Next to Ali, I’d be willing to bet that James Brown is the most widely known Afro-American in the world. There are probably teenage Japanese girls who know more about him than I do. And I can personally vouch for his moniker, “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,” because I was lucky to see him repeatedly in my youth. I’ve never seen anyone sweat like that on a stage, before or since.
Everyone likes to think of Kansas City as an overgrown cow town, conveniently forgetting, or perhaps just ignorant of, the glory days of Charlie Parker, Count Basie and numerous other luminaries of the music world who made it into one of the hottest spots in the country, especially during the Pendergast regime. This certainly carried over into the fields of R&B and Soul Music. It was always a thrill to be walking down the street in the wrong part of town and espy one of those enormous, garish day-glo posters of an upcoming revue, prominently displayed in some barbershop window (said posters are worth a fortune today, if you, unlike me, were smart enough to hang on to one). They would have names like “Soul Caravan” or “Cavalcade of Stars,” with a picture of each artist inside a star, a dozen or so acts, like the Drifters, the Coasters, Jackie Wilson, Patti LaBelle — you name it. These shows weren’t heavily advertised outside the East Side of town, nor was there much said in the newspaper, but anyone who dug the music and had the balls to go was there. Your audience was about 99.9% black, with a few Italians, Latinos and plain ol’ cornfeds like me. The only prerequisite needed to avoid hassles was to dress righteously: no Levis and penny loafers at these functions. This meant a suit, tie, trench coat and hat, and I’m not talking about something from Robert Hall, either. You bought your “vines, kicks and skies” at Matlaw’s or Pener’s Menswear down on 18th Street and Vine. And you made sure it was all clean, Gene, if it meant spending your last cent at the dry cleaners.
James made it a point to have his shows around Easter time, and always at the Municipal Auditorium. This was an ideal venue, both for its size and the fact that there would normally be about 50 or so cops present, the majority of them being big, dumb gap-toothed goons from Oklahoma or Texas, and they always worked in pairs (they weren’t that dumb).
James would divide the show into two segments. The first half would feature numerous acts like Marvelous Marva, Two Tons of TV Fun, a ventriloquist, etc., and an all-instrumental set with Mr. Dynamite at the organ. A break and then the fireworks would begin! If you haven’t done so already, get a copy of the James Brown Live At The Apollo CD, just to get an inkling of what it was like at one of these shows. Talk about a master showman who had the audience in the palm of his hand at all times — you’d have to go to church to find a rival performance.
I have to admit that I illegally purchased alcoholic beverages for these shows, and handily snuck them in — it wasn’t really that difficult. Everybody had a jug and knew how to drink it without getting caught. If you were unfortunate enough to run out before achieving the right buzz, you could always find a gentleman in the restroom who would happily supply you, at an inflated price of course. I’d never heard of Mr. B bourbon until I shelled out five dollars for a half pint one time. Haven’t seen it since, either. Those who were really short of funds could get a slug of cheap red wine for a quarter — high quality stuff like Bali Hai or Italian Swiss Colony.
I probably went to three or four of these shows without a hitch, and never saw any kind of conflagration before, during or after. Well, as you know, all good things must soon come to an end.
In the infancy of my hippie period, I was associating with some other disaffected youths I’d met at college, including my longtime friend and musician, Glenn Walters. When he found out that I went to see James every year, he immediately wanted to go with me next time around.
Well, Glenn had a good head start on me in the hair department (pun sort of intended). I told him I wasn’t really all that confident that he’d fit in with the rest of the crowd, and I certainly didn’t fancy the idea of getting my ass kicked through guilt by association. I didn’t think he even knew what a suit was. Somehow, he came up with all the necessary togs — some of it even fit right. There’s nothing like a guy with shoulder-length hair and a fedora, in Kansas City, in 1966.
We showed up at the hall, and I was sure that all the brothers and sisters were checking out “the dude with the hair.” After a few slugs of whiskey I pretty much didn’t give a rat’s ass; I suggested we find ourselves a seat in the stands and stay there, and it’s a damn good thing we did.
For some bizarre reason the promoters, or someone else with their head up their ass, decided to hold a dance contest between the first and second halves of the show. This in itself isn’t completely ludicrous. The fact that the judges narrowed it down to a black couple and an Italian guy with a Mexican girl is another story. The final vote belonged to the audience, and as far as I’m concerned the applause was clearly in favor of the black couple, as one would expect. But oh no, the judges seemed to think that there was a tie, so they announced that they would add the first and second place awards (cash) together and split it evenly between the finalists.
It took less than a nanosecond for the first bottle to come flying out of the balcony, and then it was like a Kansas thunderstorm. I saw one poor cop take an empty to the back of the head, spin about to look for the culprit, and get another one from the opposite direction.
I grabbed Glenn and said, “Let’s get the f___ outtahere!”
“What about the rest of the show?”
“The show’s over, brother!”
We managed to get to the front door without being accosted, treading on a sea of broken glass. It was the only show I’ve ever been to where they frisked me on the way out. Ambulances were pulling up, and there were plenty of cracked and bleeding skulls to keep them busy. We made it home finally, and tried to relax with the help of several beers while relating our tale of woe to everyone else in the house.
The Kansas City Star carried the whole story, wherein the Powers That Be announced that James Brown would not be allowed to perform in KC in the future. To this day I’m not sure Glenn ever got to see James live; I’ll have to ask him some time.