James Brown: An Oral History From His Bandmates

Music Features James Brown
Share Tweet Submit Pin
James Brown: An Oral History From His Bandmates

They don’t come much bigger, louder, prouder, or more exciting than James Brown. The Georgia native would have been a legend purely on the basis of his recorded music, which includes too many all-time classics to name. But on top of that, people who saw him perform live will mostly likely tell you he was the greatest performer they ever saw. He also surrounded himself with one of the greatest backing bands ever and drilled them to within an inch of their lives, producing a stage show that was somehow at once both tight and dangerous. In honor of Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s fantastic new HBO documentary Mr. Dynamite, we spoke to four longtime members of Brown’s Band—vocalist Martha High, saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, and drummers Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks. They told us about their early days, life on the road with a legend, and what made James Brown so great.

BEGINNINGS

Martha High
I was raised in Washington, D.C. During my school years, that’s when I became very interested in music. Going to church when I was younger, I joined Junior Choir and then Senior Choir. That’s where my music career got started. But when I was a little kid, I’d sing around the house. And I thought I was good, but my brothers used to complain to my mother about my making noise and try to get her to make me stop. But my mother would say, “She’s not making noise; she’s singing. That’s what she does.” So they had to put up with it, because she’d stick up for me.

My oldest brother went into the service when I was very young, and during the time I started traveling with the Jewels but before we went on the road with James Brown, when my brother would call and ask how I was doing, she’d say “Oh, she’s doing fine. She’s out working.” But she never said that I was singing. But when I joined the James Brown show, the next time he called home and asked about me, she said, “She’s on the road with James Brown!” And he said, “Wait a minute, what is she doing with him?” And she said, “She’s working with him. She’s singing.” And he said, “Singing? She can’t sing!” And my mother said, “Of course she can sing. I’ve always told you that.” He just told me that story about a year ago.

I was singing with a group. At first we were called the Four Jewels, in 12th grade. But before that, I had formed a group myself. We did school hop dances and entered contests and things like that. That group became called the Bo-ettes, because we met Bo Diddley and became very good friends with him. He’d let us rehearse in his studio. That was Yvonne Smith, Viola Gaye, who was Marvin Gaye’s sister, and myself. And eventually one more girl joined us.

The Jewels also used to rehearse at Bo Diddley’s studio, and we knew each other from school. They were looking for a girl to replace their lead singer, who was leaving them. They had just released a record called “Loaded With Goodies,” which was a local hit around D.C., Maryland and Virginia. They were getting quite a bit of work. And Bo Diddley said, “Why don’t you give Martha a try?” And they chose me, which was a big step for me. That’s when I started to realize that maybe I was going to be singing for the rest of my life.

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis
I grew up in Bradenton, Florida. [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s a lot different now. Back then it was nothing but dirt roads and wooden houses. Lots of plants. It was a nice place to grow up, though. I didn’t stay there long.

We moved to Lubbock, Texas. I started playing the saxophone when I was about 12. I also played the clarinet. I went to Dunbar Junior High School. We had a great band director called Roy Roberts. He had just come out of the Navy, and he was an alto player.

Country/Western inspired me when I was growing up. And then there was Blues and BeeBop. When we walked to school, we passed this bar that had a jukebox that we would play. Yeah. It caught my attention. When I’d hear it I’d think, “Now, maybe that’s something that I can use.”

Clyde Stubblefield
I’m from Chattanooga, Tenn. My dad worked at a steel mill. My mom was a home mom. I was just hanging out, playing music, and I enjoyed it a lot. I was with different bands when I was in Chattanoga. I joined up with The Cascades, and played with them for a while. Then Otis Redding came to town, and we played behind him. I learned about Macon Ga., so I moved there. That’s where he was from too.

Jabo Starks
I’m from from Mobile, Ala. My father was a laborer. You could say he was almost all-around. I never will forget, we had some brick streets in Mobile, some people call them cobblestones. He did that. Wherever there was a job and they would hire to him to work for his family’s survival, he did that. My mother was a cook. She did quite a bit of cooking, until she retired. She worked at a couple of restaurants, then at a school system. I never knew a hungry day in our house.

There had always been music in our home. In our house, you went to church every Sunday. That was automatic. That was a given. You didn’t question it. Unless you were sick or almost dead and couldn’t move, you went to Sunday School, and then you went to church. You heard the music in church, yes. But even before that. we had an old upright piano, and people would come by on Saturdays. It was never in tune, but you they played it like it was. I had a radio that looked like it was about two feet tall, and the inside was maybe as big as a half dollar. I would listen to the station out of Nashville, WLAC. It was a Rhythm & Blues station.

