Back in the 1960s, when I was a kid living in St. Albans, Queens, in New York City, there was a huge, forbidding, black-and-gray house that sat on a lovely street not far from my home. The house was located across a set of Long Island Rail Road tracks that basically split my neighborhood in half. My side of the tracks was the poor side—tightly clumped, small, exhausted-looking homes, some with neat lawns and manicured flower beds; others were like mine, in total disarray. The neighborhood was mostly working-class blacks, post office and city transit workers from America’s South who had moved to the relative bliss of Queens from the crowded funk of Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. It was a proud crowd. We had moved up. We were living the American dream.
But on the other side of the railroad tracks was the high life. Big, sumptuous homes with luscious lawns; long, shiny Cadillacs that eased down smooth, silent streets. A gigantic all-glass church, a beautiful park, and a glistening, brand-new Steak N Take diner run by the Nation of Islam that stayed open twenty-four hours on weekends. The Nation scared the shit out of everybody in my neighborhood back in those days, by the way. Not even the worst, most desperate junkie would stalk into a Steak N Take and pull out his heater. He’d be dead before he hit the door. Many of the Nation of Islam Muslims who worked in Steak N Take were ex-cons, serious, easygoing men in clean white shirts and bow ties who warned you about the ills of pork as they served you all the cheesesteaks you wanted. That place was smooth business. And then there were the celebs who had bought homes nearby: Roy Campanella. Lena Horne. Count Basie. Ella Fitzgerald. Fats Waller. Milt Hinton. All stars. Big time.
But none of them lived in the huge, forbidding house on Murdock Avenue, with vines creeping onto the spiraled roof and a moat that crossed a small built-in stream, with a black Santa Claus illuminated at Christmas, and a black awning that swooped down from the front yard in the shape of a wild hairdo.
None of them was James Brown.
We used to stand outside his house and dream, me and my best friend, Billy Smith. Sometimes crowds of us would stand around: kids from my neighborhood, kids from other neighborhoods. A kid from nearby Hollis named Al Sharpton used to stand out there sometimes, but I didn’t know him in those days. Billy had moved from my side of the tracks into a house just down the street from James Brown, and in the summer I would cross the Long Island Rail Road tracks alone, a dangerous piece of business, just to hang with him. We’d linger outside the forbidding black-and-gray mansionlike home for days at a time, waiting for the Godfather of Soul to emerge. Sometimes other kids from Billy’s crowd came: Beanie, Buckie, Pig, Marvin, Emmitt, Roy Bennett, son of the great singer Brooke Benton, who lived right across the street from James Brown. Kids came from all over, from South Jamaica and Hollis and Far Rockaway. The rumor was—and this went on for years—that the Godfather of Soul would slip out of his house at night, walk around the corner to nearby Addisleigh Park, sit down and talk to the kids, and just give out money—give it out by the twenties and fifties—if you promised him you’d stay in school.
We hung out in the park and waited and waited. We waited for months, all summer, all winter, our promises ready. He never showed.
I knew of no one in my neighborhood who’d actually met the great man until my sister Dotty, age eleven, fell into our house one afternoon breathless, sweaty, and screaming. “Oh my God! Oh my God! You won’t believe it! Ohhh my Goooood!!! Helennnnnnn!”
Helen, the sister above Dotty in age and Dot’s guru in those days, came running, and the rest of us gathered around. It took several minutes for Dotty to compose herself. Finally she blurted out her story:
She and her best friend, Shelly Cleveland, had slipped across the railroad tracks to linger outside James Brown’s house after school like all the kids did. Of course he didn’t come out. But that afternoon, Dotty and Shelly decided to do something no kid in my neighborhood, no kid in New York City—no kid in the world that I knew of at that point in my eight-year-old life—had ever done or even thought to do.
They went up to the front door and knocked.
A white maid answered. She said, “What do you want?”
“Can we speak to Mr. Brown?” Dotty asked.
“Wait a minute,” the maid said. She disappeared.
A few moments later, James Brown himself appeared at the door, with two white women, one on each arm, both dressed in sixties wear, complete with beehive hairdos.
