James Brown may have been telling more than he intended on his 1974 hit,  “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” 

Papa didn’t cuss
He didn’t raise a whole lotta fuss
But when we did wrong
Papa beat the hell out of us

Papa was calm but Papa could explode. As it was with James Brown.

The man’s smile could light the way on a starless night. His music inspired and enthused. James Brown couldn’t make the lame walk but he could make the rhythmically-challenged learn to groove.

Yet James Brown had that downside. There were the violent explosions in his personal life. There was the mess he left behind when his vibrant self took that last breath on Christmas Day 2006.

James Brown’s life made millions happy. He was the hardest working man in show business. He made sure his customers were satisfied with his work. Yet many of those satisfied customers had to take pause over the thought of James Brown in turmoil.

What was desired from James Brown was an eternal proclamation of “I’m back! I’m back!” as heard in his triumphant “Get Up Offa That Thing.”

In a period of four years, Brown went from being ready to endorse Bobby Kennedy (RFK) for the presidency to endorsing the reelection of President Nixon. On the day of the ’68 California primary, a promotion man for Brown reached RFK at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to tell him of Brown’s desire to endorse him. That pleased Kennedy. Hours later, after declaring victory in the primary, RFK was murdered.

Upon Kennedy’s death, Vice President Hubert Humphrey received the support of James Brown. Humphrey lost in the general election to Richard Nixon. In ’72 Nixon received Brown’s endorsement. He claimed to be impressed with what Nixon was doing for black colleges and minority enterprises. Despite his reasons, Soul Brother Number One took a lot of heat for that.

Years later, when Rolling Stone asked Brown to name a great twentieth-century hero, he picked Strom Thurmond, the U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Yes, the same Thurmond that ran for President as the nominee of the “Dixiecrat” party in 1948. Yes, the same Thurmond who filibustered against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Perhaps Brown appreciated that Thurmond may have expressed second thoughts by voting in favor of the federal holiday to honor Dr. King. Brown had been an early supporter of the King holiday, asking President Nixon to put the weight of his office behind the measure. Nixon showed little interest and it wasn’t until 1986, nearly 12 years after Nixon left the presidency in disgrace, that the nation had its holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the summer of ’96, the Olympic games were staged in Atlanta. The athletes and media from around the globe were joined by some of the world’s most famous entertainers. A House of Blues (HOB) was set up in the old Baptist Tabernacle building downtown, near the newly constructed Centennial Olympic Park. For those who cared more for music than athletic competition, the House of Blues was the happening place. In about two weeks time, Dr. John, Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Al Green would be among the top names booked. Bob Dylan would close out the series of shows on August 3 and 4. Dylan’s 8/3 set wowed the audience, especially with his blazing rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Alabama Getaway,” one of the night’s encores.

But there could be no Showtime in Atlanta without James Brown. So on Friday night, July 26,  James Brown took the stage in the tented area at HOB. According to reports, he was a bit uneasy about performing in the old Baptist church building. It was the sacred-versus-the profane dilemma. There’d be more reasons to feel uneasy later on.

But before he took the stage, all was right with James Brown and the Atlanta Olympics. On the site Humid City, a writer who worked for HOB remembered seeing Brown arrive for his show.

He pulled up in a Snow White stretch limo with a vanity plate that said “Godfather.” He hopped out fizzing with energy, and immediately started shaking hands and kissing girls at the security perimeter. Yes, he really seems like that all the time.

Hours later a bomb went off in Centennial Park. It was 1:19 a.m., Saturday. Terrorist Eric Rudolph had come to town.

Not everyone in the vicinity knew what happened, but the HOB crew was on top of things. The Humid City writer describes the events surrounding James Brown.

When the pipe bomb went off, my friend Vaughn and I had to tell (Brown) there would be no encore.

The Godfather was not happy.

What do you mean there will be no encore? I’m the Godfather. These people want to see the Godfather and I’m not going to disappoint them.”

They told him a bomb had just gone off at Centennial Park, just a block away. The Godfather of Soul had a change of heart.

“Where’s my limo? Where my women at? Let’s get out of here.”

James Brown was a brave soul but he was no fool. Besides, he had more than ten years left in him. There were a lot of shows to give. People wanted to see the Godfather and he didn’t want to disappoint them.

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.

One Comment
  1. Will Cantrell

    Jeff, I just got around to reading your piece on James Brown a little while ago. Been meaning to do it ever since it was posted but I’ve this awfully long “Honey Do” list of late. In any event, I enjoyed your piece immensely. One of the reasons for my enjoyment is that it reminds me that I have only recently come to truly appreciate James and his “body of work”. I guess that posthumous appreciation is better than none at all. Regretfully, it is sometimes the only appreciation that some artists get.

    I suspect that I didn’t give James’ work the chance that I should and could have while he was alive, because perhaps I grew a impatient with the turmoil of which you write about that seemed to surround James’ life, and sometimes his work. I learned more years ago than I care to count that oftentimes athletes, actors, artists and other creative and inventive people were complex individuals who very often exhibited inconsistent and complex behavior. (A lot of them tended to die too young.) Certainly James Brown fit that mold. But so, in their own way “did/does” Elvis, Ali, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin, Tiger Woods and a whole host of celebrity artists/athletes. Of course, when you think about it, maybe the only difference between these ‘larger than life’ folks and the rest of us is that their lives are followed, written about, and analyzed ad infinitum by the working press. While TMZ goes all “atwitter” when they spot one of these folks out having dinner, I don’t think that TMZ gives one damn if they spot Will Cantrell or Jeff Cochran out enjoying a sandwich at Billy Burger’s. If you or I show human frailty and screw up, we won’t get the gargantuan type news coverage that ‘ a James Brown’ would get.

    I “aint” excusing James’ run-ins with the law. I am, by no means, how he sometimes didn’t think that some rules and laws didn’t apply to him. I ain’t at all. I just wish maybe that maybe I’d have appreciated his WORK a little bit more when he was ‘with us’. Our friend and fellow contributor to The Dew, Tom Poland has a wonderful quote on his website by the author, Harry Crews. Paraphrased says that “…the good work is done by people with jagged edges, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint…”.

    “Papa” was by no means perfect. He was a complex man …but he left a helluva imprint.

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