Hanging with Mr Brown
Mar 8, 1995
The announcement that the Hardest Working Man In Show Business, Mr Dynamite, the Amazing Mr Please Please Please Himself, James Brown is coming to New Zealand might be hard to believe – and not just because the Ericsson Stadium show is scheduled for April Fools Day.
Last time Brown was booked to play here was for the ill-fated Neon Picnic; needless to say, no one got see JB that day.
And then there are the stories about James himself. Prior to his imprisonment in 1988 - for failing to stop for a police officer’s signal and aggravated assault – his performances had grown increasingly erratic, his reputation for ‘no show’ become legendary. And in interviews he often seemed to be – not to put too fine a point on it – somewhere else.
This interview started out unpredictably too. Notice was short – about an hour and a half. Even the concert publicist seemed surprised to learn that it was happening. But before I knew it, I was talking to the wonderfully named Roosevelt Royce Johnson the First, listed as Vice President of James Brown’s touring party.
The funky sounds of the JBs played down the telephone line from Augusta, Georgia while the extremely pleasant Mr Johnson attempted to “patch me up” to Mr Brown’s phone – there’s always a big build before James comes on.
Suddenly, both the music and my thoughts were interrupted by a deep, hearty “Hello!” It was star time and Hardworking Mr Dynamite was on the line. Contrary to speculation, James Brown sounded healthy, sane and in fine humour. And it seems that with his current band the Soul Generals – swhich includes a dozen dancers and nineteen musicians, including a number of legendary Brown sidemen – we’ll be treated to one hell of a show. The conversation that followed went like this:
It’s Nick Bollinger calling from New Zealand…
Am I speaking to Mr James Brown?
Yessah! How ya feel?
Ah, I feel good. We hear you’re planning to visit us here in New Zealand…
Yessah! When we get all the paperwork straightened out we’ll all come right in and give you the best show you’ve ever seen.
Last time you played down here would have been 1978 at the Shoreline Cabaret in Auckland. Do you have any particular memories of that?
Well, that’s been such a long time ago and we’ve done so many shows between here and there. It’s kinda hard because I’m sure it was only the one time. We’re gonna bring a whole different bag. We’ve got a lot of pretty girls onstage singing and dancing at various times in the show and it’s gonna be a lot of excitement.
Who’s playing in your band at the moment?
Well, we have Charles Sherell, St Claire Pinckney, Hollie Farris, Martha High who has been with me for a number of years – one of my bittersweet background vocals – we have Arthur Dixon, Mr Ron Laster, Derek Poindexter…
What do you look for when you’re choosing a musician to play with you?
I look for someone that can play the funk, and play jazz and play gospel and just generally play good music. I like real musicians. I’m not into the electronic thing. I like sweat. I like for a man to get up there and sweat and play his instrument to the best of his ability. And if he can do that then he can hang with Mr Brown [laughs]
It’s been a while since we’ve had any new James Brown recordings down here. What have you been working on?
Well I’ve got a new single out called ‘Respect Me (First You Gotta Respect Yourself)’ and my daughter has a song out called ‘Betcha Bottom Dollar’ – Yamma Brown.
Did you work with her on her recording?
Yes I did. She also covered one of my songs, called ‘I Got The Feeling’.
Is she singing with your band too?
No, she doesn’t, but we may do some tours together. If New Zealand wants us to come down, The Godfather and his daughter will take it to the bridge! [laughs]
I’ve always admired you for the concern you have shown for the young. How does the future look for young people growing up in America today?
Well, if they clean their music up and not be so into the negative thing, think positive, they have a real good future. But we have to first clean up the airwaves and get some of the negative music and the four-letter words off the air. You know, you can’t record a song that you don’t want to play for your mother. Get some decency about it, it’ll be okay.
Is that a rule you’ve always observed yourself?
Always, because I’ve got plenty of songs and I never had to curse and belittle anybody in any of my records to make a hit. You don’t really have to do that.
When you were starting out, who were your teachers?
Louis Jordan was the biggest influence in my life. [Sings] “Caledonia…”
What about Little Willie John? You recorded a tribute album to him…
Little Willie John was a very dear friend of mine. I did a lot for Willie John. I tried to get Willie John out of jail just before he died – you know he died in prison, which was really bad. But you know, Little Willie John was a very soulful and good man.
You’ve been through a lot of hard times yourself. How do you manage to keep so positive and strong?
I just pray to God every day, and live right and try to eat healthy and generally just take good care of myself. My faith in God is undenied.
Are you prepared to talk about your experiences in prison?
Not really, no. Because that’s something that happened, it’s over with, and I’m not mad at anybody and that part of my life is over with. It should never have taken place but we live in a country where things don’t always go the way they should and I just happened to be a victim of that.
Do you believe there is justice?
Well, there’s always justice. God only knows justice. He’s the final judge. Justice is wherever you find it, if you can find it. There’s justice in some things and injustice in a lot of things, but we won’t get into that. We just want to bring some funk down there and let the people of New Zealand have a good time and I hope the people of New Zealand live two hundred years and I live two hundred years minus one day so that I’ll never know the beautiful people have passed away. Thank you, and I’ll be looking forward to coming down real soon.
James Brown’s Ericsson Stadium concert – like the Neon Picnic before it - was cancelled. Mr Brown finally performed again in New Zealand in 2004, just over two years before his death.