James Brown: The Hardest Working Asshole in Show Business

by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

James Brown’s music and lyrics are woven into the politics of Black America’s most productive decade, the Sixties. However, JB’s “relationship to the Black people he touched most directly – those who worked for him – was cruel, petty, and contemptuous.”


James Brown: The Hardest Working Asshole in Show Business

by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

“’Mr. Brown’ held only one Black person in high regard: himself.”

When James Brown died on Christmas day, 2006, I wrote an article for the brand new Black Agenda Report crediting the “Godfather of Soul” as “The Man Who Named a People.” People of African descent had been called – and called themselves – by many names in their centuries of sojourn in North America. But, it was not until release of James Brown’s August, 1968, era-busting hit “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” that the broad masses of Black people got a chance to express their own preference. As I wrote:

“Brown’s greatest gift was to allow masses of Black people to participate in the process of self-determination. Nothing like it had happened before, or since. By submitting the declaration ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’ directly to the people, for them to affirm or reject, Brown took the name issue out of smoke-filled strategy rooms and away from the machinations of self-selected ‘spokespersons.’ James Brown called out, and the people responded – democracy in action.”

Left unsaid was the fact that “Mr. Brown” held only one Black person in high regard: himself. With the release of the movie Get On Up, those of us who knew “Soul Brother Number One” are free at last to tell the truth: he was an asshole of the highest order.

I first met James Brown in 1965, when I watched him hand $600 to my father, a local disc jockey in Columbus, Georgia – a yearly ritual to ensure adequate airplay. At the concert later that evening, I made the mistake of sitting in the bleachers in the middle of a bunch of female JB fans who almost tore me limb from limb in frenzied response to Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” – painful proof that Brown’s popularity was not dependent on payola.

Five year later, in February of 1970, just out of the U.S. Army, I was working as a newsman at Brown’s Augusta, Georgia, radio station WRDW-AM, for the princely wage of $70 a week before taxes. Augusta moved to the beat of its most famous resident, but the city had been bypassed by the previous decade’s civil rights movement. A wretched, Uncle Tom theocracy kept Black folks in check for the benefit of white business leaders. Although Blacks made up about half the population, they had virtually no representation in local government.

I spent my first few weeks getting immersed in the grassroots politics of Black Augusta. Who was the sister who spoke for the folks in public housing? Where was the brother who jumped up every time another brother got beaten down by the police? How could I find the local entrepreneur who was always complaining that the city and county refused to award any contracts to Blacks? Such people certainly existed in Augusta, as they did in every Black city.

Augusta moved to the beat of its most famous resident, but the city had been bypassed by the previous decade’s civil rights movement.”

In no time at all, I met ten people – whom I privately dubbed the “Committee of Ten” – with long histories of struggle and leadership in every subject area of the “news”: housing, criminal justice, economic development, education, health issues, etc. These suddenly became the “leaders” and “spokespersons” that populated WRDW’s hourly local newscasts, which were now off-limits to the previously ubiquitous preachers. Since WRDW was the only local full-power Black-oriented station, its listenership encompassed virtually the whole of Black Augusta.

The “new” leaders – who had always been there, although seldom if every quoted by media – soon reached consensus on a political project for Black Augusta – a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign like those pioneered in the 1920s in Chicago and led by Reverends Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr. in Harlem in the 1930s and 40s. Since Blacks were almost totally barred from sales work in downtown Augusta’s shopping district, the proposed boycott would have to be total. The station’s news department became information central for Augusta’s new leadership, and new movement.

Because Augusta was his home, James Brown spent more time at WRDW than at his Knoxville, Tennessee, and Baltimore stations – a mixed blessing for those who worked for him. I was told the staff’s payroll checks bounced less often than at his other stations. However, JB’s more frequent presence was bad for everyone’s nerves. When his rented private jet was nearing the airport, a red light would start flashing in the studio and common area. The disc jockey on duty was then compelled to play the sound of a roaring jet engine, while announcing, “The Black jet has arrived! Mr. Jaaaames Brown is arriving at Augusta national airport in his BUUUH-LACK JET!”

