News & Views » Cover Story

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



Page 5 of 6

Fred Wesley: Luckily, I got a second chance and came back as band leader. I came back with the understanding James Brown was a strong man. But that was the most difficult job in the world.

Hollie Ferris: I would rehearse the band and tighten up anything that needed working on. And then I would confer with him on a personal basis, which nobody else did. Nobody wanted to hang around him. ... People would prefer not to be in his face because he could find fault easily.

Alan Leeds: He was a crabby patriarch. Brown's philosophy of being a boss was that a relaxed employee was a lax employee. For every compliment, there had to be a payback. But for every insult, there was a compliment.

Fred Wesley: They used to say we got a fine for every note we played wrong. But we hardly ever played any wrong notes because we took pride in the fact we were doing something precise, something that was strong and monumental.

Alan Leeds: He not only fined the musicians, he'd fine us occasionally. "That's $100 off your check," he'd say. But the next day at breakfast, he might slide you $100 under the table. One night we were in New York playing at the Copacabana, and I brought my mother up and arranged a table for her up front. I took her upstairs after the show to meet him, and he was just charming and delightful. He had a guy bring in champagne, and he toasted her as "The Mother of the Year." There was a second show, and he told me to take off and make sure my mother got back to her hotel. And I thought, "Oh god, I know what this means -- nothing's free." And sure enough, the next day he called me at 9 or 10, which was early for Brown. And he said, "Son, bring your papers up, we've got to go over all the dates coming up." And he grilled me. That was the payback.

Hollie Ferris: You'd think he'd mellow out, but he never really did. He had to live the legend all the time. Can't you just be Jimmy Brown for a while and be a normal person? He didn't know how to do it.

The road never ends

Even as the hits dried up and James Brown got in the news more for drug arrests and police chases and jail sentences than he did for his music, he remained a touring machine.

Alan Leeds: In the last 20 years, let's face it, his shows were good, but it wasn't the same. In the '60s, people anticipated a James Brown concert the way a 5-year-old anticipates Christmas morning. Toward the end, the audience was coming to his show just to pay homage.

Hollie Ferris: There were times when we'd literally roll him up to the stage in a wheelchair, and he'd get up and do a two-hour show. It didn't matter if it was 50 people out there or 500,000, he always gave 100 percent. We've played shows where there were 50 people out there, literally, and he went out and gave a two-and-a-half hour show.

The last tour

James Brown was on the road until the end. At the time he was hospitalized before his death on Christmas Day, he was preparing to leave for a New Year's Eve concert at B.B. King's nightclub in New York City.

Hollie Ferris: The last tour was two weeks across Eastern Europe. We flew into Moscow to play for somebody's 50th birthday party; the guy had James Brown and Jennifer Lopez as the entertainment.

Alan Leeds: The last show with his band was in Croatia. Brown played his last gig on Nov. 14, when he was honored by the U.K. Music Hall of Fame in London. This was a week after the tour, and the band had flown back to the States, so he performed with a house band. He sang, "I Feel Good," of course, just a three-minute rendition for television.

Hollie Ferris: It always seemed he'd go home after a tour and get ill, from just not taking care of himself. You couldn't really take care of him because, you know, he was James Brown; you couldn't tell him what to do. Then right before we'd go out on the road, he'd start to get himself together. He went to the dentist, and they took one look at him and said, "You've got to go to the emergency room, you're sick." Three days before he died, he was handing out toys in downtown Augusta.


James Brown leaves behind a larger-than-life legacy. As Wayne Cochran says, "He was a complete original. There was never anybody like James Brown."

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment