As thousands line the streets of Harlem outside the Apollo Theater to pay tribute to James Brown, we air a historic interview and concert footage of Brown and the Rev. Al Sharpton from 1980. It was shot by Jon Alpert of Downtown Community Television. [rush transcript included]
Here in New York, thousands of people passed through Harlem’s Apollo Theatre Thursday for one last look at the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Brown died
Monday at the age of 73. Brown’s golden casket was carried through Harlem by horse-drawn carriage and displayed for public viewing on the Apollo stage. Spectators braved five-hour waits to get a final glimpse at the man who revolutionized popular music. Democracy Now! caught up with some of the fans in the streets outside the Apollo.
- Voices from the streets of Harlem yesterday outside the Apollo.
As James Brown’s body traveled on a horse-drawn carriage across Harlem’s 125th street, thousands of fans followed behind singing the chorus to his anthem, "Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud." Stores lining 125th street blared Brown’s music and played his videos while fans danced and celebrated the life of the musical trailblazer.
Brown’s body lay in state, or better yet lay in stage, for 9 hours at the Apollo–the theater where he made his explosive public debut in 1956 forever changing music history. A line to view Brown’s body snaked for almost three city blocks. The Rev. Al Sharpton stood next to the open casket, where Brown was dressed in a purple sequined satin suit with white gloves and silver boots and a silver turtleneck. Sharpton addressed the public later in the evening.
Brown–who was 73–died of heart failure Christmas morning. There will be a private ceremony today in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia, and another public ceremony on Saturday–officiated by Sharpton–at the James Brown Arena there. He will be buried later that day.
Our colleague here in the firehouse–Jon Alpert–spent time interviewing Sharpton and Brown twenty-five years ago for a documentary about the music industry that he was working on at the time. Jon is a documentary filmmaker and the founder of Downtown Community Television — welcome to Democracy Now!
- Jon Alpert, documentary filmmaker and the founder of Downtown Community Television.
- 1980 interview with James Brown and the Rev. Al Sharpton
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Our colleague here in the firehouse at DCTV, Jon Alpert, spent time interviewing Reverend Al Sharpton and James Brown, 25 years ago for a documentary about the music industry that he was working on at the time. Jon Alpert is a documentary filmmaker and the founder of Downtown Community Television. Welcome to Democracy Now!. Before we play this excerpt, Jon, of this interview that you did, can you give us some context for how you started to follow James Brown?
JON ALPERT: Well, I had never seen James Brown perform before, And my friend said, Jon, before you die, there’s one thing you have to do, you have to go see James Brown. So, I went up to Beacon Theater, and there were only 10 people in the audience. The theater was absolutely empty. James brown started to sing and he was fantastic, but in the middle of his concert he got on his knees like he does and he began to say folks, look around, the theater is empty, why? Am I bad? No, I’m the greatest man in show business. The mafia is freezing me out. They won’t let anybody come to my concerts, I can’t get on the radio, I can’t get into concert halls, I can’t be in the movies, I’m not on television. But I’m the great James Brown, "bump, bump, bump", and he finished his song.
So, afterwards I went backstage, I mean, I was so intrigued by this. And, there he was sitting under one of those beehive hair dryers, next to Al Sharpton, under another beehive hair dryer. I’d never seen Al Sharpton before. And he told me this story, that he wanted to manage himself, he wanted to be independent, and that because he was independent, he was getting frozen out by the people in the corporations that controlled the music industry. And I was in the process of being blacklisted, myself, at that time by public television and I was really angry about this. And I thought, this is one of the greatest performers in the history of America, he’s being frozen out too. So we started to make a documentary.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you then ended up filming some more of his concerts, interviewing other people in the industry, and what happened to the documentary?
