Pleas, Pleas, Pleas: The Tribulations and Trials of James Brown
February 21, 1989
Gus, the pasty-white 300-pound cabbie driving me to the State Park Correctional Center outside Columbia, South Carolina, doesn’t need to ask which of the 288 inmates I’m going to see. He just wants to know if I’m a writer or a lawyer. “Reason I ask,” he says in his mellifluous, surprisingly feminine drawl, “is if you’re a writer, I might just wait around for the return trip. Mr. James Brown don’t see no more writers. They were coming down here by the busload till a few weeks ago, fans too, but they all went away empty-handed. That roly-poly preacher from New York seen to that.”
I ask Gus if he means the Reverend Al Sharpton, an old friend of Brown’s (they cut a gospel single, “God Has Smiled on Me,” together in 1981). Sharpton brought the Brawley family to visit Brown after their pilgrimage to the Atlanta Democratic Convention last July, then returned south alone in December to lobby for Brown’s release. Gus, who’s been fairly taciturn the whole ride up, lets out with a riptide at Sharpton’s name. “That loud roun’ moun’ of soun’! He was standing on the courthouse steps in Aiken the day after the trial, holding onto Adrienne Brown and them ancient photographs of President Bush and Mr. Brown and him, talking racist verdicts, media circuses, and whatnot, making that bogus offer to serve Mr. Brown’s time for him. He was here on Christmas too, holding his candlelight vigil in front of the prison with that lawyer buddy, Perry Mason, trying to stir up the ministers. They wouldn’t give him the time of day. People here say James Brown got his day in court — and more. Got to be every time you turned around him and that wife’s acting up. Time and again they let them off, time, time, time and again he’s shooting something up. People behaving like that — pistols, drugs, shotguns. Me and you’d have got all 30 years he was looking at, that’s for sure.”
Gus gets pacified as we coast past the rolling green lawns and maples hedging the State Park driveway and stop in front of what he calls the “nursing home.” A jet of steam is coming out of the ventilation duct of a block-long, white-stone hospital to the left; a tacky gift shop on our right is open, even though it’s Super Bowl Sunday. Down a series of stone stairways strewn with ivy is the dirty red-brick prison, looking more like a 1940s subway station on the Grand Concourse than a penal institution. “Still, I feel for the man,” Gus says as I get out, “because it was that wife who drove him to it. Filing them charges for assaulting her, filing them divorce papers, saying his men planted those PCPs they busted her with all them times, setting fire to their hotel room up north. She done him in, that’s for sure.”
James Brown, probably the most influential black musician of all time, will turn 56 in this prison on May 3 — and then 57 and perhaps 58 as well — short of successfully petitioning to have his sentence commuted to time spent in drug rehabilitation, which seems unlikely: Brown resolutely maintains he has no drug problem. On December 17, 1988, an Aiken, South Carolina, judge sentenced Brown to six years for “running a blue light” (failing to stop for an officer’s signal) and aggravated assault — reduced from two counts of assault with intent to kill. Brown’s targets were two South Carolina police officers who had pulled him over on September 24 during a now-legendary two-state, 80 mph car chase that began after Brown, armed with a shotgun, had berated 40 people at an insurance seminar held in a building adjoining his Augusta, Georgia, offices for using his rest rooms. His trial in Augusta for the Georgia half of the chase and a second arrest the following morning — for nine misdemeanor charges of assault, carrying a deadly weapon to a public gathering, carrying a weapon without a license, driving under the influence (PCP), and related charges — was set for January 23.
The Aiken trial was the fourth time in 12 months Brown had appeared before a South Carolina court on criminal charges, all four, in one way or another, involving cars, two involving PCP and guns. Two ’87 arrests resulted in one speeding charge, one count of leaving the scene of an accident, two charges of eluding arrest, and a total of $1460 in fines. On the Monday after Easter, 1988, he was arrested after he’d allegedly emptied his pistol into the trunk of his wife’s car as she tried to leave their Beech Island, South Carolina, house and then beaten her with an iron pipe; Adrienne eventually dropped the charges. Five weeks later, on May 17, he spent another night in an Aiken County jail before a $24,218 bond was posted on charges of PCP possession, possession of a pistol, assault and battery (his wife again), failing to stop for blue lights, and resisting arrest; Brown received two and a half years, probated to a concert benefiting local charities.
In the last year, Brown was indicted for more than 45 years worth of felonies and misdemeanors, of which all but 12 and a half were probated or commuted to more than $50,000 in fines, restitution, and public service. The IRS, Brown’s 20-year nemesis, is also suing him for $9 million in back taxes, two years after Brown was forced to auction his home in South Carolina (his Georgia lawyer purchased it and now rents it back to Brown as trustee for his two daughters from his second marriage).
THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, James Brown has remained the same unresolved American paradox that Martin Luther King, if in radically different fashion, represented: a street-smart activist who was clearly motivated by his own, innate sense of the law. At a Black Power conference, Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) dubbed Brown “our No. 1 black poet.” At the 1966 Memphis-to-Mississippi march in support of James Meredith, Stokely Carmichael told Brown he was the man “most dangerous” to the Movement. In ’68 he alienated the left by touring Vietnam; later that year he terrified the right with “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” After a highly coveted endorsement of Humphrey in ’68, he became a more active campaigner for Nixon in ’72.
