A coloured is a very frightened to death Afro-American. A Negro is one that makes it in the system , and he wants to be white . A nigger he’s loud and boisterous , wants to be seen. Nobody likes a nigger. A black man has pride . He wants to build , he wants to make his race mean something . Wants to have a culture and art forms . And he’s not prejudiced . I am a black American man . Now you go ahead and print it .
James Brown The Godfather Of Soul 1990
I’m beginning to fall in love with the USA . Already our next trip to the States is being planned . Almost three weeks in Los Angeles where we’ll be interviewing Jeff Goldblum , Christian Slater , Sharon Stone, Will Smith , Patrick Swayze , Whoopi Goldberg , Demi Moore, Steve Martin and a whole raft of stars . We are also going to catch up with The Happy Mondays who are in LA recording their Thrills Pills and Bellyaches album and the biggest buzz for me – to kick off we are going to Aiken South Carolina to interview the Godfather Of Soul himself in prison , Mr James Brown .
It’s Tim Burke , the director who came up with the idea of using the chroma key special effects on the Word set who’s sorted everything out . At first Charlie isn’t sure who James Brown is ( typical , but that’s a story for later ) , after a lot of prompting he agrees we can go ahead with it . It’s been a labour of love for Tim Burke, he’s fought tooth and nail to get this through . He’s had to liaise with James Brown’s high powered attorney types in Washington DC who run James Brown’s On The Potomac production company. Luckily for Tim the company are in the process of putting together a James Brown Documentary, which they are shooting on Film . The deal is simple , they will get us access to James Brown in Aiken , we pay for their crew to shoot the whole interview on film , they get to keep all the footage , but we get to broadcast our four minute interview first on British TV. It’s a snip at $10,000 and an exclusive . James Brown’s first interview on TV outside of the USA for four years .
I talk to Tim, are we really going to interview James Brown ?. I can’t quite get my head around it.
We fly to Charlotte North Carolina a pleasant enough eight hour journey if you don‘t suffer from the kind of over active imagination that I do and you are not sitting next to someone with almost terminal BO . Within five minutes of sitting on the plane I have to mention it to Tim . “Listen Tim , have you had a shower ” . He says yes , but I notice he doesn’t say how many months ago . “You fucking stink , have you got any deodorant “. At Charlotte airport we meet up with Larry Freyday and the senior attorney Vince who works for James Brown , the Producer a rather jovial middle aged black woman called Joyce and Dan Paisley who is the camera man/director on the shoot .They all notice that Tim stinks too , but are too polite to mention it to him , I try and keep my distance from him , so they don’t think the whiff is coming from me . These are James Brown’s people – on the Potomac productions and they’ve just flown in from Washington DC. Larry is about thirty years of age and is actually from Aiken . There are only two famous people who’ve ever come from Aiken South Carolina , one is James Brown and the other is the top American football star at the time William Perry – known as The Fridge . Larry works for both of them and his first job on graduating in Law from University was to negotiate William Perry’s first professional contract – ker-ching . Apparently William Perry’s mother had heard that Larry had just graduated in Law so called her to ask if Larry would do it . Yes please was the reply . We then board a twenty seater propeller plane which sways all over in the air to Augusta Georgia for a bumpy palm wetting ninety minutes . A half hour drive over the state-line and we are in Aiken Carolina . Aiken looks like the town from the film of Harper Lee’s famous novel ‘ To Kill A Mocking Bird’ . There’s the town square with it’s courthouse manicured lawns and willow trees , lots of grizzled faced the south will rise again Ku Klux Klan types driving around in pick up trucks with rifle racks on the back . This is the deep south – racially the town is a fifty- fifty mix and only ten years earlier the Hotel we are staying at ‘ The Holly Inn ‘ was a whites only affair . I’m half expecting to see Gregory Peck in a white suit and panama hat walking down the street mopping his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief.
