I have my own James Brown story. It's in two parts, separate by 20 years. One, during a time when I sang his music, the other when as a journalist, I spent the better part of a sunny April afternoon with the man.
Part one. I am in my late teenage years, working in an office tower. My guitar-playin' buddy, a couple of other pals and yours truly say, why don't we jam in the stockroom after work. We score some nasty tequila. The tequila disappears as well as the restraint.
I'ts my turn for two songs. I "perform" "Stand By Me." I execute it fairly literally. It is then that that guitar-playing buddy says I need to cut a bit more loose. I hydrate with several more nips of tequila and then say, "how about we do "It's A Man's Man's Man's World," by James Brown!!
We're game. But when I get to the final portion of the song, when James sang "HE'S LOST!!," I all of a sudden start a-testifyin.'
"HE'S LOST, HE'S LOST,," 10 or so times at peak volume for me. Follow that with "CAN'T YOU SEE "i'M LOST."
My vocal dibs are now on trajectory toward primal scream. Guitar-playin' bud is strumming his Argentinian hands on his acoustic guitar faster and faster, tryin' to keep up.
Then at that point, a crew of shoutin' Latina cleaning ladies burst in. Something like "is anything wrong? Shall we call the police/" Fluent in their language, guitar-playin' bud said something like it's cool, we'll go home now. And we all did.
TWENTY YEARS ON..
I'm writing about music for lots of magazines. One day, a very long-forgotten national magazine called Gig assigns me to go to Augusta, Georgia and interview James Brown.
Teaching college in Atlanta at the time, I left after my 10 a.m. class, jump on I-20 and head the 140 miles to Augusta. Mr. Brown comes out to studio reception desk and greets me.
First two hours is about his background. But he is not talking directly to me. He is reciting from a template. To annotate, he weaves in lots of lyrical snippets from his vast catalog.
After two hours, I said something like "Mr. Brown," (as he insisted on being addressed), let me tell you something about what one of your greatest songs meant to me one evening.
He didn't say "yes" or "no." I took it as an OK, go ahead, scribe boy."
Then I proceeded to tell James Brown the true story I told you in this post.
As I started to tell this tale, James Brown broke into a smile. Each stage of this story brought a broader smile to the Godfather of Soul's face.
Before I could finish, he said to me something I will always treasure:
"That, what you told me, about your singin' that song and breakin' it out, THAT'S SOUL, MAN!! THAT'S SOUL MAN!" (repeats two or three times more).
"YOU GOT SOUL, MAN"
You would have had to be there and to be around the man. This was not an entertainer who would say shit just so you would write a good review. Pensive, persnickity and suspicious of writers, cops, and everyone else not named James Brown, he was no (no pun intended) brown-noser.
But James Brown told me I got soul!!
Two hours later, I am in my car, driving on I-20 back to Atlanta.
In a "cold sweat," am thinking to myself, "no I didn't dream it." The "Godfather of Soul" told me "I got soul!!"
Now another 20 years has passed between that magical moment and today. The day in which Mr. Brown has left his body.
James Brown, I honor your unique talent, your art, your life.
And thanks for that very special moment 20 years ago.
I feel good.