Forty-seven years ago, at a radio station in Macon, Georgia, five young men stood around a microphone and sang a song. One played guitar, another played piano, but the station's recording equipment picked up the instruments so faintly that the tape they made that day is often recalled as an a-cappella performance. The lead singer was shorter than the others. He had to stand on an overturned Coca-Cola crate to get his mouth level with the mike. When the tape started rolling, he cried out the word "Please" with an immensity of feeling that might, more conventionally, have been reserved for a song's climax. Then he cried out again, "Please," and again and again, "Please, please," at heartbeat intervals. With each repetition, he invested the monosyllable with a different emotional accent and stress—prayer and pride, impatience and invitation—and although there was ache in his voice, he did not sound like a man pleading so much as commanding what was rightfully his. After his fourth "Please," the rest of the group filled in softly behind him, crooning, "Please, please don't go," until the lead singer's colossal voice surged back over theirs: "Please, please, please." That was the name of the song, the same word thrice, and, like all truly original things, this song had a past to which it simultaneously paid tribute and bid adieu. Its genesis lay in a rearrangement of the standard "Baby Please Don't Go," so that the rhythmic backup line became the lead, and the melodic lead was relegated to the chorus. A simple gimmick; but, as "Please, Please, Please" progressed, the lead singer's initial passion only intensified, and it became clear that the reversal of foreground and background voices reflected a deliberate emotional attitude that brought a bold new energy and freedom to the spirit of black popular music. Instead of describing feelings in the smooth lyrical surface of a tune you could whistle or at least hum, the singer created the impression of sounds rising untamed from the rawness and obscurity of a soul that refused all masks.The song was over in less than three minutes, but that time had the sense of compressed eternity which one experiences in the memory of dreams. Transcribed as text, the words suggest a man gnawing at the last frayed ends of his tether, yet the febrile repetitions, elongations, and elisions of the singer's phrasing make of these words not a lament but a rhapsody, even an ecstasy:
Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Honey, please! Don't. Yeah! Oh, yea-ah. Oh. I love you so. Baby! You did me wrong. Whoa! Whoa-oh. You done me wrong. You know you done! Done me wrong. Whoa. Oh yeah! You took my love. And now you're gone. Please! Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Honey, please. Don't! Whoah. Oh, yeah. Lord. I love you so. I just want to hear you say, I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I! Honey, please. Don't. Oh! Oh, yeah. Oh. I love you so. Baby! Take my hand. I want to be your lover man. Oh, yes. Good God almighty. Honey, please! Don't. Ohhh. Oh. Yeahh. Lord. I love you so! Pleeeeeeeease. Don't go. Pleeee-ee-ee-ease. Don't go. Honey, please don't go. Oh. I love you so. Please. Please.
The song doesn't tell a story so much as express a condition. The singer might be speaking from the cradle of his lover's arms, or chasing her down a street, or watching the lights of her train diminish in the night; he might be crouched alone in an alleyway, or wandering an empty house, or smiling for all the world to see while his words rattle, unspoken, inside his skull. He could be anyone anywhere. His lover might be dying. He might be dying. He might not even be addressing an actual lover. He could be speaking of someone or something he's never had. He could be talking to God, or to the Devil. It doesn't matter. Despite the implication of a story, a specific predicament, the song is abstract. The words jockey for release and describe the impossibility of release, yet the singing is pure release, defiant, exultant. Speech is inadequate, so the singer makes music, and music is inadequate, so he makes his music speak. Feeling is stripped to its essence, and the feeling is the whole story. And, if that feeling seems inelegant, the singer's immaculately disciplined performance makes his representation of turmoil unmistakably styled and stylish—the brink of frenzy as a style unto itself.
A few months after the Macon recording session, Ralph Bass, a talent scout for King Records, heard a copy of the tape in Atlanta. King was one of the country's leading independent labels, with a particularly strong catalogue of what was then known as "race music"—the music produced by black artists for black audiences which, despite its ghettoized marketing label, was already widely recognized by the mid-fifties as the defining sound of the twentieth century. In the early postwar years especially, King played a big part in bringing rhythm and blues to a national audience, recording and publishing the work of such now largely forgotten acts as Bull Moose Jackson and Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson, as well as more enduring names: the Five Royales, Little Willie John, and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. So Ralph Bass knew the repertoire; he'd heard more gravel-voiced shouters, high-pitched keeners, hopped-up rockers, churchy belters, burlesque barkers, doo-wop crooners, and sweet, soft moaners—more lovers, leavers, losers, loners, lady-killers, lambasters, lounge lizards, lemme-show-you men, and lawdy-be boys—than any dozen jukeboxes could contain. But he had never heard a voice that possessed the essence of all these styles while moving beyond them toward a sound at once more feral and more self-assured, until he heard "Please, Please, Please."
The tape identified the singers collectively as the Famous Flames. That was it: nothing more about them, or where they might be found. The Flames, however, had been performing nearly constantly around Georgia, where they were known as "house-wrecking" showmen who danced as they sang, in paroxysms of astounding acrobatic agility. Bass, a white man who always stayed in black hotels along with the musicians, promoters, and disk jockeys who best knew his terrain, soon tracked down the group's manager at a barbershop in Macon. He brought two hundred dollars in cash and a contract, and declared, "I want them now." The Flames were summoned, they signed, and left for a gig. "I still didn't know who the lead singer was," Bass later told the writer Geoff Brown, but he figured it out that night when he stopped in at the club where the Flames were billed to play at ten o'clock. Right on time, Bass said, "out comes this guy, crawling on his stomach, going from table to table, wherever a pretty girl was sitting, singing, 'Please, Please, Please.' "
This guy was James Brown. He was twenty-two years old, a lithe, rippling sinew of a man, on parole after three years in the state-penitentiary system. He had been locked up at the age of fifteen for stealing from parked cars in Augusta, where he was raised in a whorehouse run by his Aunt Honey. He was a middle-school dropout, with no formal musical training (he could not read a chart, much less write one), yet from early childhood he had realized in himself an intuitive capacity not only to remember and reproduce any tune or riff he heard but also to hear the underlying structures of music, and to make them his own. He had started singing in church, not long after he began walking, and the hand-clapping, stomp-and-shout, get-all-the-way-down-on-your-knees spirit of the Baptist gospel pulpit formed the bedrock of his musical impulse. But his attunement to the sacred never inhibited his appetite for the profane. He claims to have mastered the harmonica at the age of five, blowing "Lost John," "Oh, Susannah," and "John Henry," and one afternoon, when he was seven, he taught himself to play the organ by working out the fingering of "Coonshine Baby." Before long, he was picking up guitar licks to such songs as "(Honey) It's Tight Like That" from the great bluesman Tampa Red, who was dating one of Aunt Honey's girls. By the time he was twelve, the young prodigy was fronting his own group, the Cremona Trio, and winning talent shows with a romping rendition of Louis Jordan's "Caldonia (What Makes Your Big Head So Hard?)." In reform school in the tiny north Georgia town of Toccoa, his nickname was Music Box, and he returned to singing for the Lord, forming a gospel quartet that made its own instruments: a paper-and-comb harmonica, a drum set of old lard tins, a broomstick-and-washtub bass. The warden was impressed, as was a young gospel singer in Toccoa named Bobby Byrd, who'd heard him sing at the prison gate, and offered to give him a home and find him a job if he could win his release. "I want to get out and sing for the Lord," James Brown wrote to the parole board, and although these words suggest an act of a rather different order than the one he and Byrd eventually put together with the Flames, nobody could deny, as he slithered among the ladies on night-club floors, that he sang as if he'd burn in Hell if he stopped.
In February of 1956, the Famous Flames crossed the Mason-Dixon Line for the first time, and drove into Cincinnati, where King Records had its headquarters in an old ice factory. When they were shown into the studio, King's founder and president, Syd Nathan, was seated in the sound booth—a fat little man with a big cigar, a shouter and a bully, who reminded James Brown of Edward G. Robinson in "Little Caesar." Nathan's first impression of his new talent was equally unflattering: the Flames were barely a minute into "Please, Please, Please" when he exploded from his chair, hollering, "What in hell are they doing? Stop the tape," and "Nobody wants to hear that noise," and "It's a stupid song," and so on, until he stalked out. In his autobiography, the singer recalled protesting to King's music director, "Mr. Nathan doesn't understand it. Everybody's music can't be alike."
The tape got made, and Nathan still hated it. When Ralph Bass heard of the debacle, he was in St. Louis. "I get Syd on the phone," he told Geoff Brown. "He's yelling . . . 'That's the worst piece of shit I've ever heard! He's just singing one word. It sounds like he's stuttering.' . . . Before I could say anything, Syd says, 'You're fired!' But I knew what I had. I had been playing the dub from town to town, in every hotel I stayed. And the women would go crazy. I told Syd, 'Don't fire me. Put it out in Atlanta, test it. You'll see.' He says, 'Fuck it, I'm putting it out cross-country, just to prove what a piece of shit it is.' "
Within a year, the song had climbed to sixth place on the R. & B. charts, and was on its way to selling more than a million records; the band had a new manager, Ben Bart, of Universal Attractions in New York, who began booking the act—and its recording and publishing credits—as James Brown and the Famous Flames. The rest of the group, embittered at being upstaged, quit, leaving James Brown feeling both bereft and liberated. "I was sorry," he wrote. "I was heartbroken. . . . 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."
Mr. Brown, as he insists on being addressed, has described himself as "the Napoleon of the stage," and, like the French emperor, he has a compact body, with a big head and big hands, and a taste for loud, tightly fitted costumes. One evening not long ago, in a dressing room at the great Art Deco pile of the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, as his valet Roosevelt Johnson ironed a gold lamé suit with heavily fringed epaulettes for the night's performance, Mr. Brown sat before a mirror contemplating his reflection. His totemic hair—an inky, blue-black processed pompadour, "fried, dyed, and laid to the side"—was bunched up in curlers, awaiting release. A black silk shirt hung open from his shoulders, baring a boyishly smooth and muscular torso for a man who says he's sixty-nine and is alleged by various old spoilers down South to be as much as five years older. He had just finished refurbishing the thick greasepaint of his eyebrows and, wielding a wedge-shaped sponge, was lightening the upper edges of his high, flat cheekbones with some latte-colored paste. He studied his smile, a wide, gleaming streak of dental implants whose electrifying whiteness might have made Melville blink. In show business, he has said, "Hair is the first thing, and teeth are the second. Hair and teeth. A man got those two things, he's got it all." Still, he looked tired and lonely and even smaller than he is, as old men tend to look when applying their makeup.
In performance, however, he makes the stage look small, and wears his years with a survivor's defiant pride. James Brown is, after all, pretty universally recognized as the dominant song-and-dance man of the past half century in black-American music, perhaps in American popular music as a whole: he is the source of more hits than anyone of any color after Elvis Presley. He stands virtually unrivalled as the preëminent pioneer and practitioner of the essential black musical styles of the sixties and early seventies—soul and funk—and the progenitor of rap and hip-hop. Since 1968, however, he has had only one Top Ten hit, "Living in America," from the 1985 soundtrack to Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky IV," which was followed by a period of seeming ruin, marked by serial scrapes with the law on charges of spousal abuse (later dropped) and drug possession, and a return to jail, from 1988 to 1991, after he led a fleet of police cars on a high-speed chase back and forth across the Georgia-South Carolina border. Yet his iconic stature as an entertainer has steadily increased in the decade since his release, and his return to the stage.
He still performs about fifty concerts a year, and, while his sound and style are always unmistakably his own, he manages in the course of each evening to present a sweeping retrospective not only of his own vast repertoire but of all the musical genres to which his originality pays homage: from the field hollers of slavery, the call-and-response, organ-surging exultation of gospel, the tragicomic clowning of minstrel shows, and the boastful reckonings and imploring incantations of the blues, to the sugary seductions of country balladeers and cosmopolitan crooners, the horns of jazz, the guitars of rock and roll, and the percussive insinuations of a thousand local beats from across America, Africa, and the Caribbean. He has repeatedly revolutionized these traditions, discovering in them previously unexpressed possibilities. In turn, his music and dance moves have been so widely studied, reinterpreted, ripped off, and sampled by so many artists of so many different musical dispositions throughout the world that it has become nearly impossible to say, "This is where James Brown's influence ends and the rest of music begins."
By the time he appears onstage, the show is well under way. If there is a curtain, it has risen (and, if there is none, the lights have done the rising) on his band, the Soul Generals—at last count, fourteen men, ten black, four white—four guitarists, two bassists, two full drum sets, a percussionist, a trumpeter, three saxophonists, and an organist. The players wear uniforms with thigh-length blazers and matching trousers (the color varies from night to night: cherry red or pool-chalk blue), and white shirts with Chippendale collars folded over bow ties, a look that places them about midway on the sartorial trajectory between zoot-suiters and riverboat gamblers. They come on full tilt, cranking a sassy medley of funk hooks for several minutes before a deep, commanding voice with the drawling singsong excitement and syllable-parsing precision of a carnival barker rises over the music: "Ladies and gentlemen, James Brown Enterprises is proud to present the James Brown Show!"
