What Would James Brown Have Said about the Coronavirus?
The coronavirus pandemic is the third time I’ve felt like I was playing Russian roulette with my life. James Brown took one of the bullets out of my chamber at another moment of great danger.
I was on standby at Fort Lee, Virginia, ready to deploy with the Army for riot control in Washington D.C. when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. It was a Monday at 5 p.m. when we got the word to form up and ship out to D.C. I’d driven home to Schenectady over the weekend anticipating my ultimate deployment to Vietnam and hadn’t slept for two days. I could barely hold my eyes open. James Brown went on national TV and quieted things down enough that I never had to leave the base.
Decades later I got to thank him in a phone interview. “What was on my mind (when I spoke to the nation) first was to stop people from getting killed, to save our country and to prepare a place for our children,” he told me. “We must make people love each other. Entertainment is so very important. Whether it’s “Popcorn” or Paul McCartney or Aretha Franklin or B. B. King or Elton John or Rod Stewart, it don’t make no difference who it is. We are all in this thing together, and we must do something about it. We are our brother’s keeper. So, let’s keep being that.”
I asked him how he managed to hold his temper when his brothers were rioting over Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. “I played myself down and let ’em know how bad it was for me. And If I could play James Brown down and not be a star I’d become, then they would listen to me.”
That interview almost didn’t happen. It was Thanksgiving time, and The Godfather of Soul was preparing to give turkeys out to the people for the seventh year in a row in his hometown in Georgia. He had come from absolute poverty to a position as Soul Brother Number One. He would be giving the turkeys away across the street from a cookie factory that held horrible memories for him.
“When I was a little boy across the street, there was a cookie place, and while they was making the cookies, they would drop a lot of sweet batter on the floor, and we would come along and give them a nickel. And they’d scrape it off the floor, and we’d take it to school and eat it. That’s how bad it was. I will always be in love with humanity and thank God for all he’s done. And I will always thank America for that opportunity to do it. We’re paying back to the community. You want to thank God and show him how much you appreciate it.”
Brown was stillborn in 1933. Revived, he lived in a one-room shack, abandoned by his mother at age four. Aunt Handsome “Honey” Stevenson took him into her brothel where he shined shoes, racked pool balls and delivered groceries to make ends meet.
If James Brown were alive today he would understand the catch phrase “We’re all in this together.” His music was sometimes misunderstood by white people. “I didn’t do (“I’m Black and I’m Proud”) to separate. I wanted to write and (tell) the people that were going through things to know the day wasn’t over. You’ve got to (live) your life. You can straighten it out. It wasn’t always good to nobody, but you got to straighten out, and I want you to know my love is unconditional when it comes to people. I love ’em regardless of what they do. I may not like what they’ve done, but that’s God’s business. But I love the people unconditionally.
“The resistance (to “I’m Black and I’m Proud”) did not come from the whites. It came from the blacks because a lot of them didn’t want any identity. It was always black “Negro.” That’s black. That’s Spanish. I really didn’t worry about making a lot of things better for nobody. I didn’t want them to know they was gooder than nobody, that (they were) better than nobody.”
As a journalist, I’ve made a career out of searching out heroes in the hardscrabble world of the blues where overcoming hardship and rejection is the core inspiration for many of the best songs that become an artist’s ticket out of poverty and personal misery while inspiring millions. James Brown started lower, reached higher longer and with more cultural muscle than any artist in the 20th century. He was my number one hero, the hardest working man in show business. Some musical icons have one nickname. He had six: Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, The Godfather of Soul, The Minister of Super Heavy Funk, and Music Box.