Anytime a show biz superstar takes part in a story-of-my-life TV documentary, the immediate assumption is that there's some sort of spin control involved. Particularly when the legend in question has recently been involved in some sort of scandal; what we get, in the guise of "the inside story," is usually just whitewash and equivocation as the star tells his side of the story.
Not James Brown, though. Ask him why he agreed to make "James Brown: The Man, the Music & the Message," and his answer has nothing to do with excuses or self-justification. He doesn't complain about his conviction on traffic charges in 1988, for which he was sentenced to six years in jail by judges in South Carolina and Georgia. (He's currently in a work-release program in Aiken, S.C.)
No, James Brown says he simply wants to set a good example.
"Those who are in a position to influence and infiltrate the minds of young people should set a positive image," he says over the phone. "And that's all I've tried to do all my life."
Well, almost all. Over 30 years, he has put 44 singles into the Top 40, including such soul classics as "Night Train," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Cold Sweat," "Sex Machine" and dozens more. With "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," he single-handedly invented funk as we know it; even now, more than two decades after some of them were released, his recordings seem startlingly modern.
He laughs now that his old record company "always said that I was 25 or 30 years ahead." But the fact remains that without James Brown records to sample from, dozens of rap hits would never have known how to get on the good foot. "The rappers only use about 5 percent of me and it makes a hit record," he says, obviously pleased. "James Brown has a legacy. All the music today, about 85 percent of it, has my licks. I was glad to be able to do that."
Lest you assume he's boasting, the TV special includes interviews with Bobby Brown, Jazzie B of Soul II Soul, rap star Heavy D, each of whom acknowledge their debt to the Godfather of Soul.
And that's just the music. His dancing made him an early idol of Michael Jackson, who has since told interviewers about sitting in the wings at Harlem's Apollo Theatre memorizing Brown's every move. (Jackson's moonwalk, by the way, is simply an update of Brown's camel walk.) His live show has been imitated by performers as far afield as the Rolling Stones, Prince and even Bruce Springsteen, and is legendary for its onstage energy. When they introduced Brown as "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," they weren't kidding.
Naturally, the TV show recounts these and other triumphs. But to Brown, his greatest achievement has been as a champion of self-determination, proof that success is available to anyone willing to work for it. As one of his singles once put it, "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)."
"It's very important for our kids, for the morale of our country, to see that there is still an opportunity if you work very hard to come from any point of life, and accomplish something," he says.
Brown certainly knows whereof he speaks. Born 57 years ago in Barnwell, S.C., Brown grew up poor and black at a time when the only opportunities blacks had were the ones they made for themselves. Even though he never got beyond the seventh grade, Brown is still better-schooled than his parents. "My mother stopped in fourth grade, and my father stopped in second grade," he says. "He was a farmer and a turpentine worker, she worked on the farm."
As a youth, Brown shined shoes and danced on street corners, taking any opportunity to make a little money. Unfortunately, some of the opportunities he saw were less than legal, and at 16, he was sent to prison on charges of theft. But his hard work and talent helped him turn even those circumstances around, and not only did Brown win an early release from prison, but he emerged with a budding career in gospel music.
Within four years of his release, Brown -- then fronting a vocal quartet called the Famous Flames -- made his first single, "Please, Please, Please." It was an instant smash, and Brown never looked back.
"Let people know that it's never over," he says, "that you always got a chance and an opportunity and you can continue going with a positive attitude.
"This movie, this documentary is probably one of the strongest things that's been out in quite some time," he adds. "Because everybody, everybody knows James Brown. It's a document of what did happen, and what still could happen in America. And if I can continue to do good things and have good messages, it will be very important. I think we should cling to that kind of thing."
'James Brown' documentary
WBAL-TV (Channel 11) will air the one-hour documentary, "James Brown: The Man, The Music & The Message," at 11:30 p.m. tomorrow. Videotapes of the special are available by phone for $32.20. To order, call (800) 235-8433.