He's the godfather of rap, too


January 14, 1991|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Evening Sun Staff

THE TIMES, the surroundings and certainly the circumstances are so different from what they used to be for James Brown.

But even now, from behind a desk at a Community Action Commission office in South Carolina, where he is engaged in a work-release program as a part of his jail sentence, Brown remembers the good times when the world was his play toy.

"I have good memories of Baltimore," said Brown by phone. "I remember when I used to play the Regal Theater on Pennsylvania [Ave.] I remember making the people happy."

However, Brown now wonders whether the people he used to entertain are happy and productive and if their children are getting the best that life has to offer.

"I hope in the future that we can come back together throughout TTC our country and take care of some of this poverty and some of this dissention."

"Hopefully, we can get back on the good foot."

It has been a while since Brown, who was the subject of a documentary, "James Brown: The Man, The Music, The Message," Saturday night on WBAL-TV, has been on the good foot.

The 57-year-old Godfather of Soul is into the 25th month of a six-year sentence on assault and failure to stop for police in a wild September 1988 incident that involved police officers in two states.

And even over the phone, one can tell that Brown, who once ruled the universe of black popular music, is light-years away from the life he once knew, but not without the pride he has always carried.

"I think a lot of people here have seen the integrity of James Brown and what I'm about," Brown said. "I don't think there is no bad feeling about James Brown.

"I think people will stop and think, 'Hey, maybe we're punishing the wrong man.' "

Brown was sentenced in December 1988 for his involvement in a bizarre tale that Georgia and South Carolina police say was drug-related.

Brown allegedly burst into an insurance seminar next to his office in Augusta, Ga., waving a weapon and accusing shocked executives in the room with using the restroom in his office.

When police were called to the scene, Brown was said to have taken off in his pickup truck and to have tried to run officers down.

The chase, which crossed the state line twice, came to an end when officers shot out the tires of the truck. Brown had been on probation in connection with drug and weapons charges to which he had pleaded guilty to in July 1988.

One month after his South Carolina conviction, Brown pleaded guilty to similar charges in Georgia. The judge there also sentenced him to six years, but ordered it to run concurrent to the South Carolina sentence.

Brown served 15 months of the sentence at a state correctional institution in Columbia, S.C., and was shifted to a work-release program last April.

After working as a counselor for the young and poor at the commission office by day, Brown returns each evening to a minimum security facility. He could be paroled in South Carolina next month but will not be eligible in Georgia until March 1992.

Brown says that the incident that landed him in jail and gained him as much notoriety as his stellar career was "a minor traffic violation" and has made him as much a victim of persecution as Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, the Kennedys and "a lot of other beautiful people."

"They can take a young man like me and put me in a jail for a very menial problem like a traffic light and build it up into a lot of things,trying to confuse the people."

"It was nothing but a failure to stop for a blue light. That's all it was ever."

Brown sees himself as a bittersweet portrait. He thinks that he has never been given proper credit for revolutionizing the form of black -- and by extension, popular -- music.

He finds it interesting that the current practicioners of rap music don't pay homage to him, for Brown's themes and statements in songs, like "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," and "Get On The Good Foot," combined with staccato phrasings, were the foundation of today's form.

"All the music that they're playing, it's James Brown, but they should express that," said Brown. "The rappers would have never been if it hadn't been for James Brown, who opened the door for them. Ninety-five percent of their music is James Brown and they got me in the background 85 percent."

"I gave all I have, and all I just want them to do is try to meet me halfway."

Even Brown's memories of Baltimore are tinged with melancholy. He said he purchased WEBB-AM in 1969, as a favor to people who wanted him to help quell racial unrest in the city, triggered by the 1968 assassination of King.

But Brown ran into problems with creditors and was ordered in 1976 to pay $170,000. The legal tussle over the station continued and Brown was jailed for two days here in 1978 for contempt of court, when he allegedly failed to turn over documents in the case.

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