The voice belongs to a diminutive man who stands backstage with a cordless microphone, clad in tails, a high-buttoned vest, a bunched silk cravat, and, on some nights, a cocked fedora. This is Danny Ray, who has been Mr. Brown's master of ceremonies for thirty-eight years. As the band ratchets up to a crescendo, he steps jauntily into view—an astounding apparition, natty as Cab Calloway, with a face as hard-lived and angular as Keith Richards's. "And now," he proclaims, "the Bittersweets." A quartet of lady backup singers saunter onstage, identically and snugly sheathed in black, ankle-length gowns, banded in overlapping, wedding-cake tiers of fringe that ripple to their every twitch and undulation. Two are white (a willowy, porcelain-skinned brunette and a glowing redhead); and two are black (a bouncy, radiant woman with cornrow braids and a massive, heavyset dame hooded in a processed, pumpkin-colored mane). They assemble downstage left, cock their hips, extend their arms with pointed fingers, and coo, "Ooooh, ahhh, gimme some more."
Danny Ray rocks and grins. "And now," he says, holding the "now" for a full second, "let me tell you this." A beat elapses in silence, and Danny Ray continues, "I want to ask you one thing. Are you ready for some su-per, dy-no-mite soul?" The house answers with a deafening "Yes!" "Thank you," he says. "Because right about now it is star time." The band kicks back in, playing canonical riffs from James Brown crowd-pleasers, as each of the Bittersweets takes a turn naming the songs in a lilting arpeggio: "I Feel Good" . . . "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" . . . "Try Me" . . . "Doin' It to Death." Danny Ray picks up where they leave off—" 'Please, Please, Please' . . . 'Sex Machine' . . . 'I Got the Feelin' ' . . . 'Living in America' "—and with that he starts chanting, "James Brown! James Brown!" The house chants back, full-bore, hands clapping, bodies swinging, and, lest anybody out there still be seated, the Bittersweets start a cheer of their own: "James Brown, git up, git up. James Brown, git up."
Mr. Brown has always regarded his public with an attitude akin to that of a politician on the campaign trail: by their adulation, he says, "the people" made him, and to keep them he must serve them. At the same time, he has the peculiar idiomatic habit of describing himself as a slayer of audiences. "Normally, I just go out there and kill 'em," he declared in the Oakland dressing room. What he means by such remarks is that, for as long as the price of a ticket brings you to him, he will transport you so totally into the grip of his groove that you will forget your mortal coil in eager surrender, and, if he does his job well, he will literally control your breathing as precisely as if he had his hand clenched around your trachea. So the relationship is symbiotic: he gives his all, and asks for nothing less in return. He was in particularly high swagger in Oakland, after leading his band through an afternoon rehearsal of the overture to his entrance. "You gotta hear the new opening," he said. "When I get up there—the audience, they already dead. I just stand there and look around."
This is precisely what he does, and the ebullient commotion of singers and musicians onstage is such that it's easy not to notice him strolling on from the wings until, all at once, there he is: arms out from his sides as if to welcome an embrace, dentistry blazing in a beatific grin, head turning slowly from side to side, eyes goggle-wide—looking downright blown away to find himself the focus of such a rite of overwhelming acclamation. He lingers thus for several seconds, then, throwing his head back, he lets out a happy scream and rips into the song "Make It Funky." Within seconds, he has sent his microphone stand toppling toward the first row of orchestra seats, only to snatch the cord and yank it back, while spinning on the ball of one foot in a perfect pirouette, so that his mouth returns to the mike and the mike to his mouth in the same instant. He howls. The crowd howls back. The music is irresistibly danceable; the whole house is churning, and the Bittersweets are setting the pace, pelvises swivelling, arms cycling, chanting, "Make it funky," while Mr. Brown, whose microphone is lashed to its stand with a fat snarl of electrical tape, drags the whole assembly with him like a mannequin dance partner, as he stalks the edge of the stage, barking, "Tell me. Uh! So it is. Ha! Got to do it now. . . . Oh, yes. Take me home. To the bridge. To the bridge." He screams, he spins, he does the mashed potato—gliding several yards on one foot. He starts the second song with his back to the crowd, then wheels to face it, and cries, "I'm back, I'm back, I'm back, I'm back . . . ," and screams again.
