In concert, James Brown may croon "Georgia on My Mind" or punch out "Kansas City," but the Hardest Working Man in Show Business has a special place in his heart for Miami. Since he escaped from the watchful eye of King Records president Sid Nathan to cut the dance hit "Do the Mashed Potatoes, Parts 1 & 2" at Henry Stone's Dade Records in 1959, Brown has returned to town a number of times, most recently to Criteria Studios to lay down tracks for Love Over-Due, his first LP of new material since his highly publicized jail term.
But the local connection is not just professional. Brown also has a personal attachment to Miami. Or, more accurately, a personnel attachment. Two long-standing members of his band - keyboardist Larry Moore and bassist Jimmy Lee Moore, who are not related -make their homes in the area. Of the two, only Jimmy is a Miami native; Larry spent his childhood in Greenwood, South Carolina. But because they were black Americans growing up in the late Sixties (Larry is 40; Jimmy Lee 33), both men were profoundly influenced by Brown's seminal funk. "I grew up listening to James Brown," says Larry. "Everybody did. He had the music, and his music had messages. When I was young he would come pretty close by, to the auditorium in Greenville. I couldn't go because I came from a very strict religious thing. But I would stand out on the porch and listen if maybe I could hear a lick. It was only 51 miles away."
"It was always James Brown," adds Jimmy. "My father was an entertainer, played with Hank Ballard, and my mother plays a little drums also. All the records that were in the house were Mr. Brown's records. Like `Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing.' I wasn't playing bass at the time, but I heard the bottom on that song and needed to do it. I whined and hollered for a while, until my mother went and bought me a bass guitar."
According to the Moores, there's a simple formula for joining James Brown's band: Love the music when you're a child, pick up an instrument when you're a teen-ager, apprentice till you drop while you're still a young man, and then, finally, meet Bobby Byrd. The network of bands that moves around James Brown - including the JB's and outfits manned by horn-men Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley - operates like a sports league, with advance scouts and an extensive minor-league system. Both Larry and Jimmy became affiliated with Byrd, a longtime Brown associate and one of the original Famous Flames, and he recommended that they be promoted to the major leagues. In the early Eighties, James Brown called, and the Moores answered.
So what's it like being on-stage with the most exciting soul revue in the history of music? What's it like to stand by while the announcer provides the protracted foreplay (Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite, Mr. Please Please Please himself, The Godfather of Soul, the one, the only, Mr. Jaaaaaaames Browwwwwwwn!) and then the band, tight as leather pants, drops the opening chords of "Cold Sweat"? Well, when you're playing with James Brown, sometimes you feel so good you gotta jump back and kiss yourself. "I always thought if I could just meet him one day, what an experience that would be," says Larry. "And now I'm playing with him. It's hard to believe."
But following in the footsteps of the Famous Flames and the JB's isn't only a musical experience. It's also historical, and emotional, and spiritual. Here in the Nineties, with his prime in the past and his public persona often reduced to a tower of hair and a series of power grunts, it's easy to forget that more than any other recording artist, Brown revived black consciousness and moved it to the fore of pop culture, and he did so with unqualified dignity. Crossover, often a pejorative, meant something different for James Brown - that he would stand still and have others come to him. He called on his legendary strength while he fought prejudice in the Sixties, and others called on it after the April 5, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when Brown made a televised plea for calm in the black community. "The man is strong as a bull," says Jimmy. "I never knew anybody like him in my life. There are new stars all the time, and yet you only have but a few from the old school, those who I know know the way. I've never seen him with a common cold and I've been there eight years."
But if the current band has never seen their boss sniffle, they've been forced to withstand a much more serious challenge to the hagiography. Three years ago yesterday, Brown allegedly burst into an Atlanta insurance seminar, carrying a rifle and shouting incoherently. When police pursued, Brown led them on a wild three-state chase. The news of the chase, and the subsequent conviction on charges of aggravated assault and resisting arrest, shattered his band members. "When I first heard about that, it was really crazy," says Jimmy. "I thought I was dreaming. We had just gotten back from Europe, and I went to visit my father in Fort Pierce. When I got there I found out he was pretty badly sick. First a big flash came across the news about Mr. Brown, but I wasn't worried, really. I didn't know the details. So I went and laid down to get some rest, and I heard he had gotten jail. I jumped up like a nightmare. My father told me, `Junior, it was twelve years in a federal penitentiary.' We put the tape in to make sure. I felt like I was back to square one."
