Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Ten years without The Godfather of Soul
A few months ago, I wrote about my experiences with the legendary James Brown. This has been the most requested column, and since we are approaching the tenth anniversary of his passing, I thought I would once again share my most interesting experience with “The Godfather of Soul.”
I have been so fortunate to have shared so many backstage experiences with some of the biggest names in showbiz. And I have really enjoyed sharing many of those stories with you. I have been doing this for 25-plus years, and many of these stories come from accounts I wrote down at the time, or my impeccable memory, or memories shared with me by those who were also a part of the experience.
And as the years go by, these accounts can get a bit blurred, and since many of them happened before the advent of the internet, the “backup” is tough to find sometimes. But I was recently majorly surprised when I received an email from Jay B. Ross, one of the most prominent entertainment attorneys in the country. His office is in Chicago and he was James Brown’s attorney for many years.
I have shared stories about shows I did with James Brown about 15 years ago, yet I only had a photo or two that represented my days with The Godfather of Soul. But it turns out that Ross was present on one fateful concert day, backstage, videotaping! He recently posted it on YouTube, and there I was, hanging with the legend! And he sent the video to me years later!
Every time my car radio blasts the Brown staple “I Got You (I Feel Good),” I gotta turn it up! Undoubtedly, this is one of the most recognizable songs in history by one of the most colorful personalities in music history. If I am at a wedding or a party and the song comes on, I shuffle my feet emulating his signature moves, and I am brought back to one of the high points in my showbiz journey.
It was the summer of 2002 and we were rockin’ at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero. We produced a concert series there every summer for years with some of the biggest names in country, rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. Of the 30-plus shows we did, one stands out as a career moment. It was with “The hardest working man in show business,” James Brown.
We built a stage right in the center of the racetrack. It was an awesome concept that added excitement to the already cool experience of “The sport of kings,” horse racing. We had to do sound checks in between the times the horses did their practice runs on the track. This was an environment where million-dollar thoroughbreds galloped, and the track caretakers were on a first-name basis with every blade of grass. So the tension was already high.
The electricity in the air that day was something I had never experienced before. First of all, about 25 gentlemen in suits and bow ties showed up early, establishing themselves as “Mr. Brown’s personal security force.” Who was I to argue? Then, with an illusion of a musical fanfare that just played in my head, a convoy of four limousines came across the course at a slow, attention-grabbing pace.
The cars surrounded the construction-trailers-turned-into-dressing-rooms compound we created. Hoping to meet “the man,” I approached the limo to which I was met with a blank stare from a bow-tied gentleman the size of a small Ford truck. Lucky for him, I backed off. They whisked someone in a robe and wrapped in a towel into the dressing room — kind of a strange entrance, but it had been strange there all morning.
There are countless stories about entertainer contract riders — you know, the “green M&M’s” demands, etc. Among the extensive list of upscale food, high-end liquor and fine champagne on Brown’s list of demands was one of those table-model hair dryers. You know, the ones our moms used at the local hair salon that fit completely over their heads. I spent two weeks seeking this item out, finally finding one in a resale shop on Cicero Avenue.
When a blue jump-suited James emerged from the dressing room, I realized that retro-hair dryer was not for the female backup singers, it was to properly form the helmet-style quaff he sported. Now it made sense.
He approached me and gave me the two-finger-fist “peace and love” gesture. We walked together surveying the track stage. He kept nodding and smiling.
It was an intimate conversation … It was just me, James and about 40 of his closest friends (in bow ties). “You put this together?” he asked in an Eddie Murphy fashion. “You a genius. Gamblin’, horses, drinkin’ and James Brown … you a genius! People here gonna love it,” he said. He was a lot warmer than I expected.
The show was something I had never seen before, and have not seen since. The stage was full of people … I mean FULL! Each side had a complete band! I am talking two drummers, two bass players, two horn sections, several guitar players and a slew of backup singers! The volcanic sound was crazy, a visual and audio extravaganza!
Then this small-framed man in a suit and a wide-brimmed hat slowly walked onto the stage, grasped the microphone and proclaimed to the euphoric audience that “Right about now, its star time.” He continued with a goose bump-creating intro that ended with “Ladies and gentlemen, The Godfather of Soul, Jaaaaaaaaames Brown!”
He exploded onto the stage and for two solid hours did not stop. Hit after hit after hit, legendary instrumentals and the ever-so-entertaining interaction with the band members. It was exhausting! I literally had to pull the power on the show … the horses needed to take the track back!
Then the person who introduced him came back on stage at the end of “Please, Please, Please” and covered the perspiration-drenched Godfather, who was on his knees, with a red cape, a tradition Danny Ray had performed since the two met at New York City’s Apollo Theatre in 1960.
Danny Ray and I spent some time with the soul icon after the show. “Why in the world does he use two bands,” I asked.
“He has for most of his career,” Danny Ray said. “James always worked so hard, he would wear out the musicians.” Boy, did that make sense!
As the show ended and his entourage pulled away, I went into the dressing room to see if any of that $800 of food and liquor was left. It was clean. The only thing left was an interesting piece of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia that still sits on a dusty shelf in my garage today. If anyone needs a helmet-style hair dryer from the Sixties, give me a call!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.