The Black jet’s landing meant heightened vigilance against failure by staff members to address each other as “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” – a firing offense. Mr. Brown believed – as he conveyed in monologues to captive employee audiences – that white people’s success in business was based on respect for such titles, even though, by 1970, the folks at IBM and other corporate trend-setters were addressing each other as “Bob,” “Mary,” “Dick” and “Jane.” Nobody, of course, was going to point any of this out to Mr. Brown. His insistence on conformance to an imaginary white etiquette was bad enough, but the utterly arbitrary and capricious character of his punishments was legendary. Members of the band could occasionally be seen mowing the lawn at the station or the Brown estate, working off a JB-imposed fine.

Augusta was fired up at the prospect of the looming downtown business boycott, having essentially missed out on the Sixties. I found it curious that JB had not mentioned, much less interfered with, a political project that was targeting his principle local sponsors: the downtown merchants who refused to hire Blacks, although African Americans were their primary customer base.

His insistence on conformance to an imaginary white etiquette was bad enough, but the utterly arbitrary and capricious character of his punishments was legendary.”

On the eve of the boycott kick-off, thousands gathered at one of Augusta’s largest Black churches, with hundreds overflowing into the street. (After the church’s pastor joined the movement, I had allowed him to return to the airwaves as a news “source.”) Southern Christian Leadership Council field director Hosea Williams brought a crew of organizers from Atlanta to belatedly usher Augusta into the new era. At around 10:pm, the rally MC announced that “Mr. James Brown is donating $600 to the bail fund.” The church exploded in cheers and hallelujahs. Augusta’s favorite son was down with the people!

I immediately suspected that Brown was going to destroy the nascent movement from within.

The next morning, which was to start Day One of the boycott, I found a note wrapped around my microphone as I prepared to deliver the 6:am news. It read: “There will be no mention of the downtown merchants boycott on this radio station.”

The sudden imposition of radio silence killed the boycott, just as JB intended. My theory, back then, was that Brown had not intervened, earlier, because he assumed that efforts by local Black folks, for whom he often voiced contempt, would collapse in confusion and incompetence long before the project actually threatened his advertisers. When that didn’t happen, he feigned support at the rally and then pulled the plug the next morning.

Given that I could not report on the only news that mattered, I gave my resignation to the station manager when he arrived at work. Before I could leave the premises, I was told to wait a bit because “Mr. Brown” wanted to “work this out” with me. It wasn’t long before he was attempting to lecture me about how he’d seen so many “young people in Harlem” who were “hooked on dope” – almost the same words scripted in a scene for actor Chadwick Boseman in the film Get On Up. I suddenly realized that Brown, whom I first met in the company of my father in Columbus, Georgia, assumed that my roots were as southern as his own. This country mutha from Barnwell, South Carolina, was trying to call me a hick. We both flexed. The station manager grabbed me (“rescued” would be a better term) while the general manager grabbed Brown – and I was out of the state before sundown.

The sudden imposition of radio silence killed the boycott, just as JB intended.”

Thanks to Brown, the boycott was stillborn, but the frustrated militancy of the people remained. On May 10, cops fired on a protest against police brutality, setting off a rebellion that left six Blacks dead, all from buckshot wounds to the back. Lester Maddox, the racist who won the Georgia governorship chasing Blacks from his fried chicken joint with an axe handle, sent 1,200 National Guard troops to the city, and enlisted James Brown to quell the disturbance. JB urged Blacks to “respect” themselves, and other nonsense.

Brown squashed a peaceful, old-fashioned downtown boycott movement in late March, only to cozy up with an arch racist governor over the dead bodies of Black Augustans, in May.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business respected only white power and his own talent. He regaled both willing and captive audiences with how the Johnson administration had failed to heed his political advice (“I tried to tell Humphrey...”) – although I never understood what he was actually claiming to have recommended – while the Nixon White House was more open to his wise counsel. The truth, as everyone in his employ understood, was that Brown believed the Nixon administration would protect him from the IRS, which is why the Godfather endorsed the Republican ticket in 1972. Unfortunately for Brown, Nixon was deep in his own doo-doo by 1973, when the IRS resumed its assault on JB. Brown gave the impression of endorsing George W. Bush through his presence at political fundraisers.