James Brown screams in nearly every song he has ever recorded or performed. He also grunts, honks, yowls, and hoots, and there are long stretches in many of his songs where he does little else. When he chooses to, of course, he can also sing melody and enunciate lyrics with a piercing clarity. In the space of a sixteenth note, his voice can shift from a honeyed falsetto to anguished lamentation or bellowing bombast. There is very little, if anything, in the range of vocal emotion that he cannot express, and the same can be said of his almost perpetual motion on a stage: although his dance routines are briefer than they once were, and he no longer does splits, or falls to his knees so hard or so often as to draw blood, as he used to, his energy still seems radically at odds with the conventional limitations of human biology. He is a showman of the old school, equal parts high artist and stuntman, and his boldest moments leave art and stunt indistinguishable.
This is never more evident than at the point in his show—during "Please, Please, Please"—when he cuts from the peak of a feverish vocal and instrumental crescendo and collapses to his knees in stunned silence. His band simultaneously fades to a worried murmur of pulsing rhythms, while the audience, as he puts it, falls "so quiet you can hear a rat peelin' cotton," and in a high, pleading quaver, he announces, "I feel like I'm gonna scream." The crowd goes silent as he sinks even lower to the floor and lets the beats pass. "You make me feel so good I wanna scre-e-eam," he wails. The crowd roars, he falls still, and when the crowd settles down he wails again, "Can I screeeeam?" And again: "Is it all right if I screeeeeeeeeeeam?" The crowd appears fit to riot. He appears fit to be tied. Then he screams. The scream has a sound of such overwhelming feeling that you cannot believe the man controls it. The impression, to the contrary, is that he is controlled by it, as if out of all the throats in the cosmos it had found his, and rendered him wild: the sound in the wild man's throat from beyond the wild man's consciousness that is the wild man's being.
As he screams, Mr. Brown uncoils and staggers upright, dripping sweat. The band cranks up behind him, he resumes singing, and Danny Ray, who drifted offstage during "Make It Funky," reappears. Under his arm he now carries a bundle, which he unfurls with a swooping snap of both wrists into a wide, floor-length cape of sequinned velvet. The cape's design varies from show to show, and on occasion in the same show from scream to scream; sometimes it is red, sometimes green, sometimes black, sometimes gold, and sometimes the sequins spell out the words "Godfather of Soul" or the acronym "G.O.S." Mr. Brown pays no attention as Danny Ray stalks him with the cape, but when it is flung over his shoulders he bows deeply, soaking up the applause, before taking heavy, tentative, stiff-legged steps. As he starts moving he shrugs the cape off, finally flinging it aside and prancing free. On some nights, Danny Ray will come back at him with the cape, and Mr. Brown will shrug it off once more, or he may drop back to his knees, and work himself up to scream again.
Take this spectacle as you will—as death or birth; conquest or surrender; hellfire or apotheosis; sexual climax or heartbreak's abjection; vaudeville hamming or sublime authenticity—you won't be wrong. James Brown is a master of the simultaneous suggestion of opposing possibilities. He is a shaman as much as a showman; but, while his uncanny melding of church and carnival is akin to the convulsive "speaking in tongues" of gospel congregationists, the impression James Brown creates of a man flying off the handle is just that: an impression.
His performances are, and have always been, orchestrated according to the most rigorous discipline. Although no two nights with him are the same, and much of what you see and hear when he's onstage is truly spontaneous, the dazzle of these unpredictable moments is grounded in his ensemble's equally dazzling tightness. He proceeds without song lists, conducting fiercely drilled sidemen and sidewomen through each split-second transition with an elaborate vocabulary of hand signals. "It's like a quarterback—I call the songs as we go," he says, and players whose attention wanders, who miss a beat, or trip into the wrong key, or who merely show up onstage in rumpled uniforms or scuffed shoes, may be fined on the spot, a punishment that is also communicated with hand signals: five fingers suddenly flashed five times, for instance, means twenty-five dollars' docked pay. "I gotta keep order," he explains. "They don't spank children no more, that's why there's no order."
Even in his earliest, wildest days, when his determination to kill an audience was such that he would swing from the rafters, cut flying splits from atop a grand piano, and even leap from a theatre balcony into the orchestra pit, his outrageousness was carefully calculated to convey that, while he cannot be contained, he is always in control. In contrast to the appearance of effortlessness that so many performers strive for in their quest to exhibit mastery, James Brown makes the display of effort one of the most striking features of his art.
