A Conversation with Buddy Dallas

James Brown’s lawyer on the Godfather of Soul

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A Conversation with Buddy Dallas

In the next few months, we’re all going to be hearing plenty about the late James Brown. With the August 1 opening of “Get On Up,” a major Hollywood film by acclaimed director Tate Taylor of “The Help,” Augusta’s Soul Brother No. 1 will once again find himself in the spotlight, seven-and-a-half years after his death on Christmas Day in 2006.

We’ve watched this kind of thing before, of course, but always from afar, with someone else’s hometown hero. This time, the hero is ours, even if we didn’t always treat him that way and even though Augusta itself won’t appear on screen.

We’ll hear from musical superstars about how Brown was an influence and from historians about how he was a galvanizing figure in the emerging black pride movement while, at the same time, a unifying bridge between the races at a time when the country needed it most.

We’ll hear from locals, who will tell heartfelt personal stories about his generosity and his eccentricity. And we’ll hear from those who will revel in his misfortunes and embarrassments, directing us to YouTube to watch that spaced out interview on “Sonya Live!” or bringing up his many altercations with law enforcement. Then there are the unseemly interactions he had with the women in his life, particularly his volatile marriage to Adrienne and his humiliating almost marriage to Tomi Rae Hynie, one of his backup singers, who it turned out was already married.

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And certainly we’ll hear from the kids and grandkids who have fought tooth and nail over the conditions and validity of his will and of the suits and countersuits involving everything from the disposition of his assets to the final resting place of his body.

In short, we’re about to hear from just about everyone who ever had anything to do with James Brown.

But before we do, it might do us good to hear from Buddy Dallas, the man who was his lawyer for the last 25 years of his life and has been, for seven and a half years, front and center for all the finger pointing and backstabbing that goes hand in hand with the death of a wealthy, charismatic, disorganized and, in some cases, unpleasant legend.

Is Dallas a polarizing figure in the James Brown story? Absolutely. But even so, who else is better suited to give us a personal account of such a well known yet fundamentally unknowable man? Who else was in a better position to understand what made the Hardest Working Man in Show Business tick and what it was about him that brought the story to where it is today?

Facts and opinions and gossip and accusations — you’ll be getting plenty of that in the next few months. But here you’ll get insight from the only man who saw it all, beside the man himself.

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“My time with Mr. Brown begins in 1984.”

This is how Albert “Buddy” Dallas starts to tell the story of his relationship with James Brown. He speaks slowly and deliberately, choosing his words with the kind of care you’d expect from a small town Southern lawyer. Yet his voice rises and falls with the flair of a natural storyteller, too. There is no haste in his delivery because there doesn’t have to be. He trusts that you’ll understand that he’s not the type of person who has to struggle to be heard.

“Mr. Brown would do it in an entirely different way,” Buddy Dallas says. “He may accomplish the same result, but he was going to do it his way, you could count on that.”

Brown and Dallas met at a reception honoring the late Sam Sibley, who served as District Attorney of the Augusta Circuit for a number of years. Both were going through the receiving line, Dallas holding his 3-year-old daughter, Susan Joy. They started talking, and the talking came easily.

“Mr. Brown was most polite,” Dallas remembers. “Of course, I told him I had always admired his music.”

In fact, he’d done more than admire it. At the ATO house at the University of Georgia, the jukebox was set to go off at 6 a.m. to the sound of “Night Train,” one of Brown’s early hits. With its trademark beginning — “All aboard!” — the song served as a kind of reveille and, to hear Dallas tell the story, the walls of the fraternity house literally shook from the sound.

“He always had a smile and thought it was terrific that the whole fraternity would get up to ‘Night Train,’” Dallas says with a chuckle.

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Brown, of course, grew up in the segregated South, and the irony that his music was being used as an alarm by a bunch of frat boys would not have gone unnoticed.

The two talked for about 10 minutes before going their separate ways, but the meeting made an impression… on James Brown. The next day, a Friday, Brown called Dallas at about 3 p.m.

“That was about when Mr. Brown would begin his day,” Dallas says. “Mr. Brown was not on the same clock that the rest of us operate on.”

