James Brown: Knocking ‘em Dead in Bed-Stuy

This is the show, this is the kid, the man of the hour, Mr. Dynamite, Mr. "Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag," Mr. "Night Train"


An hour and a half before show time they queue up in front of the Brevoort. The posters are stuck up everywhere, in the bars, the luncheonettes, even in the Shabazz Restaurant. Two weeks ago the Apollo, then a weekend in Akron, Ohio, and now four-a-day for two days in Brooklyn. This is the show, this is the kid, the man of the hour, Mr. Dynamite, Mr. “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Mr. “Night Train”… James Brown and the James Brown Show. Now, tonight, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The lines are long because the kids don’t leave. They come for the first show at 2 p.m. and sit on through, fortified by popcorn and pop, waiting to love James Brown again, waiting for him to love them, waiting for him to do it again, do it to the mike, do it to them.

The cops are out, with their beat-up wooden horses, black and white cops coralling the black folk behind the barricades while the white manager, all business, counts the line and counts his house and says, “Twenty-five more, I can let in 25 more.” This is high finance, man. The white manager at the Apollo wrote James Brown a letter saying thank you for breaking all previous records, and this manager is counting the receipts, at $3 a head, thinking maybe he’ll be writing James Brown a letter, too. Ben Bart, the old pro, white manager of James Brown, is watching those receipts, too. Forty-five people on the show payroll, his cut, and a liveried chauffeur divided into a guaranteed $15,000 for two days comes to what?

Last Show

Saturday night, midnight, the last show. The crowd is good-natured, waiting to get in. Young men and women, all spiffed up, on dates. The married couples, sedate and satisfied, this evening at least. The boys without dates in shades and caps. The girls in big hair-dos and pants. And all those ladies still with the juice in them and without husbands … in pairs, in threes.

Inside, there’s a lot of show. The Apollo formula. Give ’em a bad old movie, a couple of old cartoons, it doesn’t matter what. The movie screen is half-obscured by the big band anyway. The movie heroine smiles, and her mouth is filled by the raised kettle drum on stage. The crowd moves around, greeting friends, getting more buttered popcorn.

At last, the screen goes dark. Red and blue spotlights slowly circle and cross. The drums roll, the audience hushes. Five brownskin gals, the tall, light one in the center Chinese maybe, come wriggling and writhing on stage, in cute little bare, two-piece, sequined, tasseled outfits, weaving, undulating, backs to the audience, twitching their asses, slithery sliding, pulling at their bikini bottoms, pulsating their long-stockinged stems. The girls carry orange-painted suitcases, marked J.B. This is the James Brown traveling show, doing the New York black subway circuit.

An emcee on a makeshift stand announces the acts. The amplification is bad, the lights dim. Everything is red-blue-brown and cozy. A male singer comes on, belts a little, does a desultory pelvic grind, and for his finale, grabs the mike and pitches headlong into the pit. A moment of oooos, and he is lifted, limp, back on stage for his danceaway exit. “Dear, is that James Brown?” asks a woman. “Naaaaw,” comes the anguished answer.

Scampers Away

The brownskin gals do some more slithering, in between acts and during the acts. The audio gets worse. The spotlight operator in the balcony, white — cigar in his mouth, charges the gals and manages to miss most of the exits and entrances. There is Miss Ella Mae, 275 pounds of shaking momma, in furbelows and frills, singing “All of me, why not take all of me,” and the tall, lanky comic in coveralls doing the cornpone a bit, scampering away from Ella Mae’s outstretched arms. There is the straight girl singer with the powerhouse voice, the Imitation Supremes, the hoary black vaude dialogue done on countless stages countless times (“Judge yer Honor, how come you let that gal go free when she was walkin’ stark naked through town?” — “Madam D.A., she tole me she been married 10 years and had 10 children so I figured she ain’t never had time to git dressed.”)

And then it is time. The music swells. The girls, now in white bikinis, move to new positions, high, high above the stage on shaky platforms. The emcee’s voice comes through clouded, a throwaway … “Needs no introduction … ‘Hullabaloo,’ ‘Shindig’ … you’ve all heard his records … JAMES BROWN.”

