They say everyone has a book in them. Mine has been screaming to get out for years, but I never had the time until, after a 33-year journalism career, I found myself laid off in 2015. Yet another newspaper casualty.
I was one of the lucky ones, I had a music website to fall back on … it was more than a Plan B or a labor of love; it’s been my outlet for my passion for music. Pauseandplay.com is going strong, despite massive changes in the way people listen and purchase music, and amazingly it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary on Oct. 1. (I can’t believe my little site has been around this long and that Elton John counts himself as one of my regular readers.)
Now, about that book … I started on it last year. I swiftly moved through the first two chapters but got sidetracked when money got too tight to mention (thank you, Simply Red) and I had to get a real job to help pay the bills. Money’s still too tight, but I can’t complain. Still, I don’t like traditional 9-to-5 jobs anymore; they’re too confining, too rigid, you’re too beholden to others who have their own agendas. I want to get back to what I know and love the best: writing about music.
My book isn’t finished, it doesn’t even have a title yet, but this much I know: It will have a lot of heart. It will touch on my introduction to music at an early age, its profound effect on me in my youth and to this very day. You will follow along with me as I ditch a sports writing career and discover that I should have been a music journalist all along. I uproot myself from a small-town newspaper gig in Ohio and make the bold move to Tokyo, Japan. Talk about culture shock … but it was the best damn decision I ever made (besides finding the love of my life and starting a beautiful family). My time in Tokyo in the 1980s, specifically 1984 to 1990, was filled with humor, friendship, wackiness, soul-searching, and lots of music. I really did have the time of my life. Man, I was lucky.
Like I said earlier, I had written two chapters and had started on a third … but then I got antsy, I desperately wanted to skip ahead and devote an entire chapter to my very favorite artist interview. I finished it yesterday. I’m sharing it so you can get a taste of what I’m going for, and maybe someone out there in the book publishing world, God willing, will read it and enjoy it as much as I did writing it (and give me a big fat advance so I can finish it!). I especially hope you enjoy it, too.
Here goes …
By now (sometime in late February 1986), I knew the routine: show up to a downtown Tokyo hotel conference room on time, show my media pass, find a spot in the back of the room and have questions ready to serve up in case the press conference turns lame and then I seize an opportunity to turn it into my own interview.
I made my way to the back while Japanese photographers and reporters crowded the podium area, setting up their photo and video-camera tripods and putting their tape recorders on any open surface they could find.
All I needed was a pen and a notepad, and I was all set to go.
Minutes later, a spokesman for the concert promoter came to the podium and addressed the media. My knowledge of the Japanese language was limited to knowing how to ask “Where’s the nearest restroom?,” “Am I at the correct subway stop?” and “Could I have one more beer, please?” (oh, and a few choice cuss words), so I didn’t know much of what he was saying, except for a few English words sprinkled in here and there.
“Blah-blah-blah. … ‘The Godfather of Soul’ … Blah-blah-blah …. ‘Rocky IV’ … Blah-blah-blah … ‘Living in America’ … Blah-blah-blah. … Budokan … Blah-blah-blah.
“Minasama (everyone), Mr. James Brown!”
From a back door came the Godfather of Soul and his entourage, with “Living in America” blaring loudly over the speakers. It was a grand entrance, complete with Brown’s trademark cape.
You know how this goes: He strolled up to the podium and took a knee; a tall, burly man came from behind and removed the cape from Brown’s funk-laden shoulders, to the delight of the Japanese press. It was impressive; even I joined in the round of applause. Brown blew kisses and waved to the crowd.
Man, he could work a room.
As an interpreter took her position next to Brown, the promoter opened the floor to questions. No hands rose up at first. The promoter repeated his call for questions, and finally some hands went up.
A nervous reporter asked a question, and Brown leaned over to his interpreter and listened intently.
“She asked what’s my impression of Japan so far,” Brown said. “Well, I love Japan. I love the world. The world is my audience, and I’m so excited to be here.”
More questions followed, all typical stuff from the timid Japanese press. “What’s your favorite color?” “Do you like sushi?” “What’s your favorite sport?”
The man is enjoying one of the year’s greatest comebacks, his “Living in America” single is sitting in the Top 10 in the United States, his biggest hit since 1968’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and you’re asking him about sushi?
I rolled my eyes and shook my head, then noticed that the tall, burly man who removed Brown’s cape was standing next to me.
