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.
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.
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.”
“What piece of paper, from 1966 to today, involving Dynatone Publishing Company, is in your possession today?” Newsome’s lawyer asked.
“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.
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.
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.”