After I quit WRDW, Brown ordered that notices be placed on the bulletin boards of all three of his stations, ordering that Glen Ford not be allowed on the property. Nevertheless, I was hired once again, without Brown’s knowledge, late the next year, at his Baltimore outlet, WEBB-AM. The notice remained on the board, but nobody ratted me out to Mr. Brown, because nobody shared anything with JB. The man was so capricious, so oblivious to all but his own inner workings and urges, that kissing up to him was risky business, subject to misinterpretation.

Brown caught sight of me during a visit to the station, and immediately had me fired. The next day, I was told to come to lunch at a restaurant next door to the station. JB was presiding at the head of a long table, next to former football great turned Christian propagandist Rosie Greer. As I took my seat, JB formally rescinded my firing. “I was wrong,” he said. “The man sounds like ABC, coming straight out the ghetto.”

Although glad to have been spared, I understood it was only an act of caprice by Brown. Events could just as easily have gone the other way – and eventually would have, if I had not found other employment soon thereafter.

Brown believed the Nixon administration would protect him from the IRS.”

However, more than a great performer’s ego is involved, here. JB absolutely reveled in abusing his Black subordinates, while whites were mainly immune from such ritual humiliation. In Augusta, where the pay was poor and the checks often bounced, the Black staff were expected to dress to standards that Brown imagined were in force at the top white corporations. However, two white men actually managed the physical property and serviced the transmitter for the station. They hung around in a shed, sipped liquor, spoke to JB in casual language – no “Mr.” – and dressed like bums, although both often flashed wads of money. Meanwhile, Soul Brother Number One’s band members mowed the grass and dared not complain.

James Brown’s relationship to the Black people he touched most directly – those who worked for him – was cruel, petty, and contemptuous. South Carolina-born actor Chadwick Boseman's performance sometimes made me think I was looking at a ghost – except that Boseman is too tall and Brown’s malice was inseparable from his short stature.

Brown didn’t do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons; he did things entirely for his own, self-serving reasons. As a merchant, composer and a performer of catchy hooks and slogans, JB was savvy enough to realize that the assassination of MLK and the nationwide rebellions that followed had created a whole new market for militancy and “Black”ness in the summer of 1968. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” was a musical-lyrical product for mass consumption, like all the other JB products. The fact that it provided a mass cultural opportunity for Black people to make a political statement on their identity, with “Black” winning “by a landslide,” was our collective good fortune.

Get On Up is a surreal movie, largely apocryphal and allegorical. But, Chadwick Boseman’s JB is truth to me.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].



Glen, I've lost respect for you.

This type of disrespect of one our greatest icons makes question the purpose of BAR because it's certainly not to promote a black agenda. I was going to send some more money in to help defray the cost of coverage for the trial of Renisha McBride's murderer, but I think I'll pass.   I'll think I'll pass on BAR altogether. You haven't said anything original in years. All u do is talk about Obama.

Even great icons have their

Even great icons have their faults.  When it reaches a point where one can't be criticized just because of one's status, legacy, etc. you get the black misleadership class and Obama.  JB's rocky road relationship with his band is old news.  Mr. Ford is simply relating his up close/personal experience working for Brown.   This story is no different that what you hear about lots of celebrities be they black, brown, or white.  Behind the scenes, celebs can be quite different than what one sees on stage.

Funny that people are going

Funny that people are going to stop reading b/c of Mr. Ford's personal assessment of JB. You are really going to hate me then for bringing this up: I will preface it by saying it is hearsay as I have no personal history but I've heard it multiple times: JB was also a woman beater and I read that it was widely known he beat the hell out of late singer Tammi Terrell..I think this just goes to show you that these people who are entertainers or celebs are multi-faceted and complex just like EVERYBODY else. JB sounds like Ike Turner who also struck me as a frustrated black man in a white male dominated society who took out his rage and frustration on those closest to him. Not unlike I'm sure a lot of average black men. JB was a product of his times and I still LOVE his musical legacy but I'm sure if we lifted the curtain on MOST people we call celebs, we'd find things worse than what Ford outlined in this article.

