James Brown may have been telling more than he intended on his 1974 hit, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.”
Papa didn’t cuss
He didn’t raise a whole lotta fuss
But when we did wrong
Papa beat the hell out of us
The man’s smile could light the way on a starless night. His music inspired and enthused. James Brown couldn’t make the lame walk but he could make the rhythmically-challenged learn to groove.
Yet James Brown had that downside. There were the violent explosions in his personal life. There was the mess he left behind when his vibrant self took that last breath on Christmas Day 2006.
James Brown’s life made millions happy. He was the hardest working man in show business. He made sure his customers were satisfied with his work. Yet satisfied customers could take pause over the thought of James Brown in turmoil.
What was desired from James Brown was an eternal proclamation of “I’m back! I’m back!” as heard in his triumphant “Get Up Offa That Thing.”
The troubles with the law, spouses, and the matter of determining the legitimacy of children born were not what the Godfather of Soul meant to order. But it’s what he got, along with his many triumphs.
The often contradictory life of James Brown is evident when recalling the national leaders and politicians he associated with and often aided.
In his autobiography, Brown said he was often in touch with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Andrew Young ,and Hosea Williams. He did not buy fully into King’s non-violent philosophy, writing that “personally I’ll take a lick on one cheek, but I won’t take it if it comes to the second cheek.” He reasoned that the Bible speaks of self-defense. Yet Brown knew how vital King’s work was to the nation’s future. He thought of King as “America’s best friend.” Then King was murdered. People reacted violently, as could be expected. So Brown spoke from the Boston Garden stage the night after King’s assassination, exhorting people to honor Dr. King and to work toward fulfilling his dream. Looting and setting fires would not keep the dream alive..
Brown made similar pleas the next day in Washington, D.C., where all hell had broken loose. A little more than two years later, he worked to bring peace to his hometown of Augusta, Georgia. A 16 year old black male had been killed in the Richmond County Jail. The authorities may not have committed the crime but they were responsible for it. That jail was the same one James Brown turned 16 in; he was doing time for stealing items from parked cars. The irony couldn’t have been lost on Brown. He too had been a victim of Georgia’s two-way justice system: one way for whites and another way for blacks. The pot had long been simmering. Things got ugly in Augusta.
But Brown pleaded again for people to turn away from the violence. Lester Maddox, the cartoon-ish segregationist who became a cartoon-ish governor, was relieved Brown’s message got across.
When the SNCC’s H. Rap Brown was under indictment, James Brown wrote a check for his defense fund. Both men had previously talked with each other about the paths to justice. Brown told the activist that “I agree with you, Rap, we got to get justice. But people shouldn’t have to die. They shouldn’t have to die.” Brown wrote that he “disagreed with Rap about a lot of things, but I also didn’t like the way the government was harassing him.”
In a period of four years, Brown went from being ready to endorse Bobby Kennedy (RFK) for the presidency to endorsing the reelection of President Nixon. On the day of the ’68 California primary, a promotion man for Brown reached RFK at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to tell him of Brown’s desire to endorse him. That pleased Kennedy. Hours later, after declaring victory in the primary, RFK was murdered.
Upon Kennedy’s death, Vice President Hubert Humphrey received the support of James Brown. Humphrey lost in the general election to Richard Nixon. In ’72 Nixon received Brown’s endorsement. He claimed to be impressed with what Nixon was doing for black colleges and minority enterprises. Despite his reasons, Soul Brother Number One took a lot of heat for that.
Years later, when Rolling Stone asked Brown to name a great twentieth-century hero, he picked Strom Thurmond, the U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Yes, the same Thurmond that ran for President as the nominee of the “Dixiecrat” party in 1948. Yes, the same Thurmond who filibustered against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Perhaps Brown appreciated that Thurmond may have expressed second thoughts by voting in favor of the federal holiday to honor Dr. King. Brown had been an early supporter of the King holiday, asking President Nixon to put the weight of his office behind the measure. Nixon showed little interest and it wasn’t until 1986, nearly 12 years after Nixon left the presidency in disgrace, that the nation had its holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the summer of ’96, the Olympic games were staged in Atlanta. The athletes and media from around the globe were joined by some of the world’s most famous entertainers. A House of Blues (HOB) was set up in the old Baptist Tabernacle building downtown, near the newly constructed Centennial Olympic Park. For those who cared more for music than athletic competition, the House of Blues was the happening place. In about two weeks time, Dr. John, Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Al Green would be among the top names booked. Bob Dylan would close out the series of shows on August 3 and 4. Dylan’s 8/3 set wowed the audience, especially with his blazing rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Alabama Getaway,” one of the night’s encores.
But there could be no Showtime in Atlanta without James Brown. So on Friday night, July 26, James Brown took the stage in the tented area at HOB. According to reports, he was a bit uneasy about performing in the old Baptist church building. It was the sacred-versus-the profane dilemma. There’d be more reasons to feel uneasy later on.
But before he took the stage, all was right with James Brown and the Atlanta Olympics. On the site Humid City, a writer who worked for HOB remembered seeing Brown arrive for his show.
He pulled up in a Snow White stretch limo with a vanity plate that said “Godfather.” He hopped out fizzing with energy, and immediately started shaking hands and kissing girls at the security perimeter. Yes, he really seems like that all the time.
Hours later a bomb went off in Centennial Park. It was 1:19 a.m., Saturday. Terrorist Eric Rudolph had come to town.
Not everyone in the vicinity knew what happened, but the HOB crew was on top of things. The Humid City writer describes the events surrounding James Brown.
When the pipe bomb went off, my friend Vaughn and I had to tell (Brown) there would be no encore.
The Godfather was not happy.
What do you mean there will be no encore? I’m the Godfather. These people want to see the Godfather and I’m not going to disappoint them.”
They told him a bomb had just gone off at Centennial Park, just a block away. The Godfather of Soul had a change of heart.
“Where’s my limo? Where my women at? Let’s get out of here.”
James Brown was a brave soul but he was no fool. Besides, he had more than ten years left in him. There were a lot of shows to give. People wanted to see the Godfather and he didn’t want to disappoint them.