I moved closer and whispered to him.
“Can you believe these questions?” I said.
“He’s used to this,” he said. “All in a day’s work.”
“Do you work with Mr. Brown?” I asked coyly.
“Yes, I’m Henry. Henry Stallings,” he said, shaking my hand. “I’m his road manager.”
My eyes lit up.
“Wow, that’s great,” I said. “The Japanese are asking boring questions, do you think I could get a few minutes alone with James?”
“That depends,” he said. “Who you with?”
“My name is Gerry, I’m with Stars & Stripes, the daily newspaper for American troops stationed overseas,” I said, handing him one of my business cards.
He looked down at the card and, this time, it was his eyes that lit up.
“Stars & Stripes? James loves the military. He always supports our troops,” he said, slapping me on the back. “Let me see what I can do. Let’s get through this press conference and I’ll get back to you.”
“Thank you, Henry.”
Henry moved closer to the front of the room as the press conference started to wind down. I leaned against the wall and looked around at the 100 or so people, then I looked down at my notepad. It was blank. I hadn’t written down a single thing that was said during the press conference. Oh, no, I thought to myself, if I can’t get some time with James Brown, I’m screwed. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but who wants to sit through an hourlong press conference and not come out of it with a story?
Work your magic, Henry. Please.
I kept my eyes glued to Henry; he whispered something in James’ ear, and finally after what seemed like an eternity, he motioned to me as James moved off to the side so photographers could take shots of him arm-in-arm with a few cute Japanese women.
I met Henry at the conference room door, and he said, “Come with me. We’re going up to James’ room.”
Inside, my heart was doing flips. Yes, yes, yes, this skinny white kid who was raised on soul music gets to talk with the one and only James Brown. But outside, I tried to stay calm and collected.
“Thank you so much, Henry,” I said as we entered an elevator.
“No problem,” he said. “Like I said, he always supports our troops.”
To the 12th floor we went. Down the hall and to the right was his suite. Henry opened the door and led me in.
“James will be here in a few minutes,” he said. “Just have a seat.”
I looked around, hoping to catch some glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but it was just your typical four-star hotel suite. The television was tuned to CNN, but the sound was off. More live coverage of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
“You want something to drink, a Coke or some water?” Henry asked.
“Sure, a Coke would be great. Thank you.”
He walked over to the mini fridge and grabbed a can.
“So, how long have you known James?” I asked.
“I’ve worked with him for 17 years,” he said, as he poured my drink and handed it to me. “Yep, I’ve been there through the good times and the bad – when nobody would play his music and money was tight.
“But James never let it seem like it was bad. Things were always good. And why should he care? He never needed another hit record. He had done it all, know what I mean?”
I found out years later that Henry had known James since they were middle-schoolers (rumor has it that they were distant cousins, but I can’t verify it) and, after a stint in the Army, he became his road manager, bodyguard and personal hair stylist for nearly 40 years. He also got songwriting credits on a few Brown numbers, like “Public Enemy No. 1, Parts 1 and 2” and “Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses?),” a discofied reworking of his classic “The Payback.”
Just like that, the Godfather of Soul had arrived to his suite, and I was on the edge of my seat. There was a bounce to his 58-year-old step; he was clearly loving the renewed attention.
“James, this is the fellow I was telling you about, from Stars & Stripes,” Henry said.
“Hello, Mr. Brown,” I said, extending my hand to James. “I’m Gerry. Thank you so much for giving up some of your time.”
“No sweat, my man. Here, pull up a seat,” James said, motioning to Henry to move a chair up to his velvet couch.
“I love our troops, man. I will play for them anywhere, any day, anytime, anyhow. I’d do anything for them. They’re out there protecting us, it’s the least I can do.”
Okay, now that he’s put me totally at ease, I get right into the questions. But first …I just had to tell him something: what he meant to me growing up. I kept my emotions intact, but he knew I was being genuine. He listened intently.
“I grew up in Columbus, Ohio …”
He interrupted to say “Great town.”
“… my parents got divorced when I was 7 or 8, and we ended up living with our dad. We had this sweet housekeeper named Mary Lou who listened to your music all the time; she would play it on this radio she would take from room to room. I wish I could remember the soul station.”
The call letters slipped my mind, for some reason, but James quickly blurted it out: “WVKO, 1580 AM. Great station, and they had some great DJs.”