Even a speaker as orderly and deliberate as Buddy Dallas gets sidetracked when talking about James Brown, and he quickly wanders away from the story of their first meeting. With James Brown, there’s always just so much to tell. Not only did he have that kind of oversized personality, he was strong willed enough to shape everything the way he wanted it, and it’s almost like he continues to have that power even in death.

“If I said, ‘Mr. Brown — to go right you simply go down to the end of the street and turn to your right and you’re there,’ Mr. Brown’s response to that would probably be something like, ‘No, Mr. Dallas — you get in your car, you turn left, you go down a block, you turn right, then you turn right again and then you arrive.’ While it may make perfectly logical sense to you and me, Mr. Brown would do it in an entirely different way. He may accomplish the same result, but he was going to do it his way, you could count on that.”

To suggest James Brown was conventional about anything, Dallas says, would be coming from someone who did not know James Brown.

Brown would begin to get ready each day around 1 p.m., arriving at his office around 3 p.m. He’d break for dinner about 6 p.m. and then, if he was recording at Studio South, the Augusta recording studio, it would always occur between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

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“Most artists are like that,” Dallas says. “Their creativity reaches a crescendo and that’s when they produce what they produce. If Mr. Brown was with us today, he’d be laughing and talking and easygoing, but when he walked into his studio, it was serious, serious business and all the joking stopped. It was show time.”

Here, Dallas breaks into a bit of dialog as he likes to do. It’s a continual thing when he’s talking about James Brown, and while it’s a little alarming at first, you get used to it the more he talks.

“‘Mr. Dallas,’” he says in a shrill, staccato voice that mimics Brown’s famous delivery without bowing to imitation. “‘Remember, Mr. Dallas — we’re in business, but it’s show business.’”

Mr. Brown needed me, I didn’t need Mr. Brown,” says Dallas. “Perhaps if I had known what I was getting into, maybe I would have declined, but I just felt, given the way Mr. Brown had been treated in the segregated South that he grew up in, that he simply deserved a better shake than he received.”

For someone who influenced so many, Dallas says he only heard Brown himself acknowledge two influences — the professional wrestler Gorgeous George and the flamboyant entertainer Liberace.

“It was not what they did, it was the showmanship,” Dallas says. “Their presentation.”

Not coincidentally, they both rather prominently wore capes, which Brown would develop into a vital and beloved part of his concert act.

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“But getting back to 1984,” he says, steering back around to their first meeting. “On that Friday afternoon he called and said, ‘Mr. Dallas — James Brown.’”

They renewed their conversation from the night before and Brown got straight to the point.

“He said, ‘Mr. Dallas — I need a man I can trust,’” Dallas remembers. “He didn’t say he needed a lawyer he could trust, he said he needed a man he could trust.”

To say the least, such an offer was totally unexpected.

“I said, ‘Mr. Brown — I don’t know anything about the entertainment business,’ and he said, ‘Mr. Dallas — I’ll teach you the business, but I need to be able to trust you, and I understand that I can trust you.’”

Brown had made a few calls but was otherwise moving forward on the strength of that 10-minute conversation the previous night.

Dallas convinced Brown to think about it over the weekend and said that if he still felt the same way on Monday, he’d drive down to his office and meet with him. This was the office on Stevens Creek Road, not the two-story one that burned down in 2000, destroying most of his memorabilia.

“How could it be that you put 23 bullet holes in the back of a truck and not hit him?” Dallas asks. “I don’t think it was because the policemen were bad shots.”

They met that Monday, shook hands, and just like that the small-town lawyer locked himself into the lead car of the roller coaster thrill ride known as James Brown.

“Little did I realize in 1984 that I was undertaking what would be a major component of my life for the next 25 years, and now another seven and a half years has elapsed dealing with the sequel, if you will, of everything that went on.”

Here, Dallas grows silent.

“This was never about Buddy Dallas,” he finally says. “It was always about Mr. Brown and what I could do to assist Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown needed me, I didn’t need Mr. Brown. Perhaps if I had known what I was getting into, maybe I would have declined, but I just felt, given the way Mr. Brown had been treated in the segregated South that he grew up in, that he simply deserved a better shake than he received.”

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“I said to him once, ‘Mr. Brown — I have never seen a human’s feet move as fast as yours. How?’ His comment was, ‘Well, Mr. Dallas — when you’re driving through Louisiana and the cops find out you dance and you sing and they start firing a revolver at your feet, you learn to move pretty damn fast.’”

