- Jon Alpert
documentary filmmaker and the founder of Downtown Community Television.
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. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York, thousands of people passed through Harlem’s Apollo Theater Thursday for one last look at the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Brown died Christmas 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 Theater.
JAMES BROWN FAN 1: I got the feeling! Watch me! I got it! Watch me!
JAMES BROWN FAN 2: Personally, he was like a role model, because back in them days, you didn’t call him James, JB. Everybody had to call him Mr. Brown, and he made that a fact. Everybody called him Mr. Brown, from the band members to the promoters to the DJs. He was Mr. Brown. And that was the respect that was given to this man back in the day.
JAMES BROWN FAN 3: When I was growing up, me and my older brother, for about 10 years, we didn’t have a father, so a lot of music I listened to—James Brown—was also a—what I would say, a motivational speaker, because he had a message.
JAMES BROWN FAN 4: I used to run away from home from Jersey to come to see James Brown at the Apollo with Jackie Wilson and all of them. And I enjoyed his music and always will. And there will never be, ever be, another him.
JAMES BROWN FAN 5: Really, every musician owes him a debt of gratitude for his contribution to music, his contribution to the entertainment world, his work ethic, his social consciousness. And I’m here because, to me, he’s almost like Martin Luther King to musicians. I live in Harlem, and I can’t not be here.
JAMES BROWN FAN 6: I’m here to say my last farewell to James Brown, the hardest-working man in show business. The man had enough nerve to tell you that he was black and he’s proud! And my little girls are running around there singing. I’m here to give my last respects to the greatest man in the world for singing. He was too black to be white. That’s what I liked about him. And he spoke his mind. And I’m here to say, “James, go on where you’re going. We’re going to miss you! The choir in heaven is getting larger and larger, but I’m here to tell you goodbye.”
AMY GOODMAN: Voices of people on the streets of Harlem yesterday, as thousands stood in line to view James Brown. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world on this, our last broadcast of the year, in our 10th year at Democracy Now!
Well, on Thursday, 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 in the streets and celebrated the life of the musical trailblazer.
Brown’s body lay in state, or better yet lay in stage, for nine hours at the Apollo, the theater where he made his explosive public debut in 1956, forever changing music history. A line to view his body snaked for almost three city blocks. The Reverend 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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 Reverend Sharpton, at the James Brown Arena there. He’ll be buried later that day.
Our colleague here in the firehouse at DCTV, Jon Alpert, spent time interviewing Reverend 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’d never seen James Brown perform before, and my friend said, “Jon, before you die, if there’s one thing you have to do, it’s you have to go see James Brown.” So I went up to the Beacon Theatre, 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 down 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 the 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 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, and he’s being frozen out, too.” So we started to make a documentary.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: 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. Here 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 haaa! 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 ha ha ha ha! Oh, lord.
AL SHARPTON: You’re 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 an advance team for a week for anybody to know who they are.
JAMES BROWN: That’s right.
AL SHARPTON: And 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 such 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 gonna 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 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. 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. And a lot people felt that they just hired people that was black, that 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.
No reason for them kids to be out there doing bad, when there are some blacks who don’t want to do nothing for themselves. They got to all do something for themselves now. I come out of prison as a little juvenile delinquent, and I’ve been up doing it ever since. And like 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’s successful and they won’t help the blacks? Let’s put them out of business.
JON ALPERT: Tell us the story. I mean, 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 to—I couldn’t get into television, couldn’t get into movies. The record company was cutting my records and wouldn’t promote them, wouldn’t even send them 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 behind James Brown, there were 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 they’re supposed to play so much local stuff. That’s another thing. They probably don’t play no local artists.
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. In a radio station I recorded it. So I come to New York, and [inaudible] studios was on 49th and Broadway at that time. I recorded nine acetates that you play outside in. They were played backwards then. You ever seen that before? Well, those records were 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 doing except him.
JAMES BROWN: They never let them learn the business. And I learned it because I paid my way. When I made a mistake, I went back the next time, knew what it was, I didn’t do that no more. I’d have 15,000 people in a building—excuse me, sir—I’d have 15,000 people in a building, and I’d say, “You know, I could have 20,000 here.” And everybody would 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 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 BLS in New York, we tell them the other day, getting ready for your South Africa tour. They said the problem with South Africa is not the whites or the blacks, it’s the coloreds. That’s the problem in the United States.
JAMES BROWN: He’s a colored man.
AL SHARPTON: It’s the coloreds, he’s a colored men. They are ashamed of being black. And James Brown brings it all to the surface. So the only n——s run—the only n——s run when a James Brown record’s on is n——s that’s really ashamed of being black, because 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, because they ashamed of what they are.
JAMES BROWN: Their color.
AL SHARPTON: That’s right. So 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’re trying to be like dig what they are in the first place.
The struggle right now is the struggle it’s 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.
JAMES BROWN: That’s right.
AL SHARPTON: It’s wrong. The struggle is against wrong. Black people will get free when we admit that blacks can be a problem, too. I mean, it was blacks that sold us to white folk in the first place. But until I deal with the seller and the sellee, I’m going to be soulful.
I mean, if you look at black history or American history the last 20 years, you had the Kennedys, 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 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 him at every hot dog stand in New York. And here he is, and they won’t play it on WBLS. I mean, so 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 the example for our kids? I’m not saying all—that the whole race of people don’t do it. Whether it’s Black or Latin or Oriental or what, I’m not saying that. What 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 the Italian people.
UNIDENTIFIED: That’s the model we should emulate, the Jewish model.
JAMES BROWN: Well, I respect the Jewish people, the Italians. I respect the Germans. I respect all them people. I respect anybody that stay where they at. And that’s the difference. And you got to respect the Oriental people, because 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. We’ll come back in our conversation with Jon Alpert in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time.” That’s James Brown, filmed by Jon Alpert and Karen Ranucci, our general manager, as they were working together more than 25 years ago. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. 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 them, because he was really getting frozen out. I mean, you just never heard him on the radio during those days. It was astonishing, because when I grew up—I was a little bit before your time—you know, 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 GONZÁLEZ: And as I mentioned in my column in the Daily News today, telling the story of what happened with you then, 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 among us, 25 years later, can say he made the wrong decision? Because at least the music that so many of us have 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 that you were hoping to make, right? In terms of—
JON ALPERT: Yeah, you know, we might never have heard from him again, except probably when he died, we would have venerated him like we’re doing now. And really, it’s affected everybody in a way. What the folks at home don’t know is that every day after the show, Amy does the full James Brown split. I mean, it’s just—it’s amazing. And you know what she does? You know, come on. Do the mic throw, Amy. Come on. I mean, she really does it. And, you know, who—
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 other and tried to do the dance and things like that? You know? Like, come on. You have, haven’t you, Amy?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, 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, 1956? And they said he came home. And “pride” was the word over and over again used. Juan, we’ll link to your column at the New York Daily News at democracynow.org. 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, and we’re going to end more with a song.
JON ALPERT: You know, it was 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. And when I said we’re going to show James Brown, people from the presidential office are watching. I know people in Moscow that are watching today.
It was just amazing 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, this same type of control continues. That’s why you’re independent, that’s why I’m independent. But it’s tough.
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Alpert, thanks so much for being with us and for agreeing to air this never-before-broadcast interview that you did in 1980.
JON ALPERT: We were just kids then, weren’t we? 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 just—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 to people like Amin on the street, selling buttons, and other people, they were saying the last time Harlem felt like this was when Nelson Mandela was in town. Well, this is Democracy Now! We’ll go back to a clip of—
JON ALPERT: Come on, 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: While this is on 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 and hear. This is James Brown in concert.