James Brown

By Santoro, Gene | The Nation, June 3, 1991 | Go to article overview

James Brown


Santoro, Gene, The Nation


In September 24, 1988, in an office complex he owns in Augusta, Georgia, his hometown, James Brown brandished a shotgun at participants in an insurance seminar. He complained that somebody there had used his private bathroom next door. The cops were called, Brown jumped into his pickup truck and they pursued him for ten miles along the South Carolina state line-with between ten and fourteen vehicles at speeds up to 85 miles per hour. Surrounded during the French Connection-style chase in an abandoned lot, Brown slammed his truck into reverse, and the cops shot out his front tires. (Brown, who'd been convicted of assault and battery involving an officer that February, said he'd been stopped for ten minutes before the cops showed up.) Though he had his shotgun with him throughout the incident, the police said he didn't threaten them with it or attempt to use it. Brown's truck had twenty-three bullet holes in it when he finally ran it into a ditch. As he told one interviewer, "I was scared to death:' and another, "They're trying to make you antagonize oem so they can kill you."

On December 15, 1988, Brown was convicted of failing to stop for police-a felony in South Carolina-and assault of a high and aggravated nature" trying to run down his pursuers). His time: six years for the so-called "blue light" offense and two concurrent five-year terms for assault that were suspended to five years of probation not concurrent with his six-year sentence-which, for purposes of parole eligibility, was equivalent to an eleven-year term. His lawyer, Reginald Simmons, said it was "extremely harsh, not commensurate at all with the crime."

As Dave Marsh points out in a new epilogue to James Brown.- The Godfather of Soul by James Brown with Bruce Tucker (Thunder's Mouth Press), the fine autobiography reissued last summer, the media weren't much kinder. They certainly weren't addicted to the facts. Marsh cites Rolling Stone, which muddled actual charges against Brown with allegations. But Stone, as usual, wasn't alone. Tabloids like New York Newsday hoisted Brown with the headline "Cell Brother No. 155413." Time's rather sneering piece, titled "Soul Brother No. 155413," inaccurately suggested that he had long been sliding into musical irrelevance. Nor did the music world Brown has been crucial to for three decades seem interested in sorting things out: There were no organized demonstrations, and only an embarrassing handful of individual protests, on his behalf before his parole. (Marsh duly outlines racist hypocrisy within the music industry-and by implication, the country at large-by contrasting Brown's fate with the treatment given famous white rockers in trouble with the law.) And early this year People ran a mocking piece that focused largely on the 58-year-old's teeth implants, tattooed eyebrows and permanent lower-lid eyeliner; his use of Lysol to clean his cell; and his work in the prison kitchen.

Despite the jabs and the silence, on February 27 Brown was paroled after putting in two years and two months for trying to flee arrest. He'd served fifteen months of his sentence at the State Correctional Facility near Columbia, South Carolina. Then he was transferred to Aiken, where he worked for the nonprofit Aiken and Barnwell Counties Community Action Commission counseling youth about drug abuse for eleven months. (Although South Carolina police said Brown tested-voluntarily-positive for PCP use when they finally corralled him, and although he'd been busted earlier that year for possession of PCP and again on September 25, 1988, for driving under the influence of PCP and pot, he was not convicted of either offense. Jesse Jackson, who visited Brown two months into his term, read a statement by the singer that said he wasn't on drugs and hadn't engaged in any violence toward the cops.)

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business went right back to it. (During his stir time, a constant if ironic refrain in interviews was, "I'm rested, well rested. …

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