Brown emerged as a political figure during the Civil Rights movement. At his funeral, Dallas would call him the “Gabriel horn of the Civil Rights movement” in part because of the revolutionary power of “Say it Loud:” I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees. But he also stood as a symbol of unity, first in Boston immediately after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, when his live TV concert kept people off the combustible streets, and later in Augusta, when he worked together with segregationist Governor Lester Maddox in an effort to urge everyone in the troubled city to follow the rule of law during riots of its own.

He never forgot how far he’d come, however. After being awarded the Kennedy Center Honor by President Bush in 2003, he told Dallas, “Well, we’ve gone all the way from the outhouse to the White House.”

Growing up when he did and the way he did — that quote could more accurately read whorehouse, since he grew up in his aunt’s brothel on Twiggs Street — obviously had an impact on the man he would become.

“Mr. Brown was always in survival mode,” Dallas says. “It was a fight or flight concept with Mr. Brown, and I think that probably reflects why Mr. Brown ran over on Georgia Avenue and Martintown Road in 1988.”

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Dallas is referring to Brown’s infamous run-in with law enforcement that saw him serve less than half of a six-year prison sentence. During the incident and the high-speed chase that ensued, Brown’s Ford pickup was shot 23 times.

“He had pulled over and honored the command of the Aiken County Sheriff’s deputy, but when shots started to be fired by North Augusta police officers, he couldn’t stand there anymore. He had to go. Whether that’s reasonable, I guess, would depend upon the eye of the person being shot at.”

Dallas considers the event an act of providence in the life of James Brown.

“How could it be that you put 23 bullet holes in the back of a truck and not hit him?” he asks. “I don’t think it was because the policemen were bad shots.”

The other act of providence he likes to point to is the charred CD that survived the 2000 office fire that destroyed nearly all of the signer’s memorabilia, including the boxing gloves from “Rocky IV” and the preacher’s robe he wore in the “The Blues Brothers.”

On the CD is a four-and-a-half minute recording of James Brown talking about his estate plan. It was found inside an equally charred file by Dallas’ associate, who was conducting an inventory of items in a storage locker after Brown’s death.

“Then I remembered,” Dallas says. “We had a meeting and Mr. Brown goes around the room calling everyone’s name, saying, ‘I have been given so much that I must give it back. God has given me everything, and I must give it back, and I’m going to give it back to needy kids.’”

Though this provision — giving everything to needy kids — has become the focus of so much friction and litigation from Brown’s family, Dallas insists it was a clearly stated desire and far from a whim. In 1987, at the Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta, Brown held a press conference “and announced to the world what his intention was — that he was planning to leave his estate to needy and underprivileged kids.”

“How could it be that you put 23 bullet holes in the back of a truck and not hit him?” Dallas asks. “I don’t think it was because the policemen were bad shots.”

Here, Dallas speaks especially clear. “So, from 1987 to 2000, his intentions never changed and his will and trust never changed after it was formalized on August 1, 2000,” he says. “So I daresay that to suggest that someone influenced him, caused him to do this, would simply be the comment of a very uninformed person.”

About a week after the Atlanta announcement, Dallas did inquire about what that offer meant in terms of his children, and that resulted in what he calls the only emotional remark that was ever directed to him by James Brown.

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“I just looked across the desk at him — I was seated on a sofa in front of the desk — and said, ‘But Mr. Brown — what do you plan to do about your children?’ and he literally leapt from the corner of the desk in front of me.

“‘Mr. Dallas — my children will not ride my back when I’m gone. Mr. Dallas — you don’t know my children. Do you hear me, Mr. Dallas?’

“I understood very clearly that I had treaded upon an area that I should not ever visit again, and I did not,” he says. “And for that very reason, I would not and did not draft his will and trust.”

The day the CD was made, Dallas had a videographer waiting in the hallway, prepared to videotape the execution of the will and trust, but Brown wasn’t ready and Dallas knew better than to push him. To emphasize how single-minded Brown could be, he pulls up a meme on his smartphone. It shows a picture of Jack Nicholson rather than James Brown, but he says the accompanying words always remind him of the singer: I am who I am and your approval is not needed.

“That says a lot about who Mr. Brown was,” Dallas says. “You were not going to influence him, but he was going to influence you.”

