“It was Spring of 1968 and I was in New York City at the Apollo to see James Brown perform. I think I must have been the only white guy there. Martin Luther King had just been shot in Tennessee and there were a lot of riots going on. I was in the corridor of the entrance of the Apollo theater and that’s when I saw him. It was four o’clock in the morning and being the only white guy, he saw me, too. He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ I replied that I came to see his show. He looked at me and said, ‘Are you crazy, man? It’s dangerous for you to be here. Get in my limo and I’ll drive you where you need to go.’ He insisted, but I declined. I saw him again six months later in Montreal. He remembered me, put his arm around me and thanked me for coming. All I could think was, ‘Oh my God, this is James Brown putting his arm around me.’ And that that was the beginning of a friendship that spanned nearly forty years, until his death on December 25th, 2006.”
In a series of conversations with her father, Louis Lo Mascolo, and his childhood friend, Lawrence Shatilla, Style.com/Arabia’s Features Editor, Caterina Minthe, reminisces about their decades long friendship with the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown, the American recording artist whose trials, tribulations, work ethic, and immeasurable talent paved a road for funk, soul, and black performers in the entertainment industry.
* * *
Growing up, Dad was always going on about Mr. James Brown. Each year, driving the long nine hours from Ottawa to Windsor, Canada to spend the Christmas holidays with our extended family, he would play his cassettes, over and over. No one would talk much; we would just listen. Even as a young girl, Brown’s voice moved me. Every time I heard It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World…
You see, man made the car
To take us over the road
Man made the train
To carry the heavy load
Man made the electrolyte
To take us out of the dark
Man made the boat full of water
Like Noah made the ark
This is a man’s, man’s, man’s world
But it would be nothing, nothing
Without a woman or a girl.
I felt lucky to have been born a woman.
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James Joseph Brown, Jr. came into the world on May 3, 1933 in the small town of Barnwell, South Carolina. His mother, Susie, of Asian and African descent, was only 16 at the time. When Brown was just five-years-old, Susie, unable to care for him, sent him to live with his Aunt Honey in Augusta, Georgia. Born into abject poverty, Brown hustled whatever job he could find: shining shoes for three cents, picking cotton, and selling charcoal. At 12-years-old, he was dismissed from school for insufficient clothing.
The man who would one day line his three-piece suits with rhinestones spent his childhood dressed in clothes fashioned from sacks.
Louis: “There’s something you have to understand. James Brown was not put together in a studio by a promoter—like most of these handmade groups that are out there today. James Brown was born out of a need—a need to survive. He didn’t start dancing because he liked to dance. He did it to get nickels and dimes from soldiers. I mean, that’s what this kid did. He came from nothing.”
Growing up as a young black boy during the Great Depression, Brown turned to crime and was incarcerated for three years at the age of 16 for stealing a car. While in prison, he met Bobby Byrd, an aspiring R&B singer and pianist. Once released, the two formed a group called the Famous Flames and in 1955, recorded Please, Please, Please which led to opening act performances for the likes of B.B. King and Ray Charles.
The following year, the Famous Flames were signed to the King/Federal record label. Please, Please, Please was re-cut and went to number 5 on the R&B charts. Brown’s first Number 1 hit, Try Me, came out two years later and became the best-selling R&B single of the year. In 1961, he made his television debut on Dick Clark’s American bandstand. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and I Got You (I Feel Good) came thereafter, as well as an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and superstardom.
Brown was notoriously meticulous with the development of his career. Notes Dad (Louis): “Writing, recording, touring, and performing six nights a week, he demanded the same loyalty, attention to detail, and work ethic from everyone on his team—from the backup dancers to his percussionist. In fact, he would fine his band members for missing notes or performing with unshined shoes. He was hardheaded and he was a perfectionist, and I found the people around him to be very professional, even subservient. In his presence, everyone referred to him as Mr. Brown, or Mr. James Brown. No one called him James, no one. And he treated people with the same respect. Everyone was a ‘Mister.’”