John “Bird” Ellis of Rock Hill was part of The Dukes – the house band at the old barn-like Hi-Fi Country Club in Charlotte – back in the 1960s and 1970s, when live music was king and the club was where black acts came from all over the South to jam.
One night the band readied for a set and the black king walked in. The hair led the way.
“Right there stood James Brown, and we were going to play with him,” Ellis said. “We had to play it hot that night, I can tell you. Burned, we did. James Brown could burn.”
Because the Godfather of Soul, born in Barnwell, was not just some musician touring in the old days. Brown was the king of black performers. You don’t get that kind of nickname by doing baptisms.
“Get On Up!” the movie about Brown’s life, opens Friday nationwide, including at Manchester Stadium 14 theater in Rock Hill. Chadwick Boseman, an Anderson native who portrayed black baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson in “42” last year, plays Brown.
“I got my ticket already,” said Johnny “Boggie” King, 74, a gold-record musician himself during his time with the Fatback band in the 1970s. “I met James Brown in Cincinnati, Ohio, ’round 1967 or 1968. I went to the studio with Bill Doggett, who had the big hit ‘Honky Tonk’ and recorded ‘Please, Please, Please.’
“We knocked it out, but nobody did that song like James Brown himself. The cat was a legend. The guy had something in him that you didn’t just see or hear – you felt it in your soul. The Godfather of Soul, that sure was him.”
Brown’s 1956 release of “Please, Please, Please” launched a career that went up and down like a roller coaster – years of success, valleys of trouble with the law and changing music tastes – until his death on Christmas Day 2006. But Brown had more than just style. Nobody was like him, before or since.
Portraying himself in “Rocky IV” in 1985 – and his hit song “Living in America” from that movie – might have given Brown mainstream pop icon status, but he had been a bona fide star for decades before that.
On May 4, 1979, thousands packed into what is now Rock Hill District Three Stadium to watch Brown perform a benefit concert for Friendship Junior College. The historically black school, which closed a few years later, gave Brown – who never made it past junior high school – an honorary degree.
Rock Hill even held a short parade that day to escort Brown to the stadium.
After the concert, Brown went to the Friendship gym and played an after-hours gig. Live performances were always his bread and butter. The music, the dancing, the shouting, the hair. He was music and showmanship, capes and shiny shoes and not apologizing for a minute that he came out of juvenile detention and church music – and somehow put it all together with showmanship that had no match.
Brown sang about longing and love and race and, yes, sex. The movie takes its name – “Get On Up” – from a line in his 1970 hit single, “Get up (I feel like being like a) sex machine.”
John Ellis’s brother, Jimmy, was lead singer for the Trammps, which had a No. 1 hit with “Disco Inferno” in 1977. In years of touring, Jimmy Ellis’ band shared the stage with Brown who was, for black musicians trying to make it in the business, the Holy Grail.
When Brown released the 1968 single “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud!” black musicians heard themselves in the music, too. Brown was dubbed “the hardest-working man in show business” because of his non-stop touring. Black acts in those days had to tour almost non-stop to make money, even if they had hit records.
“James Brown was like a God, man,” said Willie “Bluesman” Roach of Rock Hill, a singer and musician trying to get his big break in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Brown’s soul and funk was the benchmark for live performances and his records were the soundtrack for life.
“You wanted to be a singer like James Brown. You wanted to hear the crowds like there were at the James Brown shows. You hoped that someday you could make it like James Brown.”
Roach even had his own hair “marceled” – straightened hair, conked hair – like Brown’s trademark coif after seeing him perform.
“There is no counting how many young black men saw James Brown on television, in a concert, on a record sleeve, then went out and got their hair processed.” Roach said.
The late Bill Ratchford of Rock Hill, considered one of the greatest gospel guitarists of all time, had his hair marceled like Brown’s for more than 50 years as a tribute. He looked so much like him that Brown once made his tour bus stop in Rock Hill to meet Ratchford.
Boggie King even had a stretch at that time when he had marceled hair. The hairstyle of so many black musicians in those days was processed hair – but nobody had hair like James Brown.
And the late Rock Hill barber Freddie “The Fox” Barnes often did that hair. Barnes, who also had a shop in Charlotte, always took care of Brown’s famous hair.
“My father did James Brown’s hair when he came through Charlotte, because my father was known as the best at that straightened style that was popular with performers,” said Rodney Barnes, who runs his own salon on Main Street in Rock Hill.
“James Brown was not going to perform without his hair just right, and my father was ready to be there to make it just right.”