No one can be surprised that ever since the James Brown movie “Get On Up” opened nationwide a few weeks ago, some long-time supporters and followers of the Godfather of Soul have been desperately trying to grab a piece of the pie.
It’s only natural that Augusta wants to promote, and even profit, from the Garden City’s connection with such a legend.
But when the likes of Charles “Champ” Walker Jr. start coming out of the woodwork and calling on the city to revive the former “We Feel Good” slogan that he promoted back in 2005 and possibly bring back the James Brown Music Festival under his leadership, the citizens of Augusta need to put a stop to the madness.
For the past several weeks, Walker, who now lives in Atlanta, has been taking a stroll down memory lane regarding his role in the James Brown Music Festival.
However, it appears his memory is a little fuzzy.
“Most of you who are from Augusta know the struggle I had during the 1st annual James Brown Music Festival,” Walker wrote on his Facebook page. “Trying to honor James Brown was one of the most trying ordeals in my life. It was also the most rewarding. I didn’t know how God had prepared me to deal with jealousy, envy, evil people and racism…all at the same time.”
Walker claims the media was out to destroy his political career.
“We sought to improve Augusta racially divisive image but instead we were caught in the middle of a racial war, competing political agendas and personal vendettas,” Walker stated. “It was amazing to hear what some people that I had known for years had to say about what the newspaper had written about me. They believed what was reported. Though we fought back and ended up with a radio show and provided proof that we owned the rights to the James Brown Music Festival and that we never made any announcements about who was performing, we found ourselves on the defensive with those who from the outside, cast blame.”
Walker ends his message to friends and family by stating, “If you are down with a James Brown Music Festival, Say it Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud!”
All right, let’s get real for a minute.
For those Augustans who weren’t in town almost 10 years ago, Walker (yes, the son of former state Sen. Charles Walker) was all over the map when it came to trying to promote and manage the music festival.
The truth of the matter is Walker announced in the fall of 2005 that Augusta was going to hold the first annual James Brown “Soul of America” Music Festival the following year featuring celebrity performers such as Usher, Black Eyed Peas, P. Diddy and Justin Timberlake.
Right off the bat, many in town were skeptical.
Some citizens became even more concerned after Walker went before the Augusta Commission requesting the city contribute $250,000 towards hosting the four-day music festival.
Walker’s proposed budget for the entire festival was a mind-boggling $3.5 million.
However, Walker insisted that the Garden City needed to embrace the event and celebrate its famous local legend instead of being so cynical about the music festival.
“The people who are saying that Usher and Justin Timberlake and these big names are not coming, they need to understand, saying such things is not a shot at me. It is a blow to Mr. James Brown and it is disrespectful to him,” Walker said in 2006. “We need to understand who James Brown is. He’s an icon. And this city has dogged him for too long. It’s about high time that we recognize that we have the best ambassador for this city that we could ever find. Augusta is lucky to have James Brown.”
At the time, Walker estimated that the music festival would attract between 20,000 to 50,000 visitors to Augusta to watch artists on four music stages in downtown Augusta surrounded by at least 70 visual artists.
Walker continued to insist that major celebrities would be attending the festival, but in the same breath, he also warned he could not make any guarantees.
“We’ve said P.Diddy, Justin Timberlake, Usher and I think Rev. Al Sharpton has talked to Mary J. Blige about coming,” Walker said in 2006. “But what we are doing right now, we are not going to release any more names because of how vindictive some of the media has been. People won’t know who’s coming probably until a month out, but with those names alone that I just mentioned, we will do more than fine.”
A few weeks later, Walker began to backtrack and change the entire lineup.
Walker announced he received commitments from a number of performers, including India Arie, hip-hop group Nappy Roots, funk legend George Clinton and gospel star Dr. Bobby Jones.
“The artists we have are OK,” Walker said. “We believe that they can draw 25,000 to 30,000 people. But we want to max it out.”
Finally, the four-day festival opened to very small audiences with very few acts.
None of the big-name artists showed.
Many of the vendors, some of whom had traveled from out of state, were outraged.
“What I felt sorry for was the people I saw there who had barbecues set up, who had, I’m guessing, literally purchased hundreds of dollars of food,” said Matthew Adams, a vendor at the 2006 festival. “And I was just watching it (food) burn to a crisp or just spoil.”
Adams said that during certain times of the day, the only spectators for performers were the vendors themselves.
“It was embarrassing. It really was,” Adams said in 2006. “The only people you saw walking around were vendors and tech people.”
It wasn’t even certain whether James Brown himself would show up to perform.
However, a moment of levity finally came that Saturday evening, when the man of honor, himself, James Brown, gave a rousing, 30-minute performance.
But even that joy didn’t last.
The very next day, the public was treated to news footage of Walker arguing with deputies, a screaming female vendor upset that her “framed leather art” valued in the “tens of thousands of dollars” had not sold, and city officials and the mayor descending on the festival to quell the unrest.
Walker stated publicly that deputies threatened to arrest him when he refused to pay them for security at the event.
It was a disaster.
A few days after the festival, then-Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength set the record straight.
He explained that after midnight on Saturday, when that day’s events had ended, Walker approached sheriff’s Sgt. Walter Ashley, who was managing the security detail of off-duty deputies, and told him that some acts had canceled.
Therefore, Walker told Ashley, there would be no need for officers at the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre on Sunday, Strength said.
Ashley told Walker that it was too late to call deputies to cancel their Sunday detail, and they would have to be paid for a minimum of four hours, whether or not they worked that day.
Strength said Walker agreed with Ashley on the stipulation.
But on Sunday, Strength said, Ashley was informed Walker and others were setting up equipment at the amphitheater.
“Ashley, being somewhat confused, he goes to the amphitheater to find out what’s going on,” Strength said. “He talks to Walker and Walker denied telling Ashley earlier that morning that there would be no events at the amphitheater.
“Ashley tells Walker that deputies must be paid and Walker stated that, ‘He’s not going to pay anybody.’ Ashley then tells Walker if deputies are not paid at the event, that the event will be shut down and warrants can be issued for Walker’s arrest for theft of services.”
Strength said Walker tried to “create a scene” by shouting that the sheriff’s office was canceling the event.
At one point, Strength said, Ashley keyed his microphone so that other officers could hear Walker’s comments and shouting.
Ashley called backup officers to the scene.
“Eight or nine officers responded, not the 17 that Walker said surrounded him,” Strength said. “I do not see in any way that the officers were out of line in anything that they did. They had a job to do and they were doing their job.”
Poor planning, bad publicity, weak promotion, broken promises and an extremely embarrassing turnout summed up the James Brown Music Festival.
And, unfortunately, about six months later, the Godfather of Soul passed away.
James Brown deserved better.
There is no question, Augusta should have an annual music festival honoring this world- renown legend.
But, without a doubt, Champ Walker should have no hand in it, whatsoever.