In 1974 a young man stood on the great lawn of Brown University, one of this country’s finest institutions for higher learning, and waited with his friends to see the hardest working man in show business perform. Brown University is currently ranked in the top 15 schools in the country, a true Ivy League experience. And once upon a time (in 1974) Brown University paid top dollar for year-end entertainment, and had decided to hook yet another popular soul performer for their graduating class. The young people, drunk on excitement and ale, clapped excitedly. Bring out James Brown they pleaded, bring out the hardest working man in show business.
James Brown sat behind the curtain. You want to know which James Brown I’m referring to. It’s a fair question you’re silently posing to yourself and speaking to me through this page, and I’ll tell you. It was neither crack-addled James Brown wearing a wig and pants that smelled of mildew – nor was it the singer and simultaneous lucid minister of the gospel wearing a respectable haircut for a man his age – it was both.
James Brown sat behind the curtain wearing filthy pants, a respectable haircut, high on crack and preaching about the power on the inside of a mere man. His manager appeared and prompted him to go onstage, but James Brown never slowed his speech. When an interruption presented itself again James Brown said, “I’m not going out there.”
His manager swept his large hat from his head, scrunched it between his hands, and rubbed his velvet vest. “But James,” he started.
“I’m not going out there—unless the President of this school renames it James Brown University,” he finished. Then he slowly picked up his glass, wiped the sweat from its sides on the back of the woman sitting next to him and took a deep sip.
The band was accustomed to this sort of behavior from him, so they sat back and relaxed. He would go on shortly, just as soon as he finished his drink. But soon the drink was gone, and the manager forbade anyone to refill it. After nearly an hour he was forced to walk onstage and explain the situation to the crowd. Some left, but more showed up in their place. “Rename it!” they demanded.
James Brown sat on that same seat long enough for the wet spot on the back of that woman’s dress to dry. The staff, absolutely panicked by this point, got in contact with the president of Brown University and pleaded with him to come down to the stage. The President arrived shortly thereafter, in clothes that weren’t pajamas, but closely resembled them. His day-off clothes that were only worn around his home on late nights spoke volumes about the seriousness of the situation.
Out he walked, shuffling small white feet in sandals in cool weather, onto the main stage. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he mumbled, “thank you for waiting.” The crowd booed as hard as they could muster. Surely they were right to do so. Almost ninety minutes had passed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I, so-and-so of the institution on which we now stand, do hereby declare that from today and on, it will be known as James Brown University.”
The band had snuck onstage during the speech, and the moment “University” left his cracked, pink lips the drummer went BAP BAP BAP BAP BAP! – and James Brown the man came running out – and the lights went bright – and they broke right into “Sex Machine”.
And that’s a true story, as told to me. It’s my job to keep it alive.
Look a’here, some people say we got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lotta nerve
I say we won’t quit moving
Til we get what we deserve
-James Brown (University)