On Thursday, former Detroit poet Geoffrey Jacques is back home from New York. He’s onstage at Wayne State University, giving props — in his inimitable image-collage style — to the James Brown of the ’60. That was the James Brown who said it loud, black and proud, and let loose with a wail that defines that era as much as John Coltrane’s did.
So on this Friday, I’m thinking of my early ’80s phone interview with the Godfather of Soul. I’d read — in Rolling Stone, if memory serves me — that Detroiter Mitch Ryder had sought medical attention for knees badly battered by nights of doing his own proto-James Brown routine, dropping to his knees and banging his caps in the process. Then, as the story went, someone told Mitch that James Brown used kneepads.
I recounted the story to James. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe a chuckle. I figured he had to have heard the story (apocryphal or not). But if he’d heard it, he hid it. The Godfather of Soul exploded on the phone. “Who said that?” He had to know. Then he announced that “James Brown does not use kneepads!” Just like that. And he may have said it a couple times to make his point about this “James Brown” guy.
James Brown was many, many things. An “illeist” is defined as someone with the gift for referring to himself or herself in the third person. Count Brother James Brown as an all-star illeist.
And no doubt, if he could, he’d protest his state in true illeist style: “James Brown deserves to be buried.” —W. Kim Heron