The “Godfather of Soul” James Brown was known for his flashy spins, legendary splits and music that truly defined funk and soul.
He would never stand completely still, in total silence, without a spotlight.
But that’s exactly how Augusta chose to honor Brown when it erected a life-size statue of him on the 800 block of Broad Street back in 2005.
Now, more than 10 years later, several members of the city’s economic development subcommittee believe Augusta needs to do more to celebrate this musical legend.
“The area is stagnant, it is stale and it is in the dark,” said Augusta Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell, referring to the James Brown Plaza. “It is dark at night and it is dark during the day. We need to either liven up that space or move the statue to some place that it can be livened up.”
In order to help spruce up the James Brown Plaza on Broad Street, the city hired Gary Warner, director of planning and landscape architecture for Cooper Carry in Atlanta, to review the location and provide both long-term and short-term solutions to enhance the area.
“The James Brown Plaza is in the middle of Broad Street with parking on both sides, so there are some challenges with that,” Warner said. “The plaza is not very accessible. The baccharis and the azaleas have grown up considerably and kind of create a screen that makes it hard to see through the plaza. If you are not really aware the James Brown Plaza is there, you may not even know that there is a statue. You could easily walk down Broad Street and totally miss it.”
That’s a real problem for a city that is trying to promote its connection to James Brown, Warner said.
“It is also a very confined space,” Warner said. “When you walk in the plaza, you feel that confinement. That’s mostly because of the shrub material that is out there… And there are people that hang out there all day long. It is part of the challenge. Whether it is good or bad. It’s great that people have a place to hangout, but I don’t know if you want people hanging out there for four or five hours at a time.”
In order to properly address these issues and honor Brown, Warner said Augusta needs to come up with a plan.
“How do we really celebrate this man? How do we celebrate the town that this man is from? The two go hand in hand,” Warner said. “So, is there a way to become more interactive? Is there a way to display more information? Once you are out there on the plaza, there is very little story told. You really don’t know the grand story that is James Brown. You don’t know the grand story of James Brown and the city of Augusta. There is a relationship there that really needs to be celebrated.”
The Garden City needs to have a plaza that tells visitors that Brown’s roots were in Augusta and that he loved this community, Warner said.
Therese Huffman, founder of Signature Design in Atlanta, presented the economic development subcommittee with several sketches of proposed upgrades to the James Brown Plaza that included everything from informational plaques around the statue to a “soul stage,” with flashing lights, digital music and dance elements.
“It could be a real stage,” Huffman said, adding that Augusta could create a park much like Marietta Square in Atlanta. “It is very active there. People get up and dance.”
Huffman said the stage could include digital elements where visitors would not only have an opportunity to listen to Brown’s music, but they could also watch videos with him dancing.
“There are movies he made that show people how to dance, like how to do the funky chicken,” Huffman said of Brown. “It would be kind of fun for people to role-play. We could create a music and dance station.”
But in order for the public to truly enjoy the James Brown statue, both Huffman and Warner agreed that the current plaza is too small.
“Ultimately, I think he needs to be moved,” Warner said. “Let’s say, if you were going to have a celebration on the 10-year anniversary of his death, and you were to have a small concert with 100 people, where do you have that? It would be great to have it near the vicinity of the statue, but that is part of the challenge.”
In order to have any kind of celebration around the statue, the city would have to temporarily close Broad Street.
“Ultimately, I would want to be able to send my kids out there to run up to the James Brown statue,” Warner said. “But we can’t do that now because it is surrounded by four lanes of traffic.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams, who is chairman of the economic development subcommittee, said he was thrilled by the presentation. However, he felt the current James Brown statue should not be moved.
“I’m excited about everything I see. It is like somebody is inside my head,” Williams said. “But I don’t think we ought to consider moving that statue. We ought to consider having others. Let’s do several more statues. He is so much bigger than one statue.”
Williams said the city should consider putting a different statue of James Brown on every corner of the Augusta Common.
While Williams admitted that many Augustans would object to such a proposal, he insisted that it would attract thousands of tourists to the area.
“People would love it. Not necessarily people in this town,” Williams said. “They are going to say, ‘Aw, we don’t need that.’ But the folks who are traveling down I-20 are going to stop and say, ‘Hey, let’s go down and see this soul situation.’ Then, they are going to have lunch and some may stay overnight.”
The last thing Augusta should do is build one statue for James Brown and walk away, Williams said.
“We did do the statue, but we left it,” Williams said. “When people come here, there is no music. There is nothing to do but just look at that one statue. When James Brown was on stage, he was performing. We have to keep him performing.”
While the proposals to build a stage or develop more statues are all long-range plans, Warner said there are several adjustments to the current plaza that the city could easily do to improve the location.
“The landscaping needs to be trimmed, removed and cut back,” Warner said. “I think the shade trees out there are great. I would hate to take them out, but we can trim them and thin them a little bit so we have a little more light.”
The city may want to also consider changing the paving around the statue, he said.
He showed the subcommittee sketches of decorative pavement that included musical notes reflecting some of Brown’s songs.
Augusta Commissioner Mary Davis said she was impressed with the proposals to enhance the James Brown Plaza. In fact, she felt the city should consider developing a walking musical tour throughout the downtown area that could possibly include a soul stage in a different area of downtown.
“I don’t know if the Augusta Common has space for a permanent stage,” Davis said. “I just don’t know because when people do have large events there, it can get pretty full. But I love the plaza ideas here and then if you have the four statues reflecting different parts of James Brown’s life on the Common and then you have a stage somewhere else downtown, it would keep people moving.”
Warner said it would be ideal to have a stage developed along the Riverwalk, but Brenda Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, disagreed.
“That’s the wrong way,” Durant said, insisting that any new development needs to head south towards Greene Street. “Going south would be much better.”
If purchasing land south of Broad Street was possible, Warner said that could be a huge economic boost for the Garden City.
“Originally the Common ran from the river to Laney Walker when the town was first laid out,” he said. “If there is a way we can do that again, you talk about a greenbelt running through the city that could really start to drive the economy, that is the type of bold move that could do it.”
Durant also pointed out that there are more than 20 live music venues in downtown, including some that have ties to James Brown and other famous local musicians such as Jessye Norman.
“With a music walk, a walking tour through town and the music venues that are here and the connectivity, there is no reason why Augusta could not be the South by Southeast,” Warner said, making reference to the music festival, South By Southwest held in Austin, Texas each year. “Austin has a South By Southwest, which is a huge success. Let’s do a South By Southeast in Augusta.”
While the subcommittee was excited about Warner’s presentation, the group agreed that Augusta needed to first address the landscaping around the current plaza to make the statue more visible.
But Williams insisted that the long-term plans for the James Brown Plaza shouldn’t be tabled.
“This has been a long time coming,” Williams said. “But it is time.”