Dotty and Shelly nearly fainted. The Godfather of Soul seemed tickled. He greeted them warmly. He asked Dotty, “What’s your name?”
“Dotty . . .”
“Stay in school, Dotty. Don’t be no fool!” He shook her hand and shook Shelly’s hand and the two girls fled.
We listened, breathless, as Dotty recounted it. It seemed unbelievable. Even my mother was impressed. “See that?” she barked. “Listen to James Brown. Stay in school!” But who cared about what she said. What was important was that James Brown said it! Dotty’s star soared. She’d always been a total James Brown fanatic, but in a house of twelve kids where food was scarce and attention scarcer, where ownership of the latest James Brown 45 rpm was like owning the Holy Grail, Dotty morphed from underling to holding a kind of special status—ambassador to famedom, chosen member of the tribe, a button man, a made member of the mob. In other words, a Big Kid with Gold Star standing.
The shine lasted months. She would stand in our freezing living room on cold winter nights when there was nothing to eat and nowhere to go and no money to go there anyway, and play out the scenario. “He’s so small,” she’d declare. “He’s a little guy.” She’d leap up, whip her hair back in James Brown style, thrust out her jaw, and holler in a southern accent, “Stay in school, Dot-tay! Don’t be no fool! Hah!” We howled. Visitors, neighbors, even my gruff stepfather and the serious people from church asked her to relive the moment, which she did, giving a blow-by-blow account of how the Hardest Working Man in Show Business—Mr. Dynamite himself—had come to the door of his house and given it to her straight: “Stay in school, Dot-tay!” The grumpy old church folks listened and nodded stern approval. James Brown was right. Stay in school, Dotty, stay in school.
I watched all this in grim silence. My crummy sister had beat me to the punch. She had kissed the black stone. She’d met James Brown. My jealousy lasted years.
Every man or woman in this life has a song, and if you’re lucky you can remember it. The song of your wedding, the song of your first love, the song of your childhood. For African Americans, the song of our life, the song of our entire history, is embodied in the life and times of James Brown.
He is easily one of the most famous African Americans in the world, and arguably the most influential African American in pop music history. His picture hangs on the walls of African homes and huts where people don’t even know what he did for a living. His imprint has been felt throughout Western Europe, Asia, the Far East. His dances, his language, his music, his style, his pioneering funk, his manner of speaking are stamped into the American consciousness as deeply as that of any civil rights leader or sports hero, including Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. He is also arguably the most misunderstood and misrepresented African American figure of the last three hundred years, and I would speculate that he is nearly as important and as influential in American social history as, say, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. When his 2006 funeral procession steered slowly through Harlem, men rushed out of barbershops with shaving cream on their faces, children stayed home from school, old people wept openly. The Apollo Theater crowds lined the streets for five city blocks, thousands of people, from 125th up to 130th Street. Black America from front to back took a knee and bowed. The King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, flew to Augusta for the funeral service, a coronation from a king to a king. Black Americans loved Michael, too, but while he was black America’s child—abandoned at times, forsaken, adopted again, in, out, black, white, not sure—there was no question about who James Brown was. James Brown was our soul. He was unquestionably black. Unquestionably proud. Unquestionably a man. He was real and he was funny. He was the uncle from down South who shows up at your house, gets drunk, takes out his teeth, embarrasses you in front of your friends, and grunts, “Stay in school!” But you love him. And you know he loves you.
But there is more, and here is where the story grows extra body parts. During the course of his forty-five-year career, James Brown sold more than 200 million records, recorded 321 albums, 16 of them hits, wrote 832 songs, and made 45 gold records. He revolutionized American music: he was the very first to fuse jazz into popular funk; the very first to record a “live” album that became a number-one record. His influence created several categories of music now tabulated by Billboard, Variety, Downbeat, and Rolling Stone; he sang with everyone from hip-hop creator Afrika Bambaataa to Pavarotti to pioneer jazz arranger Oliver Nelson. His band was revolutionary—it was made up of outstanding players and vocalists, among the best in popular music this nation has ever produced. His opening performance that preceded the Rolling Stones’ appearance at the T.A.M.I. concert from Santa Monica in 1964 was so hot that Keith Richards later confessed that following James Brown was the worst decision of the Rolling Stones’ career. Yet James Brown never once made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine during his lifetime. To the music world, he was an odd appendage, a kind of freak, a large rock in the road that you couldn’t get around, a clown, a black category. He was a super talent. A great dancer. A real show. A laugher. A drug addict, a troublemaker, all hair and teeth. A guy who couldn’t stay out of trouble. The man simply defied description.
