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Midstate residents who knew James Brown hope new movie gets it right

The new James Brown biopic is set to open nationwide Friday, and several Georgians who worked with the late Godfather of Soul are anxious to see it.

They want to know what parts of Brown’s life made it into the movie, “Get On Up,” and what was left out, since filmmakers never reached out to them to get their stories about Brown, even though they were eager to share their memories.

Fred Daviss, a Houston County resident who served as Brown’s business manager from 1968 to 1990, said he never spoke to any of the movie’s producers, despite his long association and friendship with Brown. It was Daviss who helped Brown in the late 1960s after the IRS went after the singer for back taxes.

Daviss has co-written a book, “James Brown and his Money Man,” which he is trying to get published. He said he recently spoke with Charles Bobbit, Brown’s former personal manager, who attended a screening of the movie in New York last week. Bobbit told him the movie was good, but it was missing key elements of Brown’s life.

“I feel like I’ve been alienated from the movie,” said Daviss, who is a nominee this year to enter the Georgia Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the music industry. “It’s hard to believe you’d do a movie about James Brown when Fred Daviss and Charles Bobbit are not in one section of it. (Bobby) told me they had made a fantasy movie of it, but he said, ‘I’ve got to admit, they made a good movie.’ I trust his opinion. ... There’s a story we want to tell that’s more about the man than the music.”

Legendary Macon disc jockey Hamp Swain is concerned that the years Brown spent in Macon -- from the mid-1950s to the early ’60s -- might get overlooked.

It was Swain who played a small but pivotal role in helping launch Brown’s career when he played the singer’s first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” on the air at radio station WIBB.

“I was not even aware that the movie was being made,” Swain said. “No one called me to ask me questions about his background. I’m thinking that it’s sure to be great entertainment and will do good at the box office, but I don’t know how factual it is.”

Swain said it was Clint Brantley, Little Richard’s manager, who brought Brown and his band, the Famous Flames, to Macon from Toccoa. According to famed soul singer Etta James, Little Richard wrote the words “Please Please Please” on a napkin one night, and Brown came up with lyrics and music to the title.

In 1956, fellow WIBB DJ Charles “Big Saul” Greene brought Brown and his band into the studio to record the song a capella on an acetate disc the studio used to record commercials.

“I decided one day to put it on the air, and it was an immediate hit,” Swain recalled. “People were calling in, dedicating it to their lovers. It became part of the regular rotation.”

Swain said an executive from King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio, was driving through Macon and happened to hear the song on the radio. He arranged for Brown to fly to Cincinnati to do a new recording of the song.

“That was the beginning of James Brown and the Famous Flames,” Swain said. “That put him in the spotlight. It was really a great feeling to know James Brown. He was quite a personality.”

Alice Bailey, a WIBB DJ known as Party Doll, since she was a teenager at the time, heard Brown sing “Please, Please, Please” many times before Swain ever played it on the air.

Bailey lived in what was then called Tindall Fields, and Brown would often come to the neighborhood to serenade a woman who lived there to try to woo her. The older women there would often chase Brown off, assuming he was up to no good.

“They knew it was a begging song,” Bailey said with a laugh. “And they didn’t like that. But after he recorded the song, they paid to hear him sing the song when they could have heard it for free in the neighborhood!”

Bailey said her perception of Brown was probably different than the average fan, since she knew him as a young man before all of the fame and accolades.

“It’s a little different when you know someone,” she said. “They’re not bigger than life. It’s like with Otis Redding -- Otis was a classmate of mine (at Ballard-Hudson). ... I feel a great deal of pride and awe that they were on an international stage. I can’t believe I knew them way back when, and they were nice to me.”

NEVER FORGOT MACON

Bailey said Brown never forgot his time in Macon, even after he became a superstar. She said she and some friends from Macon went to see him perform once in Philadelphia, and when Brown found out they were there, he invited all of them to watch backstage.

“He served us champagne -- I think it was the first time I had champagne,” she said. “He treated us as though we belonged on the same plateau as he was on.”

Tascha Houston, who performed as one of the J.B. Dancers from 1966 to 2003, said one of Brown’s special gifts was how he treated people, especially those he worked with. She noted he always would call people “Mr.” or “Ms.” as a sign of respect, even if they worked for him.

Houston, who lives in Atlanta, has visited Macon nearly every year since Brown’s death on Christmas Day 2006 to put a wreath on the bridge named for him here. She released a memoir in April detailing her years performing with Brown called “My Life With James: The Story of a J.B. Dancer.”

“I’m still doing my part for his legacy,” she said.

Houston said she made a special effort to go to a casting call for the movie in Natchez, Mississippi, where it was primarily filmed. She said she thought her memories should be a part of Brown’s story, but she was unable to talk to producers. And since so many people who worked closely with the singer weren’t contacted for their stories, she has her doubts about the movie.

“I think there’s a lot of controversy with this movie because we weren’t talked to,” she said. “These people were not on the road with Mr. Brown. If this is about getting to the core of his legacy, they should have gotten with some of the original people. ... I hope it does him justice.”

With so many stories about the singer out there, there was no way that producers could include them all. But that hasn’t stopped some people from being miffed about being omitted in helping put the story together.

The Augusta Chronicle reported last week that neither Brown’s son, Daryl, nor Larry Fridie, another former business manager, were consulted.

“I’m talking about who the real James Brown is. I was the only one who knew it,” Fridie told the newspaper.

The movie is similarly structured to music biopics such as “Ray,” about singer Ray Charles, and “Walk The Line,” about singer Johnny Cash. Both of those movies snagged several Oscar nominations each.

“Get On Up” is being produced by Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer and legendary Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger. Tate Taylor, who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated “The Help” in 2011, directed it.

The star of the movie, Chadwick Boseman, will be familiar to many Macon residents, since he spent several weeks here in 2012 shooting “42,” the biopic of Jackie Robinson, another American icon.

Houston said she knows what she wants to see in a Brown biopic.

“You can’t start in the middle,” she said. “You’re talking about an icon, a legend who can never, ever be replaced. It has to be about the music and James Brown and his career.

“I’m going in with concern and optimism,” she said. “I want to see how they put it together.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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