In the greatest of his dance performances to be preserved on film—the made-for-television "T.A.M.I." show, of 1964 (in which he stole the thunder from the headline act, an up-and-coming British band called the Rolling Stones, leaving Mick Jagger to complain that it was his greatest mistake ever to follow James Brown)—he hurls himself about, a frenetic dynamo, feet blurring, sweat flying, arms pumping, hairdo collapsing. He is the image of abandon, yet his precision remains absolute, his equilibrium is never shaken, there is no abandon. Even at his most unleashed, he moves like a captive of his body, frantic to shake free, and coming closer than one might have imagined possible.
"Time made me the Godfather, continuous and continuous doing it," Mr. Brown said one afternoon last summer, as he rode in a chauffeur-driven white stretch limousine through the slums of Augusta, where he spent his boyhood—a neighborhood known as the Terry, short for Negro Territory. Beyond the limo's one-way windows, the season's first tropical storm, Allison, was blowing sea-green clouds and rain across a wide street lined with blighted-looking shops and slum dwellings. The street sign said James Brown Boulevard, and James Brown said, "But what made me want to do it? My daddy couldn't do it, his daddy couldn't do it, and his daddy better not tried it."
We have this idea in America that pedigree doesn't matter. Never mind your ma and pa, set your own sights, and you are what you make of what God made you—that's the idea. The ancestors held its truth to be self-evident, but we have come to call it our dream, and it follows that our inclination to be entertained by success, to be inspired by excellence and enterprise, and to heroize genius increases in direct proportion to the inauspiciousness of an achiever's origins. So it should probably come as no surprise that the man who is very likely better known to more of the world by more fabulous titles than any other American—His Bad Self, Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother No. 1, the Sex Machine, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Excitement, the Ruler of R. & B., the Godfather of Soul, King of the One-Nighters, the Minister of the New New Super-Heavy Funk, the Forefather of Hip-Hop, Mr. Please Please Please, James (Butane) Brown—was not only born dirt-poor and black (with a heavy dose of American Indian blood) at the height of the Great Depression, in the depths of the Jim Crow South, but also claims to have been born dead.
"I wasn't supposed to be alive," he declares in the first lines of his autobiography. "You see, I was a stillborn kid." One can't start out any worse off than that. In fact, one can't start out that way, period; stillborn means you're finished. ("Compare live-born," Webster's suggests.) Never mind: in dealing with James Brown, we are not operating in the conventional show-business realm of legend but in that zone of mystical, folkloric, and allegorical interpretations of life's molding forces which can only be called myth. So the story goes that he emerged lifeless from the womb, and remained that way, unresponsive to the paddlings and proddings of his mother and a pair of aunts, who had attended at his birth (in his parents' one-room shack, without windows, plumbing, or electricity, in the pinewoods outside Barnwell, South Carolina), until they gave up on him. One aunt told his father, "He never drew a breath, Joe," while his mother wept. But the other aunt, Minnie, was moved to keep at him, lifting him up and blowing into his mouth. In this way he was resurrected, and promptly issued his first scream.
One of his earliest memories is of his mother leaving his father for another man: his mother in the doorway saying goodbye, his father telling her, "Take your child," his mother saying, "You keep him." He was four years old, and he didn't see her again for twenty years. His father was a second-grade dropout who subsisted by tapping the surrounding pines for pitch to sell to turpentine mills, and by brewing moonshine. He was rarely at home, and although as an adult James Brown cannot stand to be without company, in his autobiography he credits the solitude of his earliest years—"Being alone in the woods like that, spending nights in a cabin with nobody else there"—as an enduring source of inner strength. "It gave me my own mind," he says. "No matter what came my way after that—prison, personal problems, government harassment—I had the ability to fall back on myself." Still, he was relieved, in his sixth year, when his father decided to move across the Savannah River to Augusta in search of steadier employment, and deposited him in the care of Aunt Honey.
Thereafter, his father kept in touch, but they never again lived at the same address. Mr. Brown remembers him as an inspiringly tireless worker, but also as a depressingly angry man, particularly when it came to race. "Where white people were concerned, I would say my father threw a rock and hit his hand," he says in his autobiography. "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." A frightened man, in his view, is a cowed man, and a cowed man is a frightening man. For his own part, he comes across, offstage and on, as fundamentally fearless. "I fear God," he told me. "I fear a man with a gun. I fear a man with a knife. I fear a fool behind the wheel. That's what I fear. I fear death." Then he remembered that he feared something else even more. "Death may come to me," he said. "I may not run from it like a lot of people if my rights is there. I put my rights first, 'cause if I can't live then I'm already dead . . . If I'm already dead, how can I live? I mean, my daddy was a dead man. He walked around, he gone into the service, he did everything he could. He was the bible of the dead man. He come back, he never said a voice. Dead man."
