Musicians from all over the world used to dream about what it would be like to be a member of the Soul Generals and play alongside “The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.”
Imagine being on stage with more than a dozen other incredibly talented musicians and energizing the crowd as emcee Danny Ray delivered his famous lines, “Aaaaaand nooow, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Star Time. Star Time! I want everyone here tonight to call the Godfather of Soul himself — Misterrrrr Jaaaaames Brown!”
Then, out would emerge the man himself — James Brown — with his dazzling smile, immaculate outfit and perfectly sculpted coif to perform his flashy moves and legendary music that truly defined funk and soul around the world.
For nearly eight years, guitarist Damon Wood experienced that ultimate rush.
“It’s well known that working for Mr. Brown could be a tough gig,” Wood writes in his recently released book, which was co-authored with Denver journalist Phil Carson. “That was no less true in his later years, when I worked for him. He could be charming, hilarious, kind, thoughtful, scary, intimidating — all at the same time. That was the nature of the gig.”
Nothing was ever easy being an employee of Brown, but it was an experience that could deliver a “pure, exhilarating high” like none other, he writes.
“You had to want that job just to get it,” Wood writes. “And you had to work doubly hard to keep it. Working for Mr. Brown meant recognizing that he ruled the center of the universe.”
Band members never knew what to expect from one day to the next when it came to Brown’s moods and actions toward his employees, Wood writes.
“The good times made us swear allegiance to Mr. Brown and his mission regardless of the inevitable drama,” Wood writes. “Whether it was flying in and out of European and Asian capitals, backing Mr. Brown and Michael Jackson in L.A., or jamming after hours in Paris, we had more than our fair share of fun. The highs far outweighed the lows, until, one day, they didn’t.”
This book, which was published by ECW Press of Toronto and released just this month, takes an extremely honest look at life on the road with Brown.
Wood’s writing has the ability to put readers right next to him in the cram-packed, 20-year-old Greyhound Eagle bus that the band traveled thousands of miles in over the course of a domestic tour, while Brown traveled separately in complete comfort.
He also conveys the humor and total embarrassment of situations on the road, such as playing Woodstock ’99 and that same Greyhound bus backing up to the stage and blowing black smoke into the crowd of about 200,000 concertgoers.
But probably most effective is Wood’s ability to describe the mixed emotions working for a demanding and sometimes irrational boss like Brown.
“James Brown was one of the most charming individuals you’d ever meet,” Wood writes. “He had the power to make you feel unbelievably great. Onstage and off, he could be funny, generous and lovable. But he also had the power to chip away at your dignity just by what he made you endure every day.”
The truth of the matter was, Brown could be “Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde,” Wood writes.
While such a description of the Godfather of Soul might sound harsh, Wood was far from the only band member to have similar feelings about the music legend.
In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Wood’s book is that he and the co-writer, Carson, interviewed several past members of the band about their time with Brown, and many had similar experiences.
Bassist Willie Ray “Bo” Brundidge described how the band always had to be on their best behavior and well dressed when out in public, whether it was before or after the show.
“In New York, (James Brown) would be at the Trump Palace; we might be at the Edison,” Brundidge says in the book. “It was a nice hotel, in the middle of everything. Whether James Brown was there or not, when you got to a fancy hotel, you’d better wear dress pants and shoes. The boss wanted everybody looking good.”
Brown had rules that you had to follow, or you could be fined and lose a portion of your pay.
“At a hotel, you can’t be wearing jeans. That’s a no-no. At one point, it used to be coat and tie,” Brundidge says. “Still, if he’s watching, he’s always inspecting.”
Drummer Erik Hargrove explains that Brown’s expectations were so high because the Godfather of Soul had to work tremendously hard for everything he achieved in life.
“If he came into the dressing room and saw somebody’s uniform hadn’t been ironed yet, he would tell stories about how they used to use a hot lightbulb to iron their uniforms,” Hargrove says in the book.
“That’s the way they’d have to do it when they all piled into a station wagon and played the Chitlin’ Circuit, places where there were ‘White Only’ dressing rooms and they had to use a bathroom or a storage room, where they had to iron their uniforms with a lightbulb.”
One of the former Soul Generals band members who is prominently featured in Wood’s book is guitarist and native Augustan Keith Jenkins.
Jenkins, who began playing guitar at 11, grew up fascinated with the Godfather of Soul and his music.
At 20, Jenkins landed an audition for Brown and was hired on the spot.
For the next 12 years, Jenkins toured the world as a guitarist and eventually the musical director in Brown’s legendary backing band.
