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James Brown: Our 1988 Interview

NEW YORK - UNDATED: James Brown performs at Madison Square Garden circa 1960's in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in the June 1988 issue of SPIN.

Just as the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, with its circular stairway, sweeping walls, bright colors, and dramatic lighting, looks like it was built by Cecil B. deMille for a clientele of self-made Jews who wanted to be surrounded by evidence of their success, so the Lincoln Continental looks like it was designed with James Brown in mind.

Once a week, when he’s home, James Brown dresses up and brings one of his many Lincolns—today it’s the silver-and-grey—to the same Augusta, Georgia, car wash, as if this were a religious ritual. James Brown drives like he dances: heavy on the accelerator, never late on the brake. Even though this Lincoln is three years old, it still has the price sticker on the window, listing all the extras that went into making it a $25,914 car.

James Brown is a Ford man. It’s the first expensive thing he bought with his first big paycheck. “I wanted a home, but a man has to have a way to get around,” says Mr. Brown. He would have gotten a mobile home, but “I didn’t know about things like that in those days.”

From the car wash, James Brown swings by the car lot where he buys his cars.

James Brown: Our 1988 Interview

SALESMAN AT THE AUGUSTA CAR LOT: I guess it’s been ten years ago I met James. Met him out on the lot one night. The lights were out and he walked up on me—I didn’t know who he was—and he like scared me to death. And bought a new car from me the next day.

Now James’ll come through here two or three times a month, just to talk, see how people are reacting to his new albums, records, movies, and buy a few cars from us. James rides in the best. A lot of people come in when James is here, and I get a reaction ff of that over the next couple weeks. Next to the Masters Golf Tournament, he is the biggest thing around these parts. I have quite a few of his records. he brings them up here over the years. My ex-wife has them now. They were, in fact, part of the settlement.

* * *

The first expensive home James Brown bought, right after he and Dessie, whom he was living with, broke up, was a twelve-room Victorian house in St. Albans, Queens, in New York. He transformed it into a castle, complete with moat, drawbridge, and black Santas on the lawn at Christmas time.

* * *

James Brown made the world funky in 1965 with “Papa’s Got a Brand New bag,” in Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s not sure whether he wrote it on a napkin, brown paper, or toilet paper—he wrote “Sex Machine” on the back of a poster for one of his concerts—but he’s positive it wasn’t on a typewriter.

* * *

Where do the words “For Goodness Sakes, Look at Those Cakes” come from?

James Brown’s brand new bag, which he designed himself, is made of black vinyl and upholstery and is easily spotted at airports. It is a long hanging bag that can be packed faster and handled easier than luggage, although he’s also got some new, flexible luggage too, made of Naugahyde by a young man in Augusta by the name of Green. James Brown has over 2,000 uniforms, cut for him by Mr. Curtis Gibson out of Ohio, and he’ll take 50 suits out on the road, plus capes, shoes, and the rest, and wear something different every show. Each bag might contain up to 15 costumes, and weigh about 75 pounds.

James Brown’s valet and announcer, Danny Ray, former emcee at the Apollo Theatre, packs Mr. Brown’s bags, sometimes as many as 14 or 15, depending upon the length of the tour and the availability of the dry cleaners. After an exhausting show, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business usually loses seven to ten pounds and his soaking wet clothes are no good for the next night. In that case, Danny Ray takes them up to the hotel room and hangs them out to dry.

* * *

What kind of deodorant do you use?

JAMES BROWN: Right Guard.

* * *

DANNY RAY: I started dressing Mr. Brown with capes in Louisiana, going back to about 1961. We used to do this with a Turkish-towel-type of robe, because at the particular time, you had to go outdoors before coming back into the dressing room, and I’d catch Mr. Brown with this big white Turkish towel as he’d come off stage. Then he’d turn around and go back out on stage again, and he’d come back to the audience singing, “Please, Please, Please,” and get an encore. He sung that for quite some time

Mr. Brown got the idea for the cape routine, which became like a trademark, after seeing Gorgeous George wrestling on TV. George goes back to the Jimi Hendrix days, before Jimi went to Europe, when Jimi was working for him somewhat in the same capacity as me for Mr. Brown. He started wearing the red satin cape with the white collar at the Uptown Theatre, in Philadelphia, where he was crowned “King of Soul.”

James Brown: Our 1988 Interview
Besides Gorgeous George, the biggest influences on James Brown have been Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Jackie Robinson (“I’m a Dodger fan”), and Joe Louis. Before he was an entertainer, he wanted to be either a pitcher (“I had a good fast ball, curve, and knuckles”) or a boxer(“2-0-1 in three professional fights”). He also could have been a professional crap shooter. He once wiped out the Isley Brothers and beat the Moonglows for enough dough to buy two Cadillacs. The bands in history he most would have liked to have been in were Jimmy Dorsey’s, Glenn Miller’s, and Count Basie‘s, playing keyboards.