The reason? Brown was a child of a country in hiding: America’s South.
There is nowhere in the USA quite like America’s South; there is no place more difficult to fully understand or fully capture. No one book can get close to the man because he comes from a land that no one book can explain, a land shaped by a history of slavery and oppression and misunderstanding, whose self-definition defies simple explanation and pushes out any impression you may try to lay upon it. The South is simply a puzzle. It’s like the quaint, loyal housewife who, after forty years of watching her husband spend Sunday afternoons sprawled on the couch watching football, suddenly blurts out, “I never did like your daddy,” pulls out a knife, and ends Hubby’s football season for good. To even get close to the essence of the reasoning behind that act is like trying to touch the sun with your bare hand: why bother. You cannot understand Brown without understanding that the land that produced him is a land of masks. The people who walk that land, both black and white, wear masks and more masks, then masks beneath those masks. They are tricksters and shape-shifters, magicians and carnival barkers, able to metamorphize right before your eyes into good old boys, respectable lawyers, polite society types, brilliant scholars, great musicians, history makers, and everything’s-gonna-be-all-right Maya Angelou look-alikes—when in fact nothing’s gonna be all right. This land of mirage produces characters of outstanding talent and popularity—Oprah Winfrey being the shining example. It is peopled by a legion of ghosts that loom over it with the same tenacity and electric strength that propelled a small group of outnumbered and outgunned poor white soldiers to kick the crap out of the northern Union army for three years running during the Civil War 150 years ago.
The South almost won the Civil War, and maybe they should have, because America’s southerners play-act and pretend with a brilliance that is unmatched. They obstruct your view with a politeness and deference that gives slight clue to the power within. Outside the looking glass, they are chameleons, whistling “Dixie” and playing slow and acting harmless and goofy. But behind their aw-shucks veneer, behind the bowing and scraping and moon pies and cigarettes and chitchat about the good old Alabama Crimson Tide and hollering for the Lord, the unseen hand behind them is a gnarled, loaded fist prepped for a diesel-powered blow. If that hand is coming in your direction, get out of the way or you’re likely to find yourself spending the rest of your life sucking your meals through a straw.
No one is more aware of the power of America’s southerners than the blacks who walk among them. There’s an old slave saying, “Go here, go there, do nothing,” and the descendants of those slaves are experts at that task. They do whatever needs to be done, say whatever needs to be said, then cut for the door to avoid the white man’s evil, which they feel certain will, at some point, fall on them like raindrops. Brown, who grew up in a broken home and spent three years in a juvenile prison before he was eighteen, was an expert at dodging the white man’s evil. He had years of practice covering up, closing down, shutting in, shutting out, locking up, locking out, placing mirrors in rooms, hammering up false doorways and floorboards to trap all comers who inquired about his inner soul. He did the same with his money. From the time he was a boy who bought his own ball and bat with money earned from dancing and shining shoes for colored soldiers at nearby Fort Gordon, Brown kept his money close. When he became a star, he had a secret room for cash in his house. He buried money in distant hotel rooms, carried tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, around in a suitcase; he kept wads of cashier’s checks in his wallet. He always had a back door, a quick exit, a way of getting out, because behind the boarded-up windows of his life, the Godfather’s fear of having nothing was overwhelming in its ability to swallow him whole and send him into a series of wild behaviors. I once asked his personal manager, Charles Bobbit, who for forty-one years knew James Brown as well as any man on this earth, what Brown’s truest, deepest feeling about the white man was.
Bobbit paused for a moment, looking at his hands, then said simply, “Fear.”
Copyright © 2016 by James McBride. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.