Call Me James

My first meeting with James Brown was not going well.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he screamed at me inside a suite in New York City’s swank Sherry Netherland Hotel in 1979. “It would be best if you don’t do too much speaking and do more listening. You don’t know what I’m saying. You don’t know anything about soul music.”

What apparently set Brown off was a comment I had made about disco being much more arranged than, for instance, a song like “Sex Machine.”

Despite his short stature, James Brown was incredibly imposing. He’d been a prizefighter as a teenager in Georgia during the late ’40s and early ’50s, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when he lashed out at me.

“New York is nothin’ about soul music,” Brown spit. “It’s about what’s left of it. You got to go down South to cut your records, bro.”

“What about Motown?” I asked.

“Motown was never soul. It was pop,” he replied.

“And what’s disco?” I asked.

“It’s a vamp of good soul music, but disco can’t stay ’cause it has no arrangements. You said it was arranged. You don’t understand it. You’ll understand it in another five years.”

Then he delivered the knockout shot: “You don’t know nothing about music, bro. Cut the interview off.”

With that, he pushed the stop button on my tape recorder and our session was over.

I wasn’t gay, black, Hispanic or Italian, but by the late ’70s, I had fallen in love with disco. I bought loud shirts and tight pants and walked around with a boom box. Yes, I was that funky white boy. So while everyone at the SoHo Weekly News fought over who was going to cover the next punk band playing at the Mudd Club party, I was given a column called “Rhythm & Bloom,” which led to my James Brown assignment.

I was into Brown’s ’60s hits, “I Got You” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but it was the Hot Pants album of 1971 that really gave me a hard-on. Admittedly, I hopped aboard his soul train a little late, but I played catch-up with a vengeance. I began collecting his albums—Brown released over a hundred—and got hooked on the smartly arranged horns, chicken-scratch guitar, thumping bass and syncopated drums that defined his music and the black music of America at the time. The Godfather of Soul released four albums a year from 1968 to 1972, and produced numerous solo acts on his People label.

But by the late ’70s, Brown was no longer relevant in the black community and was viewed as an oldies act among many whites. Record sales ebbed and Brown’s wealth dried up.

I went back to the hotel the next day, hoping he’d give our interview another shot. I was nervous given the agitated state I left him in, but Brown didn’t seem to remember our discussion the night before. He sat patiently under a dryer with his straightened dark hair in curlers as I peppered him with softballs about the plight of the ghetto.

“I can hug and kiss you for the questions you are asking me today,” he said, startling me. “I love you for that, and I appreciate it. I really do. You can probably see the water in my eyes for giving me the opportunity to say this without arguin’ and fightin’ because this thing is going to get across to people.”

“See, I ain’t never been down against white people because I know they’re the best friends blacks have ever had.” Then Brown smiled at me. “Well, Jewish people have been more helpful because they taught blacks about their rights. The Anglo-Saxon, or whatever you call them, didn’t teach the blacks no rights. He is guilty of that.”

Maybe it was my last name or maybe it was my nose or maybe it was just part of the crazy stream of consciousness that was flowing from his lips that day, but somehow Brown had ascertained that I was Jewish. Or so it seemed.

He went back and forth from subject to subject furiously during that meeting, recommending that blacks go back to the land (“Stay in the country and leave society alone.”), praising the white R&B band Tower of Power (“There’s no black group that plays my stuff as good as them.”) and warning about his upcoming shows at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem (“If they mug you white people, then I’m through. I’ll never come back. It doesn’t make sense because there’s nothing that white people like more than black entertainment.”).

As the interview wound down, Brown picked up a phone and dialed MCA Records: “This is James Brown, the entertainer. Let me speak to the President.” He was forwarded to the A&R department and they invited him to stop by.

Next thing I knew I was in the elevator heading down to the lobby with Brown and his entourage. As we hit the street, people stopped in their tracks. Short, dark, muscular and wearing a cowboy hat, Brown was unmistakable.

Two sneaker-clad black teens that weren’t even 8 years old when “Hot Pants” came out stopped and stared incredulously.

“James Motherfucking Brown,” one yelled out.

Brown climbed into limo. He told me to get in and I did.

“MCA Records!” Brown barked to the driver.

“It’s at 55th and Park,” I added.

Brown placed his hand on my shoulder. “You know, Steve, I need a bright young Jewish man like you in the organization.”

That topped it all. Less than 24 hours after Brown had bolted from my interview, he was offering me a job—undoubtedly the greatest Jewish moment since my bar mitzvah.

“You got a pretty good story here, Steve, right?”

“Yessir, Mr. Brown,” I replied. (All of the members of his band and entourage called him Mr. Brown.)

“You don’t have to call me Mr. Brown,” he said. “You can call me James.”

From that moment forward, I had access to Brown straight through the ’80s. Any time he played New York City or nearby, I was invited backstage where I was permitted to conduct impromptu interviews before and after shows and during intermissions.

Unfortunately, as time went on, I saw him less and less, even though our bond was solid as a rock. “There’s so much more I want to do,” Brown told me in 1988. “I want to do a country album. I want to do a gospel album. I want to do a jazz album….” Then he looked directly at me with a sly grin. “And I want to do a Yiddish album too. Shalom!”

I don’t want to make too big a deal of James Brown’s closeness to Judaism, but I know that he enjoyed jiving me about it. In hindsight, I wonder whether some of his fondness for the Jews came from his relationships with his original manager Ben Bart and King record label president Sid Nathan. Wherever it came from, it was part of the story of our friendship. I imagine there weren’t just a few fellow music journalists who marveled at how I had infiltrated the James Brown camp.

Being a funky, Jewish, white boy sometimes pays off.

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