It's a Woman's World

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

The ballad is also unique because it's not powered by "The One"—JB's revolutionary emphasis on the first note of a four-beat rhythm, the basis for his propulsive, urgent, and energetic sound, and indeed an entire new genre of music. Minor chords give "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" its haunting and longing rawness; the man who created (or at the very least discovered) "The One" confesses his vulnerability over a backbeat, snare snaps, and guitar clicks accenting the second beat in tight unison. A gentle, waltzing undercurrent enhances the song's overall bitterness. Surely it's not the only exploration of abandonment in the Brown catalog, but it often seemed to be the depressive counterpoint to the mania of Brown's up-tempo hits, especially live. It was a chance for James to truly testify.

Brown had an opportunity to testify in a completely different way in 2002, when Newsome's protests forced him to make a sworn deposition regarding the creation of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." Under oath, Brown repeatedly insisted that she had nothing to do with the song. He said he signed over 25 percent of the publishing rights to Newsome because his manager said so. The 83-page deposition shows Brown at his cagiest, often dancing around questions and feigning stupidity: "Blacks didn't have anything to say about the business. They were colored then."

"He was a good man," she says. "I find no fault in the man."
photo: Alana Cundy
"What piece of paper, from 1966 to today, involving Dynatone Publishing Company, is in your possession today?" Newsome's lawyer asked.
Sister Betty in Central Park
photo: Alana Cundy
Sister Betty in Central Park

"The same piece that the Indians got in Wounded Knee," came Brown's reply.

The only time JB seemed a little tripped up was when he admitted that Newsome was his guest at WAAW, the station he owned in Augusta, in 1999, and they'd discussed the song together on the air. "You can't undo history," Brown said. "So, you know, they gave it to her against my thing. I didn't ever agree with it. But they gave it to her—why take it away from her?"

That's as far as Brown would go. He recalled the limo ride, but when asked "Did you ever take Betty Newsome's musical words?", the Godfather replied: "She never gave any."

"I wrote the song because God give me that," a weary Brown insisted. "But the business, y'all got it. It always result back to the lawyers and other people. The artist, you can find them on the street, going crazy."

The Lord God cast the man into a deep sleep and, while he slept, took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib, which the Lord God took from the man, he made into a woman, and brought her to him. Then the man said "She is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, for from man she has been taken."
—Genesis 2: 21-23

Betty Newsome says she first conceived of "Man's World" after reading Genesis. "I was just reading the Bible and thinking about how wonderful and powerful man is . . . God, he can create, he can take man's rib out of his body and make a woman. I was just sitting there and thinking about how, after all of these things that he made and he did, all of it was worthless without a woman—and you gotta have them kids—or a girl. That's where the girl part comes in."

Betty says she wrote down the lyrics and later hummed the melody to a preacher who could read music. That's why the song is sanctified to her: It was inspired by the Bible, talks of Creation, and was transcribed by a preacher. It was a gospel song, she insists. Of course, to Betty, there's no mystery as to how a song that started so sanctified could wind up so sexual. "He was James—he could do whatever he wanted to do with a song," she says. "He could have turned the Bible around into a song if he wanted to. James was fabulous. You could say, 'Good morning,' and he could take those same words and make a song out of it."

To this day, Newsome carries herself with regal grandeur—the air of a woman who's accustomed to the attention of men. When Brown was laid out at the Apollo after his passing last Christmas Day, the room hushed a little as Newsome strode in with her long hair and furs. A few people knew who she was, but the rest just suspected she was somebody. And during a long photo shoot in Central Park on a snowy December day, she greeted the cold with a beatific smile, calling over the squirrels (who listened) and lamenting that she didn't have snacks for them. And though she was recently hospitalized with a blood clot in her leg, she tromped around the park's woods without care, sometimes losing her balance with a giggle as she stepped over tree roots with her dress shoes.

Newsome arrived in New York City from Wilson, North Carolina, sometime in the '50s. She's terrible with details, so don't ask her: "Honey, my toenails is longer than my memory." She was born again in Christ 28 years ago, and has since corresponded with four presidents in her ministry. But in those days, after working as a live-in maid, Newsome became a dancer and a girl about town. She shook it at the Peppermint Lounge and the Wagon Wheel, eventually became a go-go dancer on NBC's Hullabaloo variety show and ABC's Shindig! She was known to be quite a looker, and men liked to be seen with her, but Sister Betty says she never smoked a cigarette or drank whiskey (though she'd drink champagne sometimes, if it was mixed with something sweet). She knew Joe Tex, Sam Cooke, and Smokey Robinson, whom she says she may or may not have had a child with—"He's got those same eyes," notes Betty, referring to one of her seven sons. She also has a daughter.

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