Homage to James Brown and all the Rest
I grew up in the 1950s in Memphis, Tennessee, attending segregated schools. As far as I know, I never went to school (1st-12th) with any students of color. In 1954 I was 12 years old. My sister Peggy got a 45 rpm record player for her 15th birthday--one of those little boxes with the fat black one-inch diameter record changers. She stacked records on the stick, pressed a button and listened and danced to bunches of music. One day Peggy told me and my friend Harvey to come in to her room. She wanted to show us something. She pressed the button and Elvis Presley was rocking out with “That’s all right, Mama.” Peggy was jitterbugging like she was dancing with a boy, her left forearm firmly planted under her breast, lifting it. She asked us, “Does this look sexy?” The question startled me. I was the little brother. She grabbed my hand and began to teach me how to dance. My life, like so many millions of middle-class white kids throughout the South, was about to change every which-away. We could smell Mother Africa. She was close at hand.
1954 I was beginning to get hairy in all sorts of new places. I was fatherless (my father, a pilot training WWII pilots in Clarksville, Mississippi, died in a plane crash in 1944 when I was 2 years old), and my mother, who worked a long week selling real estate to raise us four kids, worried about me in particular. I was sort of crazy and lost. My friend Jimmy Walker and I (both of us were terribly shy in front of girls) spent our summer between the 7th and 8th grades getting drunk every Friday night. It was our rite of passage into early manhood. We had no men to show us the way, no spiritual path, so we did it ourselves. Booze and black music. We wanted to dance, we wanted to talk to girls, we wanted to get laid (resolve somehow that incredible mystery) and we wanted to set a world record with our Friday night drunks. We’d go to a party where we could find an older kid with a driver’s license. Or at least with a car. We’d pay him to drive us to the nearest black ghetto where we would go to the first liquor store we saw. Around back a bunch of men would be gathered drinking and talking and laughing. A car radio would be blaring out radio rhythm and blues. We’d give them a handful of dollars and ask them to go get us beer or wine or whisky--whatever it was that we wanted and had money enough for. This happened most weekends until we had our own licenses to drive, and then we happily made the trip ourselves, charging younger kids for the same taxi service we had paid for.
The car radio was always alive with music--we listened to Daddy-O Dewey Phillips who was the first disc jockey ever to play Elvis on the radio. Dewey Phillips was crazy. He had a goofy hillbilly rap that wouldn’t stop. White disc jockeys weren’t supposed to be playing black music. White kids could tell that Elvis was white, but the adults couldn’t tell, so Dewey brought Elvis down to the station and asked him, “Son, where did you go to high school?” “Why, Mr. Phillips, I went to Humes High.” Humes High was a white school in the poorer section of white Memphis. But soon Dewey was playing black music too. Rhythm and blues stuff. He and Elvis pointed us to WDIA (the first 100% black programmed radio station in the U.S.), where the greats Rufus Thomas and Nat D. Williams were playing blues and black R&B like it would never end—James Brown, B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Ike and Tina Turner, Big Momma Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Jimmy Reed, and all the rest. On Sundays I played hooky from church and listened to WDIA gospel. When we got to the 9th grade, we started going to the Clearpool Lounge and the Plantation Inn in West Memphis across the river and other places where high school fraternities were bringing in black music to raise money and to raise hell.
These concerts were extraordinary and spectacular, although of course we didn’t know it at the time. Like most teenagers in the world, we thought everywhere else had to be better. We experienced bands like Bo Diddley, Clarence Frogman Henry, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Larry Wilson (“Short Fat Fanny to the Rescue,” “Boney Maroney”) and James Brown and the Famous Flames. We’d start drinking beer and cheap wine and before the night was over Jimmy Walker and I would crawl onto the stage with other teenage boys and start dancing with these guys. We’d go crazy. Nobody pulled us down. In fact, our foolishness was regarded by our friends in awe. We obtained a bit of magic by dancing up there with those black men. Dionysius had climbed down out of the southern humid skies and transformed all these white girls and boys--Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, all of us segregated from black folks all of our lily-white lives, likewise segregated from sexual metaphor and movement and touch--into wild nymphs and satyrs. We (the teenagers, the band members) all delighted in the metamorphosis. One night a singer--I think it was Larry Wilson--ripped off his white dress shirt and, bare breasted, glistening with sweat, and twirled the shirt around his head like a bullroarer while he chanted and swayed magically on the stage. I was up there right beside him. The girls went nuts. At the finale of the song he threw that stinking shirt into the crowd of teenagers, and ten or fifteen good white southern girls fought tooth and nail for it.
At midnight the band would play “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the anthem of our transformation, all of us snaking 1950s dirty boogie conga line prancing around the hall lost in the beat and the screaming of the music, the hysteria grabbing hold. Then the lights would go out, the hall would go silent and the band would disappear. Jimmy and I would scramble around the tables for a last drink, sometimes Jimmy would get lost in the bathroom, looking for a fight, and then we'd head for home, most of the time without a girl at our side. One night, during a rain storm, Jimmy slid his father's 1957 green Buick Century into a telephone pole as we cruised through a road that cut through the Audubon Park golf course. We had six guys in the car. We piled out and looked at the damage. The Buick had been mauled and scraped from bumper to bumper. "Shit," Jimmy said, "my dad will kick my ass." Then he laughed maniacally. Jimmy didn’t like his father. We drove to the Toddle House for hamburgers. Jimmy took the car home, parked it and disappeared for a few days.
At 65 now I can’t write this without pride but mixed with a large portion of shame--the shame from the pain and sorrow I caused my mother and the other woman who raised me, Tula (Darthula Baldwin), the black woman who was our live-in maid; the harm that I did to my body; and the tragedies that some of my friends and their families endured. Jimmy was my best friend during so much of that journey. The year before he graduated, he joined the carnival and vanished from Memphis. A year later he joined the army, ended up in Germany and fell from a tower, killing himself. The army told his mother it was an accident, but it was no accident. In junior high and the first couple years of high school, drunken Jimmy would to climb the tallest of pine trees in the dark nights. He would scream and holler at God. He didn’t like God much. None of us liked God. God somehow was tricking us all. Jimmy understood better than the rest of us. He would be up there high in the night skies screaming and dancing from limb to limb. His death was not an accident. The only way he wanted to come home was in a box.