Only the jukebox provided a consensus: James Brown’s singles routinely hit the high reaches of the pop charts for 30 years. Though he never tried to cross over into the integrated record-buying market he and Motown helped to create, he consistently outperformed every act that did: Brown hit the charts 114 times, a quantum leap beyond Aretha Franklin’s 84, Ray Charles’s 83, and the Temptations’ 76. Among the handful of performers who arose unfiltered out of what was openly called race music, Brown was one of the few to escape death on the road, death by drugs, death in prison, the living death of golden-oldie status, or the retreat into the obscure immortality of gospel. Twenty years before rappers appropriated him, 10 before disco digitalized him, Brown anticipated the future of black music by stripping his sound to pure rhythm, blueprinting Pan-African pop, a worldwide explosion against which the Beatles and Stones are circumscribed, Anglo phenomena. At 53, James Brown, the man who taught us all how to dance, was rocking the pop charts (“Living in America,” No. 4), and last year only Sade’s “Paradise” stopped Brown from topping the r&b charts for the 18th time.
As the first, relatively minor charges became public, there were predictable, occasional snickers in the national press about James Brown — high-minded pillar of black capitalism, proud singer of “King Heroin,” “America Is My Home,” “Don’t Be a Dropout,” and “Living in America,” recipient of numerous citations for public service, 30-year hero to black youth all over the world — having misdemeanor troubles with the local authorities. After the Easter shooting of his wife’s car (and the gruesome detail of the iron pipe) launched Brown onto the tabloid headlines, the media began scrupulously detailing an almost unbelievable string of marital incidents:
Adrienne files for divorce in March 1988, citing years of cruel treatment and showing a National Enquirer photographer bruises on her face and bullet holes in their Beech Island bedroom. In April Adrienne, arrested at Augusta’s small airport with eight grams of PCP, says it was planted by men hired by her husband to pressure her to drop her divorce suit. In early May, Brown tells reporters his wife set fire to some of his clothes in their Sheraton Hotel room in Bedford, New Hampshire, shortly after she is arraigned on charges of arson and PCP possession (seven ounces, this time) early in May. “My wife is a real stinker,” he says. “She sets rooms on fire. She’s a brat.” Four days later, Adrienne calls police claiming that Brown was beating her again and he is captured a mile into a high-speed chase that begins at his driveway. “He was letting that Lincoln sail,” says the local police captain. “We thought it was a B-17 coming out of there.” Brown claims his wife planted the seven grams of PCP he’s caught with. Two days after this, Adrienne, arrested at Augusta’s airport for possession of eight ounces of PCP, again says she was set up: “The Godfather of Soul isn’t what he pretends to be,” she tells deputies. “He warns young people to stay off drugs, but he doesn’t practice what he preaches to children. He’s high on drugs, PCP, angel dust… ”
And on it went: bench warrants, missed court dates, indictments, the now legendary motion filed by one of Adrienne’s lawyers to have her September 7, 1987, speeding, DUI, and criminal trespass charges waived on grounds of diplomatic immunity as “the wife of the Ambassador of Soul,” a suit filed by that same lawyer for $4500 of Adrienne’s legal fees incurred in connection therewith, and the ensuing arrests and convictions for weapons possession, PCP possession, resisting arrest, etc., etc., etc.
The Browns, clearly under the strain of severe financial, domestic, and career problems, were airing too many of them in public, and the media was there waiting, cameras clicking and tape recorders whirring. In a May 13 interview given to the local press, after assuring the reporter, “You know I love my wife. I love you, too, as a brother in friendship,” Brown was asked why Adrienne had made “those serious accusations and set fire to the singer’s clothes.” Never one to waste words, Brown summed it all up in four: “Love’s a funny thing.”
AT THE DOOR OF THE PRISON, a gangly, red-haired guard in short sleeves and a handlebar mustache wants to know just where the hell I think I’m going. I explain I’m going to see James Brown, and he places a meaty hand around the entirety of my left elbow, saying, “No you ain’t neither.” As we head back up the ivied stairway, he says, “You look like you’re from the Rolling Stone. That where you’re from?” I mention the paper I’m with, and he gets a big kick out of it, big enough to turn me around and lead us 50 paces to a tiny guardhouse at the edge of the compound. “Here’s one at The Village Voice,” he hollers to four colleagues as we approach; one of them thinks that’s just too rich not to share with the lieutenant in the prison office.
Now on my second day in the New South, I’m a bit surprised to see the lieutenant is a black man, and clearly very much in control of this prison, which he’s quick to inform me is not a prison but a correctional facility. Stroking his salt-and-pepper mustache, he carefully lists the ordinances I’ve violated by coming as far as I have, then instructs the red-haired guard to escort me to my vehicle, making sure no one congregates with me in the meantime.
At the top of the stairs I listen while the guard explains the difficulty of maintaining security at such a facility; he also wants me to know he’s not a guard, he’s a corrections officer, that Mr. Brown is not a prisoner, he’s an inmate, and that I will certainly be placed in custody “if apprehended at the facility again.” A chunky, raven-haired woman in a thick sable coat, whom I recognize as Adrienne Brown, wants to get past, and I step aside, getting a whiff of cosmetics as she negotiates her way down the steps on her spike heels. In her right hand is a plate of food under Saran Wrap; tucked under her left arm is a huge, salon-style hairdryer.
The cloying odor of Thai stick fills Gus’s cab as I climb back in, and he’s giggling mischievously, stopping long enough to assure me the guard was just having some fun with me, then lapsing into a fit of chuckling and coughing as we head to the airport; 10 minutes later he’s still laughing so hard he can’t get the roach of his joint lit. “I was just thinking about the poor man,” he apologizes, gunning the cab across a double yellow line onto the airport highway. “Checks into that nursing home for six years, still can’t get away from his wife. Guess that’s why they call ’em housekeepers,” he guffaws, going 20 mph over the highway speed limit. “They always keep the house.”
