At the end of every year, I do a multi-part series on a notable figure in music. This year it’s time for the ME James Brown treatment. It’s quite the ride. Hope you enjoy.
“The ‘One’ is derived from the Earth itself, the soil, the pine trees of my youth. And most important, it’s on the upbeat—ONE two THREE four—not the downbeat, one TWO three FOUR, that most blues are written. Hey, I know what I’m talking about! I was born to the downbeat, and I can tell you without question there is no pride in it. The upbeat is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive Two, and never on lowdownbeat. In the end, it’s not about music—it’s about life.” – James Brown
James Brown was born on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina, to 16-year-old Susie (Behling) and 21-year-old Joseph Gardner Brown (1912–1993). “I wasn’t supposed to be alive,” James advises us. “I was a stillborn kid.”
According to a biography of Brown called The One, “Joe had a second-grade education, Susie left school in the fifth grade. (ME barely made it through kindergarten). Together they lived in a wooden shack with a small stove for heat and no plumbing. The windows were open and held no glass; (italics mine) when the wind blew or it rained, Joe leaned old doors against the opening.”
Wikipedia: “The Brown family lived in extreme poverty in Elko, South Carolina, which was an impoverished town at the time.* Brown’s mother eventually left the family after a contentious and abusive marriage and moved to New York. (James’ father beat him and his mother, somewhat setting the pattern for his own later behavior – ME.) “Take your child,” said Joe, fixing Susie with the responsibility. “You keep him, Joe, ‘cause I can’t work for him,” she answered. Then she left.
Joe (and later James) toiled in the so-called “turpentine camps.” Pine tree bark was harvested for resin to make into turpentine. “This was especially harsh work, dating back to the colonial era when pitch was used to waterproof sailing ships. It broke down hands, knees backs; its methods unchanged since before the Civil War.
Overwhelmingly, it was Black men’s toil. ‘Turpentine Negroes,’ polite Whites called them. A worker was charged with a ‘drift’ of trees, some five thousand or so; as a chipper, Joe probably used an ax to scrape the bark off the pines.”
The South was an area of juke joints which were “set up on the outskirts of town, often in ramshackle, abandoned buildings or private houses — never in newly-constructed buildings — juke joints offered food, drink, dancing, and gambling for weary workers. Owners made extra money selling groceries or moonshine to patrons or providing cheap room and board.”
Joe, James, and an aunt later moved (walked, actually, 40 miles or 64km) to Augusta, Georgia, when James was four or five. His family first settled at one of his aunts’ brothels, Aunt Honey to be specific. They moved into a neighborhood called the “Terry” short for “Negro Territory.” According to The One, the Terry had streets with such glamourous names as Thank God Alley, Electric Light Alley, and Slopjar Alley. (A street to be avoided at all costs by the sound of it.)
Needless to say, the Terry was a rough area, and James – who grew to be all of 5″6 inches (168 cm) – didn’t back down from that. He joined gangs to survive. One resident summed up the area thusly: “If you want to be a man, you got to fight to get respect. Now people know me, and they know I don’t take no shit from nobody. But if anyone bothers me, I’d shoot them in a heartbeat. Just like that, bam. Better them dead than me.”
But James was unique. Even then he had a presence, a charisma. He was always getting in trouble but he was always smiling. People just liked him. Knowing he liked to sing, the teachers let him sing the National Anthem at school gatherings. (For all he went through as a Black man in America, James remained resolutely patriotic throughout his life.)
Thanks largely to the influence of the church, gospel music was becoming an outsize influence in Augusta. James was listening. Joe brought a damaged organ home and James started to learn to play it. According to The One, bluesman Tampa Red used to come through town and was “dating” one of Aunt Honey’s girls. He taught James the chords to a tune called “It’s Tight Like That.”
James wound up forming a vocal group called the Cremona trio as one of them played the same-named guitar. James says he used to not only sing popular tunes but he would make up songs.
And when the famed Tobacco Road was wiped out replaced with a military training facility, well, the nightlife really took off. “A report in the Chicago Defender in 1941 noted that “White soldiers stationed here by the thousands are said to be following an old southern custom by seeking ‘social equality’ with colored women ‘after sundown.'” (Ah yes, White men have always found a way to overlook their bigotry when it comes to Black women -ME.)
Do you know what a battle royal is? It “refers to a fight involving many combatants that is fought until only one fighter remains standing, usually conducted under either boxing or wrestling rules.
After the Civil War, the battle royal entered a popular phase, but such events were increasingly considered shameful and disreputable. Promoters of boxing events arranged for brutal free-for-alls with few rules, generally between Black boxers. The audience for these spectacles were almost always White people, unlike the pre-War entertainment within the enslaved community.”
As brutal as this all sounds, there was money to be made. And whether it was singing, hustling men over to his Aunt Honey’s brothel, or boxing, James was there.
“He began singing in talent shows as a young child, first appearing at Augusta’s Lenox Theater in 1944, winning the show after singing the ballad ‘So Long.’ While in Augusta, Brown performed buck dances for “quarters and nickels” to entertain troops from Camp Gordon at the start of World War II.”
He began playing guitar, and harmonica during this period and became inspired to become an entertainer after hearing “Caldonia” by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. “Louis Jordan was my biggest hero,” James said. “He played well, he sang, he had good hair and good teeth.”
In 1949, a few days after his sixteenth birthday, James was caught breaking into four cars, mostly stealing clothing. He spent four months in a jail downtown and then was sent to juvenile detention in Toccoa, GA, 131 miles or 211km northwest of Augusta, for three years.
Naturally, James found guys to sing with (fellow inmates called him “Music Box”) and formed a gospel quartet. Toccoa, it turns out, had a silver lining which became a significant turning point in James’ life.
“Groups from Toccoa regularly visited the youth camp, and one day in 1952, the Gospel Starlighters sang for the inmates. After they had finished, somebody there told the Starlighters’ leader that he sang nice, but they had somebody who sang nice, too. A fella named Music Box.”
One of the members, Bobby Byrd – about a year younger than James – met Brown, liked him, liked his singing. Brown told Byrd he could get out of detention if there was a local family who would sponsor him.
“Down in Toccoa, Bobby Byrd had told his mother about this sweet-voiced kid who would be released, if only he had a family to vouch for him. Zarah got her church involved, as well as other black churches in town, and presented a petition with some four hundred signatures to the camp superintendent. The parole agreement declared that Brown not set foot in Augusta for longer than a night for the next ten years and that he maintain a job and go to church on Sunday.”
On June 14, 1952, he walked out of the camp, down the mountain, and six miles to town. He carried a bag with him and got directions to the Byrds’ house. Shortly after being paroled, he joined the gospel group the Ever-Ready Gospel Singers, featuring Byrd’s sister Sarah whom he had started dating.
James also started harmonizing with the Gospel Starlighters. And according to The One, Brown followed Sarah into that group, and Bobby Byrd and Brown began a lifetime of making music together. The truth is, if it hadn’t been for Bobby Byrd, there might not have been a James Brown.
It was 1952, one of the earliest claims to being a rock and roll song, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was released in that year. James Brown was a free man. And he never looked back.
Next up – James bursts into Flames.
*From what I’ve read, Elko -with a poverty rate of 22% – is still pretty much a small, impoverished town.
Sources: Wikipedia, Smith, RJ. The One (p. 13). Penguin Publishing Group; Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown documentary.