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].