When James Brown walked in, I didn’t consciously stand up. It was more like Brown casually inhaled all the air in the room and the vacuum yanked me to my feet.
It was Valentine’s Day 1991.
I had been around a handful of celebrities through the years and talked to a few of my heroes on the phone, but nothing in my life had prepared me for the way it felt to get caught in James Brown’s wind tunnel. And it wasn’t like I worshiped the man — at the time I would have been much more excited about meeting, say, Prince or Bruce Springsteen.
The release this week of a new biopic “Get On Up: The James Brown Story” has me thinking about the time I got to meet Brown.
When I heard he was doing interviews, I called, expecting a publicist to set me up for five minutes on the phone. Instead, Brown himself answered, talking in his unmistakable (and occasionally unintelligible) speed rasp. He asked me to join him for lunch the next day in Aiken, S.C.
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Brown was a musical titan, and I respected his talent and influence on everyone from Sly Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic to the entire hip-hop nation. You couldn’t live in America in the 1960s and ’70s without knowing hits such as “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Sex Machine” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” some of the tightest, funkiest dance grooves ever recorded.
Brown also had a special connection to Greensboro, adding N.C. A&T students Maceo and Melvin Parker to his band when he caught their gig at the El Rocco Club on East Market Street one night in 1964 after a Greensboro Coliseum show.
But he had peaked when I was a little kid, and by the time I was old enough to appreciate him, the only James Brown albums that ever showed up in record stores were has-been efforts such as “Jam 1980’s” and “The Original Disco Man.”
By the mid-’80s, young people probably knew Brown best via parodies by Eddie Murphy and “Weird Al” Yankovic and samples used by hip-hop artists such as Eric B and Rakim. As Stetsasonic rapped in 1988, “Tell the truth, James Brown was old / Till Eric and Rak came out with ‘I Got Soul.’ ”
Not to mention the fact that Brown’s personal life seemed to have gone off the rails. After decades of million-selling records, sold-out concerts, and TV and movie appearances — an era when he studiously avoided drugs and fined band members for intoxication — Brown had descended into the murk of drug addiction and allegations of domestic abuse.
After a bizarre incident in 1988 where he confronted attendees at an insurance seminar with a shotgun after one of them used the bathroom in his office, Brown led police on a two-state, high-speed chase.
By the time it was over, the windows and tires had been shot out of his pickup, and Brown was driving on metal rims.
The mug shot that hit all the papers showed a disheveled, unshaven Brown, wearing what looked like
a bathrobe, his carefully
coiffed helmet of hair now
a rat’s nest. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
He was out on work release by the time I made my way to the southwestern edge of South Carolina on that cool February day 23 years ago, blasting “The CD of JB” on the stereo system in my Camry. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to have lunch with the Godfather of Soul.
The address Brown had given me was a community service office in an old brick store building that had been painted white. I waited for him to arrive in a room with fake wood paneling and orange indoor-outdoor carpet.
Suddenly, the doors burst open, and I found myself on my feet, my right hand extended in greeting.
Meeting the Hardest Working Man in Show Business face to face was more than a little scary. He was nearly a head shorter than me, even in gold-toed snakeskin cowboy boots, but he didn’t seem small in any way. At 57, he was still lean and powerful, every bit the boxer-turned-dancer whose camel walk and splits had shown Michael Jackson and Prince how it was done.
I wore a sweater and slacks — and felt hopelessly underdressed. Brown could have been en route to a funky wedding: He wore a gray plaid suit, a green shirt with white pinstripes and a black tie and vest with raised sculpting. On his right wrist, he wore a silver bracelet with big turquoise stones. His long, wavy black hair had been restored to its former glory.
Before lunch, Brown asked me to take his picture south of Aiken in Horsecreek Valley, where he had been doing social work with a program called Foster Grandparents.
A man ran out to meet the international celebrity who had magically appeared on his block: “James Brown! I can’t believe it! A big entertainer like that standin’ right here!”
Soul Brother No. 1 was courteous but distant, ignoring a dance request: “Can you do The Popcorn right there on the sidewalk?”
Brown peeled a button with his picture from his lapel and handed it off as a souvenir.
The woman in charge of Foster Grandparents, Sue Jones, a former Brown publicist, drove him around that day, and they had me follow them to a restaurant called Eejay’s for lunch. I pulled into the parking space next to Jones’ car and waited for Brown to get out.
And waited. And waited.
I finally decided to risk opening my door. Just at that moment, Brown flung his door open. I had to yank mine back to keep it from getting hit.
The waitresses fawned over Brown, with several wishing him a happy Valentine’s Day. He would reply with a squinting, teeth-baring grin and say, “Thank ya, darlin’!”
When it came time to order, Brown had a dilemma: He had just had dental surgery but wanted a steak. It didn’t take him long to formulate a solution.
“Can you take that steak and sorta run it through the blender?”
What followed was a rambling near-monologue, Brown pontificating for the next hour and a half about the state of the nation, his arrest and the way his music had been heavily sampled by rappers. He likened himself to a couple of other disgraced celebrities, President Richard Nixon (whom Brown endorsed in 1972, severely damaging his Black Power credibility) and televangelist Jim Bakker.
“I guess the policemen probably just didn’t want to lose their job by admitting they were wrong or mess with a figure like James Brown,” he told me.
He talked about getting his music career back on track, generally referring to himself in the third person: “There’s gonna be James Brown, Elvis Presley and the Beatles. And for your father, it would be Sinatra. After that, no more, unfortunately.”
More than once he put himself in even loftier company, repeating: “Bach, Beethoven and Brown!”
After lunch, I shook hands with Brown and Jones and said my goodbyes. It was the only time I ever talked with Brown, but I did see him in concert in Fayetteville five years later and again at War Memorial Auditorium in 2001.
Brown died on Christmas Day 2006.
After the interview, I drove the four hours to Greensboro, arriving in time for a Valentine’s Day dinner at Lucky 32. I don’t remember what I ate that evening, but I was grateful I didn’t need to ask the waitress to run it through the blender.
Contact Eddie Huffman at email@example.com, and follow @eddiehuffman on Twitter.