It wasn’t until August 1, 2000, that Dallas got the phone call from Brown about signing the will.

“I’d like to do it around 2 p.m.,” he said. Dallas scrambled to get everything ready, but he was unable to find a videographer on such short notice.

“But members of his family were there and the will and trust was executed,” Dallas says.

He notes that in spite of all the litigation, the will has been upheld by the Supreme Court of South Carolina. He also points out two interesting provisions.

“He says that if you attack my will, you get nothing,” Dallas says of Brown’s will. “Also, in the year 2000, Mr. Brown noted that he was not married, and he put a provision in his will and trust that said, ‘If the court determines that I am survived by a widow, she shall receive sustenance only and not that to which she had become accustomed.’”

He pauses to let his implication sink in.

“So you have various members of the family that have attacked the will and you have a woman who claims to be his wife who attacked the will…”

“If I described my role in Mr. Brown’s life, it would not be that my task was to keep him on his side of the road,” Dallas says thoughtfully. “That would have been impossible. Better described, my role would be to try to keep him between the ditches.”

Dallas knows as well as anybody that all this, including the accusations against him, will soon be water cooler conversation again, but to listen to his steady voice calmly simplify the issues, it’s hard to argue against his conclusion, even if it’s not as simple as he makes it sound.

“Mr. Brown left it right in front of us,” he says. “He paid an estate planning lawyer $20,000 to prepare his estate plan.”

He shakes his head slowly.

“Didn’t he have that right?” he asks. “Don’t we all have that right?”

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In 1984, at the start of their relationship, James Brown’s reputation in Augusta was almost beyond salvaging. He had no credit, no bank wanted his business, no businessman wanted to be in business with him and promoters had stopped promoting his shows.

He might show up, he might not, Dallas explains. The professionalism that had been so important to him for so long had crashed around him.

To top it off, he owed the IRS millions of dollars and it had reached the point where IRS agents would visit the venues where we has performing to pick up the receipts.

“Mr. Brown was almost like a hunted man,” Dallas says. “And in that regard, I guess he was, financially.”

Not long after Dallas started to understand the magnitude of the struggle they faced moving forward, the two sat down and discussed the plan.

“Mr. Brown — a man is never a profit in his own hometown, but a man can certainly improve his image in his hometown,” he said. “And the only way I know how you can do that is to start giving back to Augusta.”

So began James Brown’s famous turkey giveaway and later the toy giveaway, and Dallas recalls that it thrilled Brown to be able to do it. Slowly, Brown went from being a joke to something close to a hero, even in spite of the very public trip ups that occurred along the way, including but in no way limited to his time in prison, a series of domestic abuse allegations and his checkered relationship with his third wife Adrianne, who Dallas says he loved in spite of all the pain the drug-addicted relationship brought him.

“I don’t know how you could purport to do a man’s life story and not involve the people who surrounded him the last 25 years of his career,” Dallas says. “So I have to assume it’s a movie of fiction.”

Adrianne died recovering from plastic surgery in 1996, and though Dallas insists Brown had every reason to file a wrongful death case, the singer refused.

A while after that he started seeing Tomi Rae Hynie, one of his backup singers, and married her in 2001, only to find out that she was already married.

“He was publically embarrassed by Tomi Rae when he found out that she was also married,” he says. “It was his greatest humiliation.”

After Brown’s death, Dallas locked the gates to Brown’s estate and Hynie appeared at the locked gate with a TV crew, blaming Dallas for keeping her from the home, which Dallas vehemently denies.

“Mr. Brown had moved her out of the mansion, placed her belongings in storage, and she hadn’t been there since mid-October,” he says. “And to go over there with a camera crew suggesting Buddy Dallas had locked her and her child out of the home — she wasn’t there. That was no longer where she resided.”

Though he doesn’t come right out and say it, Dallas gives you the feeling that while he might have underestimated the magnitude of the problems that occurred after Brown’s death, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that there were problems. Given their 25 years together, it would be hard to imagine smooth sailing anywhere, even in death.

“If I described my role in Mr. Brown’s life, it would not be that my task was to keep him on his side of the road,” he says thoughtfully. “That would have been impossible. Better described, my role would be to try to keep him between the ditches.”

When touring, Dallas served as Brown’s problem solver.

