Hollie Ferris joined the JBs as a trumpet player in 1975, and became the band's music director in 1986.
I was living in Nashville and playing with this show band on the road. And we were at this hotel in Atlanta where he stayed at the time. He came into the lounge and heard us play and hired me on the spot. So it was a being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time thing.
And all of a sudden, here's a white guy in an all-black band. But it worked out.
For the past 20 years, I was musical director and I played trumpet.
He was a very difficult man to work with because he wanted everything his way or the highway. Musically, he was very demanding, and he wanted it right. And we had to give it to him. I really respect him for that. He had a lot of other things that he wanted his way, things that a lot of people didn't agree with. But it always ended up working out, that it was the thing to do.
In terms of memorable shows, there's been a lot of them. We played the second Woodstock in 1999, and that was pretty awesome. We played for the king of Morocco a few years back for his birthday party. The prince of Morocco came on stage, and Brown threw him off stage. I guess he didn't know who he was. Everybody there was in shock: "Oh, no, you didn't just throw the prince off the stage?" But that was him. And he got away with it. He could get away with stuff that nobody else could get away with.
What was my job description? I would rehearse the band and tighten up anything that needed working on. Rehearse new songs he wanted to do, or new arrangements or if he wanted to add some older song to the show or if wanted the band to do a different song for our warm-up, I would do that.
Every time he would flash his fingers up that was a $5 fine: $5, $10, $15, $20. If you didn't look at him, he'd just keep going until you looked at him. You could make a mistake that only he would hear, that nobody else would probably hear. That's the way he was. He knew his songs and he knew exactly what notes should be there.
You didn't want him looking back at you, whether you were fined or not, you didn't want him looking at you because you knew you'd messed up.
Late in his career, he pretty much was going full guns. The guy's the strongest man I've ever known in my life, physically and mentally. I don't know where he'd pull up these reserves, but he could be really, really sick and walk out on stage and do a show.
It turned out he was more sick than we thought all along. But he'd still go out there and do a show.
Read more words from:
- James Brown: Soul Brother No.1 by Scott Freeman
Read excerpts from exclusive interviews with:
- Bobby Smith - King Records
- Jab'o Starks - long-time James Brown drummer
- Alan Leeds - tour manager
- Fred Wesley - former music director
- Hollie Ferris - music director
- Podcast: Scott Freeman and Mara Shalhoup discuss James Brown [mp3]