In church, I sang in the choir. And then my sister was in the Church of God, and if you’ve ever had any dealings with the Church of God, you know how rhythmic they are. Tambourines, drums, cymbals, whatever it is to make the rhythm section. And to me, they had some of the greatest rhythms. That stuck with me. And I used to beat around on my mother’s pots and pans. My aunt was a pianist, and she wanted to teach me piano, but when I was growing up I didn’t think that was for boys. You know what I mean? And how dumb was I, because how many times in my later years I’ve wished that I had learned the piano. Because then all the music that I hear, I could go and write it out. But that was not to be, so I accept that the way it is.

As you know, Mardi Gars started in Mobile. When I was in school, we had the marching band. Now, it was in the segregated years and there were two bands in Mobile that were pitted against each other. And I went out in the spring before ninth grade to see if I could be a musician in the marching band. I told them I was going to be a freshman and wanted to be in the band. And they all looked at me and said, “No, freshman don’t make this band, baby.”

Then Mardi Gras time came. There was a gentleman in that rhythm section—you knew when he started to play, and you knew when he stopped playing. That’s how powerful he was. I walked for about two miles, right beside him at the Mardi Gras parade, watching and listening to what he was doing. I wanted to play just like he was playing. And then when band practice started, I went through and played the cadences. They weren’t written out. Back then in the South, most band directors were horn players. They were geared to he horn section, not the rhythm section. But I had gone out and learned what they were doing, and I made the band. But the thing is, uniforms were passed down, and there was not a uniform for me. So I couldn’t march with the band, but I could practice.

I left Mobile after my sophomore year. My grandmother lived about 70 miles north of Mobile, in Jackson. I went up to live with her, and I played in the marching band there. And we had to go to four different high schools in that county to make one marching band. We would have band practice at the main school in Jackson on a Monday, then Tuesdays I’d go with him to Grove Hill, the next day to Thomasville, the next day to Coffeeville. And I taught all those guys the cadences that we were using for marching band in Mobile, even though we didn’t do a lot of marching with this band. We did do some, though.

I brought up the cadences from Mobile, and we got it together. And that was the year that the band instructor, whose name was E.B. Coleman, said, “You could play a drum set. You have the feel for playing a set of drums.” I said, “Really?”And you’re getting ready to hear about the first set of drums I ever tried to play. We took the high school marching band bass drum. We took two Coke crates and put them on either side of the bass drum. I don’t know where he got the foot pedal from. But then we took a music stand and took the music holder off, and put one of the marching band cymbals on it. We took the marching band snare drum and tied it to a chair. That’s what I started playing.

And I guess we thought we were something, because he got some tunes together for us to play, got a tuba player to carry the bass line, had two trumpets, a saxophone, and myself. We’d play little dances. We’d make sometimes 35 cents apiece. We even got up to 80 cents once; we never got to a dollar. And that was the beginning of me playing. And the more I played, the more I wanted to play. And I never had a lesson in my life. I bought a book and tried to learn how to read, and I could a little bit, but not so much that I could sit down with a sheet of music and play it. It was a blessing. The Lord gave me a talent, and that’s why I’m here today. For someone who’s never had a lesson, I think the Lord’s blessed me pretty well.

I left home and went on the road with Bobby Blue Bland. I recorded basically everything from 1959 up to 1965, everything he cut. And there were also things still on the shelf that came out even after I left the band. And I did some gospel recordings, and recorded with Junior Parker. But with Bobby, we had one of the best bands. For blues gigs at that time, there were Ray Charles, Lloyd Price, and Bobby Bland. Those were the three major bands.

MEETING MR. BROWN

Jabo Starks
James had heard me play with Bobby Bland, and whenever we were on the East Coast and he was near, he’d send one of his people to talk to me and see if I wanted to join his band. And I’d say “Naw, I don’t want to join no James Brown band. Do you see the band I’m playing with? I’m with Bobby Bland, man!” And I have to admit, we were smoking. We had people come out just to hear our band, and after our band finished our set, they left. He kept asking questions and wanting to talk, but I kept saying, “No, I’m with Bobby Bland.”

