There Was A Time: James Brown, The Chitlin’ Circuit, And Me: The First Days On The Bus

James Brown

Alan Leeds came to prominence working with the legendary Soul musician James Brown. Working as a publicist, then as a tour manager, Leeds had a ringside seat as the musician and his band navigated a land beginning to heal yet still torn by racial divide. His new memoir, There Was A Time: James Brown, The Chitlin’ Circuit, and Me, documents this transitional era of American history. It’s a book that’s at times hilarious, frustrating, and illuminating—much like Soul Brother #1 was. Yet There Was A Time also offers evidence that Brown’s nickname as “The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz” was absolutely not promotional hyperbole.

Fifty years ago this spring marked Leeds’ first sojourn on the James Brown touring machine. We are pleased to present you with this excerpt, which details that first trip on what can most assuredly be called a wild ride.

Purchase There Was A Time:  Amazon

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My first ride on the James Brown tour bus couldn’t possibly have lived up to my romanticized vision, but it was quite an experience just the same. Gertrude Sanders, Brown’s long-time wardrobe mistress, was his eyes and ears on the bus and she ruled her domain with every ounce of her solid frame. She quickly squelched any behavior that infringed on what little privacy existed aboard the JB express. Everyone respected her unique access to the boss, so her authority was seldom challenged.

This was no luxury custom coach—it was a standard, late model long distance tour bus leased from Trailways. The seats reclined, and some had been removed to provide extra leg room but that was it. As the bus raced through darkness, I was too excited to sleep. Mindful of my rookie status, I looked around to see how the pros coped.

The entourage was a mix of veterans with rookies who had little more road experience than me. Holly, the driver (his last name forgotten to the ages), an ex-trucker from New Jersey, happened to be white and most of the passengers happened to be black but there was no color line, just a pack of road rats—the real James Brown family. Seniority dictated choice of seats and most everyone had two seats to themselves. The old hands like Jabo Starks and roadie Kenny Hull sat near the front, lulling themselves to sleep with a bottle of gin. Gertrude sat behind Holly where she waged a running battle over road directions designed to make sure he stayed awake. I never did figure out when Gertrude slept—seemed like she was always running her mouth about something or other.

Comedian Clay Tyson and Danny Ray were self-appointed commentators, cracking wise about every billboard, dilapidated building, winter-weary farm animal, and downtrodden hitchhiker that we passed. Nobody seemed to pay their non-stop babble any attention. I don’t think they even listened to each other, but it’s too bad we didn’t have today’s portable technology to record them because they were drop-dead hysterical.

Bootsy Collins, his brother Catfish, and the other youngsters in the band, only three weeks on the road, secluded themselves in the back, sharing reefer (or acid) inspired giggles and picking out Jimi Hendrix riffs on their guitars. There was a glaring generation gap on the bus. Weed versus gin, Hendrix versus Basie, and I fit somewhere in the middle. I was just a few years older than the other rookies and certainly shared their preference of weed over alcohol, but I had other things in common with the veterans, many of whom I’d known for several years. None of that really mattered because my management status dictated that Gertrude seat me near the front, which discouraged any thoughts I had of hanging with the band. The last thing I needed was for the boss to think his “new executive” was already letting his hair down with the boys. And, believe me, he would have found out—Gertrude wasn’t the only one aboard with loose lips.

The biggest benefit of being on the bus was getting to know road manager Freddie Holmes, who schooled me on what Brown did and did not want to hear in the nightly box office reports. But nobody wanted to talk business very long after a long show day. The idea was to get some sleep. Unfortunately, despite my experience on Gene Redd’s desktops, my body didn’t easily adjust to awkwardly sprawling across the bus seats. Once the novelty of being on board wore off, I was left with the reality that any bus trip over a couple hundred miles was a grind—hardly the equal of a night in a hotel. The thought that some of these guys had spent the better part of their adult lives on buses like this was mind-boggling.

Being on the road did give me the opportunity to be a fan again. Periodically, I’d wander off to catch part of the new show, which was improving quickly but still didn’t compare to the productions Brown was known for. The good news was that, unlike their predecessors, some of whom were dedicated to jazz and viewed the Brown band as a pay check and stepping stone towards more challenging gigs elsewhere, Bootsy and his gang grew up on James Brown music and loved playing it. The bad news was that, other than the Collins brothers, the little eight-piece band didn’t have enough chops to give James much to work with. The weakest musicians in the group were the horn players, so JB had cleverly shifted emphasis to the rhythm section, where Bootsy, Phelps (and Jabo) could shine—and, in fact, eventually reinvent Brown’s trademark funk. But that was still to come. The band was still struggling when they arrived at the Latin Casino, so James opted to augment them with a group of local union musicians.

