CNN Examines James Brown's Legacy

Singer James Brown would have turned 74 yesterday. Don Lemon, anchor for CNN Newsroom talks to Tony Cox about James Brown, Say it Proud, a new CNN documentary that explores Brown's complicated musical and political legacy.

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TONY COX, host:

The Godfather of Soul. The hardest working man in show business. Soul brother number one. The man himself, James Brown, would have turned 74 yesterday. Though he is no longer with us in the flesh, his legacy lives on. Here's Reverend Al Sharpton remembering Brown's funeral.

(Soundbite of song, "Amazing Grace")

Unidentified Choir: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet…

Reverend AL SHARPTON (James Brown's Friend): You got about 17 blocks from the Apollo and I saw a lot of people, and I say what is that. They said that's the line waiting to go past his casket. People had started lining up since midnight. And I remember looking over at the casket and the cash, well, Mr. Brown, you still draw those lines, and I know he would have been happy.

COX: To celebrate James Brown's birthday, CNN is airing a documentary on his life and influence. Don Lemon reported the story and he told me that it was a tall order trying to separate the man from the myth.

Mr. DON LEMON (Anchor, Cable News Network Newsroom): We were after the truth, and we talked to people who knew him best. We talked to family members. We talked to, you know, some of his partners who have loved him and had issues with him. We wanted to know about James Brown the man, James Brown, who - the musician, James Brown, the politician, James Brown who had problem with women sometimes had problems with the law. We wanted to know about James Brown the father. A multifaceted, multi-talented individual, and we find out more than whatever been led on before, we uncover it in his document.

COX: Absolutely. There were some things in there that I certainly didn't know, and I know a lot about James Brown, as a matter of fact. And the one thing that I did not know was about the myth surrounding how he became such a screamer. It had to do with his supposedly, supposedly, being born dead. Here's a clip.

(Soundbite of James Brown documentary)

Mr. LEMON: There was some concern that he was not going to make it and the family mythology has it that his Aunt Minnie blew breath into him and he emitted his first scream.

COX: Now that's quite a story, Don Lemon.

Mr. LEMON: It is, isn't it? In Chicago, there are a lots of DJs, long-time DJs, who have been there forever, and radio station owners who were the first to play James Brown, the first to promote him and have him in concert. And I talked to them about that, and one of them said, hey, Don, did you know that James Brown was born dead? And I said, what? And I said, do you mind if, first of all, if I take that line and use it? They said, absolutely.

So all the people we started interviewing, who were close to him, and historians that you heard there. And we said well, James Brown - we heard James Brown was born dead, which really means he was stillborn. And every single person, people who are close to him, said, yeah, he was not breathing when he was born. He was, you know, born in a shack, no doctor there, and his aunt wouldn't give up on him.

Breathed into his mouth and all of sudden he started screaming, wow, just like he does on his albums. And they say that, Tony, that's what gave him his zest for life, his doggedness, his I won't quit attitude until I get what I want. And I think that's what led him throughout his life to achieve what he achieved.

COX: You know, what kind of access, talk about that briefly, that you had with his family? I saw that there were two of his children interviewed and Tomi Rae, his companion/wife. What about that access? They didn't talk a lot about him and I was a little surprise at that.

Mr. LEMON: Yeah, they didn't talk a lot. But, you know, there was so much to this man's life, you know? We talked to the Reverend Al Sharpton, who was his adopted son. And Reverend Al Sharpton said, you let me know what you need. He was my father. I didn't have a father figure much like he didn't have, and if you need access to someone we will try to facilitate that. But you know what, we didn't even need to do that, because people wanted to talk about James Brown.

His kids talked to me for hours. Unfortunately, we couldn't use that much of it in this documentary. But who knows, maybe there'll be a part two and a part three>

COX: Well, there were certainly some people that talked quite a bit and told some very fascinating stories. Here's one of them. It's a scene in the documentary with Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson who were in his band. They talk about how tyrannical James Brown was as a bandleader and how he gave out fines. Sometimes - and this was a thing in the documentary that got me - sometimes, during a show, on stage, he would hand out a fine for all sorts of infections. Here it is.

(Soundbite of documentary "James Brown, Say it Proud")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEMON: It was the classic James Brown game - play his way, or pay. And Bobby Byrd would pay for winning Vicki. He knew the drill. Brown handed out fines with the flick of the wrist.

Mr. BOBBY BYRD: (unintelligible)

Mr. LEMON: No matter how small the offense.

Mr. BYRD: No crease in the pants, shoes dirty, coat wrinkle - that kind of thing would cost you $10, $15, $20.

Mr. LEMON: Even in the middle of a show.

Mr. BYRD: A lot of times, he would dance over there, in the front of you, and do that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRD: …and dance and slide back across the floor.

