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James Brown Told Me I Have Soul: How a Meeting With the Godfather Changed My Life Forever

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JAMES BROWN GET ON THE GOOD FOOT
AP

James Brown opens the door to his home in Beech Island, South Carolina wearing a deep blue suit, a heavily shellacked coif and a flawlessly powdered face. He ushers me into his home, riffing about the July heat, the traffic and whether I wanted something to drink in a raspy baritone that was as energetic and fervid as the vocals on any of the 144 hit songs he had recorded during his 47-year career. In his cavernous three-leveled living room which features a sunken wet bar at its center and long windows around its perimeter, with views of a nearby cotton field and a long dirt driveway featuring several vehicles in varying states of disrepair; there is a flurry of activity.

A crew from BET is setting up camera equipment to record an interview which will be broadcast in honor of Brown's newly bestowed Lifetime Achievement Award. Tomi Rae, Brown's 33-year-old wife, and a soul-singing member of his entourage wants his opinion on an irridescent skin-tight beige gown that she is having fitted by Brown's personal tailors. Charles Bobbit, Brown's manager and closest confidant for the past 27 years needs clarification on some detail of the summer tour schedule. And a young black man from Cleveland who helps Brown around the house wants to know what he should do with a stem of cotton that he had just picked from outside. Brown directs the suppliants with the same aplomb he is known for having as a band leader. He tells the BET crew to switch out the bar stools for regular chairs so he wouldn't look "short and fat on camera;" advises Tomi Rae on where to have the dress nipped and tucked for maximum wattage; rattles off some names and dates to his manager; and sends the young man with the cotton over to me.

Sixteen hours earlier, I had withdrawn the last hundred bucks from my checking account and boarded a Greyhound bus for Augusta, Georgia, just over the state line from Beech Island. I was in town to interview James Brown for Newsweek magazine. Well, sort of. I was an editorial assistant who spent most of my time arranging travel accommodations for the director of the foreign language editions, and making photocopies for an elderly editor who found both the technology of a copy machine and the fact that women in the office weren't just secretaries anymore, to be equally confounding. I was eager to do something that resembled journalism. I had started at the magazine in the fall of 1999, as a production assistant in the manufacturing department, doing the graveyard shift on Friday and Saturday nights after working all week at an advertising agency. I had read All the President's Men as an undergraduate, and I thought that I could work my way through the ranks into a reporting position like Carl Bernstein. But when I assailed editors in the hallways with my exuberant story ideas, they would cut me off and tell me to email them, and then my pitches would always go unanswered.  After two years of applying to every full-time job opening below the rank of Editor-in-Chief, the human resources manager, Connie Von Tobel would tell her assistant not to patch in my calls. "Just take a message," I would hear her mutter in the background.

In the summer of 2001, I took a pay cut and a hiatus from my manufacturing job to get editorial experience as one of Newsweek's summer interns. According to the job description, editorial interns did "reporting, writing and fact-checking." As it turned out, I was sent to the letters department and spent all of my time opening the mail. One Friday night, in tears, I retreated to the office of Bob Serrano, the unofficial mayor of the manufacturing department who never failed to entertain visitors with hard candy, cigarettes and company gossip.

"Your problem is that you're not Ivy League," he explained. "That's why the other interns are writing stories and you're opening letters. It's not fair, but that's just how things are."

A year later, I enrolled as a part-time graduate student at Columbia University's School of Journalism while continuing to work at the magazine. By the summer of 2003, when I sat in James Brown's living room, I was working on my graduate thesis, and I was desperate to prove to my editors at Newsweek that I could be a decent journalist, if given the chance. So I came up with a way to do both. I found an editor who agreed to place a brief James Brown interview in one of the international editions of Newsweek, and I convinced my thesis adviser at Columbia that I should write about James Brown. At the time, the Godfather of Soul box set was the soundtrack of my life. Its songs about hardship and yearning for respect resonated with me deeply. "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'. Open up the door, I'll get it myself." Nothing I went through as a fledgling reporter from the wrong side of the tracks remotely compared to Brown's early life of poverty, and experiences with racism while coming of age in pre-Civil Rights Georgia, but I'm not your average white girl from the suburbs either. I was the youngest of seven children, from a strict Italian-American family, and my father worked as a chemical engineer, returning home each day at precisely five to eat dinner which mother never failed to have prepared and on the table. She died of cancer when I was eight, and the affability and order never returned to our home.

My father's broken heart manifested itself as rage, and he would spent entire weekends screaming at us for unforgivable infractions like tracking mud in the house on our Nikes. I did everything possible to avoid being home. I joined the Girl Scouts, the philatelist's club, the soccer team. I played violin in the school orchestra, trumpet in the band, and sang in the chorus. I got a paper route and did babysitting on the weekends. In high school, I attended a private institution which had classes six days a week. A few months after my 18th birthday, I packed two trash bags full of clothes, withdrew the last $50 from my checking account and hitched a ride with a friend to New York City. I slept on the floor of her dorm room at Columbia for two months before I could afford to get a studio apartment.    
 
