become
part of our community of book-lovers.
We will keep you up to date with our latest books,
author blogs, special previews, tempting offers,
chances to win signed editions and much more.
If you have any questions, feedback or just want to say
hi, please drop us a line on hello@headofzeus.com
The story starts here.
uploaded by [stormrg]
First published in Great Britain in 1987 by Sidgwick
& Jackson Ltd
Originally published in the USA by Macmillan
Publishing Company
This eBook edition first published in the UK in 2014
by Head of Zeus Ltd
Copyright © James Brown & Bruce Tucker, 1986
The moral right of James Brown & Bruce Tucker to
be identified as the authors of this work has been
asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission of both the copyright
owner and the above publisher of this book.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from
the British Library.
ISBN (E) 9781784082857
Head of Zeus Ltd
Clerkenwell House
45-47 Clerkenwell Green
London EC1R 0HT
Was this manual useful for you? yes no
Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the work of artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Download PDF