Soul Brother No. 155413

A legendary singer winds up in the slammer

  • Share
  • Read Later

I Feel Good pounds in the background of a TV commercial for spark plugs. Papa's Got a Brand New Bag sells a brand of rice. It's been a long time since the raw, driving soul music of James Brown sounded dangerous to mainstream white America. The rhythm-and-blues man, who says he is 55, belonged to a presidential task force and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has won two Grammy Awards and has had an audience with the Pope. When the phone rings in his office in Augusta, Ga., a receptionist crisply answers, "Godfather of Soul." But the boss can't come to the phone right now. James Brown, the self- styled Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, is 70 miles away in South Carolina's State Park Correctional Center, serving a six-year sentence.

There he is listed as James J. Brown, No. 155413. "I'm just sitting quiet, not saying a thing, serving my time," says Brown from a pay phone inside the minimum-security facility. Every day he rises at 5:15 to dish out breakfast in the cafeteria, wearing a cook's white uniform and cap, embellished by purple wraparound sunglasses and a matching purple foulard scarf. He directs the chapel choir, and attendance has doubled since he got there. On Saturdays, his wife Adrienne, a former hair stylist with the television show Solid Gold, brings a dryer and a bag of salon products to primp his curly coiffure.

Brown's fall from the top of the charts to a four-man prison cell has been going on for several years. In 1985 the IRS slapped a lien on his 62-acre spread on rural Beech Island, about ten miles outside Augusta, and he was forced to auction it off. His eight-year marriage to Adrienne, his third wife, has been tempestuous. Last April she filed suit against him for assault, then dropped the charge. (Among other things, he allegedly ventilated her $35,000 black mink coat with bullets.)

About a year ago, rumors that Brown had a drug problem began to surface. He was arrested last summer for possession of PCP (he claimed his wife had planted the drug on him), illegally carrying a firearm and resisting arrest. He was given a $1,200 fine and ordered to stage a benefit concert for abused children. In September, Brown stormed into an insurance company next door to his office, waving a gun and complaining that strangers were using his bathroom. When the police arrived, Brown sped away in his pickup truck, touching off a high-speed chase through Georgia and South Carolina that ended only after the cops shot out his tires. The city of Augusta, which had honored him three years ago with a James Brown Appreciation Day, turned on him. "Enough was enough," says Mayor Charles DeVaney.

It is not Brown's first stint in the slammer. Born in a shack in rural South Carolina, Brown grew up dirt poor, shining shoes and dancing for pennies. At 15 he was sentenced to eight years for breaking into cars. He sang in the prison choir (his nickname was "Music Box") and, on his release after three | years, started a band. Brown's pioneering rhythm and blues soon had black audiences up on their feet dancing to funky drums, taut horn riffs and sweat- drenched lyrics that sometimes rose to the level of pungent urban poetry. A 1968 hit gave a slogan to an era: "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2