The ‘On the Potomac’ production people , with the exception of Larry Freyday , marvel at The Holly Inn the way a first time visitor to Egypt might marvel at the Sphinx . For the USA this Hotel built in the 1890’s is ancient . As Tim and my self check in we pour on the polite British manners , lots of please and thank you most kindly . We are taking the piss a bit . The middle aged White woman on the reception is almost having an orgasm . “ No thank you very much , it’s my pleasure “ etc . As we go into the lift I comment that here in the deep south to be British and Caucasian makes us double white in the eyes of the locals – there’s no way they are going to be chasing us through the night with a lynching rope and a pack of hounds . As the teetotal attorneys and producers head for their rooms , we freshen up at the bar with a couple of beers and Scotch chasers . If there is one thing we Brits do better than the Americans it’s drink . We get a couple of suspicious looks off the good old boys in the bar and are grilled by the bar maid about why we’ve arrived in town with a couple of sharp suited Negro Lawyers . We tell her and she nods . We then pour on the how friendly delightful and polite everyone is down here and she buckles at the knees and starts having a semi-orgasm and thanks us and we in turn say , no thank you , you are most kind even kinder than us . She gives us a free beer then a free Scotch . We love it here and get slowly drunk while telling her how kind she is for the next hour until we are joined ( ok we’ve not showered or changed and Tim still stinks but I’m almost used to it by now ) by the production people and head off for something to eat .
Aiken is very friendly . I ask Larry about growing up here – I guess there are or were shades of Mississippi Burning about the place . He says the younger generation are really changing and racism amongst people is pretty unheard of nowadays . I ask him if when growing up here it would have been ok for a white guy to go out with a black girl – he says that would have been fine . I then say what if you were a black guy and you wanted to go out with a white girl. Larry’s eyes say it all . ’No way , it just wouldn’t happen’ . I enquire as to whether this is because you might get beaten up . Larry assures me “ no man , they’d have hung you “ . I can see how that would have squashed your desire somewhat , still they seem a polite enough bunch and from what I’d seen of the white women of Aiken when God was handing out good looks they were lost at the back of the queue somewhere , in fact hanging would have been less shameful than going out with the ones I saw.
I’m tired out with the stress of flying – I desperately need to sleep , the jet lag , the travelling , Tim’s chemical BO humming around me all day , the worrying about travelling , the free whiskeys . This is the deep south and the temperature is 100 degrees in the shade , the humidity is sub tropical . Our rooms in the hotel are fairly basic but they have air conditioning . I turn the air conditioning on and it sounds like I’ve got my ear pressed up to the propellers on the aeroplane that flew us here from Charlotte . I’m in the bathroom about to take a long delayed dump . I spot something very long and whiskery coming out of the overflow hole in the sink . I freeze , not a rat’s whisker surely . I summon up enough courage to look . It’s a Cockroach the size of my hand trying to squeeze it’s way through . I quickly put the plug in the sink and turn the hot water tap on full power and watch as the scalding hot water reaches the overflow pipe and washes the giant roach away . Cockroaches don’t like the light so I try to sleep with the light on and the noisiest and most inefficient air conditioning unit in the world . This is what you get for quaintness and character – giant insects and the sound of a waste disposal unit right next to your ear in a hot room in a bed that feels as if it was slept in by Robert E Lee and half the Confederate army with their boots on. Well what do you expect for $29 a night – it’s all location , location , location. The room is not only too bright , but it’s still too hot , one look at the strange hairy winged things beating and fluttering on the outside of the glass and I decide there is no way I’m opening the window .
The following day it’s all business , we are going to interview James Brown . I am coached by Larry and Vince .
“ Address him as Mr Brown and what are you wearing Terry ?“ .
“No , no jeans , a shirt with buttons and as long as it’s smart you don’t have to wear a tie “. I knew all of this anyway – but couldn’t help thinking hang on I’m not the one in nick . As it turns out on this particular day every week James Brown is allowed out of the prison on day release to work at a community centre with alcoholics and homeless people . Larry and Vince actually slip the warder looking after James Brown eighteen hundred dollars to go and take an hour long walk around the block while we take Mr James Brown to a doctor’s house to conduct the interview .