And there he is. The Star. Moving down stage, fast, grabbing the mike, singing, all in one gesture. Moving his feet in neat, cocoa-butter suede boots. Slim, dark, diminutive … mop of curly black hair … smart gray suit. That’s James Brown? He’s — little. The voice is ordinary, the lyrics indistinguishable, the beat uninspired. Three young men, part of his act, in lighter gray suits, not as sharp, are moving, too. Everyone on stage is moving, James Brown faster than anyone, but stationary, in front of the mike. This is the kid the whole show is built around? A slight … short … boy … with a big head of hair and a slim-line gray suit wit a custom-tailored jacket that he flips ever so coolly now and then to reveal — a flash of salmon-flowered lining. That’s all there is to James Brown?

Body Releases

Suddenly he dips. His body, like a puppet on a string, releases. The legs slide out — incredible. James Brown can dance! The body gyrates. The arms gyrate. The arms churn. The hips swivel. The feet in the cocoa-butter boots slide together, as if on ice. (From Augusta, Georgia, he was going to be a bantam-weight boxer.) The crowd cheers. James Brown is warming up. Without a stop he goes into a routine with the boys. Fancy dancing, high strut, puttin’ on the ritz, brushing off the slim gray suit, a little brush, a little whisk (James Brown’s daddy used to be a hoofer). A breakaway into the new song, “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag” — the one they’re pushing, the one they hope will make the top of the charts. (When James Brown toured the South this summer, he sang this song in Mississippi, and the Poor People’s Corporation of Natchez made him up a special white leather tote bag, with his initials, J.B., in gold, and they say he carries it with him wherever he goes.)

James Brown singing a love song. Yeah. The audience is with him now. He’s going to do it soon, “Love you, I wanna love you,” he pleads. Ooohyeah, you can love me, baby. “Love you,” he pleads, and then with a shiver — with one tremulous movement — he lifts up the microphone — and throws himself down on top of it … The audience gasps. The women. The kids. The undulating white bikini brownskin babies. James Brown is pleading to let him love. Talking to the head of the microphone. Kneeling. Wailing. “I want to love you.” Sobbing. Pushing the unresponsive microphone. Begging. Shaking. — He can’t go on. One of the male dancers goes over and talks to him gently. Then lifts him up. He continues his song. — But it’s too much for him! He shivers, throws the microphone down again! “Love you.” They’re getting worried. They raise him up. They prop him up on both sides. They dance a little. More incredible sliding. Then James Brown wants to — “Shake. I want to shake your hand.” The audience surges forward. “Let me shake your hand,” he chants, and the hands are already there, outstretched. Teenage hands, middle-aged women’s hands, men’s hands, reaching up toward the stage. The ushers form a human chain, trying to hold the crowd back. On stage, his boys try to hold James Brown. He breaks loose! They grab him! They take a hold of his arms! He reaches toward the hands! With a dancer holding onto him from each side. James Brown’s arms are thrust toward the clasping hands. From one end of the stage to the other, his men push his arms toward the crowd and pull them back.

James Brown back at the microphone, still in one piece, singing about making love again, “All night long, two o’clock, three o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock,” getting worked up again. The dancers calm him, hold him by the jacket. But — he’s — got — to — do — it. He wrenches out of the jacket — flash of salmon flowers — and does it to the mike again! Down on the floor, kneeling, pushing, berating the head of the mike. The crowd is hysterical, pressing forward. From the rear of the orchestra, from the balcony. A revival! A holy, holy, orgiastic Gospel finish. They bring a black cape and cover him gently. They pick him up and guide him into the wings — but no, they can’t hold him! He stamps his feet — and shivers — and throws off the black cape — and runs back to the prostrate mike. “Love me.” Another cape. A white one, is passed up and put around him. They almost have him off now, folks — but he trembles, breaks free — kneeling, murmurs inaudibly to the microphone. They straighten him up and put on a red cape. He is exhausted. They guide his faltering steps. But James Brown still doesn’t want to go. Not yet. The crowd, the people, the love. He must give something more … his clothing! He rips off his tie and throws it into the pit. He starts to rip — bodily they carry him from the stage. What a finish! Nothing like it since Jackie Wilson used to lie down stage front and kiss all the ladies, one at a time. The mantle has fallen on James Brown. The apotheosis of the ethnic thing. Four-a-day on the black subway circuit. The short, skinny kid with the big head. Dynamite. James Brown. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 3, 2020