Well, then I got married in 1960. And it was still a lot of fun, playing with Bobby Bland. But then we had our daughter in 1962. And it stopped being fun. It started being, “Hey, you’ve got family to support now. Things have to start to happen.” When I was playing with Bobby Bland, I’ll tell you what I was making. I’m not ashamed. I was making $22.50 a night. That was the nights that you played—if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid. When you stayed at these different little rooming houses, or we called them short-order motels, you had to pay for that yourself. You had to buy your own food. This is out of $22.50! Doing that chitlin circuit, you learned how to maneuver. You learned places you could go and get a good meal that didn’t cost you an arm and a leg. You knew places to stay.

I told Bobby I had to have a raise, because I had to know how much money I’d have to send home to my wife and my daughter. He had to call the office, and he came back and said, “They’re not going to be able to do it, Jab.” Within the next two or three weeks, James Brown sent another message saying he wanted to talk to me. We sat down and talked, and he said, “I’ve been listening to you, and I know what you’re doing, and I’d like you in my band. Whatever you’re making with Bobby Bland, I’ll double it.” I told him what I was making, and I did kind of fudge it a little bit, you know. Just to be honest with you. He said, “If you decide, here’s my number. Let me know.” I called my wife, and she said, “I know how you feel about Bobby, but it ain’t about that. It’s about business now. But you know what you’re doing, and I trust you. Whatever you decide, that’s what we’ll do.”

I talked to Bobby, and he said, “You know our friendship. Our friendship will never fade. I know how you feel. But business is business, and you’ve got a family, and if this is going to benefit you, take it son. Take it.” He was just beautiful, from the beginning to the end.

Clyde Stubblefield
In Macon I started playing with Percy Welch, Eddie Kirkland, a lot of local bands. Went out with Otis once or twice. I used to hang out at a club where they jammed, Clint Bradley’s club. And one Sunday I decided I’d go down there and jam, and while I was there, someone came up to me and said, “Hey, when you get done, James Brown wants to speak with you.” They were good friends, Mr. Brown and Mr. Bradley. I didn’t know nothing about James Brown, that much. And once I finished that song, I started another one. And then Brown came up and said, “Hey! When you finish I want to talk to you.” So when I finished that song I went and talked to him. He said he wanted to audition me for his band. I didn’t know who James Brown was that much, so he talked to Mr. Bradley and said “I’m going to be playing in Augusta next week, so get him down to Augusta to jam with me.”

Clint Bradley drove me to Augusta. Brown said, “Come on out on the stage.” I got out on stage and the house was packed. And there were five sets of drums! He had five drummers. I got on the end drum set, and he said, “No, come over here by the organ so we can be closer together.” I went over to the organ and jammed with him, and he liked the jamming I did. I went back into the dressing room, and he gave me a hundred dollars. I said, “Damn, thank you!” And I sat around and listened for awhile, and then I came back to Macon.

He told Clint Bradley that he was going to be in touch about a show in North Carolina. He didn’t get back for about a week and I said to myself that it just wasn’t going to happen. But then the next week, Bradley called and said “We need to get you a flight to North Carolina.” I took the flight, and someone picked me up from the airport and took me to the gig. There were the same five drum sets there, but Brown said, “No, you come over here. You’re gonna play something tonight.” And I started playing with him in his show, and people loved it. And I liked it too! And that’s how I got to join James Brown in 1965.

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis
I met Mr. James Brown in Florida. I had moved back to Miami after a while. It was ‘61-ish, and I was playing in this motel. James Brown was traveling back home, and he stopped at the motel I was at. He came over to the band and sat down with me. Apparently James Brown was impressed. It was pretty brief, but it was memorable.

I wasn’t a fan yet. I was still studying BeBop and playing at the hotel in Miami. During that time, I also got to play with Dinah Washington on Miami Beach for a week. A lot of the big artists from the north came down to Miami Beach. It was a booming area.

Martha High
The Jewels became an act to open up the big shows that came through Washington, D.C. We worked with The Parliaments, before they became Parliament/Funkadelic. Gladys Knight and the Pips, Wilson Pickett, Jerry Butler. But we were performing one night at the Howard Theater, and at one point the crowd went crazy, screaming and hollering. And we thought “Oh my gosh, they really like us! We’re putting on a great show!” Come to find out, Mr. Brown had come into the theater. It wasn’t about us; it was about him.

After the show, we were in our dressing room and there was a knock on the door. When we asked who it was, they said, “It’s James Brown.” We opened the door and there he was. We were all excited, and he told us how much he liked the show, and asked all of our names. He said he really enjoyed the show, and told us to keep up the good work. And when he left, we jumped up and down in that dressing room and screamed just like normal teenagers would.