He didn't have to call the Man an Asshole!!!

No jew would ever publicly call another jew an asshole or SOB in print or TV!  No other ethnic or racial group demeans their own like we do. My only objection to the article is the title and I know he could've said everythng he said without being offensive.  I know you gotta be provacative and get the reader's attention. but I think you went too far!  We need to check ourselves sometimes and watch what we say and keep our personal feelings to ourselves. We have to be mindful that other people are watching us and our people are watching.  Many of us are either ignorant or just looking for an excuse to tear down another black.  The article through its title plays right into those phenomena. We have to be our own propogandists and apologists or "defenders of the faith" as it were.  We need to do a better job of crafting own image.  

Another thing:  black professionals and educated blacks, flawed as they are, are not the enemy. Middle class people do not control anything and we don't have enough rich blacks to run anything. They are just as dependent on white folks as the rest of us. So, we need to stop turning our anger at our situation on us and focus more on the real problem which is white racism. I would like the BAR to 1.)  focus less on the black misleadership class and more on the people and institutions that created and maintained it.  and 2.) actually propose an agenda (i. e. Economic Justice) and tell us how to carry it out.

I disagree. Other groups

I disagree. Other groups disagree with each other ALL the time. There are people who profess the faith of Judaism who decry Zionist/Israeli policy all the time. Nobody says anything. White dems & repubs go at it in public ALL the time and it's accepted public discourse. So to imply that we are somehow less 'couth' b/c we criticize those who SHOULD be criticized is silly and shows a lack of awareness or sincerity. Only you know which applies. And I will also say this: White supremacy/global apartheid could NOT maintain a foothold without co-opting the black boule and those like them who betray the interests of the whole in the short-sighted personal pursuit of their own selfish interests/goals. Through out the Diaspora. They are cash bought coons. And I'm specifically speaking to so-called govt reps, politicians, public officials & heads of organizations & HEADS OF STATE; that supposedly exist to serve and protect the interests of the black constituency &/or demographic. Too many of them are Yassuh Massas for hire and could give a damn about the black community they  supposedly serve. And I don't give a damn if they do get offended. They have always been a problem in our community and until they fear the consequences of their continual betrayal of black folk more than they covet the illusionary trappings of the 'white man's favor'--they will continue to do what they do. But there should always be those of us who call them out on their behavior and hold them up to public scrutiny. So yes, they are the enemy..not the PRIMARY enemy to be sure but they are like a defecting troop or even worse, a double agent or spy for the opposing force--and make no mistake, we ARE in a war. It may be officially undeclared but the white global collective has been waging war on us in every possible way for centuries.

I would like to see bar. . .

refer to slime like hilly & willie clinton, obama, and that nutty yahoo kingpin in apartheid-naziist israel as assholes, because that's exactly what they are, along with anyone in a position of power who, out of blind bigoted hatred, decrees torture, mass murder, and misery on innocent people, or (if reporting on it) euphemizes torture, mass murder, and misery to make them sound benign and justified.

I've YET to hear a "progressive" white jews (e.g., amy goodman, noam chomsky, jon stewart) refer to terrorists like menachem begin, goldie meir, and nutty yahoo as asshole kikes. Now THAT would be refreshing and would probably spark REAL action to stop apartheid-naziist israeli terrorism, cuz all these polite, dignified appeals to asshole israel for dialogue & peace ain't doin' shit for beleaguered Palestinians!


In response...

My friend... An asshole, is an asshole, is an asshole... Now, at least... Mr. James Brown, is a well-documented asshole. Glen's analysis was right-on-time... With me, at least... All that matters, (ultimately) is a person's politics... A person's true loyalties. Mr. James Brown, was wonderful for creating/performing great music... Okay... But his politics, my friend... His politics. He was an, "asshole!" 