Brown even insisted that Jenkins accompany him on special engagements with other top artists such as Lenny Kravitz, Dave Matthews Band and Usher.
One of the reasons that Wood was called to join Brown and the Soul Generals on a European tour in June of 1999 was, Jenkins had just abruptly quit the band after being a member for four years.
“For some reason, James (Brown) was getting more and more impossible to deal with. I’d had enough,” Jenkins says in Wood’s book. “I thought, ‘I am not going to Europe for three weeks with this guy.’”
So he left the band during a sound check in New York, packed up his belongings and immediately headed back to Augusta.
Not long after Jenkins reached his apartment and hit the bed for a long rest, the phone rang.
“It was ‘Rock,’ Ron Laster, the other guitar player,” Jenkins says in the book. “‘Doogie!’ he said — everyone in the band had a nickname and I was the youngest, so the band named me after Doogie Howser, M.D., a TV show about a teenage doctor — I said, ‘What’s up?’”
“‘Get up!’ Rock said. ‘You gotta get goin’ on this trip. I’m at the airport and they took my passport. I’m not goin.’ You gotta go. Just go get the money. They gonna call you as soon as I hang up.’”
The next thing Jenkins knew, the phone rang and James Brown’s office wanted him on a plane to Athens, Greece, that afternoon.
Just like that, Jenkins was back with Brown and the Soul Generals after missing only one show.
It didn’t take long before Jenkins and Wood, both guitarists in the band, became good friends and watched out for each other.
After reading Wood’s book, Jenkins sat down and talked with the Metro Spirit about his shared experiences with Wood and being on tour with Brown for more than a decade.
He vividly remembers the telephone call from “Rock” begging him to come back and play with the Soul Generals.
“Rock called me and said, ‘Doogie, you’ve got to do it. Go on and get this money, man.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want to. I just got home. I’m in the bed. I don’t like James Brown no more,’” Jenkins said, laughing. “And he said, ‘Doogie, get your white a** up and get this damn money. You know you are going to get paid.’ So, I went back. I had just gotten home and I had to go right back.”
While working for Brown always caused a true roller coaster of emotions, Jenkins said band members couldn’t help but have a deep affection for the man.
“One of the things about James Brown was, he was predictably unpredictable,” Jenkins said, laughing. “He would really go off the deep end about something really minuscule and benign, and then other times you would be bracing yourself — sometimes vicariously because you knew somebody else was about to get it — and he would just brush it off.”
The band just never knew what to expect, he said.
“Like, one time, somebody sold a story to one of the tabloids. It was a big spread, and it was a scandalous tale splashed all over the paper,” Jenkins said. “We were all bracing ourselves and the only thing he said was, ‘Did you see my picture?’ I was like, ‘Damn, aren’t you really pissed?’ And he didn’t really care.”
But on any given day, each band member knew they could quickly be shown the door, he said.
“He would fire people at a drop of a hat,” Jenkins said, chuckling. “One time we had three bass players. He fired every one of them during one show. Seriously, during a single show. He would just scream, ‘You’re fired!’ Finally, the last of the three, he fired him, but he let him finish the show because we wouldn’t have had a bass player for the rest of the night. It’s funny now. You just had to be there. It was ridiculous.”
After playing in the band for 12 years, Jenkins said he and Brown would occasionally have one-on-one talks about his heavy-handed approach to dealing with the band.
“James Brown didn’t even try to present himself like he wasn’t hard,” Jenkins said. “He made it a point to say, ‘I’m like Coach Carter. Have you seen that movie about Coach Carter? That’s me. That’s how I’ll be all the time.’”
“Coach Carter” was a 2005 film based on the true story of Richmond High School Basketball Coach Ken Carter from California, who made national headlines for suspending his undefeated basketball team due to poor grades.
“When he would say he was Coach Carter, I would say, ‘Yeah, Mr. Brown, but we are not juvenile delinquent kids. We are grown adults who are just trying to do a good job. Do you have to Coach Carter us every day?’” Jenkins said, chuckling. “But he didn’t have any illusions about that sort of thing. He knew he was hard.”
Throughout the book, Wood writes about his deep respect for Jenkins’ handling of difficult situations, especially when Brown was berating the band.
“Keith handled this stuff better than anyone, from what I could see,” Wood writes, describing a situation where Brown tried to punish Jenkins by taking away a week’s worth of pay. “Keith dissented at that point. Mr. Brown retorted, ‘I’m cutting your pay down by one-third.’ Keith said, ‘I have a wife, a family, a mortgage. I can’t accept that. I thank you for everything.’ And he calmly rolled up his guitar cord just like he always did when he was about to leave. Keith was one of the only people I knew who could say ‘No’ to James Brown.”