And I started thinking about how I used to go to the Howard Theater to see James Brown. And I’m telling you, it was just amazing. I was such a big fan. From the dancing, to the singing, to how he was dressed, he was just amazing. Now here he is in our dressing room, telling us how much he enjoyed the show. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened in my life.

And if you thought we jumped up and down in Washington, we really let it loose in New York City when James Brown asked us to join his revue. We couldn’t wait to get back home to tell our family.

CREATING THE CLASSICS

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis
Ellis: Well, it wasn’t hard. I did what I had to do in that band. I had to sit on the side of the stage and watch the band for a week before they let me on the stage. It was an exciting band. I mean, they were dancing, and playing, and doing their routines and stuff. It was amazing. BeBop kinda went out the window for a while. I brought what I could bring to the table and tried to add to what he had.

Martha High
He invited us to Carr’s Beach, outside New York City. They used to have big shows in the summer there. After the show, we spoke with Mr. Brown, and he asked us to come out, and we signed a contract. There were five theaters that we called the chitlin circuit—the Howard Theater in Washington D.C., the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Apollo in New York City, and the Regal Theater in Chicago. But instead of doing just those five weeks with him, we ended up staying out with him for about a year and a half, and traveled many different places.

After a year and a half, the other ladies in the group decided they didn’t want to travel any more. But I said, “hey, wait a minute, I’m not ready to go back home. I love traveling with James Brown.” So I went to talk to him. I said, “This is something I’ve dreamed of, and I really love working with you. The girls are leaving, but I was just wondering if there was any way I could stay and work with you.” And he said, “I didn’t fire you. If you want to stay, I’d love for you to stay. In fact, you can be my personal background singer.” I was so excited!

Jabo Starks
Then Clyde came in. I didn’t know who he was, but he said he knew who I was from Bobby Bland. And if you’ve ever heard Clyde play, I play the funk like I play it. I cannot play like Clyde, and Clyde can’t play like I play. We knew that. But it was a different mixture that was added to James’ group. Because Clyde can play funk, man, some kind of way that I don’t know where it came from. Clyde plays Clyde, I’ll put it to you that way. And I play me. I don’t play like anyone else, I don’t even try.

With James Brown, it was business with me. I played his gig the way he asked me, the best that I could, I did what he asked me to do, and I got paid. When we got finished playing, James got on his plane, and he went wherever we were going next, and we got on the bus and went wherever we were going next.

Clyde Stubblefield
I met up with them in New York. I went to the theater, and man, there were five drum sets up there! And I said, “Wait a minute, you’ve got five drummers?” And he said, “Don’t worry about it. You just watch the show, and pay attention. See what’s going on.” But there were really only two guys doing most of the playing—Maceo’s brother Melvin Parker, and a guy named Obie Williams. The other three drummers would play something every now and then. So within the next week, they had me at the center set of drums. Melvin had to go into service, in the army. And then the next thing I knew, there were only three of us.

I met Jabo then. He had been come over from Bobby Blue Bland. And he said, ‘There’s too many drummers here; we’ve got to get rid of some of these drummers.’ So we started knocking off the drummers, and it winded up being just me and Jabo. And we played with him and had a good time. I played on some hits—“Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feeling,” “Give it Up Turn it Loose.” I did a few hits with Brown.

We had gone to Cincinnati to check in to the hotel and relax after a show in Atlanta. And he said, “When we get to Cincinnati, we’re all going to the studio.” And we were all tired. And when we got to the studio in Cincinnati, “Funky Drummer” was what the song was. I just played something, and that was it. But I didn’t like the song. I still don’t really get off on it.

Martha High
Finally he said, “I want you to get another young lady to sing with you. You can’t start until you find one more young lady.” So I went back to D.C. and found someone to sing with me. And he put us on the stage with Lynn Collins, as her backup singers. We were called Lynn Collins and the Soul Twins. And then she left and the other singer left, and I ended up singing behind Mr. Brown all by myself. I did that for maybe 10 years.

Everything I know about singing and performing, I learned from him. I was 18 years old when I joined him. And I was 60 when I left him.

THE PERFECTIONIST

Jabo Starks
I respected his ability to do the things that he wanted to do with his organization. You have to understand he believed in when you walk out on stage, there’s no other band that’s going to out-dress you. He bought all the uniforms. he told you what he wanted you to wear at each show. Then he bought the shoes he wanted you to wear. And if you ever notice, the band did routines. And he watched to see you, and if you goofed up on a routine, he’d tell you off the bet, “That’s 25. That’s 50.” But he said, “Just learn the routines, and once you learn them, they should just be automatic.” Sometimes people would get distracted, and it cost them. He believed in perfection. He used to say, “If you can’t follow my rules, let’s shake hands and part friends, and you go your way and I go mine.” That was just the way it was.

