It's a Woman's World

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

She had hoped that someone would record her song as a way to fame and fortune, so when Betty hummed it to James that day in the limo, it wasn't entirely by chance. She had written other numbers, mainly spiritual songs, but this one seemed special, her best shot. And the gambit certainly worked. But by the time the tune was everywhere, Brown and Newsome were no more, and her name wasn't attached to the hit spiraling up the charts, or the original version, or anywhere.

But in this dispute, Newsome didn't show the fierce independence she'd flaunted during her relationship with James. Instead, her new man, Clarence "Mookie" Jackson, a roughneck from Harlem who would later spend time in prison and father a child with Newsome, handled the dispute. Newsome says she doesn't know exactly how Jackson dealt with the hard-headed, penny-pinching Brown, though she does recall the tale of someone letting a box of mice loose at one of JB's concerts. Jackson "really went too far," she says now. "He was a gangster. He didn't care what happened . . . somebody took a box full of mice to the stadium and turned it out, so they had to give all those people their money back. I didn't find out about that until years later." (Though it was never established where this happened, Brown would later testify that Jackson did cause him some problems at a show.)

But whatever happened outside the legal realm, Jackson's publishing company, Clamike Records sued Brown, leading to a 1967 agreement wherein Newsome was listed as co-author of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" (the original version, which lay unreleased for decades, was of little use), and thus entitled to one-third of the writing royalties.

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

According to court papers, Newsome has since collected more than $250,000 from the deal. But today she says she's broke, with taxes owed on royalties she already spent through advances. She's fallen behind on her rent and ate Thanksgiving supper in a food pantry; Newsome still drives a Jaguar, but is falling behind on that, too. She contends that she's still owed royalties in the millions, and her hope in recovering that money lies with Carl Kaminsky, a semi-retired entertainment-copyright lawyer from Brooklyn who's been fighting her case for more than five years in the hopes of a contingency fee. Her opposition, the white-shoe lawyers who represent the music publishing companies, sneered in one court filing that Newsome was living on welfare and fraudulently hid some of her royalty income from the city's welfare office.

Though they lost their case in federal court in Manhattan and a subsequent appeal was rejected earlier this year, Kaminsky says the case is one of the "biggest frauds in modern musical history." Essentially, he argues that Newsome should be the sole owner of the "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" copyright because the original 1967 agreement was faulty; he plans on refiling his case in California, where one of the publishing companies is located, and where they might find a more sympathetic judge. Meanwhile, Newsome claims that Clarence Jackson tried to steal a portion of the song's royalties that was supposed to be hers, and that his son, Michael, tried to steal those same royalties from his father. And she's not even litigating that dispute. She also believes she may have a case against Alicia Keys, for the similarities between her hit "Fallin' " and "Man's World."

Money problems aside, Newsome also feels cheated by history: Next to no one knows that she wrote one of the best songs from one of the biggest artists in history. "Why is Sister Betty Newsome being kept a secret?" she asks. But despite all this, she bears no grudge against James himself, having visited him at his Atlanta home sometime around 1999, even helping him pick out an engagement ring for Tomi Rae Hynie, a/k/a "the white wife that he didn't even really marry."

A year after his death, Newsome still has nothing but kindness for James Brown. "He was a good man," she says. "I find no fault in the man. It wasn't him that did me wrong about my song—it was the record companies and the publishers. I miss him. There was only one. There was none before him, and there will never be another JB."

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