COX: That is so funny. I mean, I've seen James. We have all seen James Brown slide across the floor, but we never knew that he was going over to tell somebody, I'm fining you $20 because you don't have the right crease on your pants.

Mr. LEMON: Oh, it was - Tony, it was all hand signals. You - so you may have thought he was doing that move, like, oh, I got to get that James Brown move; what was doing was, like, 20 bucks, 30 bucks, 40 bucks, 50 bucks - your shoes aren't shined, whatever, and he would dance over.

And so can you imagine, you're up there doing your thing, you're on the radio or, you know, I'm on TV and somebody's going, umm, I'm going to deduct your pay. You'll be like, what? How could you stay in the moment? But that's who he was, and that's how he kept that band together.

And anybody will tell you, whether it was a young band, a novice band or a band that had been around forever and that was really great together, it didn't matter. When James Brown was in front of you, it made you better, and that was because he had passion about what he did. He wanted it to be done right. And all of that even carried over into his personal life.

So even though, you know, they may have gotten upset by it, now in retrospect, they realize it made them better. But still, you know, they weren't making that much money so they weren't too happy about it when he was happening.

COX: You know, something else, Don, that was really funny in there, you said - you talked about how - I think, it was Al Sharpton, we're going to play that clip in just a second - talked about white people and Asian people and Mexicans all used to say, I'm black and I'm proud. And the reason they said that was because they heard it this way.

(Soundbite of documentary "James Brown, Say it Proud")

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Activist): On two napkins was, "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud."

(Soundbite of song "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud")

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Singer): (Singing) Oh, say it loud.

Mr. LEMON: Just 40 hours later, the song hit the airwaves and struck a nerve. It was finally okay for black people to say:

(Soundbite of song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud")

Unidentified Crowd: (Singing) I'm black. I'm black.

Mr. LEMON: And you didn't have to be black.

Reverend SHARPTON: He made people all over the world - whites in America, Asians - like black music, identify with it. He had them actually singing, I'm Black and I'm Proud. People that weren't any remotely black didn't even know what the chant meant in black America.

COX: That was really interesting to me (unintelligible).

Mr. LEMON: Yeah. And you know what? That it was very interesting - just let me give you, quickly, give you a little background on that. He was performing in California at a concert and saw a news report about black-on-black crime on television. And it just disturbed him so much that it became a mission for him - and we talk about this in the documentary - it disturbed him so much that he wrote this song on a napkin, just wrote it right out, and then sent his manager out to get to those kids to sing that in California. Forty hours later - 40 hours later, Tony - it was a record, and then it became a mantra not only to blacks but to everyone. And you'll see nothing but white kids behind him as he is performing, and they're all saying say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud -the genius of James Brown that shows you how he just transcended everything.

COX: Let's bring our conversation to a close with this, because the status of James Brown's burial is something that I'd like you to talk about. And also, do you get the sense, Don, that James Brown will ever have a Graceland-like memorial that Elvis has in Memphis?

Mr. LEMON: I think the family, I know the family, they would like to have that. But I think the family can put it there but it's really up to the people to go and support it, correct? To keep it alive. I think that it could it definitely happen, and I think it could be successful, but really, it's up to the fans and up to the people.

This is a man who made it okay to be black and proud. I think he changed the consciousness, mostly of black people and the spirit. And that, sort of, went across racial lines for people to say, you know what, it is okay to be black. It is okay to be proud about that, and, you know, you didn't have to look a certain way to be proud.

COX: The title of the documentary is "James Brown, Say It Proud." I know that it airs on Saturday and Sunday, May 5 and 6, on CNN at 8 Eastern and 11 Eastern, if I have that correct.

Mr. LEMON: Eight Eastern, 11 Eastern on Saturday and Sunday.

COX: That's right.

Mr. LEMON: It's fantastic, Tony.

COX: Final thing, though. This is my absolute final question, the James Brown story - and you are a storyteller, which is why I want to get your opinion on this - it's a story that has a - what kind of ending would you put on it?

Mr. LEMON: On this? I think the story that should be told in this documentary or that will be told is - just believe in who you are, be who you are no matter who it is, no matter kind of, what texture of hair you have, no matter what your skin color is. Be who you are, believe in it, and you can accomplish whatever you want to accomplish as well.

COX: Don Lemon, thank you so much. We'll be watching.

Mr. LEMON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Please, Please, Please")

Mr. JAMES BROWN: (singing) Please, Please, Please…

Please, Please, Please… Honey Please…

COX: Don Lemon anchors CNN Newsroom. You can watch "James Brown, Say it Proud" on CNN this weekend.

(Soundbite of song, "Please, Please, Please")

Mr. JAMES BROWN: (singing) I love you so… Baby, you did me wrong.

COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES: We'll check in with the National Conference Of Black Mayors, and Miami's embattled schools' chief speaks out.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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