More than a decade has passed since the death of the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown on Christmas Day 2006.
Brown, who was easily one of the most influential musicians of the past 50 years, died suddenly in a hospital in Atlanta after suffering from pneumonia.
At 73, he had lived a lifetime, but it was still difficult for many Augustans and fans around the world to accept that he was truly gone.
After all, his music influenced generations of musicians from rock to rap with classic singles including “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
As most Augustans know, Brown’s life wasn’t easy; however, his ties to this city were extremely strong.
He was born on May 3, 1933, in a one-room shack in Barnwell, S.C.
But there were complications right from the start.
“When my mother’s time came (to give birth), they sent for my Aunt Estelle and Aunt Minnie to help,” James Brown wrote in his 1986 autobiography, “James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.” “They’d helped at births before, and when I appeared, they did all the usual things, gave me the usual spanking, all that, but I didn’t respond. They kept trying, but nothing happened. After a while, they just laid me aside.”
As Brown’s father rushed into the bedroom, he saw his wife crying.
“Aunt Estelle said, ‘He never drew a breath, Joe,’” Brown wrote. “While Aunt Estelle tried to comfort my father, Aunt Minnie picked me up and started blowing breath in me. She just wouldn’t give up. She patted me and breathed into my mouth and rubbed my back. Just about the time my father busted out crying, I did, too.”
Brown proved he was a survivor from day one.
But his early childhood was difficult for Brown and his family.
“I guess we lived about as poor as you could be,” Brown wrote, adding that his father did a lot of turpentine work. “When I was 4 years old, my parents split up. I didn’t know because I was too young to understand, but I understood it was happening. That’s one of my earliest memories: my mother standing in the door of the cabin getting ready to leave, my father facing her.”
Brown even remembered their final words to each other on that day.
“Take your child,” Brown recalled his father telling his mother.
But his mother replied, ‘You keep him, Joe, because I can’t work for him.”
While Brown said his father did the best he could, he eventually asked his Aunt Minnie to take care of his young son.
“The three of us were living around Robbins, South Carolina, in another one of those shacks, when my father decided that he could find better work across the Savannah River in Augusta,” Brown wrote. “So the three of us moved into town, but he split from Minnie and me. He was still around, but from then on my father and I never lived in the same house again.”
Instead, he and his Aunt Minnie moved into a house at 944 Twiggs Street in Augusta with another aunt named “Honey.”
“That’s one place I will never forget,” Brown wrote in 1986. “Outside, Highway 1 ran right by the door. You could go all the way to New York on that highway. Inside, there was gambling, moonshine liquor, and prostitution. I wasn’t quite 6 years old.”
This was Brown’s introduction to Augusta.
A very different environment than the pine woods of Barnwell, S.C.
“Augusta was sin city: plenty of gambling, illegal liquor, and a lot of houses like the one I grew up in. The local government then was corrupt, the police could be bribed, and the law was whatever they said it was,” Brown wrote.
“I got to Augusta at the end of 1938. The house was located in a section of the city called ‘the Terry,’ short for the Negro Territory. The Terry stretched west from Fifteenth Street to East Boundary and south from the Savannah River to Gwinnett Street.”
At that time, the streets were mostly unpaved red clay and sand, Brown wrote.
“The Terry was mostly black, but in 1938 there were still some whites and lots of Chinese,” Brown wrote. “Sometimes the Ku Klux Klan held parades right through the Terry. The funny thing was, all the black folks turned out to watch. I never paid much attention. Kids just didn’t think about things like that.”
Brown admitted he was living on an extremely rough side of town.
“All up and down Ninth Street there were gambling joints run by a man named John S.,” he wrote. “He operated wide open — every year he bought the police a brand new paddy wagon. When he died, they carried trunks full of money out of his place.”
Allyn Lee, a local radio disc jockey and show promoter, told local author Don Rhodes in his book “Say It Loud!: My Memories of James Brown Soul Brother No. 1” that Brown was not intimidated by his harsh surroundings.
“There were sections of Augusta where you couldn’t go past certain streets because of the tough guys in those areas,” Lee stated in Rhodes’ book. “And if you did pass through, you had to crawl. But James Brown always walked tall. I don’t care where we were, he could handle it. He was never afraid.”
There were several people in the community that also looked out for one another, Brown wrote in his 1986 autobiography.
“My aunt who had the house on Twiggs Street was named Handsome Washington, but everybody called her Honey. She was very intelligent, and she supported a lot of people,” he wrote. “We had about 12 to 15 men staying there… She fed a lot of people who lived in Helmuth Alley behind the house. Young mothers who needed things. She bought them meat and sugar and she gave them money for groceries. And she loved the children. Honey just didn’t want to see anybody hungry.”
At a very early age, Brown knew he had to help support his household, so he began looking for work anywhere he could find it.
