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James Brown: Soul Brother No. 1 (1933-2006)

The story of a Georgian who rose from poverty to become a cultural icon, as told by the people who knew him best



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Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, there were fears of riots all over the country. James Brown happened to be in Boston, one of the country's most racially divided cities, and was scheduled to perform the next evening at the Boston Garden. The city debated whether to cancel the show and ultimately decided not only to allow it to go on, but to broadcast it live on local television in an effort to keep people off the street.

Alan Leeds: You couldn't cancel the show because that would make the kids, who were already angry, even more angry. So they threw the doors open and televised it. I've got a video of the concert, and there's only about 1,000 people there -- all day long, they'd been telling people to stay home and watch the show on TV.

Jab'o Starks: The Boston show was amazing. We got there and they told us the city was about to riot. And James got up on stage and said, "Look, there's no reason to do that. All you're going to do is get arrested, and some of you are going to get killed. Just calm down and let's see how this works out." He had a way of doing that. I mean, he was James Brown, you know?

Fred Wesley: He got on stage and told everybody, “Get back, get back, we’re going to do this right. We’re not going to act like fools, we’re going to act like people about this.” Then he calmed the people down and gave them a show. For a while there, everybody forgot about the assassination of Dr. King and got into the show. He made a speech talking about everybody being proud of being black and being proud of Dr. King and we weren’t going to let him go out with a lot of rioting. And they heard it, and there was no riot in Boston.

Alan Leeds: The next morning, he flew to Washington, D.C., which was up in flames. And he walked the streets all day, randomly stopping kids and telling them to go home. And at some peril, I might add. But he never worried about it. He'd say, "These kids aren't gonna hurt me."

I'm black and I'm proud

A young trombone player named Fred Wesley joined the band in 1968, and he would go on to become James Brown's music director. His first recording session was a song that galvanized the black community in 1969: "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)."

Fred Wesley: We were in California and had the day off, and we were laying around the hotel. Somebody came in and said, "We're going into the studio." James Brown walked in with a bunch of kids, and he said, "Say it loud!" And the kids said, "I'm black and I'm proud!"

Jab'o Starks: He was painstaking in the studio. He'd come up with the tune, and we'd work on it until he'd work up a sweat. Then he'd say, "I'm ready to record." It was like he was doing a gig right there in the studio."

Fred Wesley: We went back on the road a couple of weeks later. We were in Houston. And James Brown came out on stage and said, "Say it loud!" And everybody in the auditorium, about 10,000 people, yelled back, "I'm black and I'm proud!" It happened that quick.

Crabby patriarch

Just about everyone in the core band left in 1970, and James Brown brought in a new group under the direction of Fred Wesley. When Wesley left in 1975, a trumpet player named Hollie Ferris eventually replaced him.

Fred Wesley: My first week, we were trying to learn a new song, and I was trying to get the horns right. James Brown told me to get the rhythm right. I figured the rhythm was easy, and I said, "We need to get the horns right." And he told me I didn't know what I was doing and that I should listen to him. So I told him he didn't know what he was doing and that he should listen to me. Naturally, I got fired.

Alan Leeds: He was much more difficult on a successful night than a bad night. I would bring the ledger book into his dressing room. He'd be in a robe to absorb the sweat, his hair would be in curlers, and he'd be under a hair dryer. You'd hand him the books, and he'd either nod or else lift off the helmet of the hair dryer and ask questions. He'd complain about radio promotions: "We sold out and we didn't need to advertise." He'd complain about comp tickets: "They ripped you off, went out and scalped the tickets." He'd nitpick you to death, and it was brutal. But if it didn't go well, he'd say, "Hey, fellas, we'll have better days, don't worry about it."

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