JON ALPERT: Well he said, you know, let’s fight this, let’s fight it together. And so we began following him around as he tried to get himself on radio. Al Sharpton basically was the General, in this war to get James Brown back in front of the public. He really was a performer at the height of his powers, who was at the bottom of his career because he was being frozen out. And we traced what he was doing for about three weeks. And everywhere he went. When he went to eat. When he went to sleep. We followed him around.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to play a clip of the interview you did with James Brown and Al Sharpton.
JAMES BROWN: Ha ha ha ha ha! Tell them I’ll be back at the Apollo real soon.
FAN: We’ll see you in the movies brother!
JAMES BROWN: I love ya. Ha ha! Oh.
AL SHARPTON: You are like a live folk hero. I mean, it’s amazing you walk one block in Harlem, there’s a riot. And any DJ in New York, you got to almost build up advance tickets for a week for anybody to know who they are.
JAMES BROWN: That’s right.
AL SHARPTON: That’s Amazing. And the thing that you should see in the crowds is it’s young and old, there’s no age thing. Everybody, from all generations knows James Brown. Know the music. People humming the tunes.
JON ALPERT: Well, how come we can’t see him on TV or hear him on the radio.
JAMES BROWN: Well, you can be there’s a certain thing as a man being too strong. And I think that’s what has happened. Because the system, they can’t dress me and undress me. I’m what the people want. I’ll never sound like nobody else. Uh-uh. I ain’t going to do that to myself. I’ll sound like myself. Even if you don’t like me, it will be my fault, it won’t be because somebody else sound bad and I sound like them.
JON ALPERT: This is hard for me to understand right. If you come up there, people go crazy. Obviously you’re a very popular guy. Radio stations could make money if they played you. TV stations could make money if they put you on, the record companies if they promoted you. How come they’re not, they’re not playing?
AL SHARPTON: The people they got in the stations are not the people in the streets, that don’t know. And what happens is when guys like you start putting us on the tube, the advertisers are going to see who the real people are. See, the people in the streets that have always bought the records are not the people that work in these companies. A lot people felt that they just hired people that was black, they were hiring people that knew. And that’s not necessarily true.
JAMES BROWN: A lot of people that went to college and took up marketing, but didn’t take up people. It’s different when you know people.
JAMES BROWN: No reason for them kids to be out there doing bad when there are some blacks that don’t want to do nothing for themselves. They got to all do something for themselves. Now, I cmme out of prison as a little juvenile delinquent and I’ve been up doing it ever since. And every time I get a chance I’m in the black community talking to the kids, I’m doing things. We got to. We these black businesses that are successful and they won’t help the blacks? Lets put them out of business.
JON ALPERT: Tell us the story. What happened? And this is something that everybody might be interested in knowing about. You tried to become independent, what happened?
JAMES BROWN: The system crushed me.
JON ALPERT: Give me some examples.
JAMES BROWN: Well, no one, I couldn’t get into television, I couldn’t get into movies. The record company was cutting my records up, and wouldn’t promote 'em, and wouldn't even send 'em out. Why did all the black-owned record companies fold? Why? Because they were forced out by the big ones. Every one. And not just the black owned ones, all the small—I think you got two independents right now. A good friend of mine, Henry Stone, in Miami, Tone Records, he's being forced out. He’s a good friend of mine, you know, forced him out. And he’s not black, he’s jewish, but he’s being forced out. Name an independent record company? You name one.
JON ALPERT: Is there one?
JAMES BROWN: That’s what you’re saying, is there one? But when you were a little kid running around, James Brown. There was 300,000. There’s not any now.
JON ALPERT: So if you’re independent, you can’t get records out?
JAMES BROWN: Not a one.
JON ALPERT: And how about if you’re independent, can you get on the radio?
JAMES BROWN: Independent, nada.
JON ALPERT: Let’s say you walked in with a tape?
JAMES BROWN: No. Never get it on. And this place plays so much local stuff, that’s another thing. They probably don’t play no local.
JON ALPERT: And how about TV? Could you get on TV?
