Monday 10 October 2011

VIDEO: James Brown Press Conference 2006

Having successfully ripped my Sky News appearance from a DVD and uploaded it to the YouTube, I was inspired to pluck another clip from my archive and stick that online for your enjoyment too.

Back in October 2006 I had just begun my journalism degree. I had been a James Brown fan throughout my teens and had seen him live three times. When I found out he was coming to the UK for a BBC concert, I decided to use my new 'student journalist' credentials to apply for an interview.

Most press officers would have simply ignored my email but Adam Dewhurst, who was looking after James Brown during his London trip, was kind enough to reply. He told me that Mr Brown wasn't doing any interviews while he was in the capital but that he was giving a press conference at Camden's Roundhouse a few hours before his concert there. If I wanted to go, he said, he'd put me on the list.

And so it came to be that on October 27th 2006 I found myself sitting in a small room upstairs at the Roundhouse - one of only two non-BBC journalists to be invited - waiting for an audience with my hero: the Godfather of Soul.

Mr Brown was late. I didn't much care. It gave my nerves time to settle. I was green; I'd never been to a press conference before; talk about a baptism of fire.

The other journalists seemed unphased - some actually seemed to view the press conference as an unwanted distraction from their other work. I couldn't understand it. How many people can say they've had the opportunity to pick the brain of the most influential musician of the last century? But their nonchalance subsided as soon as somebody whispered, "He's coming! He's coming!" There was a stunned silence.

Author Jonathan Lethem once wrote of James Brown:

"It is not merely that attention quickens in any room this human being inhabits. The phenomenon is more akin to a kind of grade-school physics experiment: Lines of force are suddenly visible in the air, rearranged, oriented. The band, the hangers-on, the very oxygen, every trace particle is charged in its relation to the gravitational field of James Brown...

"I'm also struck by the almost extraterrestrial quality of otherness incarnated in this human being... He's in his midseventies, yet, encountering him now in person, it occurs to me that James Brown is kept under wraps for so long at the outset of his own show, and is viewed primarily at a distance, or mediated through recordings or films, in order to buffer the unprepared spectator from the awesome strangeness and intensity of his person. He simply has more energy, is vibrating at a different rate, than anyone I've ever met, young or old. With every preparation I've made, he's still terrifying."

The description is an accurate one. A room full of cynical journalists, bemoaning James Brown's lateness and its impact on their deadlines, fell into a deferential hush as soon as he came into view down the corridor.

Mr Brown was in pain throughout his trip to the UK. In an article titled 'Jawedfather of Soul; James Brown ignores dental op agony at Scots gig', Glasgow's Daily Record reported that Brown had undergone dental implant surgery just days before flying to the UK and was "in so much pain he had to avoid talking and rinse his mouth with salt water just hours before going on stage."

Brown's cheeks looked sunken - the teeth he had in didn't fit properly. They were holding the fort until his final set were finished and inserted. It was when Brown attended a dental appointment two months later to have the final set put in that he was told he was too ill for surgery and sent to hospital with pneumonia, where he died shortly afterwards.

His voice was hushed, his speech difficult to decipher. It's not obvious in the below clip how quiet his voice was because he was speaking directly into a BBC microphone, but at 1m18s you'll notice a significant change in audio quality. This was because reporters were complaining that they couldn't hear Mr Brown's answers to their questions, so a door was closed.

The press conference was roughly fifteen minutes long, in which time Mr Brown discussed what to expect from his concert that night, the need to get children interested in playing instruments again and the negative impact that violent hip-hop imagery has on young people and on society in general.

Being as green as I was, I was too timid to shout my way through the other reporters and ask a question, so Mr Dewhurst kindly offered me the floor. I took the opportunity to ask Mr Brown about the album I knew he'd been working on, then known to fans as 'World Against The Grain' (it later turned out to be 'World Funk Against The Grain'). I got an answer I didn't expect.

During his lengthy response, Mr Brown spoke about the new track 'Gutbucket', in which he blasted hip-hop artists for their violent and misogynistic lyrics. This led to a discussion about the degradation of the music industry. Finally, though, he made some troubling comments. "Somebody's gonna have to die before we get that out," he muttered about the album. "I won't say much more than that."

He concluded, "We would love to get that out, but we need help." As he said the word 'help', his voice cracked - perhaps through emotion, perhaps because he was battling intense oral pain. Either way, to hear the notoriously proud James Brown publicly stating that he needed help was bizarre; as somewhat of a James Brown archivist, it is the only occasion I'm aware of on which Brown has ever publicly exhibited anything approaching weakness.

The comments prompted an uncomfortable silence and Mr Brown's personal manager, Charles Bobbit, leaned apologetically into the assorted microphones and said, "You should get that some time next year."

"I remember that press conference," Mr Bobbit would later tell me. "It was as if he had a premonition. I guess it came true, huh?"

Mr Brown's comments that night divide those who surrounded him. Some believe that those in charge of Brown's estate never intended the album to be released while he was alive and that his death was suspicious.

According to family sources, when Mr Brown's son-in-law told the National Enquirer he believed Brown had been murdered, he was shot dead days later and $500 was found in his pockets, ruling out robbery as a motive. Another family member told me last year that when they started asking questions, they were told, "that I could go missing and that there are a lot of swamps in Georgia."

Others, though, say the album simply wasn't finished and that Brown had a tendency to exaggerate, perhaps amplified on this occasion by pain medication he may have been taking to counter the agony caused by his dental surgery.

This month, former trustee of Brown's estate, David Cannon, is due to stand trial on numerous counts of mismanaging the James Brown estate both before and after Brown's death. Perhaps some answers will be provided by those proceedings.

The press conference was shot in full but never aired. The only footage broadcast on TV was the two-minute skit I have included below. My question was included but Mr Brown's answer, unsurprisingly, was not.

I didn't take many notes - I wasn't sure about the etiquette of breaking eye contact with James Brown as he spoke to me, so I maintained eye contact for the duration of his answer and scribbled down what I could when he finished. Those notes have long since been lost.

A few years ago I tried to obtain the unedited footage of the press conference but was told by the BBC that this skit was all they could find.

Although Mr Brown seemed troubled, I remain grateful to Mr Dewhurst for inviting me to that press conference. As it turned out, I would never have had another chance to speak to Mr Brown. He died less than two months later, on Christmas Day 2006.

My encounter with James Brown prompted my research into his final album, which produced my Guardian Award-winning article, 'James Brown: The Lost Album'. James Brown book-ended my career as a student journalist. In my first month of studies, I attended that press conference. Just over three years later, shortly after I graduated, I was handed my Guardian Award.

Though this footage is brief, and my own on-screen appearance amounts to about two seconds, this is a video I will treasure forever - and I'm glad to finally be able to share it with you all.