Race, poverty, and exclusion were the defining features of James Brown's childhood world, and he might easily have seen himself as cursed. Instead, he seems to have understood himself to be a free agent—denied the comforts of a conventional home, but also spared its constraints—with no choice but to fight for emancipation however he could. If anything, he can sound nostalgic for the harsh but tight-knit community of his childhood in the Terry. "Age mellowed me. Yeah, success mellowed me," he said as we rode around. " 'Cause now I look and see people that ain't got nothing, and I got everything and a sense of what they got. I say, You know what? You know why I say everything? 'Cause I got bein' poor as well as bein' wealthy. A man who's been always richer than I, he's in worse shape than a cat who never had nothin'. Cat never had nothin' got a dream. Cat richer than you'll say, What can I do now?"
After a while, he said again, "I got everything I could ever have wanted. Well, I thought it was everything I could want. What I wanted was peace and happiness, and a little success. I don't want hell and happiness. I got a hell of a lot of happiness, but I got hell with it, too."
The limousine tour of his childhood turf was Mr. Brown's idea. We set out from his office, from which he also ran a radio station, in a former H. L. Green department store on Augusta's Broad Street, downtown. He was dressed for the occasion in a throbbingly purple training suit, and at first he seemed quite happy to point out landmarks and reminisce. Here was the corner where he used to work a shoeshine box outside a parlor known as the Shoeshine King: "There was a man used to give us fifty cent and one used to give us a dollar. And we used to almost disjoint that man's arm when we see him coming, trying to hold him till he get to our stand. Oh, a dollar was unbelievable. . . . My daddy didn't make but seven dollars a week." Here was the liquor store where he first outearned his father, delivering whiskey ("Can't do that no more, they don't allow it") for nine dollars and ninety cents a week, "and you keep the bicycle—almost like you give me a home." Here was the fairground where he used to sneak into the circus, here was the railroad siding where he learned to roller-skate, and "On this corner was a warehouse, I used to eat food out of there. . . . The can would be old, it would be popped up, broken, I mean, like just about to blow up. We put a hole in it, let the pressure off it, and then take it home and cook it. We ate that. Lord." Here was 944 Twiggs Street, where he lived with Aunt Honey—now abandoned and bristling with weeds. Here, by these train tracks, he buck-danced for the soldiers passing through town at the start of the Second World War; they'd throw him coins, which he took home to Aunt Honey: "Men made thirty cents an hour, twenty cents a hour, fifteen cents a hour. . . . I brought her back five dollars to pay the rent for a month." Here was the narrow canal where he once took refuge from the law: "Police were running me, and I saw 'em coming, and I made a few turns, jumped in the water, and breathed through a cane. I saw it in a movie." He mimicked the police, "Where'd he go? Where he at? Where he at? I know I saw him. I swear I saw that boy—Gawd damn." Then he recalled telling himself, " 'Now listen up, it's either jail, either reform school, or you stay in the water,' so I stayed in the water." And here was an oil company that he used to burglarize when he was nine: "That was wrong, but it was survival."
Taken together, these memory vignettes composed a portrait of an artist as a young entrepreneur. The image pleased him. Alongside his career as a performer, James Brown has consistently promoted himself as an exemplary figure of black capitalist self-empowerment, touting a doctrine of enterprise as emancipation; ownership and tycoondom as the ultimate social justice. In Jim Crow days, he says, whites didn't keep blacks down because they disliked them (some of his most enthusiastic, best-paying audiences, in his early days with the Famous Flames, were at the fraternity houses of all-white Southern colleges); rather, whites kept blacks disempowered in order to exploit them in a system of "economic slavery."
He claims that he never stole from blacks, preferring to operate as a sort of freelance Robin Hood, redistributing white wealth, much as he sought to do when he began to command power in the music business. In 1962, when he wanted to make a live record of his act at the Apollo Theatre, Syd Nathan of King Records opposed the idea on the ground that such a disk would get no radio play. Mr. Brown put up the money himself, and the full record went on to become a fixture on the playlist of many stations; it was also a crossover success, substantially bolstering his burgeoning white audience. It has never stopped selling, and remains to this day one of the freshest, most charged, and most satisfying concert recordings available. Soon after its release, Mr. Brown began waging a dogged and ultimately successful campaign to wrest ownership of the royalty-generating master tapes of most of his recordings from the King archives. This was a measure of creative and commercial control that no popular musician, black or white, had quite achieved, and for years afterward he kept the tapes in a bag that was with him at all times. In 1966, he bought his own Learjet, and before long he had established a restaurant franchise and acquired several radio stations. As he flew from gig to gig on a relentless touring schedule, he spoke of himself as a trailblazing "model man"—self-made and self-owned—in whose wake black Americans could no longer be held back.