So because JB was a tough Taskmaster, he is worthy of Disrespec?

Black people are the worst hypocrites! The very things that they bitterly complain about when they have a black boss, they gladly do for a white or non-black one.  What it boils down to is too many of us don't respect other blacks; won't submit to another black's expertise or authority; and feel we are too good to follow another black person. This is the slave mentality where only a white man can lead me or tell me what to do.

Even if he was a jerk, his achievements outweigh his shortcomings, but niggers are too shortsighted to see that.  Besides, there are plenty of white assholes. Steve Jobs comes to mind.  But,  I don't see y'all talking about that and piling on and jumping on the bandwagon to bash them long after they are dead.  Mr. Miller, you didn't know James Brown so you shouldn't be concernef with private life only his public life and you shouldn't allow Glen's personal bias influence you. You should judge a man by the totality of his life not by a few negative tidbits you read on a blog. Niggers revel in ignorance, petty jealousy, and bullshit. Don't be a nigger!

In response...

My friend, Oraluk... You did more generalizing, name-calling and misinterpreting of my response than I can cover, in a few minutes!!! Mr. Ford's very informative article hasn't, "influence(d)" me, at all. All my life, I've been the type of person that tends to just call-them-like-I-see-them... Of course, I didn't know Mr. James Brown personally... (We don't NEED to have) But Mr. Glen Ford did... Are you kidding me? Hypocrites? Did you understand, what you were reading? That very informative article, was designed to inform the masses with useful information, regarding one of our cultural icons... It was timely. And I applaud the author, for that. FYI... That is a very important part, of a real Black Agenda!!! Let's just do more calling shit the way we see it... YOU personally, may bave been okay with working for an, "asshole" and giving him a pass, because he's a member of our race... But not me. Okay? We do not share the same values, in this instance. 

I think Oraluk is Asking for Consistency

If it's intolerable for a black to be an asshole, then it's equally intolerable for a white to be one.  You shouldn't hold a black or blacks to a higher standard than you hold someone else unless he or she or them betray us.  Many great leaders of history (i.e. Caesar, Genghis Khan, Ramses the Great, and Shaka Zulu) were despots and brutal, but their people honor them because they helped them defeat their enemies and achieve greatness. Also, it's a tactic of the divide and conquer strategy that whites use to defeat us by being a nicer alternative to a traditional black or African leader by offer us aid and comfort from the black brute.  It seems that we'd rather be led by others as long they're nicer to us or save us from the hard work self-governing. Do you think Japan or China would be great if they thought like us?  Of course, such help comes at a price: sellout your people and help us conquer your lands or neutralize if not destroy your institutions.  That's why Africa remains undeveloped and why our progress remains stymied after the 1960's.

Also, many of our people are just looking for any reason to disrespect or disregard another black person.  We thrive off bullshit and disunity. So, because we know that Dr. King cheated on his wife should we look at his program or leadership with a jaundiced eye?Because Malcolm allegedly engaged in homosexuality for money or was a panderer or a pimp, should we throw out his message of pride and self-help?  That's all discussing these men's personal lives is designed to do.  

I and many others knew about James Brown's less than stellar personal life before this column, but I do agree with Oraluk that it does a great disservice to put out a hit piece on him in light of a new movie celebrating his life especially to our youth who don't know much about him and who don't have the life experience or wisdom to read this piece or watch that movie with a sober perspective and to look at that movie or read this blog with a balanced view so that they don't walk away feeling he's either all good or all bad.  He's somewhere in between as we all are.  That's all we're saying.

In response, to Lone Star Pugs...