The week at the Latin Casino, a supper club in Cherry Hill, New Jersey near Philadelphia, marked the new band’s first appearance in a major market. James rehearsed the anxious but soon exhausted musicians to death, hammering out a precision that belied their limitations. The gig was a revelation for me. I had seen James perform in countless theaters and arenas, but this was my first time seeing him perform in a night club. As the week went on, the show seemed to benefit from the repetition of two shows a night without the grind and distraction of travel.

It was also my first experience watching James operate in the company of other celebrities and well-wishers, including Muhammad Ali. The usually boisterous champ was surprisingly deferential to Soul Brother #1. First, the boxer listened quietly as Brown offered his two cents about Ali losing his heavyweight title to an Army draft board. Then James rambled on and on about blackness, politics, and a role model’s responsibilities, boldly contradicting some of the Nation of Islam’s teachings that Ali subscribed to. In Brown’s presence, Ali seemed just another plebe; humble, and attentive.

(It wasn’t quite the same ten years later, when Ali accompanied James to NBC-TV’s Tom Snyder Show and an odd panel discussion that was supposed to be about unrest among youth in the African-American community. Brown stayed on subject, offering himself and Ali as role models for young blacks and claiming the media distorted what went on in the black community. Ali, however, ignored the unrehearsed show of unity and stunned host Snyder by sheepishly admitting that he didn’t really know why he was there except that his ‘good friend’ James had requested his presence and NBC had offered to pick up the tab. Visibly disappointed, Brown’s already-somber tone turned maudlin as Muhammad smiled and added, ‘It’s always nice to get a free trip to New York.’”)

The Latin Casino housed us at the adjoining Rickshaw Inn, which meant a week in suburban Cherry Hill, where there wasn’t much to do but strategize upcoming tour dates with the boss or sneak off to the nearby shopping mall. When I think about it, we didn’t use the word tour very often back then, since the Brown show stayed on the road as much as fifty-one weeks of the year. That meant carefully routing itineraries that avoided over-exposure in any one region. There were only so many places to play, and James seemed to know them all. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of cities and their venues and an atlas-like sense of distances, the result of his early years trudging around the country in a station wagon. Thanks to his uncanny photographic memory for names, places, and statistics, Brown had a skillset the envy of any booking agent.

Early on, manager Ben Bart recognized that James Brown wasn’t just any artist. Most of the singers and bands signed to his Universal Attractions took whatever gigs the agency offered without question but, from the beginning, James insisting on learning the reasons behind every decision made on his behalf.

When Brown’s marquee value grew in the early 1960s, Bart curtailed selling dates to outside promoters and backed many shows himself. I suppose Ben justified his additional promoter income by putting up the front money and shielding his artist from the notorious “bad pay” promoters that haunted the Chitlin’ Circuit. But it didn’t take James long to catch on to the potential conflict of interest and demand a partnership in the promotion, adding to the flat fee Bart had been paying (and assumedly commissioning). From that point on, the hardest-working man in show business was as much a promoter as he was a performer or, as he preferred to explain, “seventy-five percent business and twenty-five percent artist.” Inevitably, Brown took over the reins and, by the time Bart died in 1968, he had been reduced to a semi-retired, albeit beloved, consultant.

And so, in early April 1970, I sat with James in his hotel suite and mapped out a wish list of bookings for May and June—the first of many such sessions we’d have over the next few years. First, he selected the more lucrative large cities, allotting one per week and then filling in around them. After a while, I acquired Bob Patton’s and Buddy Nolan’s familiarity with the circuit, but it wasn’t unusual for Brown to throw us a curve when we were stumped. Whenever we were troubled to find somewhere to fill in a date, he was likely to come up with some small town that fit the radius. “There’s an old theater there on the main street that holds about three thousand people. Look it up,” he’d say. He was always right.

Juggling the available dates in buildings that also housed stage plays, circuses, ice shows, sporting events, and concerts of all kinds was a complicated task but, somehow, we usually managed to stick close to James’ outlines. Once a month’s worth of shows was locked in, Brown would divvy the responsibilities of the various shows between us based on our individual strengths. For example, if only because James still associated me with Richmond, I got all the shows in the southeast. Patton and Nolen were held accountable for most of the “A” markets, except for New York, which Brown ceremoniously put in my column—although, in practice, we approached the Big Apple and other media centers as a team.

After leasing a venue, our next step was to select a local promoter, usually someone James knew and had history with. Sometimes they were experienced, professional promoters but, more often, it was someone associated with a black radio station—a station manager or a popular on-air personality. We would scale the house and order tickets ourselves to head off any counterfeiting—control was everything. Posters and handbills were printed and shipped to the local rep for distribution. Then we put our Mad Men hats on, researched what radio stations and newspapers would best reach our audience, and bought the advertising.