Forget the NHS , if you qualify as a doctor go to the states . This house looked like South Fork on Dallas and the swimming pool was Olympic size with diving boards and slides. Tim and myself joke that this is probably James’s bag man to supply the prescriptions . James Brown is currently in prison for leaving the scene of a crime where it was alleged he tried to murder his wife ( she dropped the charges ) he then resisted arrest by firing shots at the police and driving toward the state-line , a police chase ensued which ended when they shot all four tyres out on his four wheel drive vehicle . When he was arrested he was found to be high on the animal tranquiliser PCP or Angel Dust which makes you violent and feel as strong as the incredible Hulk .Of course we have been briefed that none of this is the kind of thing that should be brought up in the interview , and as a long standing soul fan granted a private audience with the man himself , the Godfather of soul , I am more than happy to go along with it .
We film the interview in what is a large sitting room with a huge Grand Piano in the middle . James Brown will be seated at the Piano during the interview . I am at my forelock tugging obsequious best – it’s not me , but knowing the history of James Brown I am actually in awe of him . Because the interview is being shot on film it seems to take an eternity to light the interview and while Tim Burke and the production crew faff about with screens , lights and angles I have James Brown to myself . I talk to him about the legendary male soul singers , the all time greats . For soul purists vocal wise the vocal giants among the Soul men are the late Sam Cooke , Little Willie John who wrote the song Fever and recorded the quintessential version ( forget Peggy Lee ) , Clyde McPhatter of the original drifters and the late great Jackie Wilson . They also all happen to be dead ( and in case you are wondering , even though he’s dead , Otis Redding is one of several subs along with James Carr warming the bench ) . James Brown agrees , he was a huge fan of Gospel – he proceeds to play the Piano and then in a sweet clean voice he sings a line of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come ’ , it sounds exactly like Sam Cooke . He then tinkles on the piano some more and starts to sing Little Willie John’s hit ’All Around The World ’ . “Grits ain’t groceries and eggs aint poultries and Mona Lisa never smiles” . I’m blown away by the sheer talent – how closely he can imitate his fellow r&b singers – it’s like Sammy Davies Junior doing Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at the Sands . He then does an old Jackie Wilson number with that soaring fly away vocal style . I’m praying that they get the cameras set up in time to catch some of this , I’ve got James Brown in full flight now . He’s telling me stories about the old days and the old artists he worked with . “They call it Funk , what it really is , is James Brown music “ . “ There’s only four kinds of music out there – your Mozart , your Beethoven , your Brahms and your Brown” he grins . I got some great musicians in the past – Maceo Parker – he thinks he blowing his horn for fun , I tell him what to play those crowds are jumpin’ for him every night , then he thinks he‘s ready to play his thing , so I replace him and had even bigger records without him “ . This is what I’d heard about James Brown , every virtuoso musician who ever played with him was told exactly what and how to play , and it had better be exactly how that record sounded . “ Kids go to see music , they want to hear it the way it sounds on the record . I put Bootsy (Collins )out front and when he thought he had somethin’ goin’ I took musicians that couldn’t hardly play at all and cut Hotpants and bigger records , I wanted them to know it wasn’t them doin’ it “. He then contends ‘ of all those guys none of them ever did make it “.
I start wondering whether to disagree but we’re not filming yet , and I don’t want to crash the legends vibes before the cameras are even on . I’ve got him on a roll , I realise the truth in what he’s saying . Yes Bootsy Collins had success for a time with Parliament /Funkadelic and Fred Wesley his trombone and keyboard player had some underground dance tunes with Fred and the New JBs and Maceo Parker had some recording success but most of that was with George Clinton’s ‘Parliament ‘ . James Brown’s band always worked best as a churning funk engine and maybe life as a back up man to Mr Brown might have been tough given the lengths their boss went to remind them of just how dispensable they were. This guys not the Godfather Of Soul , he’s The Alex Ferguson of Funk . I ask him about his dancing and given his age if he’s still able to do it.