“The servicemen started pouring into Augusta in the fall of 1940, when I was 7. At first, a lot of them were assigned to Daniel Field, an airstrip on the western edge of the city,” Brown wrote. “The soldiers brought a lot of money into the city and we tried to get our share of it on Twiggs Street.”
When the trains stopped at the nearby train crossings, Brown would run and get the soldiers sandwiches and sodas in exchange for a tip.
“When the cavalry came by in their truck convoys, I’d buckdance for them on the Third Level Canal Bridge,” Brown wrote. “They threw nickels and dimes and I worked even harder, adding some steps of my own, trying to get them to throw quarters. Boy, I wanted those quarters.”
Brown would bring the money he earned back to his Aunt Honey to help pay for the rent that was $5 a month. If there was any money leftover, Brown said he would go see a picture show at the Lenox Theater, the popular movie house on Ninth Street that served the black community.
Eventually, Brown began attending Silas X. Floyd Elementary School in Augusta.
“Floyd School, one of the few in Augusta for black kids, had seven grades and about 40 kids to a class,” Brown wrote. “When I’d first gotten to Augusta, the other kids initiated me by taking off my overalls and throwing them up in a tree. I was a real small kid, so I had to get tough pretty quick.”
But Brown’s rural beginnings made fitting into the school difficult.
“I’d have to say that I was poorer than most of the other kids, and a different kind of poor, too,” Brown wrote. “I was poor because nobody was really taking care of me. I came from a roadhouse, not an organized home. A couple of times the principal, Mr. Myers, called me into his office and sent me home for ‘insufficient clothes.’ It made me feel terrible, and I never forgot it.”
As Brown got older, he admitted he was a “hustler,” because he would do almost any job he could find, including shining shoes in downtown Augusta.
“There were a lot of shoeshine parlors in those days, and they all had licenses,” Brown wrote. “They didn’t like competition from freelancers, so they were all the time getting the police to run us off the streets. We had to do a lot of slipping around just to shine shoes.”
Brown also became more and more interested in music.
“One thing I never saw in the churches was drums until I went to Bishop Grace’s House of Prayer,” Brown said, referring to the church on Wrightsboro Road. “Those folks were sanctified — they had the beat.”
In 1944, Brown won his first talent contest singing, “So Long” at the Lenox Theater.
While the Lenox Theater eventually closed and was torn down, Brown continued to perform at other local venues.
“The Harlem Theater on Gwinnett Street started the Harlem Talent Review on Wednesday nights, and it wasn’t long before I won their contest signing ‘Caldonia,’” Brown wrote. “I sang for my classmates, too, to raise money for the school.”
Eventually, Aunt Honey’s house on Twiggs Street closed down, and Brown and his Aunt Minnie moved into a two-room cottage by University Hospital near 15th Street.
“There was a whole row of these unpainted two-room places up there,” Brown wrote. “They called ’em cottages, but they weren’t much different from the shacks I lived in around Barnwell.”
Not long after, Brown wrote he fell in with a “bad crowd.”
“There were a lot of gangs around the city: Sunset Homes and Gilbert Manor, two low-income projects, each had a gang,” Brown wrote. “There was the downtown gang, which was rough, and the Summerhill gang, which was all right. I was in a little gang around King Street… The gangs weren’t vicious, not like a lot of ’em today. There were some rivalries, but nothing deadly.”
Instead, his gang simply wanted to have fun, he wrote.
“We just liked to swim in the canal, keep the girls out late, shoot dice, and generally enjoy ourselves,” Brown wrote. “When we were out real late, the police might chase us, and when that happened I headed straight for the canal and jumped in.”
But his gang also began stealing.
“We got into everything that wasn’t nailed down and we sold it,” Brown wrote. “I took hubcaps off people’s cars, gas caps, whatever… A lot of times, I’d steal the battery or break into the car and take whatever was in it.”
One night, Brown was caught and arrested.
“Me and another boy were digging a battery out of a car one night when the police pulled up,” Brown wrote. “We were bent so far under the hood concentrating on getting the cables loose we didn’t even hear the police come up behind us.”
The officers arrested Brown and his friend and took them to the Richmond County Jail.
By morning, a juvenile officer talked to Brown and his friend, trying to scare them straight, and then let them go.
But it didn’t take long for Brown to get in trouble again by breaking into several cars on Broad Street in 1949. At first, he outran the police, but the officers caught up with him the next day.
“This time they took me to jail for real — fingerprinted me, took a mug shot, and threw me in the lockup with adult offenders even though I was only 15 years old,” Brown wrote. “When the detectives asked me about breaking into the cars, I told them everything I had done. They let the other boys go because none of them had ever been in trouble before, but they charged me with four counts of breaking and entering and larceny from an automobile.”
They decided to try Brown as an adult when he turned 16.
“I was tried, convicted, and sentenced before I knew it,” Brown wrote.