“I just wanted to thank you for all your music,” I said, choking up. “It helped me during a difficult time.”
He shook my hand again and said, “That’s what I’m here for, son.”
“Congratulations on your comeback, Mr. Brown.”
He looks up and then over in Henry’s direction. He’s not annoyed, but he’s obviously heard this comment before over the past few months.
“What comeback?” he said, sheepishly. “I never went away. I’ve been right here all along. The Godfather of Soul never leaves. It’s the other people who went away. I’ve been doing my thing the same way I’ve always been doing it. Right, Henry?”
I could hear “You got that right, Mr. Brown” from Henry off in one of the bedrooms. It made me laugh.
The Hardest Working Man in Show Business had 16 No. 1’s on Billboard’s R&B chart in his long career, but he never hit the top of the pop chart. On that particular day in February 1986, he was close to knocking on the door of No. 1 with “Living in America.” It was at No. 5 and climbing. His boisterous anthem of the American Dream was one of two Top 10 hits from the “Rocky IV” soundtrack.
Brown was proud of himself. He leaned back on his velvet couch and crossed his legs.
“You know what’s so great?” he said. “I can play to your kids and then your father and then all three of you understand James Brown.
“Today, I can play to the kids, the father, the grandfather and the great-grandfather. Whew! That’s four generations of people.”
As he sipped on a glass of orange juice, he said he was on a mission: to bring the world together.
“I love playing all different countries – trying to unite the minds and bringing them all together … because we’re all God’s children.”
He recited the facts: He played to 1.3 million people a few months earlier at a French music festival. He sold out five shows at London’s heralded Hammersmith Odeon, and he performed in front of 120,000 fans in São Paulo, Brazil.
Still, he chuckled again at the word “comeback.”
“It’s a comeback to the United States,” he said, laughing loudly. “You see, American people have so many things that they can take part in. We’re traveling around the world and they think you’re not there.
“I can’t play everywhere in America – I want to be a world figure.”
He solidified that spot decades ago, and he got a kick out of being one of the 10 initial inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just a month earlier. He was there when black singers first triumphed on radio in the 1950s and well into the ’60s. He had hit after hit, from “Night Train” to “The Payback.”
But he admitted it might be hard for him to top the patriotic flavor of “Living in America.”
“ ‘Living in America’ kind of says it all. It will help a lot of people to do a lot of things and tell them of the conveniences we have there with the joint effort of all races of people of everywhere in the world.
“That’s a melting pot record. It tells you all that we have. Just listen to it. ‘On the super highways, coast to coast, easy to get anywhere on a transcontinental overload. Slide in behind the wheel and see how you feel.’ ”
James Brown sang to me. Wow.
“Is it true that you initially turned down the song?” I asked.
“Yes, sir. But Richard Dostal of Network Talent was very persistent, probably because (Sylvester) Stallone only had me in mind for that song. Stallone was raised on my music. He knew I had the beat he wanted but they kept offering him Ray Charles and he said, ‘No way. No way. Not Ray Charles. No way. I want James Brown.’ Stallone really knew what he wanted.”
He also lauded producer Dan Hartman (of “I Can Dream About You” fame), who co-wrote “Living in America” with Charlie Midnight.
“That’s the fruits of being a good teacher, right?” he said. “The kids followed me all those years and then they come and write a piece of material that’s good for James Brown.
“I thank them, man. I thank God and I thank all the young people for being beautiful. I’m glad I’m around to give them the real thing for the next eight or 10 years. I hope.”
And I thanked James Brown for the 45-minute interview, shook his hand – he had a nice, firm grip – and promptly asked if he would sign my notepad, a journalistic no-no but I couldn’t help myself. He flipped it to the back cardboard cover and signed it, “My Thanks. James Brown. God Bless.”
I also thanked Henry … I really wanted to give him a hug for getting me the interview, but I didn’t want to push it … and I left the hotel with a huge grin on my face. I had an audience with the Godfather of Soul. How cool was that?
Brown’s comeback didn’t last long. A week later, “Living in America” peaked at No. 4 (and it was his only Top 10 hit in the U.K.), he then landed a recording contract with Scotti Brothers and then he won only his second Grammy Award, for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. But it would be his last hit.
He had 107 chart singles from 1958 to 1986 … and he earned every one of them.
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