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James Brown

Evening Standard Metro Life magazine (June 2004)

If you want to know the secret of James Brown’s longevity, you just have to look at his hair. “Hair is the first thing,” the man variously known as Soul Brother Number One, The Minister Of Super Heavy Heavy Funk and The Godfather Of Soul once famously declared. “And teeth the second. Hair and teeth. A man got those things, he’s got it all.”

It’s an attitude that the now 71-year-old originator of funk (and hip-hop, through virtue of being the most sampled artist of all time) has stuck to throughout his chequered career. When he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1966, Brown sported a quiff that must have had Elvis chewing his leathers in envy. Almost a quarter of a century later, when Brown served a three year jail sentence for aggravated assault, he had his hair done every Saturday in the warden’s office.
Just twenty four hours before my audience with Brown, backstage at the Red Hot Chili Peppers show in Hyde Park, he cancelled an interview with Radio One because he had a hairdressing appointment. And when we meet, he’s sitting on a high canvas chair opposite a large mirror, his hair in a disconcerting array of pink and yellow curlers.

“You see a man like me and I represent not just the soul but the clothing, the shoes, the cars, the attitude,” says Brown who plays Hammersmith Apollo on July 2. “I just want to show the kids what showbusiness is all about. Not machines. What we do out there is strictly from us. Most people today don’t perform like I do because they use equipment. But I use my mind and my sweat and my blood and my tears.”

The sobriquet of The Hardest Working Man In Showbusiness may sound like bravado, but the term is hugely appropriate. Brown was brought up in a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, surrounded by the sexual energy and abandon that later characterised his reinvention of soul, and would sing and tapdance for pocket change. As an adult, his band often played seven shows a day and Brown fined musicians for fluffed notes, lateness and slovenly appearance. For Brown, a notorious control freak, it’s all a matter of respect. “They respect me now they know I will fine them,” he nods, his voice a rich croak. “I’m sure the army or the marines will debit your money or bust you down. You’ve got to be punished somehow, the way God punishes you.”

Alongside pioneering the breakbeats that propelled hip-hop, Brown was also the first black musician to be an entrepreneur. At his peak, he promoted his own shows, published his own music, and owned a string of radio stations and restaurants. As he’s still in dispute over taxes, Brown affects to play down his sharp business sense. “I’ve suffered tremendously for not being formally educated,” he says, “because they stole my money and they keep stealing that. I can’t fight that because I don’t have the tools. I hope one day they’ll take it easy on people like myself who give their heart to the people. We’re not worried about the mathematics.”

His 21st century equivalent, P Diddy, would probably approve of such disingenuousness. Does Brown listen to the music he inspired? “If I listen to modern music, I listen to James Brown because that’s all they’re doing. I’m just amazed when I look at them because I’ve got so much more to offer. And [audiences] are only getting fifteen or twenty percent, because they don’t get to see this kind of performing.” Are there any rappers he admires? “I admire all the rappers because they’re doing James Brown,” he beams. “I just don’t do the same language. The language should have some control on it.”

Brown was also a huge influence on Michael Jackson, right down to his dancing. “You can see it in Mick Jagger too. Everybody got some Brown and I thank God that he got it. He could have had some Jones or some Smith, but he got some Brown and I appreciate that.” What does Brown think of Jackson’s recent tribulations? “Well, I love Michael period. It’s strange that they waited so long to come back and say so many things about the man. It’s like me paying for being black all over again. I’d love to see the world get Michael back as Michael is very needed. They work programs out for countries and they should be able to work one out for him, a man who’s helped every country. If he needs to be escorted, needs to have protection with him, bodyguards, then give him that.”

Brown obviously sees a parallel between Jackson and his own brushes with the law. On the charge of aggravated assault, brought after he burst into a seminar of insurance salesmen and brandished an unloaded shotgun, demanding to know who’d used his personal bathroom next door, he’s declared “I aggravated them,” referring to the police, “and they assaulted me.” He recently decided not to contest charges of domestic violence brought by his wife Tommie Ray Brown, but made sure his attorney stated “Mr Brown does not admit to being guilty of this crime.” His controlling nature clearly won’t allow any admission of weakness. Wrapping up our discussion of Jackson, Brown says “I’m fighting for my life and when the courts are stacked against you, a lot of good isn’t being played. But fair is not a word you use any more. Fair is the weather forecast.”

It’s this stubbornness that defines Brown, of course. Musically, it helped create the songs he’s famous for, stripping back the melody of soul until only the pure, physical intent of funk was left, while politically it provided the steel in anthems like Say It Loud - I’m Black And I’m Proud. Talking about the death of Ray Charles (“a real gentleman, I admired everything he did”), Brown even brings that determination to bear on his own mortality. “I have diabetes myself. I just treat it and keep going. You’re going to die of something. But meanwhile I’m going to live as long as I can and die when I can’t help it.” For all of his faults, an inspiration to the end.



Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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