Well then, I guess I disagree with you both... And anybody else, who thinks like you do. Nobody is holding a Black person, to a higher standard than a White person... An asshole, is an asshole. And I wouldn't describe the article as a, "hit" peice... You may have, but I thought it was timely. That movie is open for criticism, just like any other. Is it not? And as far as your charge that the article's intention was to put Mr. Brown's, "personal" life on blast... You're wrong, my friend. Nothing in the article, was personal. It was (in part) about Mr. Brown's very public selling-out, of a whole community's planned boycott of businesses, that were refusing to give jobs to people, because of their Race... As well as his selling-out, the subsequent protest of a racist police department's brutality... Gunning down Black people!!!??? Six people shot-in-their-backs! And since you brought up the word, "betray(al)..." You're gonna turn your back on those people, who were gunned down as a result of protesting Police brutalty, at this  late date?  What were YOU reading? I call the way Mr. Brown   ruined that boycott, using his radio stations to do it, an absolute betrayal to a whole community!!!!! OUR community, in Augusta, GA... Institutions like radio stations, are supposed to support the well-being of our communities. Not silence protests. Where are YOUR politics, my friend? JB get's a pass, for that kind of  behavior...? How many years, after the fact? Not from me.

Speak truth to Power

I'm Jewish and Ariel Sharon is and Asshole! Well more to the point he's a racist genocidal maniac, but I feel it's important to be critical of those who misrepresent our cultures.  AND I know that while Sharon and Israel are evil, I know that U.S. imperialism is pulling the strings, using a revisionist memory of the holocaust  as a smokescreen to continue their racist project worldwide. I respect your point about tearing each other down, but I find an important truth in Glen's article, which is that keeping silent when our leaders mislead us can also be a crime. "In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends." MLK.

James Brown

Brother, I know you have personal issues, maybe well founded, with James Brown, but denigrating the legacy of Black leaders is not the answer.  There are enough White people who do that.  He really never got his props for his contributions to music. Yes, he had problems, but so do you - so does everyone.  Come on, blaming the radio station for the failure of a boycott?  Where were the leaders in the coalition(s)?  I knew Hosea Williams and he could have pulled it off if other factors were not present.  The complete story is not being told. Please keep your personal gripes to yourself.  They're not helpful to the movement.

You didn't know James like some others did...

Their knowledge, like Glen's was based upon dealings with an actual and deeply flawed human being.  Yours is based upon wishful thinking, upon a James Brown who exists only in your imagination.  By now I've run into more than half a dozen who had personal and business dealings with Brown, and they all pretty much agree with Glen's assessment.  

It ain't exactly a secret.

Why Is That Personal?

“There will be no mention of the downtown merchants boycott on this radio station.”

James Brown: The Hardest Working Asshole in Show Business

Hard-hitting, brother Glen Ford... Hard-hitting. Brutally honest and very, very informative. Just what the Afrikans in this country need... Thank you, brother. Thank you. BAR has my support... I'm about to contribute, what I can.

thank you Mr. Ford, I just made my first donation.

Mr. Ford, you know what bother, I wish I could meet and shake your hand. I love all your stories, Bruce Dixon is another writer that I admire. Anyway, your piece on JB compelled me to finally contribute financially. It's stories like these that we don't hear about in our community. I am glad to hear about your  personal experience and not from some writer who  got his knowledge from third parties. I liked JB's music, but a brother that whipped JB's behind was Fela Kuti. Even Fela admits that JB had an influence on him and contributed to his Afrobeat, but we all know Fela was on another level ideologically, politically and as a human being overall.

To the poster who said he will not contribute to this site because of this piece, you are doing your community a disservice. Every Wednesday I log into this site to get the "real news." I am Puerto Rican, a brown brother, and a lawyer too. My first colonial language is Spanish, my second is English, who knows what I will need to learn if these conflicts persists, Russian, Hebrew??? Anyway brother, show some love, realize that if BAR loses its website we won't hear about real isues affecting our communties, and we'll have ourselves to blame. Thanks again BAR, I will try to contribute more often.



James brown

Thanks, Glen

Great story to hear from someone who was intimately connected with this scene. Too bad about the boycott getting un-discussed. I think main stream media must have many pieces of paper on their microphones. I wish there were radio stations for regular people, but it seems like the airwaves have been taken over.

Anyway, thanks for all you do.                                                  Sincerely, Chris Herdman