Baltimore just gave singer a `hard time'

December 26, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Released after two nights in City Jail on a contempt of court citation in 1978, a weary James Brown told reporters that he wasn't down on Baltimore.

"It just seems I've been given a hard time here," he said.

For the legendary singer - one of the flashiest and most dynamic performers of his time - this was an understatement.

His performances were banned in the mid-1960s for inciting riots. A downtown motel named after him failed within a year. His second wife, with whom he had two daughters, hailed from Baltimore - where she also divorced him in 1983. And he was repeatedly forced into federal court to reveal details about his finances after his local radio station, WEBB-AM, went belly-up.

But Brown, who died yesterday at the age of 73, sold out most of his shows in the region. In a testament to his influence, he even became vocal in local politics, urging one of two black mayoral candidates in 1971 to back out to give the other a better chance.

In the midst of his most mainstream success, Brown and his Famous Flames Orchestra were banned from the Civic Center amid pressure from downtown merchants. An April 1964 performance had been followed by three stabbings and a shooting, and a show the next May led to more than a dozen arrests.

Brown found a way around the ban in 1970 - by promoting a coming show as a "gospel" performance aimed at an older crowd. The Civic Center Commission had banned rock-and-roll shows.

The next year, his James Brown Motor Inn, at Franklin and Paca streets, closed after "developing a reputation for rowdiness," according to a Sun article, and three companies petitioned for his JB Broadcasting Ltd. to be declared bankrupt.

By 1974, WEBB-AM had lost its license and gained a list of 33 creditors. Brown, the majority stockholder, was picked up in New York City before a performance at the Apollo theater and taken to Baltimore City Jail for failure to appear at a civil hearing involving the financial dealings of the radio station.

"They won't let me get a good feeling here," Brown said after being released. "The people are beautiful, but the people who are in a position to change things won't change and racism is still bad here."

He appeared in court several more times to explain why he couldn't pay his debts. In 1985, he arrived at the courthouse in a limousine and wearing a full-length fur coat, telling a judge that he had no money and claiming that he ate at McDonald's. His attorney said he owed the federal government $6 million to $7 million.

Brown had significant family ties to the Baltimore area. His second wife, Deidre Jenkins Brown, was from Baltimore and at one time lived in the Milford Mill area. She sued him for divorce in Baltimore County Circuit Court in 1983.

Their daughters, Deanna and Yamma Brown, attended local colleges.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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