James Brown: The Lost Album
When James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006 he left behind a near complete album. Amidst the legal wrangling over the Godfather's estate, the new tracks were forgotten and never released. Speaking to those who knew him best, Charles Thomson goes in search of Brown's final album.
May 2009, JIVE
**NB: This is an extract from Charles Thomson's Guardian Award-winning full article**
In October 2006 Brown, in London to perform at the BBC Electric Proms, appeared before a handful of invited press at Camden’s Roundhouse. Having undergone major dental surgery just days previously, a heavily medicated Brown arrived forty minutes late for the press conference and made several cryptic comments when asked about the status of his new album.
“You should have had that two years ago!” he exclaimed. “There’s some great stuff on there, but somebody’s gonna have to die before we get that out. I won’t say much more than that.”
Presented with an awkward silence, Brown’s personal manager, Charles Bobbit, leaned forward apologetically and added, “You should get the album early next year.”
“I remember that press conference,” says Bobbit. “It was as if he had a premonition. I guess it came true, huh? Mr Brown was very perceptive. A lot of people thought he was psychic.”
Perhaps speculation about Brown’s psychic abilities is not entirely unfounded as it would seem that the star’s mortality troubled him more than ever during his last year.
“He’d say things like ‘I’m gonna have to retire soon, I don’t have long left,’” says SuperFrank. “But then on other days he’d be talking about how he couldn’t wait to play a concert on his 100th birthday. It really just depended what mood you caught him in.”
However, it wasn’t only Brown’s words that raised eyebrows at the Camden Roundhouse. Brown appeared frail and gaunt. His voice was quiet; his speech slow. He sounded congested. Despite delivering a barnstorming two and a half hour concert that night, the Godfather did not look well.
“It was like he aged five years in that last year of his life,” says saxophonist Jeff Watkins. “He lost a bunch of weight and his face became far more drawn. Before, he looked about fifty or sixty. In that last year it was like he suddenly became an old man.”
Despite having beaten cancer two years previously, Brown’s prostate was beginning to cause him problems again. Additionally, the singer spent his final years battling ulcers, diabetes and high blood pressure.
“All of those things individually won’t kill you,” says bandleader Hollie Farris. “But what would happen is when Mr Brown came off of the road he would go home and let himself go. He’d just sit around and deteriorate. When he got back on the road it rejuvenated him. He started taking care of himself because being on the road gave him something to live for.”
“Touring made him stronger,” agrees guitarist Damon Wood. “The longer he stayed on the road, the stronger he got. But the longer he sat down, the worse he got.”
Band members had suspected for a while that Brown didn’t have long left in him. The singer, once famed for his marathon three hour shows, had gradually shortened his sets to a strict 90 minutes with no encore. Years of falling to his knees during recitals of ‘Man’s World’ and ‘Please Please Please’ had left Brown’s legs scarred and arthritic, so much so that often he would be pushed to the stage’s edge on a wheelchair.
Personal manager Charles Bobbit says Brown was losing confidence in his abilities. “He started telling me before he went onstage, ‘You watch me tonight Mr Bobbit and if I look like I’m falling, you come help me.’"
Despite this, Brown's final tour saw him return to performing two and a half hour concerts. In hindsight, band members view this as Brown’s acknowledgement that his time was coming to an end. Brown’s ego, they all agree, wouldn’t let him go without a bang.
Hollie Farris recalls Brown’s penultimate concert; “It was an amazing show. There were around 20,000 people there and he tore it up. He was incredible. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this guy will never stop... ever.’ Two months later he was dead.”
On December 23rd 2006 James Brown attended his annual Christmas toy giveaway in the town of Augusta and Charles Bobbit’s wife called him to the television to watch the local news report.
“That man looks sick,” she told him. “You need to get him to a doctor because if anything happens to him then you’ll be held responsible.”
After his brief European tour in October 2006 Brown had taken two months off – his longest break in a decade. The star fell into old habits, sitting around watching CNN and getting little or no exercise. Despite having been coughing for several weeks, the Godfather refused to see a doctor - a lifelong trait.
“He was a proud man,” says Bobbit. “He didn’t want people to know that the great James Brown was sick.”
On December 24th Bobbit was due to accompany Brown to a dental appointment, but arranged without the Godfather’s permission for a doctor to be present. Upon arrival, the doctor told Brown he was in no condition to undergo dental surgery and that he must be taken immediately to a hospital to be treated for pneumonia.
Hours later, Brown sat bolt upright in his hospital bed, grasped his chest and yelped, “I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” Then he laid back, gasped three times and stopped breathing. On Christmas Day 2006, one week before he was due to complete work on his final album, James Brown was pronounced dead.
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