* * *

Who were you in a previous lifetime?


* * *

James Brown’s favorite TV shows: Nightwatch, David Letterman, Oprah, Dallas, Dolly Parton, Soul Train, The Jeffersons, Gimme a Break, Bustin’ Loose, and 60 Minutes. “I also listen to Mr. Reagan’s speeches,” he adds, “and whatever he has to say, I agree.”

One of the great enigmas of the 20th century is the image of a relatively short black guy with a big process who exudes more raw sexual energy than any man alive today and dances faster than seems humanly possible, shaking hands with Richard Nixon.

In addition to three wives and all the women he’s lived with, the ‘mazin’ Mister ‘Please, Please’ himself had been romantically involved in the Sixties with Aretha Franklin and, later, Tammi Terrell. But the love of his life, according to one gossip magazine, was former Famous Flame Bobby Byrd, which was why James Brown, the magazine insinuated, was going to Europe: for a sex change, so he could marry him.

* * *

If you were a lady, who would you want to be?

JAMES BROWN: There is no woman in the world I would want to be.

* * *

Before she met her husband in 1982, on Solid Gold, where she was the show’s hairstylist and makeup artist, the only entertainer whom the third and present Mrs. James Brown had dated was Elvis Presley. It is Mrs. Adrienne Brown who keeps the hardest working process in show business in good shape. “I got a lot of her texture in it,” he says. “We don’t have no naps, you know. Sometimes you go around people and pick them up. I do, but she don’t.”

What do you mean, pick up other people’s naps?

“You’d be surprised what you can pick up. You can talk on the telephone and pick up a person, right through the electricity. If they were drinking, you’ll have whiskey on your breath. If they have a disease, you can catch that. The best way to throw it off is with a cigarette.”

Who is your definition of cool?

JAMES BROWN: James Brown.

Who is your definition of hot?

JAMES BROWN: James Brown. But there still are a lot of good people out there. David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Charlie Pride, Johnny Cash, Roy Clarke, Barbara Mandrell, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Wilson Pickett. Can’t forget Wilson Picket.

* * *

When James Brown walks into a room, he is immediately aware of the danceability of the floor. He can tell through his feet the type of tree the floor is made from and which birds live in it. The surfaces he prefers are slate and polished wood. “Sometimes they make hard floors, but that don’t stop me from dancing. They [rivals] try to sabotage me, though, by making the floor rough and taking away the slide. But that don’t stop me neither.”

“If I could dance any place in the world, that would be the White House. I’d like to play for Mr. and Mrs. Reagan, just before he leaves. I wish he could go four more years. I think he’ll be very lonely. I want to be with him. I want to be involved with Mr. Reagan, whatever he’s into, entertainment, pictures, whatever.”

* * *

Few art historians make the leap from post-Impressionism to cubism with the dizzying Watteau-like embarkations and dandy-ish flair of a James Brown.

When James Brown recorded “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” most of the people who were supposed to bring kids along to sing the chorus didn’t show up, so he told the band to go outside and bring back whatever kids they could find on the street. Those are the kids, who, each time James Brown sang “Say it loud,” answered “I’m black and I’m proud,” even though most of them were white or Asian.

* * *

How to Do the James Brown: Combine the applejack, the dolo, which is a slide, almost like the skate, and the scallyhop, which is a takeoff on the Lindy hop, add a nerve control technique that makes the whole body tremble, and you got the James Brown.

James Brown: Our 1988 Interview

Do you water ski?

JAMES BROWN: No, I never get a chance to do that.

It boggles the mind what James Brown, probably the only Afro-Asian-American Indian in the sport, would do on water skis.

MR WILLIE GLENN, James Brown’s cousin and business partner: Brown could have signed Michael Jackson up, before he even started. He had a chance to sign him and all his brothers up back at the Apollo Theater, but you know what he told them? Stay in school. He could have tied Michael up back then. At that time, the Jacksons needed help, like anybody, so they came to one of the top entertainers. Mr. Brown could have got him for a 30-year contract. Sometimes in a man’s life, he’ll sign for a 30-year contract, just to make it. It’s like Jackie Wilson or Little Richard. They never got any money.

Mr. Brown owns over two thousand tunes. Name one entertainer who owns that many tunes? Of his own songs? You can’t. Mr. Brown, he owns all of his own tunes. He wrote ’em and arranged ’em. He owns all that. Michael Jackson’s people just called Mr. Brown for a clip. They were performing about three years ago in an amphitheater. Mr. Brown called Michael on stage with him, and they started dancing. So now, Michael’s peoples want the clip.