At the peak of the civil-rights struggle, Mr. Brown's idiosyncratic rhetoric of business as revolution simultaneously appealed to and appalled ideologues on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, who could never decide whether the man who sang, "You got to live for yourself, yourself and nobody else," was with them or against them. In 1966, the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (who became Kwame Ture) called him the man most dangerous to the movement, and two years later, at a Black Power conference, the poet LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) described him as "our No. 1 black poet." But nobody could question that James Brown's greatest public triumph of the era was a direct consequence of his hard-charging capitalism. On the night following Martin Luther King's assassination, in April of 1968, he was booked to play the fourteen-thousand-seat Boston Garden. Elsewhere, major cities were already aflame. Boston was on the brink, and Mayor Kevin White was under heavy pressure to cancel the concert. Mr. Brown, however, was not prepared to forgo the night's pay. Instead, he persuaded the city to guarantee the money—a staggering sixty thousand dollars—and the show would be televised live, then immediately rebroadcast to keep the city's young blacks in front of their TV screens and out of trouble. Toward the end of the concert, some young fans leaped onto the stage, and cops rushed from the wings to push them off. "Wait a minute," Mr. Brown told the police, his hand raised. The music stopped. "Move on back," he said. "I'll be all right. I'll be fine." The cops shrugged and withdrew, but the fans kept coming, mobbing the singer as he said, "You make me look very bad, 'cause I asked the po-lice to step back and you wouldn't go down. No, that's wrong. You not bein' fair to yourself and me and all your race." When he was alone again in the spotlight, he said, "Now, are we together or are we ain't?" Then he told the drummer, "Hit that thing, man," and he resumed singing: "Can't stand it. Can't stand your love."
The concert worked. The streets of Boston remained mostly quiet, and Mr. Brown was soon summoned to the smoking ruins of Washington, D.C., to spread his message: "Build something, don't burn something." In that same year, 1968, one of his hit songs, "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," was embraced as an anthem by the Black Power crowd, and decried as incendiary by white conservatives, while another of his hits, "America Is My Home," was denounced by black militants as a jingoist sellout and acclaimed as a message of interracial healing by their opponents. To James Brown, there was no contradiction. He wasn't just unapologetically black; he was the darkest-skinned American performer to achieve such stardom, and his pride in that fact was to him a fulfillment of the American Dream. (Prior to September 11th of last year, a James Brown concert was the rare place where you could count on seeing someone publicly wrapped in the flag.) Unfazed by his critics on the left, he also went to Vietnam that summer to entertain the troops—one of the few times he has performed for free—then returned home and endorsed the Democratic Presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who had befriended him two years earlier after hearing his hit song "Don't Be a Drop Out," which became the theme of a White House-sponsored stay-in-school campaign. When Richard Nixon won, however, Mr. Brown accepted an invitation to play at his Inauguration, where he made his mark by performing "I'm Black and I'm Proud." (In 1972, he endorsed Nixon's successful bid for reëlection, believing that the President would promote minority-enterprise initiatives, but he skipped the Inaugural festivities, because the Nixon people declined to pay for his act.)
"Is he the most important black man in America?" asked the cover line for a profile of James Brown in Look, in February of 1969. The article celebrated Mr. Brown's business empire (eighty-five employees; gross annual income, four and a half million dollars) and his populism (travelling a hundred thousand miles a year to reach three million fans where they lived; capping ticket prices at five dollars for adults and ninety-nine cents for children under twelve), and it said, "James Brown is a new important leader. His constituency dwarfs Stokely Carmichael's and the late Dr. Martin Luther King's. . . . He is the black Horatio Alger." Never mind that all of Mr. Brown's early businesses, save for his performing and recording career, failed, or that the Internal Revenue Service discovered by the early seventies that he had never got around to paying more than four million dollars in income tax. (In his autobiography, he proffers the extraordinary argument that the government was to blame for his tax troubles, "because they didn't allow me to go to school." As a result, he says, "they have no legal boundaries over me. . . . 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 taxes.")