Angus Wynne Remembers His Old Friend, James Brown
Were he not having elbow operated on Thursday morning, Angus Wynne would be attending James Brown's funeral -- not as a fan, but as a friend. Wynne, who began accruing his local legend in the mid-1960s as a show promoter who brought the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan to Dallas, has known Brown since "probably around 1963, I think." They were pals enough that only yesterday, Wynne had planned on calling Brown to wish him Merry Christmas. "But it was too late," says Wynne, who also celebrated his birthday yesterday. Wynne, like everyone else, discovered that the 73-year-old soul-music pioneer died of heart failure in an Atlanta hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia.
They first met backstage at the Music Hall in Fair Park, where Brown was performing some 43 years back. Wynne and another buddy often hung out at R&B shows, trying to meet the performers. "I was just a stone fan," Wynne tells Unfair Park today. He was a particularly big fan of Brown's, to the point where he would always show up and try to shake his hand. On this one particular night, Wynne recalls, "His security guy got used to seeing me around and finally took me in to meet him. So I got to go in and meet him, and he was just as nice as he could be and really encouraged me to keep on comin' to these shows he did. So I did."
And eventually, they became good buddies -- to the point where Wynne had James' mother's phone number, which he was supposed to use in case of an emergency. After the jump, Wynne recalls the time he actually had to use the number -- and he explains precisely how he ended up in Brown's limo...on the field at Texas Stadium.
It's a little-known secret that James Brown used to come to Dallas just to drive around and hang out with his old friends here. Among them was an old booking agent named John Henry Branch, who used to bring acts to the Empire Club on Hall Street, off of Ross Avenue. "At the time, the Empire was where everyone played, and John Henry was one of James' favorite people," Wynne recalls. "He would come in and take care of him after he retired even." (Incidentally, this is the very same John Henry Branch who was interviewed by the Warren Commission, because Branch actually saw Jack Ruby on the night of November 23, 1963 -- at the Empire Room, matter of fact.)
"After John Henry had died, about five years ago, James called me up and said for me to meet him at Love Field," Wynne recalls. "He was bringing in people on his plane. He had friends from Atlanta who hadn't been to Dallas before, so he felt like a little run. We took a limo out there and picked him up drove around for hours and hours. He wanted to see all the places he worked, a lot of which weren't even open anymore. The Empire's a junkyard now. On that particular day, we drove past the Empire, and he was explaining to these people from Atlanta what it was. And I said, 'He's not kidding. This place is as old as it could be. When he lived here, Ray Charles used to have to sleep on that stage.' And James said, 'Last time I saw Ray Charles he was asleep on the stage.'
"Then we drove all over South Dallas, and he stopped at all these places and just hung out with people. They couldn't believe he was just walking around the neighborhood at these little beer-and-wine places. He would shoot the shit with them and sign autographs and just thrill people."
Perhaps one reason Brown liked Wynne so much wasn't only because he was a fan, but because he could book Brown great paying gigs -- the corporate parties, the debutante balls, the big-money shindigs. One such event took place years ago in San Antonio, in what Wynne remembers as a "cool old monastery" near the RiverWalk. Brown had sent the band ahead on a bus; he had his own first-class tickets. Only, as the show got closer and closer to go time, Brown was nowhere to be found. The limo driver returned from the airport empty-handed. No sign of the Godfather. So Wynne, desperate to find his main attraction, used the only emergency number at his disposal: J.B.'s mother's.
She hadn't seen her son either. So this is what she told Wynne to do, as he remembers it. She said, "I tell ya what you need to do. You know how you can get you one of those trucks with a speaker on top? Well, go around the neighborhood shouting, 'James! You're late!' You keep after him. He'll turn up."
As it turned out, he had cashed in his first-class tickets and bought coach tickets on a later flight. Because I.R.S. agents were after him, Brown feared they would see him taking a fancy trip and accuse him of blowing the dough. Better to be late than wind up in deeper trouble with the government.
The last time Wynne saw Brown was a couple of years back, when Brown played the Nokia Theatre at Grand Prairie. He was in a good mood, but a shadow of his former self -- reduced to playing ringmaster, barely able to finish a single song. The audience consisted of people who'd probably never seen Brown before; all they saw was a hint of the legend. "It wasn't evident to most of the audience how much of his act was gone by then," Wynne says. Brown admitted to his old friend after the show he'd been diagnosed with diabetes.
"He didn't have the stamina to do any of the wild dancing and shit," Wynne says. "He was still in a great mood, though, and couldn't have been nicer. He was a wonderful guy."
Me, the only time I ever saw James Brown perform was at Texas Stadium in the early 1990s. By no means was the place packed; the audience was collected in a single section of the stadium, with the stage dropped right on the Cowboys' star at mid-field. There were well under 10,000 people in attendance. The promoters were real-estate guys who paid Brown $80,000 to come to town. They took a bath that night.
But the most surreal sight of the evening was Brown's limo, which drove to mid-field on a ramp made of plywood. It was a shiny white beast -- a chariot of the soul-music gods, nothing less. Only, when the door opened at the foot of the stage, it was Wynne's shiny white pate that emerged, not the dark locks of the Godfather of Soul.
"We were backstage talking and shit, and he said, 'Come on, let's go,'" Wynne recalls. "He takes me out to this big white limo so we could drive out to the stage. Suddenly, all these spotlights hit us, and he said, 'Get out.' So the audience starts cheering: Yeaaaaaah. Then, as soon as my head pops out, it was, Awwwwww." After the show, Wynne recalls Brown being greeted by I.R.S. agents who'd come to collect. Again.
Dallas will always loom large in the Brown legend: One of the greatest live albums recorded in the 1960s was Brown's August 26, 1968, show at Dallas Memorial Auditorium, which was released 30 years later as Say It Live And Loud. Nonetheless, he played here during not only the great times, but also the lousy ones.
"James had such an indomitable spirit," Wynne says. "He played Dallas whether he was hot shit or not. He played The Rose on Denton Drive near Love Field when he had just hit bottom and his whole band left him." This was, as far as Wynne can recall, some time in the mid-1980s. Brown was without a record deal. He was just another faded superstar, a history book in danger of becoming a footnote. "There weren't 100 people in there," Wynne says. Which didn't stop Brown from performing as though he were in front of 10,000 folks.
There will be hundreds of pop-critic obits circulating over the next few days; James Brown shaped 20th-century American music as much as the guitar, the microphone and the sequined jumpsuit. But some folks, like Angus Wynne, will just miss their old friend.
"He and I shared a limo from Otis Redding's funeral service in downtown Macon to Otis' farm, where he was buried," Wynne says. "I'd really like to go to James'. It's gonna be something else, I'd imagine." --Robert Wilonsky