"You've got soul. I see it in you," James Brown told me. He said I reminded him of his third wife, Adrienne, the one he really loved, a hair stylist who died in 1996, from complications related to cosmetic surgery. I was trying to run through the 79 questions I had prepared during the bus ride from New York, asking Brown about his history with the Civil Rights Movement, the possibility of a Black president in America, Brown's influence on hip-hop, the difference between Black Pride and Black Power, and his relationship with Elvis. But Mr. Brown kept interrupting the interview and asking me questions. He asked about my job and whether I liked it. So I told him about how I spent most of my time doing busy work, while the people my age from wealthy, well-connected families were scoring plum assignments.

"The rich kids at your job are nothing," he told me. "If they came here, I wouldn't do nothing for them. I know they're nothing because my kids are rich and they're nothing. They tried to sue me for my songs."

The way Brown saw it, the hardships in his life -- born in a shotgun shack in the woods, abandoned by his mother, spending days as a child picking cotton under the hot sun, troubles with the law, substance abuse issues, the betrayal of friends and business associates -- were not disadvantages, but rather, sacred consecrations. They taught him things. Ambition. Character. Work ethics. The value of money.

"I was the underdog of everything. I came up in a house of ill-repute. Everything I know now, and even more, I now because I went through all that." And then Brown put into words to very essence of his greatness, which I have not stopped thinking about 11 years later, because every time I find myself faced with an insurmountable obstacle, I can hear his painstaking vocalization of a world view which has since become my own. "The one that went through the school of hard knocks, is the one most likely to succeed. If the hard times don't knock him down."
 
I could tell by the changing light in Brown's living room that it was getting to be late afternoon. The BET camera crew was packing up, and I was trying to figure out the most polite way to ask Brown's manager, Charles Bobbit to drive me back to Augusta so I could get on the bus and head back to New York. I had a nontransferable, nonrefundable ticket for the 5:30 and a few dollars in my pocket to buy a bag of chips and a candy bar for the journey home. Bobbit told Brown that I had taken a bus to Augusta because the editors in New York wouldn't pay travel expenses for an interview they thought I should have been doing over the phone. "

You may have taken a bus here, but you're not going to take a bus home," Brown informed me. I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, but then everyone started talking about dinner, and Brown ushered us into a shiny, black SUV that was parked in the dirt driveway. Brown hopped behind the wheel and insisted that I sit in the passenger seat, while Tomi Rae and her two-year-old son, James Brown II got in back.

We drove around Augusta for a while so Brown could show me the poor part of town. We stopped by the home of his housekeeper who had been convalescing from kidney surgery. She ran out to see Brown, limping and holding her side. Then we went to a chain restaurant for dinner. James Brown II climbed on my lap and ate rice off my plate with his hands while the waitstaff tiptoed around the table, making sure that their favorite customer's water glass was always full. When I went to the restroom, I ran into Tomi Rae who was sneaking a smoke. We talked about bands she liked, her relationship with Brown, her ambitions. She had met him in Las Vegas when she was doing a Janis Joplin show.

"I didn't come here to be a wife and mother. I came here to be a star." But still, she looked after Brown, made sure he ate right and took his blood-pressure medication. And put up with his temper. She didn't elaborate, but there had been reports in the news of tension-fueled moments with guns, cops being called to the house. "Sometimes I go to Amsterdam with my friends just to get away for a little while," she told me.

Brown's manager made arrangements for me at the Augusta Marriott, and met me for breakfast the next day before driving me to the airport.

"He must really like you," Bobbit said. "He doesn't do this for everyone."

As Brown's media coverage had become increasingly focused on his trouble with the law rather than his music or charitable works, he had become distrustful of journalists. I asked Bobbit about some of the things that had been said about Brown's business practices over the years. "Payola? Of course we did payola. Everybody did. That's how you used to get songs on the radio." He talked about the chain of restaurants and the radio stations that Brown had owned in the 1960s and '70s, and how it was taken by the Feds to pay for back taxes.

"They went after him. It wasn't fair and it wasn't right, but they didn't want a black man having that kind of power so they shut him down." Bobbit was impressed by artists today and how they monetize everything. "It's a different world now, but Brown was the original businessman in music. He was before his time."

A few days later, back in New York, I was stricken with guilt, and called Bobbit in a panic. I'm a journalist, I can't take gifts from an interview subject. I have to pay you back for the hotel and the airplane and the breakfast. Bobbit laughed and told me not to worry about it, that their travel agent had covered it all with frequent flier miles. But when I insisted that he name a price so I could send a reimbursement check, he relented. I mailed a check to Brown's business office, praying that they wouldn't cash it until after payday. To this day, check #101 written out to James Brown Enterprises has never been cashed.

Fueled with confidence after my anointing from the Godfather, I went on to interview some of the other Greats of the 20th Century, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Benazir Bhutto, Vaclav Havel and Maya Angelou.

When Brown died on Christmas in 2006, and his body lay in state at the Apollo, Newsweek sent me to cover the story.

As I roamed the streets, talking with fans of all ages and backgrounds in the crowd, I was happy to see that Brown was finally getting in death, the respect that he felt had eluded him in the twilight of his life. And with the new James Brown biopic out this summer, the legend of the man and the music will surely live on forever. As for me, I haven't become the new Carl Bernstein yet, but I haven't given up, either. Because a wise man once told me, "the one that went through the school of hard knocks, is the one most likely to succeed. If the hard times don't knock him down."