“When you’re on the road with an entourage of 35 or 36 people, it’s just an incredible logistics problem,” he says. “And when you’ve got that many people, inevitably you’ll get all the human problems that go along with that — the headaches, the backaches, the nagging wife and the nagging husband. Mr. Brown would tell them to call Mr. Dallas. He got quite good at that.”

If it sounds like he was more like a manager than a lawyer, that’s the way it sometimes was.

“I’m not really sure what my role was,” he says. “Was it manager? Sometimes it was. Was it lawyer? Sometimes it was, though lawyers typically are not on call 24/7.”

He laughs about the pre-cell phone days when a trip to Atlanta was a long day of “dropping quarters” at payphones along the way and how there was never a time from 1984 until the day he died that Brown didn’t have his phone number and room number so he could contact him at will.

“But that was our relationship,” he says with what sounds like pride. “And I certainly do not believe that I was the only person who could have done the job or that someone else could not have done a better job for Mr. Brown than I did, but I was the one who did. I was the one who did.”

 

Dallas says he knows absolutely nothing more about the upcoming movie than the rest of us do. He was never contacted by anyone involved in making the film and neither, he says, was anyone else in Brown’s inner circle.

“I don’t know how you could purport to do a man’s life story and not involve the people who surrounded him the last 25 years of his career,” he says. “So I have to assume it’s a movie of fiction.”

“If you’re down and out, listen to his music, and if you don’t feel better,” Dallas says, “then you probably need to find the nearest emergency room.”

If that’s true, then moviegoers will miss so much of what makes the James Brown story so rich. But maybe that’s actually for the best. Maybe those stories don’t matter to anyone else but us.

Brown lived here, Dallas says, because the people here didn’t care about him like they did in other places.

“He said, ‘Mr. Dallas — they don’t bother me here,’” Dallas says. “James Brown was no big deal here, and he was a big deal in LA. He was a big deal in Tokyo. He was a big deal in Paris.”

And when you’re a big deal, people really only want what makes you that way. They want the James Brown they got on stage and in the magazines, not the guy driving around town in his two-toned Lincoln.

“There were a number of James Browns,” Dallas says. “There was the persona of the entertainer — every hair perfect, every note perfect, every move orchestrated. That was the showman. But when you pulled all the layers back, James Brown was just a nice guy.

“I can see him now, with his old straw hat on,” he continues. “His hair is unkempt and he’s wearing cowboy boots and that big belt buckle.”

It’s an endearing image for sure, but probably not the one the rest of the world wants to see.

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Dallas last saw Brown around the first week in December, 2006, but the last time he talked to him was the Tuesday before his Sunday death. The conversation lasted about 45 minutes, and Dallas remembers telling his wife that he wished he would have recorded it.

“As I think back, it was almost as if Mr. Brown was saying goodbye, because he brought up things I had long forgotten about,” he says.

A little more than a week earlier, Dallas recalls having had the pleasure of calling him on the phone and delivering good news in an alarming way.

“I said, ‘Mr. Brown — I’m not calling you Mr. Brown anymore.”

“‘What?’ Brown replied. ‘What’s that you say, Mr. Dallas?’”

Ever since their first meeting, they had never strayed from giving each other the respect of the formal address, and Dallas enjoyed the shock of suggesting that was about to change.

“No more of this Mr. Brown stuff anymore,” he told him. “From now on, Mr. Brown, it’s Dr. James Brown.”

Dallas pauses and touches his arm. “I get chill bumps right now telling it,” he says. “You could feel this incredible silence on the other end of the phone.”

“‘Mr. Dallas — you have got to be kidding me,’ he said after a time. Mr. Brown could have had virtually anything in the world he wanted, but he wanted an education more than anything, and here Paine College was honoring him with a Doctorate of Humanities.”

This seems like a fitting wrap up to the discussion — how do you top chill bumps and a final conversation? — and when the cheesy but obligatory “do you miss him?” questions comes, Dallas doesn’t hesitate.

“Oh, yeah, I miss him,” he says. “I miss his friendship and I miss his conversation. Mr. Brown gave back and he never quit giving back, and I’ve often said you could knock him down, but he’d get right back up. And I think that’s the indomitable spirit that James Brown reflected in his music.

“If you’re down and out, listen to his music, and if you don’t feel better, then you probably need to find the nearest emergency room.”

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