WHOEVER GAVE PCP THE NICKNAME angel dust was looking at the ephemera through the wrong end of the telescope. Phencyclidine, an animal tranquilizer, is a diabolic substance, pure and simple, attractive on a protracted basis only to those interested in testing the extreme limits of physical and emotional experience — the limits, more specifically, of their control. Variously mislabeled a narcotic, hallucinogen, or psychotropic, PCP — even in the smallest doses — is well-documented to produce psychotic reactions in humans, and cases of dust-induced homicide are legion.
“James Brown certainly never had a drug problem till he remarried,” says Bob Patton, his tour and booking manager through the ’60s and late ’70s, “but he does have one now. He’s been smoking a joint or two of PCP a day, probably for the last year or so.” Patton, like everyone I’ve talked to who knows Brown well, insists he is not a violent man and does not have a short fuse. “He is a paranoid person though,” says Patton, “even without the drug. Doubly so with it. It was paranoia that was driving him on the chase. I think he was terrified. He had a gun, he was being chased by policemen across state lines, he was probably stoned out of his mind, and the police in South Carolina overreacted. How often does your average South Carolina policeman get a chance to pull a gun on James Brown, smash in his windows?”
Anne Weston, who sang for the James Brown Revue from 1977-81, also attributes the recent arrests “directly to PCP. Since his marriage to Adrienne, the drugs have been really bad. And I think he’s been getting some awful stuff lately. I can’t say when he started smoking, or how often. It was only onstage that you could tell when he was off, out of control, which is a sure sign with James Brown. Normally he’s totally in control, especially onstage. By 1981, when the Revue started heading downhill, it was clear he was slipping. We’d gone around the world many times, playing to packed stadiums from Australia to Kuwait to Surinam. It was like the Beatles, only much bigger. When we were landing the plane in Africa, you’d look down from a mile up and see the runway moving — literally hundreds of thousands of people waiting. I think his smoking then was recreational, and he could control it. Not anymore.”
In a September 27 interview given in his Executive Park office to Linda Day, a staff writer for the Augusta Chronicle, Brown, accompanied by his lawyer, his lower teeth missing and his cheeks Scotch-Taped together under his chin (a home remedy for a slack jaw after reconstructive surgery for a degenerative jaw disease), said he’d begun “substance control” treatment. Too days after twice being arrested DUI, though, he still seemed out of control and under the influence of something. Brown, who has always spoken publicly in purposeful proclamations, was all epiphany on this occasion.
Asked about the shotgun-brandishing incident at the Augusta insurance seminar, for example, Brown replied, “I went to my gospel office, that I have, I own. [Brown actually rents his office space.] Went to the gospel office and it was open, and they were using my rest rooms … without saying ‘May I use it?’ … So then I want to know, do I own something, or am I just kidding myself? I mean, what do I own here, or what do I control? I mean do I control anything? Can’t accept that. The last name is Brown … Now when I can’t do that, never do I want to exist anymore. A problem I have, you have problems … We all have problems. Exactly why the Bible says to take the Sabbath Day to ask God’s forgiveness of our problems and our sins, because we’re human. We’re not God. We’re human. And he has saints down here that he designates for different programs. He called John, He called Job, He took Moses out of the — away from his sheep. He said you must go. He said I can’t go, I can’t speak the language. Your brother can speak the language. I will fix it so you can speak all the languages. But you will go. But the Lord, who controls everything, knowing that He has the final say-so, He has the key to everyone, body, tongue, the devil, everybody, He did not take it upon His almighty power to rule. He called Aaron and the three wise men. Said I need some help here. We have a roundtable discussion, like the United Nations. Now God, who controls nothing before him, don’t make the decision, how are you gonna make the decision on me? I need help. I accept that. We all need help. Can we accept the ridiculing or the formalness? Go get you one. When I tell my Daddy I don’t disagree he get offended. Why? I’m your father. I have my own mind. When you go to the rest room, I can be seated and you use it by yourself. When I go to the rest room, you can’t go in there, so you be seated. When you eat I don’t taste it. What you eat don’t make me fat or lean. Independence is all I’m asking for. The word is spelled F-R-E-E-D-O-M. Nothing I need to say. I rest my case … I’m not going to say the devil made me do it. Stress made me do it. S-T-R-E-S-S! Emphasize that three times, S-T-R-E-S-S!, S-T-R-E-S-S!, one more time, S-T-R-E-S-S!”
Asked if he felt he owed the people of Augusta an apology, Brown was more succinct: “I apologize,” he said, “for the unawareness of what I was about. I apologize for the discomfort that I caused you. I apologize for saying I simply love you. Just let me pass.”
“James will talk stream of consciousness from time to time,” said Anne Weston, to whom I showed a transcript of the interview. “It can be brilliant, poetic. You can only sit back and let him flow. But not like that. That’s a very different James Brown. That’s PCP talking.”
I asked Bob Patton why a man like James Brown would be attracted to a drug like PCP. “He’s not attracted to it,” Patton said automatically, “he’s addicted to it. He thinks it gives him power.”
TOCCOA IS A SLEEPY, once-pretty town lying in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia. Except for a picturesque, deserted downtown that never modernized, there’s not much to recommend it: Burger strips and shopping malls and Baptist churches relocated into ugly, white-block, two-story buildings have pretty much taken over the town, as they’ve taken over the rest of small-town America.
At the age of 16, Brown was sentenced to a dilapidated reform school in Rome, Georgia, for stealing clothes out of the back of somebody’s car in the middle of winter. That reform school was condemned two years later, and Brown was transferred to the Boy’s Industrial Institute, a juvenile prison converted from a disused paratrooper camp in Toccoa, where he served another year. A young Toccoan named Bobby Byrd, who’d gone out to the prison to trade gospel licks with the talented singer he’d heard about, got his mother to help Brown out of prison, and parole was arranged in custody of a local Oldsmobile dealer, who gave him a job sweeping out his lot and waxing cars. A childless couple who ran the town barbershop took Brown in to live with them, go to church with them, sing in the choir. He married a churchgoer named Velma Warren, raised three children, and joined Bobby Byrd in the Gospel Starlighters, the nucleus of the original Famous Flames. Mostly he hung around a tavern called Bill’s Rendezvous, owned by a savvy woman named Delois Keith.
“James would practically open the place,” she tells me, “so he could bang on the piano all day. He’d sweep out the place too, just so he could bang on the piano some more. He had a beautiful gospel voice, but he was getting a taste for rhythm and blues, which is what happened at the Rendezvous at night. James and Bobby had been doing r&b a little when Little Richard came through with his band. It was at that point they decided maybe spirituals were a little too slow a path. Anyway, the next time Richard came by here, James Brown was running circles around him. He had people screaming, on the floor. Before long, they were touring, endless touring, every night a different place. It went on for years like that. Finally he moved on to Macon, then up north after ‘Please, Please, Please’ made it so big in ’56 — even though the song didn’t have but one word.”
Guy Wilson, the man I’ve come to Toccoa to see, loaned Brown’s band an old white station wagon they could “tour” in — one-nighters in bars within a 30-mile radius, occasionally venturing as far as Macon, 70 miles away. A gentle man now in his late sixties, he greets me at the door and seats me in his easy chair to watch the Super Bowl on his 25-inch TV. “I was lucky I had insurance on that station wagon,” he tells me at halftime, “’cause James was a menace when it came to cars. That two-state chase wasn’t the first of his car troubles. He lost his job at the car dealership when he totaled one of them on a joyride, and he had a ton of other wrecks, almost lost his parole a couple of times. His son Teddy died in a car, too, long after James had left Toccoa. He was back here for the funeral. They had to rent the second floor of a building just to put all the flowers that came in from the famous entertainers.”
I ask Mr. Wilson if Brown came back here often after he’d made if big. “All the time,” he says. “This is where his family was, even if he and Velma’d broken up. James was first and last a family man. He was a proud man, and a good one, too, always handing out $10 bills every time he came around. When he first came to Toccoa his spirits were down. He was a 20-year-old boy who’d been kicked out of Augusta — they wouldn’t even let him go back and perform there, a part of his probation; he’d lost what family he had there, gone to prison. When he left Toccoa he was a well-respected man, with his head held high. He always came back, though maybe not so much these last couple years.” Guy eyes the second-half kickoff before continuing: “Only once or twice with that new wife. I was surprised when I heard James was in all that trouble, but not when I heard about that car stuff. It’s like what they’re always saying, right? ‘Once a man, twice a child.’ ”
After the game he walks me out to the car, commiserating on my long drive ahead to Augusta. “James never had any kind of luck in that town. He left there a poor boy and came back a rich man. They beat him back down, but he was on his way back to the top when all that trouble started up again. Still, I guess he should have known better, and it’s true they let him off all those times. It’s like what they say,” Guy winks at me when I start the car. “The victim always returns to the scene of the crime.”
AUGUSTA IS A THREE-HOUR DRIVE from Toccoa along the South Carolina-Georgia border on Highway 17, an endless strip of road connecting towns with names testifying to their isolation — Pignail, Black Well, Lost Mountain. The only thing that holds this monotony of farmland and pine forest together is the radio, a veritable House of Music down here, built from the bottom up: gospel, bluegrass, jazz, and Delta blues filling the 80s on the dial, rockabilly, early Stones, and Broadway show tunes in the low 90s, everything from Vanilla Fudge to Simply Red for the rest of the dial, a few staticky black stations playing rap and funk at the top. Dotted throughout, of course, is country — the music Brown grew up hating as the sound “playing on the radio of every white man I ever worked for” — everything from Hoyt Axton singing “Work your fingers to the bone/What do you get?/Bony fingers” to Charlie Daniels bragging how country boys survive.
If you drive around long enough, you find your way into the black sections of these pretty, dirt-poor towns, where you’ll find the only bar and liquor store open at this time of night, the only signs of life. In the ’50s these bars formed the chitlin’ circuit, the subject of James Brown’s 1962 hit “Night Train”: a swath of juke-joints from Washington, D.C., to Macon to Jackson to Miami. In cars like Guy Wilson’s station wagon, Brown put in tens of thousands of miles along Highway 17 and other roads during the six years he and his fellow travelers were refining and swapping their various strains of rhythm and blues. There was Little Willie John and fellow Georgians Little Richard and Otis Redding, but James Brown was the greatest of them, with a voice that screamed and crooned in coloratura range through songs like “Try Me,” “Don’t Let It Happen to Me,” and “Lost Someone.”
On a line with Greenville, South Carolina, I pick up the legendary Country Earl broadcasting “way past my bedtime,” learning the best places to buy boiled peanuts on Highway 25 (“tell ’em Country Earl sent you”), listening to his rare Bob Wills, Shorty Long, and Tennessee Plowboy singles. When I pass the Augusta Corporate Line I start losing him as he reads a letter from a reverend who says he’s thinking about marrying after all these years. Earl plays him a warning, Tammy Wynette and George Jones singing about living in the “Two-Story House” they dreamed of when young and poor, Tammy singing, “I’ve got my story,” George responding, “And I’ve got mine,” and the two joining for the refrain: “How sad it is we live in a two-story house.”
A couple stations up the dial, by way of announcing James Brown’s trial tomorrow morning, an Augusta DJ with an overripe sense of humor is playing early singles, all on themes of confinement and bad love. The power of Brown’s voice turns the intended irony into pathos:
I need no shackles to remind me
I’m just a prisoner
Don’t let me be a prisoner
You made me a prisoner
When you made me love you.
IN 1970, THE SAME YEAR Governor Lester Maddox urgently requested that he come down to help quell the riots in Augusta, James Brown returned to live there. He bought one of the biggest houses with one of the biggest yards on Walton Way, the town’s Park Avenue, where he remained for over a decade. “It got a little ugly when James bought that house,” remembers Bobby Byrd, who moved to Augusta shortly after Brown. “A lot of talk going on, petitions, a lot of confusion about a black family moving into the neighborhood, a couple of unfriendly offers by neighbors to buy the house at twice what he paid. Gradually, the people in the houses on both sides started to talk over the fence, you know how it is, eventually coming over, getting him to sign records for their kids. I can’t say, though, if he was ever really accepted in Augusta. I moved out after a few months myself.”
Down the street from Brown’s old house is the Law Enforcement Center, where he will stand trial for his latest series of misdemeanors. Brown has entered its various courtrooms and offices in markedly different ways over the years — in family court for divorce proceedings and custody battles with his second wife, Deedee; at the governor’s request 10 years before that. The first visit came in 1949, after being confined for two months in the Fifteenth Street Prison till he turned 16 and could be tried as an adult, when Brown was brought to trial for stealing clothes from a car and three other counts of petty theft. Brown had escaped arrest the night of the burglary, and officers were waiting the next day at his shoeshine stand on Broad Street. Brown outran them, ducking in and out of alleys, then returned later in the day, knowing they’d be waiting for him, for more of the same. Though he eluded them again, when he returned to the stand a few hours later for a third time a squad car was waiting, soon to be joined by others. After a long chase Brown was cornered in a blind alley and arrested at gunpoint by a majority of the Augusta police force. After a 15-minute trial, Brown, who has said he remembers his chases that day as a game, was sentenced to eight to 16 years hard labor.
There are two men here, an old bailiff and a county clerk downstairs, who go back far enough to remember George Haines, the solicitor who prosecuted the 16-year-old James Brown. A grandiloquent orator worthy of The Thin Blue Line, Haines would occasionally bring a suitcase into court and announce he’d leave town immediately if the defendant were found not guilty. Neither man recalls Brown’s trial, or if he got the suitcase treatment, but they remember seeing a show in the early ’60s that ended with Brown — The Hardest Working Man in Show Business — clutching a black suitcase with the words TRY ME printed in white across the front of it as he was dragged offstage “against his will” by members of his entourage.
The suitcase days are over, both for Brown and his prosecutors: state court solicitor Robert W. “Bo” Hunter III, conferring at the doorway of the modern courtroom with Brown’s lawyers, A. H. “Buddy” Dallas and John “Bill” Weeks, looks like he stepped out of last week’s episode of L.A. Law, his dark blue suit draping perfectly, his layered hair trimmed to a T. The absence of Al Sharpton — a sure sign Brown won’t be asking for a jury — is one of two topics of discussion among the press seated in the first few rows of the gallery; the other topic is the wording of an ambiguously dated “EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, Brown behind bars” in this morning’s USA Today. Buried at the end is a fantastic quote: “I’m the Einstein of Sound, the Napoleon of the Stage. I can still dance three times faster than anyone else — and I can keep it up for two hours. I can roll out of my bed and sing. I am James Brown 24 hours a day and they can’t take that away.”
In the back of the courtroom I notice a tiny woman in her mid-seventies — paying close attention to the proceedings — who bears a striking resemblance, with her high cheekbones, pursed lips, and cleft chin, to James Brown. I walk over and ask if she might be some relation, and in a thin, shy voice she says, “I’m James’s mother,” then writes her address in Bamberg, South Carolina — very carefully — inviting me to visit her anytime. “Now, though,” she says with a familiar smile, “I have to keep an eye out for my boy.”
James Brown is #1 on the docket today, the list of his charges taking up a third of the first page of the court calendar. When his case is postponed till later in the morning, I watch the 20 trials that go on before his, an amazing exercise in the bureaucratization of justice: Each defendant, head bowed, stands before Justice Hamrick (a familiar name in the South, Hamrick’s being a large chain of mall-based discount clothing stores) while the D.A. cites previous arrests and recommends sentence. The judge calls each defendant by name only once, “Mr. Snopes, don’t drink and drive,” before coming to what increasingly begins to seem like the real issue: “How is the defendant disposed today for the payment of fine?” In this case, to Hamrick’s embarrassment, Mr. Snopes, a short, middle-aged man wearing jeans that barely make it to the top of his white socks, a heavily starched white shirt, and a clip-on tie, pulls out a wad of fives and tens before the bailiff leads him to the jury bench to sign his plea and waiver along with the other defendants.
Adrienne Brown, accompanied by her lawyer, makes her appearance before Justice Hamrick, and a battery of TV cameras, tape recorders, and cameras loaded with 3200 ASA film start rolling and shooting. A pretty, stocky 38-year-old woman with a hard-earned reputation for being high-strung, she seems regal today: A two-inch diamond broach glinting on the lapel of her camel-colored skirt suit trimmed in mink at the wrist and hem, she endures her bench trial without wasting a motion or word. She listens carefully and diffidently while her lawyer and the D.A. itemize her plea/waivers to the DUI, speeding, and criminal trespass charges from her September 17, 1987, arrest, then attest to their personal knowledge of her law-abiding nature — the D.A. over a much longer period than her lawyer.
The “influence” she had been driving under, says the D.A., was only the “high end of the therapeutic level of butalbitol,” a painkiller prescribed following a hysterectomy and colon surgery. Not a word is said about her diplomatic immunity motion, missed court dates, bench warrants, and imprisonment for failure to appear at her previous trial, and the D.A. takes great care to advise Justice Hamrick that the charge of criminal trespass (incurred when she slashed the back of the police car she was taken to jail in with her nail file) is estimated at “about $75 worth of upholstery damage to the vehicle” and hardly worth prosecuting. She gets off lightly — $650, attendance at a DUI course, and $75 restitution for the police car. She’s led to the empty jury box to fill out her paperwork, the TV cameras and tape recorders are shut off, and a cub reporter is sent to ask the D.A. how to spell butalbitol.
Everything is switched back on a minute later when James Brown enters the courtroom, looking like the negative of a Matthew Brady portrait of a plantation owner: black three-piece suit with shoulder epaulets and wide lapels, black bowtie knotted loosely under the collar of his maroon shirt, black patent leather shoes, a huge, immaculately coiffed shock of hair framing his head. Standing casually before Justice Hamrick, flanked by lawyers for both sides and holding a pair of zippered racing gloves behind his back, he could easily be mistaken for a motorist who’s impatient to get back to his Excalibur in the parking lot. He clearly is not having an easy time countenancing his presence here: While the charges are read and the pleas announced — guilty to everything except handgun possession (dropped for lack of evidence) and nolo contendere to the drug charge — Brown shakes his head in disbelief.
Solicitor Hunter advises the court that the State wants only some period of incarceration. Brown’s Georgia lawyer, Buddy Dallas, talks briefly and dreamily about how long he’s known the defendant, followed by a few exculpatory remarks about “this old shotgun Mr. Brown clearly never intended to threaten anybody with.” Bill Weeks, the South Carolina lawyer, has come to speak for his client, which he does with conviction: “Sometimes it takes a knock on the head before you get someone’s attention. Well, South Carolina certainly gave him a knock on the head, Your Honor. Very honestly, I think they laid a heavy hammer on him.”
Adrienne, her head turned away from the proceedings, looks out of the corner of her eyes when Brown is asked if there’s anything he’d like to say on his own behalf. In an almost inaudible, raspy voice, he tells the judge that it hurts for a man of his beginnings to appear in court this way. “My life has always been a model,” he continues, “and I just don’t feel good about it at all … I hope this is behind us.” Still, Justice Hamrick has to ask Brown three times if he understands he’s forfeiting his right to trial by jury before he gives the required “Yes.”
There is some disappointment among the reporters who were hoping for an encore of the melodrama that accompanied the South Carolina trial: Brown telling the D.A. he loved him, then attempting to take the Fifth after agreeing to testify; the judge admonishing Adrienne, sitting in the gallery, for “prejudicing the interests of the defendant” by talking, nodding her head, and making gestures; the testimony of a young man who had driven 200 miles to tell the court that Brown had inspired him to rise above his troubles and that “God set this man on the earth”; and surprise testimony from the court bailiff, a former evangelist, who said God had placed him in the court to meet people like James Brown. (“If Satan throws us out,” the bailiff said, “God will take us back. Give him another chance.”)
The Augusta sentence is read off quickly: Amounting to six and a half years, it’s to be served concurrently (except for an additional six months) with his South Carolina time. On his way out, Brown stops for a moment to look back, turning a profile to the audience, which hasn’t seen his face yet. Leaning against a railing with one hand, the other held statesmanlike to his hip, he scowls at the court for a few seconds before he turns and walks out the door.
JAMES BROWN’S FATHER brought him to Augusta in 1938 at the age of five, and for 10 years Brown lived in various relatives’ houses in what is still, in less than polite society, called the Terry, short for Negro Territory, a 130-block range of closed businesses and ancient one- and two-story houses that run the gamut from abjectly poor to uninhabitable. Until the age of nine, Brown stayed in a bar/whorehouse at 944 Twiggs Street owned by his aunt, Honey Washington, a fearless woman who ran her establishment openly, going to jail once a month, paying the police off just as regularly.
A desolate, barracks-like ’40s housing project stands where 944 used to be, but an aproned woman in one of the dilapidated, well-scrubbed houses across the street, Mrs. Nunnally, remembers Honey, though little about James Brown. “He was one of those kids, you know the kind, that just sort of lives on the street. Especially after the police finally closed Honey’s place for good. My husband,” she says, nodding down the street at a wiry man dragging a tar bucket up to the house, “can tell you about James Brown. I think they were in prison together or something. Finally, I get all the war stories confused.”
“Back in ’48,” Robert Nunnally tells me reluctantly, leaning against the one unbroken spot of his peeling wooden fence as he lights up the last of his Pall Malls, “me and James Brown were in prison together, that’s true.” With his hair processed slick, a la James Brown, his 57-year-old body pure muscle and tar stains after 30 years as a roofer, Nunnally could play the doppelganger in a film about Brown’s life: Though they came out of the same street of the same ghetto, the path of Brown’s life led him far away — even if by force at first — and Nunnally is clearly a little bitter about the course his own life’s taken. “I can’t tell you much more about him, ’cause he’s been on the road. I just stayed here.”
I ask if Nunnally was one of the kids who’d been stealing clothes on Broad Street. “I never stole a damn thing in my life. No, what happened with me,” he says remorselessly, “is I shot a man when I was 16. But I stayed in the Fifteenth Street Prison — it was a state prison then — digging ditches, working behind the drag line. James got moved away, and I didn’t see him for 20 years.” I ask if he remembers Brown before their arrests. “Sure. It’s true he was a thief, seemed to always have half his body under the hood of someone’s car, stealing batteries. But take a look around,” he says, eyeballing the empty blocks leading off Twiggs Street. “Nothing’s changed since then. He wasn’t stealing for pleasure. And he wasn’t no violent man. That’s why I can’t understand those assault charges.”
I ask if he’s seen Brown in the last few years. “All the time,” he says. “James comes around here regularly, handing out $20 bills, like always. At least until he got arrested. That’s why he moved back to Augusta. Here’s where he comes from, where his people are. Here on Twiggs, by the bars on Ninth. Not no Walton Way.”
AT THE LAST INTERSECTION IN AIKEN, heading out to see Brown’s mother, I see something bizarre: Two flatbeds hauling the two halves of a two-story prefab house are waiting, side by side, for the light to change. As they turn left, I catch a glimpse of the interior of one side of the house — patio, dining room, kitchen (major appliances already in place) and a pine stairway leading up to a master bedroom; white curtains are blowing in the windows of the living room, second bedroom, and bath on the second trailer. A short distance after they straighten out, the two halves of the house come within inches of each other. I follow the bifurcated house down the highway, thinking about George and Tammy.
Barnwell County, in which James Brown was born in 1933, is plantation country, with Historical Markers dotting the highway every 10th mile and long red-dirt driveways leading to the sites of old mansions, now occupied by prefab houses or run-down farmhouses with 20-foot FOR SALE NO RESTRICTIONS signs spelling the end, 127 years after abolition, of white plutocracy in the rural South. On the outskirts of Bamberg, I find an enclave of similar houses at the edge of a pine forest; a polished Silver Shadow Mercedes in one driveway tells me which house is Mrs. Brown’s.
“I had to leave James when he was four, you know,” she says apologetically, pouring coffee at the kitchen table. A pair of jays are cawing loudly from a birdhouse nailed to a pine in the backyard, and she tells them to shut up. “We were living out in those woods, because that’s what his father’s work was, pulling turpentine out of the trees. One thing about James that never changed: He couldn’t sit still, even when he was a baby. He was always crawling out of the house, eating dirt, always eating dirt. One time he ate so much dirt I had to take him to the doctor to get it all out. He had to stay with his father when we parted because I was going to New York, to work in the factories, and I couldn’t care for him. I didn’t see him for over 20 years, then I went to the Apollo, waited on a line going around the block. After the show his people brought him to see me and my two sisters on the third floor of the Theresa Hotel, above the Apollo. I turned it into a game, see if James could tell which of us was his mother. He knew right away.”
I tell her the resemblance is uncanny, and she thanks me. “Even then he was moving. One place one night, another the next. He’s still like that. Now how’s he going to make it sitting in a cell all that time?” She shakes her head, raising three fingers. “Three weeks is all I give him. Three weeks to think about what he did. Then I want him to come out and behave, like he’s been doing all these years.”
CONSIDERING BROWN’S CRIMINAL record over the last year, it’s easy to forget that the September 24 chase — responsible for all the time he’s currently serving — was a freakish event: Brown was arrested under violent circumstances only once before, when police forcibly dispersed fans talking to Brown outside Knoxville’s Civic Auditorium in 1973. After he was railroaded into jail for the night, the charges were dropped and Knoxville’s mayor publicly apologized for the incident.
“You have to remember,” Bill Weeks tells me outside the Aiken courthouse, “the events Brown is taking all this heat for happened in the space of one hour.” A six-foot-10, soft-spoken man who chooses words precisely, Weeks fills me in on the details of that hour, none of which really came out in the various news reports. Later that day, I clock the route of the chase, a 10-mile stretch of suburban, interstate, and city road passing nine housing complexes, six large shopping malls, 12 Baptist churches, 13 gas stations, 19 burger joints, 15 fried chicken stands, 11 car lots, and three weapons shops.
Brown, carrying a shotgun, entered the insurance seminar in the Executive Park building at 12:20 p.m. and asked to use the microphone. “He was sweating, his hair was messed up,” said Dory Gonzalez, who was seated in the first row, “his shirt was open, his T-shirt was exposed. He was not making sense.” Brown, who always looks immaculate in public, demanded to be told who’d been using his rest rooms. Learning it was a “licensing seminar,” he also asked how to get a driver’s license (his had been suspended). “I thought that if I answered one of those questions wrong,” said Jerri Phillips, who was conducting the seminar, “he was going to kill me and everyone else … ”
Deputy Gilbert Lopez, a Columbia County sheriff attending the seminar, said he “couldn’t believe somebody would come into a room with 40 people with a shotgun. It seemed to me he was not in his right mind.” After five minutes, Brown led two women to his offices to lock the rest rooms, leaving the shotgun behind; at this point, Lopez went out to his car to get his .45. On his way back, he saw Brown come out the front door of the building, carrying his shotgun.
“I didn’t want to approach him,” Lopez said. “I figured someone might get hurt.” Brown got into his truck, Lopez got into his car, and Brown followed him out of the parking lot. Seeing Lieutenant Overstreet — responding to the emergency call — coming toward him with his lights flashing, Brown made a U-turn, drove back to the building, and then stopped, seemingly giving up. But as Overstreet and Lopez pulled up, he took off down Claussen Road, gunning his red-and-white Ford pickup onto Interstate 20 after three miles on Washington Street with Overstreet now hot in pursuit.
“I’m sure James was high at this point,” says Bobby Byrd, who’s known Brown longer and more intimately than anyone. “He was probably figuring once he got into South Carolina, he could find his way along the backroads, which he knows better than anyone, and get back to his house. He was heading home.”
“After all this stuff happened that I don’t know verbatim what happened,” Brown said in his September 27 interview, “God said, ‘Boy go home.’ I got in my truck and tried to go home. Then the police began to chase me. They would literally not let me get home, where I just wanted to close the gates, lock the door, and don’t come out till the next day.”
A mile onto Interstate 20, Brown stopped a second time for Overstreet, but as soon as the policeman pulled over and got out of the squad car, Brown took off again, doing 80 mph past the 25-foot high SOUTH CAROLINA WELCOMES YOU sign, getting off onto Martindale Road in North Augusta, South Carolina. A mile later, he saw the flashing lights of Officer Ronald DeLaughter’s signal and floored it, again doing 80. In another minute, he saw the second blue light — of Officer William Luckey’s car — and pulled into an abandoned lot across from the Exxon station at Martindale and Atomic roads, 20 miles down from the Savannah River nuclear power plant. It was the third time in 20 minutes Brown had stopped for police.
The Exxon attendant says he didn’t witness what happened across the street, so there’s only the testimony of Brown and the two officers to go on. While DeLaughter began questioning Brown at the window of his truck, Luckey tried to open the passenger door (he didn’t look, for some reason, to see if it was locked). Luckey began banging on the window. “I was getting ready to get out,” Brown testified at the Aiken trial, “when he [Luckey] started beating on the door and the window … glass went everywhere and I knew he was enraged.”
Luckey says he jumped away from the truck when he saw the shotgun sitting in the passenger seat — strange testimony from an officer responding to a call about an armed suspect. The truck backed up a few feet before Brown gunned it forward; Luckey claims Brown was trying to run him down. As Brown accelerated, DeLaughter, Luckey, and two other officers who’d arrived on the scene fired 18 rounds into the truck, two of them hitting the gas tank, others puncturing the front tires. “I was scared to death,” Brown testified. “I went to Vietnam, and I wasn’t that frightened.”
By the time Brown reached the Fifth Street Bridge, leading across the Savannah River back into Augusta, his tires were nonexistent, and he had eight police cars behind him. His truck was going 30 mph flat out, and there was clearly no escape. At this point the chase entered the purely irrational:
Brown got off the highway onto Walton Way, three blocks up from his old house, then looped around and headed back four blocks. The victim always returns to the scene of the crime: Two long avenue blocks down from his old shoeshine stand, Brown made a right onto Broad Street, sparks shooting up from the rims he’d been driving on for two miles, then headed through Old Town, a six-by-four block storybook testimonial to the pleasures of Old Money (four-bedroom gingerbread houses, unlocked BMWs and Lincolns sitting blithely on each side of the street). Brown rolled past the mayor’s house on Third Street, and finally across East Boundary, back into the Terry. Once a man, twice a child. Forty years after Brown had three times baited police to chase him through the back streets of Augusta, he was doing it again, once again having stopped for them three times. With 14 squad cars pursuing him through the Terry, Brown made a right on Courtland Street, then a left on Fairhope Street, where he lost control and ran his truck into a ditch.
At the deputy’s office in Augusta, Brown, carrying $7978 in cash (a normal amount for him), bailed himself out for $4100, then waived extradition to South Carolina. Driven by authorities to Aiken at 5 p.m., he was booked, given blood and urine tests, and bailed out at 10 p.m. for $21,268. At 7:25 the next morning, Brown’s Lincoln Continental was spotted weaving on the road five blocks down from the Terry bars on Ninth Street. Brown, behind the wheel, was completely stoned on PCP. “He just had his hands up in the air while he was driving down the street,” arresting officer T. J. Taylor said. “He was incoherent and couldn’t hold his balance.” Brown was taken to University Hospital for blood tests, and that was all she wrote.
ANITA BAKER AND OTHER SINGERS have expressed their interest in a benefit concert on Brown’s behalf. In New York, rappers Melle Mel and Van Silk have started a Free James Brown Movement, trying to collect a million signatures on his behalf. Handling hundreds of phone calls in his 54th Street office, Van Silk put it to me simply: “As rappers, we could never have been what we are and where we are if not for James Brown. If the man has a drug problem, let him get out, let him get rehab. He sure isn’t going to get no rehab sitting in a jail cell with the Joker and the Riddler and the Penguin. ”
“From what I’ve heard,” Anne Weston told me, “Brown only half-believes he’s going to stay in prison. His drummer, Tony Cook, saw him in jail and said James was saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll get the band back together, get back on the road again.’ You can talk yourself into that kind of stuff if you’re far enough gone on the believing side.” Perhaps Brown does believe that, perhaps he was just humoring himself. But Brown will remain in jail — 18 months to three and a half years, depending on which lawyer you ask.
Until then, he’s leading the gospel choir in the State Park Correctional Center and writing new songs, one of which is called “Staying Power.” Though friends and colleagues have asked him to admit to his drug problem and try to have his sentence commuted, no one I’ve talked to has any hope he will. “James is a hardheaded man,” said Bobby Byrd. “He’s always got to be in control. Things have to happen when he says they happen. I’d love to see him out, but James is the only one who can do it now.” ■
The author wishes to thank Linda Day and the Augusta Chronicle staff for valuable assistance researching this article.