He tells me he’ll be doing his utmost until the day he dies . He hikes up one trouser leg to reveal his right knee . It’s a gruesome sight , scarred and furrowed , slightly discoloured – he looks like he’s been playing professional football for twenty years . “ I can still drop down on my knees when I sing ‘Please please please ‘, but now I need help to get back up , gotta have help “. I am having one of those weird feelings , I’m locked in a dream and James Brown is talking to me . The Godfather of Soul , Soul Brother number one, Mr Dynamite , Mr Sex Machine , The Hardest Working Man In Show business , James Butane Brown .
The very James Brown who played to over three million concert goers in 1967 alone , selling more than fifty million records that year . The Mr Brown who racked up seventeen bill board hits in a row in two years and sixty six weeks on the album charts with his Live at The Apollo album Volume 1 , an album the record company didn’t want him to make so he paid it’s $5,000 costs himself . 500 suits , 300 pairs of shoes , his own jet , diamonds , cars , a funky place cum castle in Queens New York with black Santas on the lawn at Christmas . During the race riots in Boston and Washington DC in 1968 they put him on TV to cool down the rioters , a funky lyricist turned sloganeer ; ‘Don’t terrorise organize! ‘Don’t Burn Learn’. James Brown a truly living legend .
“ Is it true that only Elvis Presley has had more chart hits than you?”
“ Now Elvis Presley , there was a boy died because he came out of the country life and ways. Night he died I chartered a jet to Memphis and stood over his casket tears in my eyes , I said “ Elvis how you let this happen ? How you let it go “?
“Like me Elvis was country , if you are country you stay country or you will die a little bit every day . To a country boy , the city , well it’s like prison, . I first went to jail when I was a boy , sentenced to as many years as I’d lived for breakin‘ into automobiles . First thing that gets you in there is the noise , then the smell . Like a zoo”.
I’m fumbling with my dictaphone thinking , hurry up you dozy arse-holes you’re missing the interview .
I ask him about the deep south and why he’s so attached to it when it has always had this racist reputation . James Brown knows this question .
“ Now my daddy always said when we live in New York or Philadelphia that some white man been nice to you at the gas pump , maybe when you lay your head on the pillow that night he gonna come along and blow it off . The Northern white man is sneaky . Southern white man least he let you know where you stand . He tell you to go ‘round to the back door to get your sandwich’ , you gonna find a sandwich “.
James plays the piano again for me . I end up having a private twenty five to thirty minute concert off James Brown , meanwhile the clocks ticking and the crew are still fannying about with lights . Vince ,Mr Brown’s attorney has words with Tim Burke . James Brown’s prison warder escort is at the door and we’ve not filmed a thing yet – our hour is nearly up . Whispered negotiations in the back ground . Eventually Vince goes outside . I later hear that the warder gets slipped another $500 to take another hour long stroll , the negotiation was to make sure that 24 hour productions were going to stump up for the extra payment . When I hear I’m not surprised , it was only three months earlier that James Brown was caught in his prison cell with $40,000 in cash stuffed under the mattress .
At last we’re set up and ready to go . Tim Burke now starts to be what I see as a pain in the arse , it’s his vision for his James Brown piece not mine . “
We’ve not got time for all this specialist stuff about the great soul singers and James Brown the King of Soul music Terry “.
Tim feeds me a load of what I consider to be ultra bland questions . James Brown churns out the answers . Every question is so stock and jaded and banal I feel embarrassed asking them .
“ What’s special about the James Brown sound “ . He gives me the old Brahms Beethoven and Brown line . The final question Tim is insistent on .
“ Mr Brown have you got a message for your fans in Britain”.
“ Yes I’ll be over soon , God Bless you and thank you , oh and keep hold of the fish and chips “.
