Thursday 28 February 2013

RIP Richard Street (1942 - 2013)

I was very sad to learn yesterday that former Temptations singer Richard Street had passed away.

Some of you may remember that I interviewed Richard last September as he prepared for a lengthy UK tour. At the time I said I might post a longer version of our chat on my website, as it had to be cut so short to fit into the newspaper.

I have today uploaded a longer edit of the interview.

Click here to read it.

 The story as it appeared in the newspaper (click to enlarge).

Tuesday 19 February 2013

VIDEO: The Godfather's Last Giveaway

A few weeks ago I published an article titled 'The Big Payback', all about James Brown's little-known humanitarian work and his family's efforts to carry it on since his death on Christmas Day 2006. In the article I wrote about how Mr Brown's last ever public appearance, three days before his death, was at his annual Christmas toy giveaway.

Yesterday my friend Ron sent me some footage I had never seen before of Mr Brown at the giveaway. Shot by an Augusta news station, it is the last known video of the Godfather of Soul.

I was struck by one poignant exchange.

"Mr Brown," says the reporter, "you've been doing this for 15 years and even when you're not well, you always come out and give back."

"Well," replies Mr Brown, "I come out because I want to do this. It's a duty as a human being, a duty as a citizen of this country."

As it turned out, Mr Brown wasn't just 'not well'. He was dying of pneumonia. Less than 72 hours later, the world had lost him. He had been visibly deteriorating for a number of months (in the video he looks unusually thin and sounds unwell, as he had done since October 2006) but despite his condition, he still made sure he was there to hand out those Christmas presents to the most needy children in his community.

I thought that was pretty inspiring. Here's the video.

Saturday 16 February 2013

James Brown's Jampers Just Keep On Giving

My latest in-depth feature, 'The Big Payback', explored a variety of humanitarian initiatives inspired by Godfather of Soul James Brown. Published by the Orchard Times, it saw me interview Mr Brown's friends and family about  the various charitable ventures staged every year in his memory, all run by his children without any financial assistance from his estate.

Also among my interviewees were some of the teens from Augusta, Georgia, who have benefited from the Brown dynasty's latest venture; the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils (JAMP). The school was set up to teach young people how to play instruments and help them secure college scholarships. Since its launch just over a year ago, it has already helped one Augusta teen secure a scholarship.

The JAMP students have put their talents to good use by forming a band - the JAMP Masters - which plays at charity and community functions. After a VIP invitation to perform and sit in the front row at one of Prince's concerts in Chicago last year, the youngsters have been into the studio to record their first album.

I was honoured and delighted to receive a parcel this morning containing a copy of that album. Many of the young band members had signed the CD as a 'thank you' for my article, which curriculum leader Kimberly Baxter-Lee said she showed to them shortly after it was published.

(Click to enlarge)

The collection, which comprises 10 James Brown and JBs covers, is impressively tight given the age of the performers and the short time they've been together. With the assistance of former James Brown guitarist Keith Jenkins, they have achieved the 'dry, funky sound' that the Godfather of Soul was always so keen to capture.

Keith's input is also felt in the arrangements, which are in some cases closer to Mr Brown's latter day live performances than the original studio recordings. 'Get Up Offa That Thing' and 'I Got You (I Feel Good)' are particular highlights. The youngsters play so well that you wish the songs would just go on and on.

All proceeds from the album will be spent on the continued running of the academy. Mr Brown's daughter Deanna tells me that a second volume is already on the horizon.

I want to say a big thank you to the JAMP Masters for this CD. It will take pride of place alongside albums signed by the likes of George Clinton, Martha Reeves, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley - and it means every bit as much as the others. 

Auntie Graces Our Pages, Sells Out

After tapping out my recent blog post about visiting BBC's Television Centre one last time before it shuts down, I decided to turn it into a three-quarter page newspaper story. The loss of such an important landmark doesn't come around all that often.

Since the piece ran last week, tours have completely sold out. So if you haven't already booked up for a walk around the iconic site - that's it; you never will.

A sad thought.

(Click to enlarge)

Wheely Stupid

Some stories have 'national press' written all over them. This was one of them - and it fell right in my lap. It's not often that a story of national significance occurs about 10 metres away from your desk.

It all started a little over a month ago when an anonymous letter was delivered to our newspaper office. It claimed that a local disability tribunal service, which operates out of the same building as our newspaper, was turning away people in wheelchairs. It was an interesting accusation but one which would be difficult to prove. We kept the letter on the back burner.

In the UK, when a disability impedes a person's ability to work, they qualify for Disability Living Allowance - cash from government to help them get by. If the government suspects that person might not need that allowance after all, it orders them to appear in a tribunal court and prove they are genuinely disabled. But this tribunal service was preventing disabled people from proving they were genuinely disabled... because they were genuinely disabled.

The anonymous letter was followed by an anonymous phone call. Then people in the building began gossiping about it. It wasn't long before my colleague Paul, who uses a wheelchair, found himself stopped in our building's reception by a security guard who told him that wheelchairs were no longer allowed upstairs in the building. Paul has worked for the newspaper for 11 years. Fortunately, a word with our boss saw him allowed back upstairs again. Some tribunal attendees weren't so lucky.

