Ten years after his untimely death on Christmas Day, James Brown still seems to be ubiquitous.
Comedians Key and Peele recently created a sketch that’s nothing but a word-for-word re-enactment of the singer’s infamous 1980s interview on CNN in Atlanta shortly after filing for divorce from his estranged wife. The real thing is much stranger. There’s also another biography of the man, this time helmed by National Book Award winner James McBride.
Instead of tracing a chronological history of Brown, listing dates and important facts, McBride chooses to hardly mention the singer at all, instead putting his focus on those touched by the man’s influence and left floating in the wake of his fortune left behind, bequeathed to the poor children of Georgia and South Carolina in hopes of furthering educations.
Needless to say, that generous gift didn’t sit well with the family, and Brown’s fortune has been locked in legal limbo, dwindling away into the pockets of lawyers rather than to those it was meant to benefit.
The book is largely a meditation on what it means to be black in the South; how fame affects a person; the convoluted legacy that is left behind when public persona is mixed with an intensely private life; and how good intentions don’t sit well in the music industry.
While he’s barely a liner note in the text, the book also brought to mind a Macon personality: Clint Brantley. Brantley was Brown’s manager during his time in Macon, the owner of the Two Spot on Fifth Street, responsible for plugging Brown into Little Richard gigs, and later, when Richard traded rock ‘n’ roll for God, setting him up as an impersonator of the man himself.
The argument might be made that rock ‘n’ roll couldn’t have existed without Brantley, yet the bulk of what remains of him to this day is a brief oral history transcription quietly sitting in an blue archival box at Washington Memorial Library.
Gone too are any remnants of Macon’s black entertainment district that thrived throughout the 1950s on Fourth and Fifth streets when Brown and Richard were cutting their teeth, the area a victim of gentrification disguised as development. Brown is only officially remembered on an out-of-the-way bridge over an interstate that cut a poor community in half. Brantley died in Augusta under the care of James Brown in 1980.
Fourth Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, is currently awash in another wave of development, and the same questions persist: What — and who — will be remembered? Who will dictate the narrative of Macon’s musical history? Which stories will be told, and which ones will sit in limbo?
Jared Wright is a member of Field Note Stenographers, a collective of local musicians who write about shows in Middle Georgia. He is also a musical historian, curator and archivist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.