James Brown is lead away and I kind of know I’ll never see him again as long as we both live – it’s been very special for me , and I clutch my little dictaphone and curse the fact that all the best stuff wasn’t on camera – but as I found out , in light entertainment on television , they don’t actually want anything any good anyway and if we‘d filmed it , it would never have been used , especially on the Word .
As soon as the interview is over Tim Burke, wearing the same clothes he’s had on for the past two days jumps in a cab to Augusta he has a flight to Charlotte , then a connection to New York , there he will spend all night developing the film and taking a copy for The Word , before catching a flight to London and jumping straight in a cab to the offices of Planet 24 in the Isle Of Dogs . No rest for the wicked I say . When he gets back to the offices he falls asleep on one of the couches , the following day he turns up at the office at 10am instead of 9.30am . Charlie chews his ear off , he has a go back . Charlie says he’s sacked him , Tim later tells me he has resigned . I suspect he’s gone so no one will ever know that he’s the person who came up with the idea about the chroma -key behind the live bands on the show . For me it’s a Friday night out in Aiken South Carolina with Larry Freyday – the town has two night clubs , a black club and a white club , we are going to hit them both .
Larry’s great company and a celebrity of sorts in Aiken . Obviously he’s a tall well built good looking ex college boy with a law degree and he represents the two most famous people to ever come out of Aiken – James Brown and William ‘The Fridge‘ Perry . The black club is a very smart modern club with a well dressed fashionably chic looking crowd , it also has a fantastic sound system , maybe one or two many mirrors knocking about for my liking . Larry is greeted at the door as if he’s the latest Hollywood A’lister . Everyone knows him . Now I spent eighteen years growing up in an area where almost a third of my neighbours were black , and managed a reggae band who toured all the Afro Caribbean clubs in Britain . I was used to being one of maybe four or five or so white people in a club full of Black people , but I had never been the only one . But here in Aiken I was . What I couldn’t understand was the music in the club was really good , the decor was nice , it’s a quiet friendly little town and you aren’t exactly spoilt for choice when it came to nightlife yet none of the White people in the surrounding area seemed to want to frequent the club . Larry joked that I was probably the first white person to ever spend more than twenty minutes in the place , and I felt like Eddie Murphy’s negative in the movie 48 hours . We spent about an hour in the club and then Larry asked if I fancied going down the road to the White club .
“ What’s it like I asked him “ .
“ I don’t know I’ve never been in it “.
We strolled a couple of blocks and there was what was a cafe bar which sold beer and food packed to the rafters with rather ugly looking white college kids dancing on the tables to Jon Bon Jovi records played at about forty decibels above tolerance level . The heat and humidity inside is unbearable , the people young badly dressed and , skipping any euphemisms here , ugly. Larry is the only black person in the club and he is dressed in a suit and tie . The man behind the bar puts our beers into polystyrene cups so we can drink them outside on the street along with the other thirty or so revellers who can’t be bothered squeezing inside the confines of the glorified sweatbox . There are two doormen outside , both dressed in long sleeved white buttoned dress shirts . They approach me . “ Where are you from “? “ London , England “, I reply , they nod , and then turn to Larry who I‘ve already sussed is the person they‘re really concerned about -” Where are you from ?”.“ Washington DC “ . They nod and say we should enjoy ourselves . I know the answer but ask Larry anyway .
“If you’re from Aiken , why did you say Washington DC”
“ If those guys think I’m from Washington they are going to treat me with a lot more respect than if they thought I was from Aiken – then they’d think I was just trying to prove some point about coming in here “. I couldn’t believe a place so small could still keep itself segregated through choice , an unspoken agreement . I suggest we finish our drinks and head back to the hotel . “ This place is shit , the music’s crap and the people are ugly – it’ll never catch on , they probably thought you were some detective like Sydney Poitier in that film ‘ The Heat Of The Night“. Larry smiles says “ Call me Mr Tibbs “ and we head back to the cockroach hotel .