But Wood said that Jenkins was not only standing up for himself, but he was also standing up for the entire band.
“By doing so, he was looking out for the band,” Wood writes.
“Keith’s ability to stay cool under duress was a sight to see. He was a master at wrapping that guitar cord up in a nice, smooth little circle even though, underneath, he was pissed as hell. And James Brown blinked.”
The Godfather of Soul backed down, Wood writes.
“Mr. Brown said, ‘Son, what do you want? You want all your money back, just like that?’ Keith said, ‘Yes.’ And James Brown gave in and paid him and, if I remember correctly, the rest of us, too,” Wood writes. “No pay cut. That boy Keith has some balls.”
Jenkins said he couldn’t help but be extremely flattered by Wood’s comments in the book.
“That really meant a lot to me that he said all of those things,” Jenkins said. “I mean, you feel like you are always trying to be a good person and a good friend, but you don’t always know how people really see you. Some people may secretly hate you for years and years. But when you have somebody you were that close to, I mean, we lived together for half the year in such close quarters, it’s nice to hear such positive comments. I was appreciative of that. It was really touching.”
Jenkins also thought Wood did an excellent job throughout the book of balancing both the excitement and turmoil that the band experienced on tour.
“I really like the way he included any of the band members who wanted to be in the book,” Jenkins said. “He asked around to everybody, and he really wanted to get a bunch of different perspectives.”
Wood also didn’t go for any low blows at the expense of Brown or the other band members, Jenkins said.
“Let’s face it, the book could have been a lot thicker,” Jenkins said, laughing. “He managed to not sugarcoat things, but he didn’t villainize anyone or indict anybody, either.”
That’s a true testament to Wood’s character, Jenkins said, because there is a lot of ugliness that can happen on tour.
“Being on the road and on tour, it brings out the worst in people,” Jenkins said. “You are sleep deprived, you are uncomfortable and you don’t have a lot of control over much of anything.”
The band members are hired to show up and wait until they’re told what to do, he said.
“Your personal autonomy is really compromised and, a lot of times, I would walk off and go pay for food somewhere just because I wanted to choose what I was going to eat that day,” Jenkins said. “Just to have that freedom. I didn’t care if they had catering and it was free, I was going to go pay $18 for a hamburger because I felt like it.”
Wood’s entire book is filled with different band members’ encounters — positive and negative – with Brown.
And readers are able to see the human side of Brown.
For example, veteran keyboard player Jerry “Louie” Poindexter tells a story in the book of Brown sending him home one time without pay.
Poindexter had no choice but to ask his mother to bring him home. She was furious.
“I was a grown-a** man, 23 or 24 years old. My mother didn’t give a sh** who I worked for,” Poindexter told Wood. “‘You get paid,’ she told me. ‘Don’t let anyone use you. Ever.’”
Later on, Brown called Poindexter’s house to ask him to come back on tour.
‘My mama said, ‘Give me that damn phone,’” Poindexter recalled in the book. “She cussed Mr. Brown’s a** out!”
She let the Godfather of Soul have it and said, “You don’t call here until you pay my son every copper penny and nickel you owe him.”
His mother slammed down the phone.
Poindexter thought his career was over, but an hour later, James Brown Enterprises called to let him know that his money was available at Western Union.
Two weeks later, Poindexter was back on tour and had invited his family to come see a show in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I wanted Mr. Brown to meet my mother. He said, ‘No, no. I got to stay away from that,’” Poindexter says. “He didn’t want to meet no real people who would cuss his a** out!”
From his own experiences with Brown, Jenkins said he knew better than to ever cuss at the Godfather of Soul.
“I mouthed off at him before. But what I said to him, I didn’t say it in anger. I knew what I was doing. I held it back a little bit,” Jenkins said. “You couldn’t cuss around James Brown, and you definitely couldn’t cuss at him. No way.”
Looking back over the time he spent with Brown, Jenkins said he can’t help but think of those days with great fondness.
And by sitting down and talking with these former Soul Generals and recalling all of these experiences on tour, Wood managed to capture another side to Brown that the public didn’t really get to see, Jenkins said.
“We had a good run,” Jenkins said. “There will never be anything else in my life that will be like that. Never.”
For more information about the book “Working for the Man, Playing in the Band: My Years with James Brown” by Damon Wood and Phil Carson, visit myyearswithjamesbrown.com.