If the professional anxiety caused by the arrest was disheartening, the personal effects were devastating: "I had some cousins who were incarcerated in the same facility, and Mr. Brown told them to have me come and visit him. I didn't go. When he got out, he was riding me about it, saying `Mr. Moore, I sent for you and you didn't come.' I told him, `Mr. Brown, I just couldn't. I'm too used to seeing you in control. It would have been too hard.'"
Despite the trauma of the arrest, both men agree that Brown's attitude both during and after the jail term has deepened their respect for him. "He's so very much more focused," explains Jimmy. "I don't say that's the reason things are better, but they are."
"He's beautiful. He's always been that way, but now that he's straight - not that he wasn't before - things are wonderful," adds Larry cryptically. "But just to give you an example of how he is - how he always has been - I'll never forget when Mr. Brown sent for me, back in '83 or '84. I told him I couldn't come because I was taking care of my parents. They were both bedridden and very ill. I told him I don't have nobody that I can really trust. He said, `Nobody ever really turned me down before, but nobody ever turned me down for that reason. We'll hold your spot. I like what you're doing and I appreciate what you're doing. You don't have to worry about a job with me. You keep on doing what you're doing and God bless you for it.' I'll never forget that. It meant so much to me."
For the full band - which numbers over a dozen members and also includes veteran saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, drummer Arthur Dixon, and a trio of back-up singers - the postjail period has been a particularly productive one. In addition to the relentless touring, which has included European dates and an HBO pay-per-view, the musicians had their first opportunity to record as a unit. "This was the first album in a long time that he used everybody. And we were doing eighteen-hour days. We would get tired and tell him we wanted to go. But when we heard the stuff, it was all worth it," says Larry. "And there's nothing like the energy of a live band. You can listen to rap records and hear the samples, and technology is fine. But when we went to record, everything in the studio was digital and Mr. Brown wanted only live instruments. The guys at Criteria were like, `Do you really want us to take all this out?' He did. He made them go all the way back, back to the beginning. Everything was analog. The engineers were thrilled; they finally got a chance to work. Oh, man, it was funky."
In homage to their fearless leader, the band members have even worked up imitations of Brown. "Oh, yeah. Everybody in the band can do it," says Larry. "We know how to sound just like him, with the rasp in his voice, tilt the head up, and put the jaw out. We call it the jib. You gotta have the jib. Ronald Laster, the lead guitarist, he has about the best Mr. Brown."
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"One day he called my house and I answered the phone as him," laughs Jimmy. "He didn't mind. He has a sense of humor about himself."
Brown, though, appears to have no sense of humor when it comes to the quality of his band. Since the late Fifties, when he captained the first incarnation of the Famous Flames, his bands have been renowned not only for their flawless playing, but for Brown's merciless discipline. Papa don't take no mess, and if you miss a note, or a dance step, you might miss your next paycheck. Same procedure if you're caught underdressed, in sneakers or casual pants.
"Sometimes even on the best day he'll come up to you after the show and say, `Mr. Moore, you played nothing tonight,'" says Larry. Never one to stop at petty measures, Brown once persuaded the entire city of Palermo (a city accustomed to Godfathers) to go dry for an evening because he was concerned about his band members hitting the bottle before the show. "There's a whole city with its own customs and practices, and here comes this one who wants to shut down the place because he's worried that his band's gonna mess up," says Larry. "Talk about power; you tell somebody not to make money. And sure enough, nobody sold anything until the show started."
Larry pauses a minute, lets the impact of the story sink in. Then he glances down at his feet, where he is wearing a pair of verboten sneakers. "Do me a favor," he says, smiling wanly. "Don't tell him I had this stuff on.