He is known as Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk, Mr. Please Please Please, The Boss and, of course, the Godfather of Soul.
Clearly Mr. James Brown is not one lacking in self-esteem.
But regarding his induction into the Rock’n'Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 1986, alongside his peers Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, the living legend says today, "It was real important because I thought nobody liked me that much, you know?"
Born in South Carolina during the Great Depression, Brown picked cotton as a child, danced for spare change and shined shoes before being sent to reform school for three years at the age of 16 after he was caught and convicted of stealing. Brown, now 73, would continue to have well-documented legal troubles in the decades to come – a subject that, along with any questions dealing with black politics, was off-limits in our interview.
But Brown softens midway through, especially when asked about his post-reform school semi-pro boxing and baseball careers. "I love baseball," says the former southpaw pitcher. "My favourite player was Jackie Robinson [who broke pro baseball's colour barrier with the Montreal Royals in 1946]."
A leg injury forced Brown to pursue a music career, beginning with his first R&B hit Please Please Please in 1956. The rest, as they say, is history. As the Rock Hall explains, "What became known as soul music in the ’60s, funk music in the ’70s and rap music in the ’80s is directly attributable to James Brown."
Papa’s got a brand new bag
Brown apologizes for sounding more James Brown than ever. "I hope you understand me," he says, since he’d just had some work done at the dentist. Brown answers questions like he sings – in short bursts – but as his rare interview progresses, Brown warms up and his answers get longer and more involved.
Hour Did you realize then how important your music would be in helping break down racial barriers?
James Brown (Silence) I was just glad to be able to make music.
Hour When you performed in Zaire as part of the buildup to the Rumble in the Jungle fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974, who were you rooting for?
Brown I was wishing it would be a tie!
Hour You were a boxer. Is stepping into the ring anything like stepping onto a stage?
Brown Oh, yeah – you got a problem if you don’t know how to take a punch.
Hour Were any of your dance foot movements shaped by your early work in the boxing ring?
Brown My stage movements, it all came from boxing.
Hour Was your battle against prostate cancer in 2004 the biggest fight you ever had?
Brown It was the scariest fight of my life. I got through thanks to God, my wife and my friends. I was scared.
Hour How did you begin your famous stage routine with the cape?
Brown I got that from Gorgeous George the wrestler. He wrapped a towel around himself. The first time I saw him do that I thought it was a great idea.
Hour Do you still get as big a thrill performing live today as you did when you were younger?
Brown More now because you understand what you’re doing. For a long time it was Greek. Now it’s no longer Greek no more.
Hour You’re a disciplined taskmaster. If a band member is late, or off-key, what’s the biggest fine you ever gave?
Brown I’ll fine you $100 if you’re late. Same if you’re off-key. My wife is a singer and I’ll discipline her too. The biggest fine I ever gave was $1,000 [to a late band member] because I decided not to use him anymore. "Pay or you can leave." He took the fine. I learned to do it [assemble a tight band] over the years because I had good inspiration from my mentor Louis Jordan and [all those] big bands. All the people that were tight, they made it a business.
Say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud
At his height, James Brown was one of the most astute businessmen in showbiz. In 1962, without wide white support, his landmark album Live at the Apollo peaked at number two on Billboard’s album chart and went gold at a time when most black albums sold only 200,000 copies.
Like Elvis Presley, he is a three-figure hit maker, with 114 total entries on Billboard’s R&B singles charts and 94 that made the Hot 100 singles chart.
But his crossover sales would decline when his black anthems alienated white America, and his embrace of Richard Nixon would alienate black America.
Today, Brown says, "I got a mixed group: white, black, oriental, Latino. I got them all. I always did try to work my bands that way. They thought I was always for the blacks. But I’m for everybody."
And the Godfather – one of the most sampled artists in rap history, who received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, was inducted into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame just last month and has a new album coming out in 2007 – has some advice for the hip-hop nation.
"I think these guys are exciting and I get respect from all of them. But I wish they’d clean it up a bit because we gotta save these kids. What I did years ago, it’s all coming round. The dance steps, the ways of acting, teaching young fellows. Learn to love each other. In my lifetime we’ve learned to love each other less. Change the lyrics in the songs. They [the kids] got to hear something to emulate."
When I ask him how much God loves the music of the Godfather, Brown laughs out loud. "He’s the producer. I’m just the director!"
Brown’s really into it now. He wants to know where I’m really from, and when I tell him my father is from England and my mother from Africa, Brown says, "Aah. Well, you’re a decent young man. God bless you and God bless your family."
Then, faster than his signature one-three beat, Brown adds, "And we gotta clean these lyrics up!"
w/ Parker House & Theory
At Métropolis Jan. 3 and at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Jan. 4