JAMES BROWN: Totally out of the question. Try to record. Try me. Nobody would accept it. I cut it on a Coca-Cola crate, on a coca-cola crate and come here. At a radio station I recorded it. And so I come to New York and [inaudible] Studios on 49th and Broadway at that time. I recorded nine accetates that you play outside in. they’re played backwards then. You ever seen that before? Well, those records was there. Outside-in. Did you know, that, I took these records? The record company wouldn’t let me record no records. King Records said I didn’t have nothing else left. So I took the records and took them to radio stations myself, and they played them. And the demand became great.
AL SHARPTON: Never been a leading black figure in no walk of life in this country that knew the business that they was the doing except him.
JAMES BROWN: They never let 'em learn the business. And I learned it because I paid my way. When I made a mistake, I went back and next time I knew what it was and I didn't do that no more. I’d have 15,000 people in the building —- excuse me sir,—- I’d have 15,000 people in the building and I’d say you know, I could have 20,000 here. Everybody’d be happy with that, I’d be happy, but I’m not worried about what I did right. I’m worried about what I didn’t do right and what I could have done. It’s about what you can do better. Like, it’s not what you what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
AL SHARPTON: The problem with James Brown getting played on a radio station like WBLS in New York is —- we talked to 'em the other day, getting ready for your South Africa tour. They said the problem with South Africa is not the whites or blacks. It's the coloreds. That’s the problem in the United States. It’s the coloreds. It’s the colored men. They are ashamed of being black. And James Brown brings it all to the surface. So only N——-s run, the only N——s run, when a James Brown records on, is N——s thats really ashamed of being black. Cause you either got to be black or white when James Brown’s singing. You gotta be what you are. The only people that can’t take a James Brown record is unnatural people, cause they ashamed of what they are.
JAMES BROWN: Their color.
AL SHARPTON: That’s right. And all them N——s over there is ashamed of what they are so they try to act like they something else, so they try not to play what they really are, and hope nobody will notice what they are. And they don’t realize the people they are trying to be like dig what they are in the first place.
AL SHARPTON: The struggle right now is the struggle its always been. It’s just that now people are telling the truth about it. The struggle is against what’s wrong. It’s not black or white. Like Mr. Brown said, it’s wrong.
JAMES BROWN: That’s right.
AL SHARPTON: The struggle is against wrong. Black people get free, we admit that blacks can be a problem too. I mean it was blacks that sold us to white folks in the first place. But until I deal with the seller and sellee, I’m going to be sold. [laughter]
I mean, if you look at black history or American history, the last 20 years, you had the Kennedy’s, you had the Martin Luther Kings, you had James Brown. You had this, you had that. And out of all that James Brown’s the only thing still here. And everybody ought to be, I mean, what does a man have is to die before he gets his respect? I mean it’s crazy. If something god forbid would happen to James Brown, they’d be selling them at every hot dog stand in New York. And here he is and they won’t play him on WBLS. So I mean a man almost has to become a martyr to get appreciated in this country. And there’s something wrong with the people that build the dead and bury the living. I mean it’s crazy.
JAMES BROWN: When are we, as a people, going to recognize that we have a duty to ourselves, you know? When are we going to put our own pants on? When are we going to be the one to set an example for our kids? I’m not saying all of the whole race of people don’t do it. Whether it’s Black or Latin, or Oriental, or what, I’m not saying that. I’m saying when do we, as black people, which I’m very much aware of, start doing something massively for ourselves. I don’t care what people say, I must respect the Jewish people. I must respect their—
AL SHARPTON: That’s the model we must emulate? The Jewish model.
JAMES BROWN: Well, I respect the Jewish people, I respect the Italians. I respect the Germans, I respect all the people. I respect anybody that stay where they at. And that’s the difference. And you got to respect the Oriental people, cause they really come from behind. See so, I respect these people.
AMY GOODMAN: James Brown and Reverend Al Sharpton at The Plaza Hotel in New York City being interviewed by Jon Alpert more than a quarter of a century ago. Jon Alpert, the filmmaker who was doing this documentary on race, and the music industry, and the mob. Jon, why did it never get done?
JON ALPERT: It didn’t get done because about three weeks into the filming, James signed a very lucrative contract, and he decided that maybe he’d rather play along with the folks, and put some money in his pocket than fight it, because he was really getting frozen out. I mean, you just never heard him on the radio in those days. It was astonishing, because when I grew up, I was a little bit before your time, he just electrified our high school. And he was the guy that set the cultural tone. Everybody thinks it was the Beatles. It wasn’t the Beatles, it was James Brown, and every single black kid in our high school was transformed by his music and by the message.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And as I mentioned in my column, The Daily News told, tell the story about what happened with you and in the end, I guess James Brown chose, the godfather of soul chose not to challenge the godfathers of crime, especially in the music industry. But who above us, 25 years later could say he made the wrong decision? Because at least the music that so many of us appreciated of his was able to get out, and who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t made that challenge at the time and made the great film you were hoping that you were hoping to make?
JON ALPERT: We might never have heard from him again except probably when he died, and we would have venerated him like we’re doing now. And really its affected everybody in a way. What the folks at home don’t know is that everyday after the show Amy does the full James Brown split. It’s amazing. And you know what she does, come on. Do the mike throw Amy. I mean, she really does it. And who — [laughter]
AMY GOODMAN: You’re confusing me with Juan Jon.
JON ALPERT: No, Juan does it during the breaks. And, you know, who hasn’t imitated James Brown at some time or another? Tried to do the dance and things like that. I mean, come on.
AMY GOODMAN: I’ll tell you, yesterday in Harlem it was happening. Yesterday in Harlem outside Bobby’s Records, all along the street, the pride—the just, the thousands of people who lined up at the Apollo. He started there, right, in 1956? And they said he came home. And pride was the word over and over again used. Juan we’ll link to your column. Final words? Since people will never see or perhaps someone will pick up this documentary you eventually do on James Brown, just filming the concerts that you filmed with James Brown and we’ll end more with a song.
JON ALPERT: It’s amazing to see these songs that had really become part of everybody’s own personal culture. Seeing them performed and just seeing the uniqueness that made James Brown who he was. All over the world people were transformed by him. When I told my friends I was going to be on TV, we have—you have fans all over the world just like James Brown has. It’s hard to believe that Amy’s as big as James Brown in some places, but I know in Havana, people are watching today. When I said we were gonna show James Brown, people from the presidential office are watching. I know there are people in Moscow watching today.
It was just amazing, to get to be there. But to know that he could be frozen out, that because he wasn’t giving the mafia the split they wanted, he was finished. And to some degree, whether it’s the mafia or big corporations that same kind of control continues. That’s why your independent, that’s why I’m independent. But it is tough.
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Alpert thanks so much for being with us, and agreeing to air this never before broadcast interview that you did in 1980.
JON ALPERT: We were just kids then. Wasn’t that great?
AMY GOODMAN: At the Plaza Hotel and also walking with — going in the car with Sharpton and Brown as you drove through Harlem, as they were talking at the beginning
JON ALPERT: It was amazing. It was like riding around with a deity. And, people when they saw him, you know they almost bowed down. You know, I’ve been with Kings and Queens before. That’s what it was like.
AMY GOODMAN: Last night when I was talking people like Amin on the streets, selling buttons, and other people, they were saying the last time Harlem felt like this was when Nelson Mandela was in town. This is democracy now!. We’ll go back to a clip.
JON ALPERT: Come one do it. Just once for the audience. Come on do the throw.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll go back to a clip. Juan do what you always do.
JON ALPERT: During the break Amy will be doing the full James Brown split. You just won’t see it at home.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll just show you James Brown. Which is what you want to see. This is James Brown in concert.