He was given eight to 16 years and was first sent to the Georgia Juvenile Training Institute in Rome. But by 1951, he was transferred to Camp Toccoa.
It was a devastating sentence, but author Don Rhodes wrote in his book, “Say It Loud!: My Memories of James Brown Soul Brother No. 1” that Brown had the good fortune to meet a young gospel singer named Bobby Byrd.
Byrd was a member of a gospel group that took its religious messages to inmates at Camp Toccoa.
“While Brown must have felt that his whole world had come crashing down on top of him and that his life was basically over, it was only the beginning,” Rhodes wrote. “For if he had not been caught that day breaking into cars and stealing items, he would not have been served time at a prison near Toccoa, Georgia and would not have met Bobby Byrd. And if he had not met Bobby Byrd, he would not have started singing with Byrd and would not have formed the Famous Flames.”
And the rest is history.
Brown was released from prison in 1952 after serving three years because a local businessman agreed to be his sponsor and provided him a job.
Shortly after, Brown joined Byrd’s gospel group and, by 1952, they decided to change their name to the Flames.
“A pivotal moment for the Flames was the night they met Macon-born entertainer ‘LIttle Richard’ Penniman at Bill’s Rendezvous Club,” Rhodes wrote.
Little Richard told Rhodes that the Flames asked if they could sing during his intermission and he agreed.
“I could hear them (from) backstage and what they were doing to the audience,” Little Richard told Rhodes. “James sang ‘Please, Please, Please.” I thought they weren’t going to give me my microphone back… They were fantastic!”
From there, Brown and the Famous Flames were, without a doubt, on fire.
But Brown never forgot about his roots in Augusta.
As his fame grew, Brown even invested in businesses in Augusta, including buying the WRDW-AM radio station.
Even Brown couldn’t help but point out the irony of that purchase.
“You know in Augusta, I used to shine shoes on the steps of the radio station, WRDW,” Brown told a national audience. “I think we started at three cents, then went to five or eight. I never did get to a dime. But today, I own that radio station.”
Brown was also not intimidated to return to Augusta and call some of the wealthiest and predominantly white neighborhoods his new home.
It was a fact that his daughter, Yamma Brown, pointed out in her 2014 book, “Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me.”
“Our first house was in a ritzy residential area of Augusta on a street called Walton Way,” Yamma Brown wrote in her 2014 book. “Our neighbors were Augusta’s aristocracy, doctors and lawyers and other high-powered professionals. You could hardly miss us. We were the only African-American family, and we had a pony in the backyard.”
It was a stark contrast from where James Brown grew up on Twiggs Street.
“Walton Way is 10 minutes and a pipe dream from the hot, swarming district of Augusta where Dad spent most of his childhood,” Yamma Brown wrote.
They were two completely different worlds, but James Brown didn’t let that stand in his way, Yamma Brown wrote.
“If he was the only black man in the neighborhood, well, so be it. He deserved to be there,” Yamma Brown stated. “And if he could do it, others could, too. I can only imagine how it felt for my father, a poor kid from the Terry who grew up in a roadhouse and was once sent home from grammar school for ‘insufficient clothes,’ to drive his brand new Lincoln up to the biggest, baddest house on Walton Way.”
Her dad commanded respect from everyone, she wrote.
“When Dad’s father brought him to live in the Terry in 1938, he knew nothing about the lives of the rich white men behind the gates of Augusta National, the same privileged class of people who would one day be his neighbors on Walton Way,” she wrote. “People in the Terry called Dad ‘Little Junior.’ On Walton Way, no matter who you were, or how much money you made, he was Mr. Brown.”
And it is widely known that James Brown adored Christmas and his homes always had an impressive Christmas display.
“At Christmastime, the glowing, blinking black Santa Claus on the front lawn gave us away,” Yamma Brown wrote. “Dad had our animated Santa custom-made along with Uncle Sam and Frosty the Snowman and a host of other illuminated cartoon figures. Every year, a new character popped up. And every year, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, curiosity seekers came from all over to see our Christmas pageant.”
James Brown’s Christmas display was a showstopper, Yamma Brown wrote.
“I remember peeking out from behind our heavy living room curtains and seeing cars creeping past our house,” she wrote, “most of them stopping just long enough for the people inside to ogle the twinkling, jerking display and take a few photographs before driving off.”
Yamma Brown wrote that she was always proud of her father’s courage and she found great joy in his love for Christmas, which makes the anniversary of his death on Christmas Day that more poignant.
“It was only as an adult that I began thinking about how much thought Dad put into our Christmas display in Augusta,” Yamma Brown wrote. “It said so much about his character. That first year we lived there, he checked out everyone else’s decorations, and he must have thought to himself, ‘What can I do to make sure we’re part of the neighborhood?’ And like the neighbors, he went all out, ordering custom-made decorations and then hiring a crew to make sure everything was perfect placed and trimmed.
“Mr. Brown wanted to fit in — but on his own terms.”