See, Mr. Brown be looking ahead. Tell you another thing. Sinatra had but one million-seller that he wrote. That’s all he had in his career. One million seller. Mr. Brown made an album that was still on the charts 56 weeks. When we were with King Records, he told Mr. Syd Nathan, “Let’s do a live album.” Now this is the president of a record company. Sad told him, “No, can’t do that. Ain’t never been done.” Mr. Brown said, “That’s why I want to do it.” You know what Syd Nathan told him? Said, “I don’t want no part of it.” Brown said, “I’ll do it and I’ll finance it.” Cost him $5,000. Live at the Apollo. Stood on the charts 56 weeks. You know who owned all that?


WILLIE GLENN: James Brown.

James Brown’s new album, It’s Your Money, was written by Full Force, and his last, Gravity, was written by Dan Hartman. Why isn’t he writing his own songs anymore?

JAMES BROWN: I don’t need to write any. I got enough already. I need to perform, but not to write. I’ll write when I need a hit. I don’t need no hit no more.

FINAL PERFORMANCE, by James Brown (Morrow, $18.95.)

“With its allusions to Nelson Algren and Jack London, Final Performance, James Brown’s third novel, clearly aspires to place domestic strive in a larger context…”—from the April 3 New York Times Book Review

* * *

James Brown didn’t so much invent a new language as redefine certain words. “Funk is the root of the blues,” James Brown explains. “It’s soul, jazz, and gospel. Funk is coming down on the one. If it’s on the one, then it’s funky. But it’s hard for me to get people to understand that. It took me four or five years to get Bootsy Collins to understand what ‘on the one’ was. Most people didn’t know what it was. They know now. ‘Take me to the bridge,’ I heard someone use that expression maybe 45 years ago, referring to the middle part of a song, and I changed it to mean a release.”

There bridges that stick out most in James Brown’s mind: the Golden Gate, the Oakland Bay Bridge, and a covered bridge in Georgia near his home. “I’d like to take my wife to see that covered bridge. We have a lot of driving to do.”

Do you do the driving?

“I drive a lot and she drives too. I feel safer when I drive, just like she feels safer when she drives.”

Do you fight a lot in the car, like most couples?

“We have them when we have them.”

What are you not getting enough of in life?

“I like my wife to smile more, because when I met my wife, she was a big smiler. She not smiling much now. I guess people go through those stages. What, your wife doesn’t smile much anymore either? Let me call your wife on the phone, I’ll make her smile. Get her on the phone.”

MRS. SCOTT COHEN: I was doing the ironing when out of the blue, the phone rang and this strange voice said it was James Brown. I didn’t know what to think. The voice sounded like it could have been James Brown. I felt he had a message he wanted to tell me and by chitchatting, he was sensing what kind of person I was and whether or not we could communicate, which we couldn’t very well, because I couldn’t understand his lingo. Then he would laugh and go on to something else.

Everything was disconnected. Like the first thing he asked me was how much I weighted. He thought I was too skinny. “You don’t like cakes,” he said. He sounded like a rooster in the barnyard and he was saying, “What kind of chicken are you?” I got the feeling he wanted a plump one. Then he told me I should smile when my husband came home that night, because that’s what made him love me in the beginning. Then he hung up just as abruptly as he had called.

James Brown: Our 1988 Interview

Who hasn’t returned your phone calls?

JAMES BROWN: President Carter.

Who has?

JAMES BROWN: Mr. Reagan—he would if I asked him, Mr. Bush, Senator Thurmond, Governor Harris, Sam Nunn, and Senator Hubert Humphrey—my favorite politician of all time.

* * *

James Brown, in the Lincoln, on the way to the airport: Who are you voting for in the presidential race? They’re all good people. Don’t you like nobody? You don’t like Bush or Jackson or Dole? Cuomo? I think he would make a good president in the future, but what about right now? Who do you like right now? I like conservative. Do you like Pat Robertson? Do you like Mr. Reagan? No? Then you are in the wrong company, because you like nobody. You got to like somebody, sir. A man who like now nobody, who are you?

How can a man like nobody? I’m going to put the light on so I can see you good. Now, where you come from, sir, that you don’t like nobody. I like everybody. I like Bush, I like Dole, I like all the people. You must like somebody, sir, You like the river? I’ll take you to the river. You want to go to the river tonight? I think I’ll take you to the river tonight and see how you like it. Wash your feet and you be baptized. You’re a good person. Thanks you for coming, I love you.

* * *

Postscript: One month after bringing the Lincoln to the car wash, James Brown allegedly fired three shots into the trunk and a fourth under the right front headlight, while his wife slept in the back seat following an argument. Then, she charges, he beat her with an iron pipe.

Mr. Brown, who claims he “never laid a hand on her,” said the argument started because he was leaving on a South American tour and Mrs. Brown was upset because she was not going along. “She’s just mad because I won’t take her to Brazil, and she’s not going to go. She’s never going to go.”

Mr. Brown as charged with attempt to murder and aggravated assault and battery. Mrs. Brown, later that week, was arrested for possession of the drug PCP. As for the Lincoln, it will need more than a car wash.