Posters and newspaper ads were always part of the plan, but black radio was the undeniable foundation of our promotions. Most radio personalities maintained a high profile in their communities and could do a lot to make or break a concert. James Brown had courted their loyalty throughout his career and we’d often invite them to make paid appearances on stage as guest emcees—a thinly disguised encouragement to keep playing our records. It was no accident that Brown’s music received steady airplay throughout what’s become known as the urban (read: Black) radio world.

Once promotions were underway, we had to keep tabs on each campaign, including a keen eye on daily ticket sales. In those days, with the Brown show playing most markets twice each year, sellouts weren’t guaranteed and “walk up” or day-of-show ticket sales were a significant portion of our business. That meant keeping abreast of variables like local economies and weather forecasts. Whenever ticket sales lagged, we would hit the road and troubleshoot—spending as many days as necessary in the problem areas, adjusting advertisement and scheming up any promotional gimmick that might turn things around.

One such situation inadvertently illustrated what James had explained to me about the “mister thing.” It also demonstrated that I still had a lot to learn about the deep South. I didn’t fully understand how much many Southern men had in common, regardless of color. Despite their jaded history, white and black Southerners shared the same drawl, worked the same land, ate the same kinds of food, drank the same moonshine, and worshipped the same God. I was reminded of all this thanks to a visit to Mobile, Alabama.

The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane in Mobile was that all the locals were either wearing overalls or drab, generic business suits. My trendy leisure suit was a neon sign blaring “Yankee.” I caught a cab to the Municipal Auditorium for a meeting with Buddy Clewis, the venue director. A dyed-in-the-wool good ol’ boy who was somewhat of a legend in the arena business, Buddy could have played a bartender in a Western movie. He had a little round, reddish nose and wore a thin bolo tie on a white shirt with a rumpled collar. All he lacked were garters for his sleeves. Most noticeably, a huge Confederate flag hung on the wall behind his desk alongside a framed photo of him hugging Gov. George Wallace, the renowned segregationist. Before I said a word, thoughts rushed through my head of all the civil rights workers who were beaten or worse in the swamps and bayous of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Clewis stood and extended his hand.

“Well, well, I do declare. Who’d ever thought ol’ Mr. Brown woulda sent a Yankee white boy down here to see ol’ Buddy,” he drawled.

There was that mister thing. “Mr. Leeds, let’s you and me see how we can make some money with ol’ Mr. Brown,” he continued. “Mr. Brown’s been awful good to Mobile and ol’ Buddy. Maybe he’ll be good to you too.”

I was momentarily speechless. But, before I exhaled, I remembered that one of Mr. Brown’s policies was to reward venue managers with a generous tip on successful dates. Long before their corporatization under the Live Nations and AEGs of the world, venue managers were usually modestly paid city employees who had the authority to book their venues as they saw fit. Having them in our pocket gave the James Brown Show first crack at the most lucrative dates and a host of assorted promotional favors. Business was business, and Buddy Clewis was delighted to be in business with Mr. Brown.

Unfortunately, every relationship wasn’t that easy. With too much on his plate, Bob Patton had been relying more than usual on local promoters. The local guys always stood to benefit from a successful show, but their jobs didn’t depend on it like ours did. Some were very competent and responsible, but others were just watch dogs and failed to share our sense of urgency when things got dodgy. These guys might just be hustlers who enjoyed showboating their relationship with Soul Brother #1 or took the gig for whatever local prestige it mustered. Either way, they might spend more time promoting themselves than our show. Worse yet were the few that envied or even wanted our jobs and weren’t above throwing us under the bus to make themselves look good.

The danger was that, when things went badly, James could be very impressionable. Inevitably, he’d confront the local rep who’d predictably pass the buck in our direction, perhaps claiming we ignored his advice on matters like ticket prices and advertising strategies. It didn’t help that we weren’t always on the road to defend ourselves. That usually meant an angry middle-of-the-night phone call from the boss.

On the other hand, James could be quick to stick up for us. Once, after a sparsely attended show in Raleigh, North Carolina, Brown took out his frustration on Buddy Nolan in front of the local promoter who shared at least some of the responsibility. As they were leaving James’ dressing room, the local guy started taunting Buddy, calling him “James Brown’s flunky.” Nolan shoved him but was knocked back by a sucker punch. Brown heard the commotion and suddenly appeared in the doorway. Wearing a robe and slippers, his hair in curlers, he held a pistol in his hand—leveled at the local guy.

“Mr. Nolan works for me,” he barked. “I can tell him anything I want to, and he can either listen or quit. But you better not say another word to him as long as you live!”

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1 Response »

  1. Wonderful excerpt of the reality of the road and a career in music. I have ordered the book! Thank you.

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