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James Brown knows what he wants to say and he's going to say it whether you like it or not. Ask him virtually any question and he's apt to answer with something like this:
"I'm a man from the other side of the tracks who's come back and changed the American way of life and the world's way of life, and it's an honor to be able to talk and to express my thanks and appreciation for what God has done and what the American people have shown me--that you can be a comeback kid even at my age if you keep on trying."
There aren't many pauses in a James Brown quote. The words come at you--boom! boom! boom!--like the relentless beats and whirlwind rhythms that mark so many of his great songs. And the Godfather of Soul/Hardest-Working Man in Show Business/Soul Brother Number One/Man of a Thousand Nicknames knows which songs those are. Let the conversation flag for a moment (perhaps to take a breath) and Brown will fill the space with interjections drawn from his greatest hits: "Papa's got a brand new bag, and he's working on the night train! I feel good!"
Brown hesitates only when discussing prison, where he landed a couple of years back after a high-speed chase through parts of two Southern states. Clearly, the book was thrown at him for his drug-related and gun-related crimes, in spite of the years he'd spent promoting education for underprivileged youths and other worthy goals. Was racism the reason? Would Elvis Presley, Brown's white counterpart and the only solo performer to sell more records than he during the Fifties and Sixties, have been treated as badly had he committed the same sins?
"Elvis's fans would have rallied around him," Brown stammers before revving up again. "My case, I would be glad to review it and I'm sure it would come out right. But I knew that if I raised too much dander and didn't leave it to the courts to decide, I would create hostility and it might turn into a Rodney King thing. So I played mine down, and all of America looked into the case after that and knew that James Brown had more merits than that. James Brown was a victim of a lot of things, but I came out of it with my head up. And we had a great response from that situation that was so positive. It was one of the better things that happened to me, because it gave me a chance to go on the inside and find out the root of our problems."
The social ills he learned about firsthand are what Brown really wants to address. Drugs, violence, gangsta rap: Brown preaches against all of these topics with gospel fervor. He may have spent time in the pokey, but he continues to see himself as a role model. "You look at it biblically, and even in our American history: Somebody has to lead the way," he declares.
No doubt Brown would like to be that somebody, and he's in good enough shape to do the job. He may be on the north side of sixty, but he still looks super bad in his trademark processed hair and outfits he designs himself. "A young man in Cleveland, Ohio, has been making my costumes for me for the past 25 years," Brown says--and if this haberdasher is still young after clothing the Godfather for a quarter-century, you can bet the man himself is in fine fettle.
His memory also is startlingly sharp. When asked about a show he performed at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles during the mid-Eighties, he doesn't hesitate to rattle off specifics. "My wife brought Boy George on stage to sing with me," he recalls. "And then Michael [Jackson] and Prince came backstage and were laying on the floor trying to see if I had rollers on my shoes. They couldn't believe it. They couldn't believe that I can slide across the floor like I do without rollers on my shoes."
Brown doesn't roll as fast as he once did, but he still puts on the type of extravaganza captured on his landmark 1963 album The James Brown Show Live at the Apollo--"a real vaudeville type of revue with uptown style," he says. "We can play at the White House or we can play in a city park and still be in step." He admits that he exercises occasionally but attributes his vigorousness to "faith in God. We had a sellout last week at the Greek Theatre [in L.A.] on a Saturday night, and on Sunday I was singing in church. You put God first and the spirit comes from everywhere."
What Brown calls "my Horatio Alger story" began in 1933 in rural Georgia, where he was born to destitute parents; his mother's fourth-grade education gave her two more years of schooling than her husband had. Young James made it to seventh grade but was forced by poverty to abandon scholastic pursuits. According to his Eighties-era biography, he picked cotton and danced on the streets to make money. He got into some trouble during his youth but found his way out thanks to music. By 1956, he was signed to King Records, and with his tremendous vocal group, the Famous Flames, made the sales charts with the plaintive "Please, Please, Please."