About three weeks ago our receptionist telephoned up to the office and told us that a person in a wheelchair was being turned away as she spoke. I rushed downstairs with my notepad and caught 65-year-old Sylvia Middleton just as she was exiting the building. Sylvia came back into reception where I interviewed her about what had happened. She told me she had worked for 30 years of her life, beginning at age 15, but had then been struck by serious arthritis in her knees, back and neck. She was assessed and told she could no longer work, so she qualified for Disability Living Allowance.

In late 2011, the government decided it no longer believed Sylvia Middleton could not work. She would have to prove in a court that she was genuinely disabled, or else her money would be stopped. She arrived at the Basildon tribunal office ready to prove that she was genuinely afflicted. Only she wasn't allowed... because she was genuinely afflicted. Security told her she was a hazard in the event of a fire and that her tribunal had been moved back by two months to a new court more than 10 miles away.

We snapped a picture of Sylvia and her son as they left the court, disappointed by the fresh delay; they'd already waited over a year for a resolution to their situation. I had an immediate inkling that this story would make waves; the irony was almost too perfect; disabled people prevented from proving they were disabled because they were disabled. 

We contacted HM Courts and Tribunals Service, who admitted to us that the problem has been ongoing for three months and blamed it on security workers, claiming they had misinterpreted health and safety laws. The story got better and better; steeped in irony and a 'health and safety gone mad' angle. We ran it as our front page scoop.

(Click to enlarge)

If that print is too small to read, click here for the online version. 

My nose for a national news item proved right; the story was picked up by the Daily Star, the Daily Mail and the BBC, attracting the ire of campaign groups along the way. Whether all the media attention will help Sylvia Middleton's cause, I don't know. I'd like to think so. But at the very least, it prompted the tribunal service to mend its ways ; as far as we're aware, wheelchair users are now allowed upstairs again.

Monday 4 February 2013

Visiting Auntie One Last Time

BBC Television Centre will never be the same again. The iconic building in White City, used in aerial shots for many of the corporation's 'idents' and in which many of its most classic shows were filmed, is to be sold off thanks to David Cameron and his cabinet's decision to freeze the licence fee.

I've been to BBC HQ a number of times over the years. I've been to the recordings of many TV shows there, including Never Mind The Buzzcocks, The Catherine Tate Show, Friday Night With Jonathan Ross and Top Of The Pops. It was also at the BBC's White City base that I interviewed Jermaine Jackson in a vacant radio studio.

Now the corporation has been forced to sell off the site - where classic shows like Fawlty Towers, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Two Ronnies and Morcambe & Wise were shot - and shift the majority of its operations up north. The area will be turned into a hotel and resort, with just three studios in the complex remaining active (it currently has eight working studios, numerous radio studios and hundreds of offices).

For many years the BBC has run a two-hour tour of the site for less than £10 per visitor. Upon learning just before Christmas that these tours would soon cease and it was our last chance to take a look around, my friend Angela booked a tour for the pair of us as a Christmas present.

We took the tour on Friday, January 25, before traveling to Paris.

The tour took in the BBC news room, multiple television studios (we spotted comedian Russell Kane rehearsing in one of them for the show Live at the Electric) and celebrity dressing rooms, where the guides dished the dirt on the divas with the biggest demands. I was chosen to 'host' a weather transmission in front of a greenscreen and other participants were nominated to take part in a Name That Tune style quiz, buzzing in with their answers in a bid to win some BBC merchandise. Along the way we spotted lots of TV artefacts, from Pat Butcher's earrings to the Dr Who Tardis.

The tour only runs until February 22, so this really is your last chance to explore the most iconic building in British television history. Tickets are available here.

Exploring the BBC studios one last time. Pic by Angela Kanda.
Click to enlarge.

Sunday 3 February 2013

The Big Payback; Giving in the Name of the Godfather

Today the Orchard Times published my latest feature; the first of its kind (in-depth, multiple interviewees) that I've written since 2010.

The article, titled 'The Big Payback', explores James Brown's little-known humanitarian legacy and how his family has battled since his death to keep his charitable initiatives going despite receiving no financial assistance from his Estate.

Thanks to schemes launched by James Brown before his death, thousands of underprivileged families every year, across two US states, are able to eat a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner and give their children a bag of Christmas presents. Moreover, since 2011 the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils (JAMP) - conceived by Brown in the years before he passed away - is helping Augusta teens to secure college scholarships.

James Brown hands out Christmas presents to underprivileged children in Augusta, Georgia, in the 1990s.
Picture supplied by the James Brown Family Foundation.

The story also explores James Brown's complex relationship with hip-hop music and his crusade in the final years of his life to promote legitimate, instrumental music and steer kids away from violent, demeaning lyrics.

To write the piece, which I did pro bono, I spoke to Mr Brown's daughters Deanna and Venisha, his long-time friend and producer Derrick Monk, JAMP co-ordinator Kimberly Baxter-Lee and several of the academy's young students.

Derrick read the feature for the first time earlier today and told me it brought tears to his eyes to see somebody write about 'the real James Brown'. That one comment made all of the work - which took over a year, on and off - worth it.

 Deanna Brown-Thomas hugs a recipient at the 2012 James Brown Christmas Toy Giveaway in Augusta.
Picture supplied by the James Brown Family Foundation.