“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, Vogue Arabia Features Director 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.
* * *
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 super stardom.
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.’”
That relentless work ethic that Brown fostered as a child stayed with him forever—eventually earning him the moniker, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
* * *
As a young girl, I didn’t think much of Dad’s and Lawrence’s stories of Mr James Brown, nor did I appreciate the unique quality of their friendship with the icon until I met him myself. Like my father when he first met him, I was but a teenager, also 16-years-old, and in Montreal with my family for the Formula One race weekend. That night, Brown was to perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival, a free, open-air concert, and one hundred thousand people were expected to attend. Throughout the afternoon, Dad and Lawrence shared more stories.
Lawrence: “He had one hell of a temper, and he wouldn’t hesitate to embarrass you if he felt that you stepped out of line. One time, I was backstage in one of the dressing rooms, and I was next to an ice cooler filled with soft drinks. As I reached out to help myself, James Brown walked in, and in front of a roomful of people, he called out to me, ‘Son, if you want something in here, I’m the only one who can tell you if you can have it.’ I turned red as a tomato. Afterward, when I apologized, he told me that he was just teaching me good manners.”
“Years later, on another occasion, I suggested to him that he sing more commercial songs so that he could reach a larger audience. He turned to the guy next to him and said, ‘Listen to this kid. He’s trying to tell me, James Brown, how to manage my career.’”
Shortly afterwards, at the height of his success, in June 1973, Brown’s first born son, Teddy, died tragically.
Lawrence: “Teddy looked just like James. He could have been his twin. James just adored him and the physical resemblance probably had something to do with it. Teddy was with his two cousins and on his way to see me in Montreal when his car went off the road. When they performed an autopsy on him, his stomach was filled with pills; he was off his head. I don’t think James ever got over it. He was devastated. Teddy was only 19-years-old.”
The late 1970s and 1980s brought even further darkness. The disco era was at its height of popularity and for a while, people didn’t want to see live shows, and Brown saw his empire falter.
Lawrence: “You had to see James Brown perform. Three guitarists, two bass players, a percussionist, two drummers, and three horns, not to mention backup singers and dancers—and that was only the band. He had an entire production. And he didn’t just sing; he choreographed incredible dance moves, for himself and for his band. Everything was choreographed to the minute.”
“But during the disco era, he took a major hit. He would always talk about the system, the government, how they tried to put him down, manipulate him, take all his material things away from him—his jet, his radio stations…”
In March 1983, three of Brown’s vehicles were auctioned off by IRS officials to help pay US $2.82 million in back taxes. Two years later, his 3,500-square-foot house on 39.96 acres on Beech Island was sold at a public auction. His attorney, Albert “Buddy” Dallas, bought the property for US $9,500.
Lawrence: “The IRS came and took everything. Usually, they leave you time to negotiate—but not him. They just went to his place and they started seizing whatever they could get their hands on. He said it was because he was black, and it was.”
Louis: “Everything really culminated in 1988 when he entered an insurance seminar high on PCP—not that he ever talked to us about the drugs, but he once told us the story about how they shot at him. He was in his pick-up and the police were going after him, and he said what saved him was that he crossed into another state, from Augusta, Georgia into South Carolina.”
The police shot out Brown’s tires to end the car chase and he was incarcerated in a Columbia, South Carolina prison for 15 months. During this time, the IRS seized US $48,000 in cashier’s checks found in Brown’s possession and reported liens of US $11 million against him. He was released on parole in 1991.
In 1992, a year after being released from prison, Brown received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 34th annual Grammy Awards; in 1997, he received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame; and in the year 2000, he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Three years later, he received a Kennedy Center Honors award in Washington D.C. recognizing his lifetime creative achievement and outstanding contribution to American culture. Brown’s style was also legendary. He commonly wore fur, three-piece suits, and oversized jewelry. (“I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually started this whole rapper ‘bling’ style of dressing,” Lawrence comments, laughing).
Lawrence: “James Brown would always talk about the valleys and the mountains. And he would say, ‘Right now, I’m in the valley. But it’s only because I’m going to be back up on top of the mountain soon.’ And when he got out, people loved him again. He got back to work, got back to touring, and he was back on top.”
* * *
I’m in downtown Montreal and the city is swarming with people all finding their way to the outdoor Formula One weekend James Brown headline concert. My father leads my brother and I into the foyer of a hotel where Mr Brown is apparently staying. He spots a staff worker who looks Italian and in his mother tongue tells him, “I’m a personal friend of Mr James Brown and I want to introduce him to my children.” He whistles over to me to follow him. Inside the staff elevator, the man presses the penthouse button and we ride up in silence. Once on the top floor, we wait and wait for Brown to emerge until finally, an aggravated, red-faced manager with an equally intense zebra-print tie hustles over to us demanding that we leave. With one foot in the elevator, we suddenly hear Mr Brown’s unmistakable voice bellow, “Louis!” Everyone falls back and the two men walk over to each other and embrace. My little brother and I just stand there, stunned, as Dad says, “Mr Brown: this is my daughter, Caterina, and my son, Joseph.”
Back in the elevator, heading down, I look right at Mr Brown. At 5’6”, he’s almost at eye level and is only a shoulder’s width away from me. He is cool and collected, but his body, dressed in a three-piece aubergine purple suit lined with rhinestones, appears tense and taught—ready to explode with energy. Not a jet-black hair is out of place. I think that his face looks enormous, almost unnaturally wide. He catches me looking at him and looks right back at me with massive, twinkling, black eyes. I look down, speechless by the enormity of it all. A flash of light by my foot catches my eye. I bend over and pick up a large, triangular, gold clip-on earring. “Thank you, honey.” Mr Brown’s girlfriend smiles as I hand it to her.
The elevator doors open and people swarm us on all sides. Ten bodyguards or more encircle us. Hands holding paper pads and pens thrust at us from all sides as fans scream for autographs; it’s pure pandemonium. Right before Mr Brown is ushered down a red carpet to make his way to the outdoor stage to perform before a sea of one hundred thousand people, he turns to one of his men and says, “You make sure these people see my show.”
He put us right onstage and we watched the entire show from behind the drummer.
* * *
Several years later, in 2004, Mr James Brown came to Ottawa to perform as the headline act at the yearly Bluesfest festival. Dad spent hours cleaning the tan leather interiors of his forest green Jaguar prior to meeting him at the airport. Brown rode with Lawrence and my Dad in the car. It was the last time they would all be together.
Dad tells me that Mr Brown reminisced about how Lawrence took him to his house many years ago and how he should have been Lawrence’s brother-in-law because he really liked his sister, Sandra. Lawrence’s mother had cooked some Lebanese food for him and Mr Brown commented, “That is real life.” He told them that he wasn’t touring for the money, that it was his life, and he was performing for his fans.
Louis: “James would say, ‘There’s Bach, there’s Mozart, and there’s James Brown.’ And you know what? He was right. He was a cultural force and his music is timeless and it will live forever. But at the end of the day, he was just like us… I miss him.”
Mr James Brown passed away on December 25, 2006, in Atlanta, America at 73-years-old after a week-long battle with pneumonia.