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“What does it take for a man to get true recognition in this country?” James Brown once asked during a meeting with former New York mayor Ed Koch. “What does it take for a black man to totally succeed?
The year was 1979 and I was on the James Brown beat, following him around New York whenever he came to town.
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“Wouldn’t you say you’ve totally succeeded?” the larger-than-life mayor inquired.
“No, sir,” Brown responded humbly.
“But aren’t you one of the most noted, accomplished people in your field?”
“So was Jesse James,” Brown barked back.
“I don’t understand,” Koch continued. “You are someone who has risen to the very top of your field, not as a black, but as a performer. Isn’t that so?”
“I feel that.”
“So then what is it that you’re saying is missing?”
Brown tried to explain: “James Brown is a legend. Kids see me in the dark and they say, ‘That’s James Brown.’ Again, I ask what does it take for a man like me — who is rated only second to Elvis Presley in statistics – to put a record out and have it played? There should be no question.”
In 1980, Brown was trying to recapture some of the magic that created the legend of the Godfather of Soul and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. During the disco era, James Brown-style funk was no longer in vogue. He hoped to reel in the audience with an album titled The Original Disco Man, but fans weren’t buying it. It would take a few more years for Brown to catch on again, when he had a hit with “Living in America” from the Rocky IV soundtrack.
But Brown would carry his discontent to his grave (he died in 2006). This discontent is played out in the new biopic Get on Up that opens Aug. 1. The James Brown portrayed by Chadwick Boseman is driven, insensitive, at times abusive – not a particularly nice guy to be around or work with.
That’s not quite the James Brown I knew from many hours spent in his company while a tape recorder rolled. One time, Brown’s eyes followed a woman’s sizable derriere in a dressing room. He had recently released the album Take a Look at Those Cakes, so I joked that the woman had large cakes. Not sure how he’d respond, Brown cackled loudly and gave me a soul shake.
He often joked with me about me being Jewish. During my second interview with him in 1980, I joined Brown in a limousine. As I sat in the jump seat just in front of him, he put his hand on my shoulder and intoned, “I could use a smart young Jewish man like you in my organization.” Brown never officially offered me a job. He was just jiving me. That’s the side of James Brown that doesn’t come through in the movie.
I doubt screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth or director Tate Taylor ever met James Brown. It certainly would have made it easier for them to better understand their subject. But that’s the problem with biopics. The subject is long gone and then it’s time to pay tribute with a Hollywood portrayal. In this case, the Butterworths and Taylor have done a pretty good job finding the essence of James Brown, what made him tick.
Brown grew up dirt poor in Georgia in the ’30s and ‘40s. Like many black youths today, he ended up in jail for petty larceny. But it’s jail that made the man in this case, because it’s where he started singing and met the members of his original group that would later be christened the Famous Flames.
Like Diana Ross with the Supremes and Bob Marley with the Wailers, it wasn’t long before Brown received top billing. On a mission to distill R&B, gospel and jazz into a new sound known as funk, Brown worked tirelessly, recording as many as four albums a year during his late-‘60s heyday. He also took the bull by the horns and controlled his own business affairs, often booking shows without the help of a promoter, which the movie shows.
Brown would record at all hours of the day and night. “I can cut at four in the morning,” he told me. “When I get an idea, I call everybody to wake up and the engineer rushes right over. I wrote ‘Sex Machine’ on the back of a placard when we were playing a gig in Nashville. Afterwards we went right over to the studio and cut ‘Sex Machine’ and ‘Super Bad.’”
Band members were underpaid and often fined for missing a note or not polishing their shoes properly. A key sub-plot in the movie focuses on Brown’s longtime back-up singer Bobby Byrd (played poignantly by Nelsan Ellis), who gradually pulls away when he realizes he’ll always be in Brown’s considerable shadow. Another band member, saxophone player Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson), leads a revolt in the movie. Parker indeed left the group and never came back, but most of Brown’s players needed the work and eventually returned after a short period of being replaced by Bootsy Collins and his brothers.
Brown’s relationship with women is not handled particularly well in the movie. At one point, the former prison boxer slugs his wife, DeeDee (Jill Scott). Perhaps as a result of being abandoned by his mother Susie (Viola Davis) at a young age (she shows up later in the film asking for money) and having been raised by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), who ran a brothel, Brown was violent toward women in his adult life. But the movie skips over a lot of that.
Drugs played a tangential role in Brown’s life, primarily in his later years when he took to smoking joints laced with PCP. This led to erratic behavior and finally to his arrest in 1988 for assault and battery and drunk driving, which bookends the movie.
By the time of his release two years later, Brown’s licks had become a staple in hip-hop and suddenly he was being hailed after years of fighting to remain relevant.
My interviews with Brown continued until just prior to his arrest. At the Lone Star Café, where Brown and his JB’s played regularly in the ‘80s, he talked about future projects. “There’s so much more I want to do,” he said. “I want to do a country album. I want to do a gospel album. I want to do a jazz album.” Then Brown looked squarely at me and needled, “I want to do a Yiddish album, too.”
That was the James Brown I knew and loved, a different James Brown than appears in Get on Up. I’m not saying the movie isn’t accurate, it just lacks nuance.
The last time I saw James Brown was at BB King’s in New York in 2006. I was standing backstage while the JB’s revved up the crowd. As they chanted “James Brown, James Brown,” I caught a glimpse of the Godfather of Soul emerging from his dressing room in one of his sequined outfits. We made eye contact and Brown yelled out, “It’s the red-headed booger.” We hugged and chatted for a minute. Then James Brown calmly walked on stage to rousing applause, commencing a tight one-hour set of his funk standards.
My friend James Brown died six months later on Christmas Day.
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek