It's a Woman's World

Sister Betty Jean Newsome insists James Brown's 'Man's World' wouldn't mean nothin' without her

Bobby Byrd rode shotgun in the limousine, while his boss stretched out in the back. By the early '60s, James Brown sometimes used a limo to escape the confines of his tour bus, but he hadn't always hired drivers. So Byrd and "Baby" Lloyd Stallworth, a Brown valet and sometime Famous Flames vocalist, often shared driving duties. This time it was Stallworth's turn behind the wheel for the nearly 1,000-mile, 20-hour journey from Harlem back down South.

On this trip, one of James's girlfriends, Betty Jean Newsome, shared the backseat with the Godfather of Soul, who died on Christmas Day 2006 of heart failure. As Newsome now recalls, at one point in the ride—shortly before they would drive down a stretch of Carolina highway lined with hooded Klansmen burning crosses—she was humming something to James, who listened attentively and even joined in the song.

"Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah, man's world," the young dancer whispered to Mr. Dynamite as the limo rolled along, according to Byrd's sworn testimony in a 2002 deposition.

Sister Betty in Central Park
photo: Alana Cundy
Sister Betty in Central Park

Maybe it was the sound of the road or the length of the limo, but Byrd said he couldn't really make out too much else about it. And he didn't seem to care too much, either. Having slogged along the endless tour of the chitlin circuit for a while now, he knew to give James his distance, especially when it came to women. Newsome "was James's lady," Byrd said in the same legal papers. "You have no business speaking to James's lady. You have no business saying anything to James's lady."

Newsome was indeed James's lady (or at least one of them) for a short spell, during that era when he played hundreds of shows at the Apollo Theater, including the legendary 1962 set that became Live at the Apollo, which would stay on the album charts for 66 weeks and propel Star Time to an even higher orbit. Newsome's romance with Brown was destined to be nothing more than a fleeting affair, one that she views today with little sentimentality. Being that close to James gave her a keen appreciation of the man's genius, but also his brutishness and brutality, especially when it came to his girls.

To hear her tell it now, they were both too hard-headed, too alike, too tough. And he was too controlling. Whether or not the horrifying stories of his past transgressions were true, she couldn't abide James's "paid the cost to be the boss" mentality.

"I'm a Southern woman, and I will light on his behind like the clothes on his back," she says now, sitting in a Harlem bookstore just blocks from the 105th Street apartment she's lived in for 30 years. "I was a bouncer in an after-hours joint, frisking men and taking their guns. So you know I wasn't afraid of that little man. No, no, no, uh-huh."

She says Brown asked her to have a baby with him, but she rebuffed him, saying, "I ain't gonna be having one of your little monkey babies." The Famous Flames, Newsome recalls, marveled at the fact that James didn't kill her right then and there.

Baby or not, Betty Jean Newsome did create something with James that she says is lasting and sanctified: "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." And like two parents in an ugly custody battle, Brown and Newsome—or at least their proxies—have tussled over ownership of the song for decades. First recorded as "It's a Man's World" in June of 1964 in Chicago, it was Brown's second version of the song, retitled a few years later to slyly echo the Oscar-winning It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, that would became an international sensation, ascending to the top spot on the r&b chart and No. 8 on the pop charts, evolving onstage into one of Brown's signature showstoppers and personal favorites.

"I wrote many songs about love, but the best, I think, was also the simplest," James reflected in I Feel Good, his 2005 autobiography. "You know how it goes: It's a man's world, but it wouldn't be nothing without a woman or a girl. To that end, it's important to be with someone who understands your life."

Re-recorded in February of 1966 in just two takes with "Prisoner of Love" producer Sammy Lowe, Brown redid the ballad at New York's Talent Masters studio with his largest orchestra yet, augmenting his touring band with session players who bolstered the horns and added lush strings—a dramatic change from the original, wherein a bare-bones rhythm section held it down after a quick string intro. "That's it," James said of the remake, according to the liner notes for his Star Time box set. "I like it. I like it."

A crisp two minutes and 46 seconds in the studio version, live renditions of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" would often morph into expansive meditations on loneliness and love lost. Interpolating elements of his own ballads (like "Bewildered" or "Lost Someone") with outside sources ("When a Man Loves a Woman," for example), Brown was transformed during this number: He was wounded, knees dipping down under the weight and the agony, walking the road to Calvary, lost in the wilderness. In June of 1967, he would perform a stormy, sweaty, sexual 19-minute version of it for Live at the Apollo II—the middle piece of his staggering triptych of live recordings from that stage.

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