I never paid a fine. I told James, “I don’t pay fines.” And he looked at me and said, “What do you mean?” I said, “This is what you have to understand about me. I don’t work for me; I work for you. You tell me what you want me to do, and how you want me to do it, and when you want me to do it. And I will do that until you change it, not me. But if you fine me, you’re not taking money from me; you’re taking it from my family. And I don’t go that route.” And James looked at me and said, “You know what, Jab? You’re all man. I respect you for that.” And there were plenty of nights that James would miss something, and he’d dance his way back to me and say, “Aaaaah, you got me, didn’t you?” And then he’d turn around, and do it again, and nail it.

Clyde Stubblefield
Yep, that was it. He was hard. He’d fine you so much. If he thought you were doing something wrong, he’d throw up five fingers, or ten fingers, and that’s what he would dock your salary.

Martha High
Working with him as a singer in his show, it was hard because he was a perfectionist. He wanted everything to be right. We had to rehearse a lot. When I started singing backup behind him, it was even harder because we’d go to Augusta, Georgia, and have rehearsals for a week at a time.

He designed the band uniforms himself. He found out I could draw, so he had me come to his dressing room and he’d show me how he wanted the tops, and how he wanted the slacks or the skirts. I would draw them and he’d have them made.

It was quite tight. Everything was the way he could see it, or wanted it. And with all the rehearsals we had, I thought it was for the best because he was known to be the greatest entertainer in the world. And his shows were always tight. If you sang wrong, or played the wrong notes, or did the wrong steps, he could hear it. And you’d get fined.

As I approached the Fairmont Hotel after a day off, I could hear music. And I said, “Oh my God, that’s the band!” I couldn’t believe it; I thought we were off! I went to my room and got dressed in about 15 minutes, and went back down and they were coming off stage. And everybody was looking at me like, “Where were you?” So I stayed in the wings, and finally Mr. Brown came. He looked at me and said, “Ms. High, where were you?” And I said, “Mr. Brown, I thought we were off, and I went to play bingo.” And he looked at me and laughed and said, “Where were you really?” And I said “Mr. Brown, that’s the truth! I thought we were off!” He said, “Alright, that’s enough. $500 fine.” I said “500 dollars???” And he said, “Well, Ms. High, you’re worth a thousand.” So I couldn’t say anything.

But it was all worth it, because he was the best in the world. And now, because of the way I came up with him in that way, I insist on the same things with my band now. I work hard onstage, and I don’t know any other way but to give my all to the audience. He always said, “Ms. High, if you’re performing for 10 people or 10,000, you perform the same way. You don’t slack off, ever.” And that’s the way he was.

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis
He was a hard worker. He was determined to make you like his show. He was determined to impress, inspire, fascinate, and wow the people. He wanted to do everything he could to make it amazing. He was good at it, and he did it well. It was natural. To be able to stand behind Mr. Brown all those years and watch him work was a blessing in itself. It was impressive. It wasn’t really difficult. I stayed out of his way mostly. We had a good relationship. He trusted me, and I let him know that I was on his side.

THE PERFORMER

Clyde Stubblefield
He never missed a show. I was there from ‘65 to ‘69, and he never missed a show. I put my all into those shows, too. Like I say, I wasn’t trying to get big. I was just playing, and enjoying myself. Because we got down, and we cooked.

Martha High
I had had a chance to work with many different artists through the years, before I went on the road with James Brown. But I had never seen anyone with that much charisma, that much style, that much stage presence. I was always in awe when I saw him, before I even joined his show. I’d think, “Where did this man come from?” I’ve never seen anyone dance as fast as he. He had a huge band, and they were just so funky and smooth. I had never seen anything like that. I hadn’t seen such precision with a band. It was just amazing.

And his revues were something different. There weren’t many shows out there, the way he did it. All these people traveled with him. We went to catch the bus once we joined the show, and there were all the dancers, and the singers, and everybody that had joined him. Totally different.

To watch him perform onstage and to see the way he handled his business, it was really amazing.

Jabo Starks
I never saw anybody work as hard as James. I don’t know where he got all that energy. He was on it, man. When they said ‘The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,’ that was him. He lived up to that. Now, I don’t say he was the best singer I ever heard, but you couldn’t outperform him onstage. You can forget about that.

Mr. Dynamite premieres on HBO on October 27.

ShareTweetSubmitPinMore