Get on up and celebrate The Godfather’s birthday! The late, great James Brown was born May 3, 1933.
PAST COVERAGE: That memorable day I spent with James Brown
Brown was born in the piney woods near Barnwell, S.C. The one-room shacks where he lived had no power, no water and no windows. His father, Joe Gardner, was a turpentine worker who was often gone for days at a time and young James often was left to generate his own amusements.
“It gave me my own mind, ” he wrote of his lonely childhood.
When he was 6, his father moved him to Augusta, and he lived in a brothel operated by his great-aunt Honey. It was at that young age that hints of Brown’s future show-biz career would emerge, as he’d earn a little pocket change by entertaining soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon who frequently traveled over a canal bridge just outside Aunt Honey’s place.
“They threw nickels and dimes, and I worked even harder, trying to get them to throw quarters, ” he wrote in “James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.” “Boy, I wanted those quarters.”
PHOTOS: Remembering James Brown
Brown was inspired as a young man by performer Little Richard. He was then performing with a group called The Flames, later The Famous Flames, reportedly prompting Little Richard to comment: “Y’all are the onliest people who ever made yourself famous before you were famous.”
A talent scout in Macon heard a copy of a tune called “Please, Please, Please” they’d recorded at radio station WIBB (the diminutive Brown had to stand on a Coke crate to reach the microphone) and signed them to King Records in Cincinnati.
It sold a million copies.
When managers started calling the group James Brown and the Famous Flames, the other members quit. Brown never did. He toured constantly, sometimes playing 350 shows in a year, always featuring tightly choreographed dance moves, theatrical set pieces and of course those famous costumes.
A trove of Brown’s eye-catching outfits, his Grammy Award and tons of other memorabilia can be viewed at the Augusta Museum of History.
“He loved Augusta,” one of his daughters, Dr. Yamma Brown Alexander of Atlanta, said during a speaking engagement at Paine College in Augusta. “My father was an extremely humble man. He rode around in the city. He didn’t have a chauffeur. Our father taught us to be humble, to serve others in everything you do.”
By the way Yamma and her dad once appeared in a McDonald’s ad together:
Another daughter, Deanna Brown Thomas, still lives in the Augusta area. She is president of the James Brown Family Children Foundation. It organizes annual toy and turkey giveaways and operates programs including J.A.M.P. (James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils), where young people learn to play and perform.
A chance meeting with Brown launched the career of leading entertainment attorney Joel Katz, whose enormous client list has included Michael Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Julio Iglesias, Tammy Wynette, George Strait and George Jones.
“I started with absolutely nothing,” said Katz, who got through law school at the University of Tennessee thanks to a scholarship and a six-day-a-week job working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m as a Holiday Inn night clerk. Graduation in 1969 brought him to a one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta and a teaching job at Georgia State University.
In 1971, he opened a law practice. He had a tiny office, a secretary he shared with other lawyers and one big problem: “I had no clients.”
One afternoon, the telephone blessedly rang. A banker on the line had taken Katz’s course at Georgia State and enjoyed it. Now he needed to help a client locate a good entertainment lawyer.
“Do you know anything about entertainment law?” the banker asked. Katz pondered that for a second. “I was honest: ‘No, I know nothing.'”
This, somehow, was the right answer. The next day, he was ushered into the penthouse suite at the Omni where Brown was getting his hair done.
“I was in awe,” Katz said. After a 10-minute discussion, Brown decided Katz was his man and stroked a retainer check for $2,500. The next day, they headed for New York, where Katz’s job was to negotiate a huge recording contract.
“He wanted $5 million and a jet plane, and a variety of other contractual demands,” Katz said. Recording executives were gobsmacked.
“No one who understood the recording industry would ask for such crazy things,” Katz recalled one of the executives bellowing. “As his yelling intensified, I began to realize why Mr. Brown chose me.”
After Brown signed the contract giving him most of what he wanted, Katz accompanied him to a news conference where Brown closed by saying, “I want to thank my lawyer, Joel Katz, from Atlanta, Ga., the best entertainment lawyer in the whole world,” recalled Katz, who collected $50,000 for his work on that contract and remained Brown’s lawyer until he died on Christmas Day 2006.
“The Atlanta Constitution and several other newspapers carried articles and my name was in all the articles: Joel Katz, the best entertainment lawyer in the world. A few days later, I received a call from a country music artist from Austin, Tex. He had read the articles. He said if you’re good enough for the Godfather, you’re good enough for me. Willie Nelson went on to be a superstar, too.”
Brown died of congestive heart failure in Atlanta at age 73.
After his death a most lively memorial service was held in the Augusta arena that now bears his name. The late Michael Jackson, Dick Gregory and Rev. Al Sharpton were among those who came to celebrate the life of Brown, laid out in 24-karat gold casket as musical performers rocked the 8,100-seat James Brown Arena.