Could anything salvage the waning career of Mr. Brown?

by Jack Neely

It was a damp, chilly Sunday night in December exactly 25 years ago, a night for a Sunday-school eggnog party or the Bob Hope Christmas special, with Redd Foxx and Elke Sommer, on Channel 6. But to more than 1,000 Knoxvillians, it was a night to get down.

At the Civic Coliseum, Kick Radio WJBE was presenting In Person, The Living Legend, The Man, The Humanitarian, The World's Greatest Entertainer with his Entire All-Star Revuea, JAMES BROWN.

It was an awkward moment in Brown's career. Some white fans of his early rock 'n' roll had been startled by Brown's aggressive radio hit, "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud." But many of his black supporters had been more appalled in '72 when Brown announced his support for President Nixon's re-election. The most expensive tickets, right up front, were $5; you could get in for $2. Still, only 1,500 skipped Bob Hope to see James Brown.

He gave a long show, finishing at 11:30 p.m. About an hour later, in the parking area behind the Civic Coliseum, several Knoxville police officers scuffled with some black men and arrested three of them. Two of those arrested were members of James Brown's entourage, including Brown's road manager. The third man arrested that night was James Brown.

He wasn't just passing through. Now in his 40s, James Brown was a part-time Knoxvillian, with five years' experience as owner and president of Knoxville's black radio station. WJBE began broadcasting in early '68 in the lobby of the old Farragut Hotel downtown. Personalized with the owner's initials, WJBE 1430 AM played soul, gospel, jazz, plus talk shows on issues concerning the black community, often with Brown's own personal commentary.

WJBE became the flagship of a small chain of James Brown radio stations around the country. By the time of the 1972 show the station sponsored, WJBE had moved to a four-acre plot on Prosser Road in East Knoxville.

In his memoirs, James Brown recalls WJBE proudly—but also recounts "a very disturbing incident...after a concert in Knoxville."

The Civic Coliseum management claimed the contract called for Brown and his band to be out of the hall by 11:59 p.m. after the Dec. 10 show. They weren't. Brown claimed the rule was racially based. "That was like waving a red flag in front of me," he writes. "Since I had a radio station there, I voiced some very strong opinions, and they didn't like it." Witnesses later stated they were "taken aback" by his profanity.

"After my concert," Brown recalls, "I was standing in the parking lot signing autographs and rapping with the fans about community things. There was an old fella who ran the Knoxville Coliseum and he wanted me away from there. He called the police and told 'em a story about inciting a riot." What happened next is so peculiar we'd better leave it up to JB to describe it. "All of a sudden a bunch of police cars came sweeping into the lot, and the officers came out with shotguns. One started snatching me around and pushing me around. It was strange because I had a .38 in my pocket that I carried for protection.

"The police beat two of my people...but they didn't beat me. If they had, I'd be dead today because I would have shot 'em, and then they would've mowed me down with those shotguns.... They took me downtown and booked me for inciting a riot and threw me in a cell. The funny thing was they didn't search me. They locked me up with that .38 in my pocket. If they had come in the cell that night to beat me, I would have shot them coming in. I never could figure out why all that happened because they were just dead wrong from the start. I've never been able to put my finger on it. The only thing I could figure was that it was because I had the radio station there. The whole incident, coming when it did, really depressed me because it turned me against the system a little bit."

Held briefly in the Knoxville jail, the well-armed prisoner made his $250 bond and left town. Within days, Brown was threatening Knoxville with a $1 million civil-rights lawsuit. Knoxville's young mayor, Kyle Testerman, offered a conciliatory overture, calling the incident an unfortunate "combination of misunderstandings," and invited Brown's representatives to see him at City Hall, a meeting scheduled for noon the day after Christmas. Brown's representatives arrived, but only after the building closed at 4:30, pleading travel delays.

Citing the no-show, Testerman accused Brown of "ungentlemanly" behavior and vowed he would "waste no more time with individuals interested more in publicity than tranquility."

"I unequivocally state here and now," Testerman declared, "that the good name and good faith of the city of Knoxville will not be defamed for the purpose of rebuilding the waning career of Mr. Brown." He hinted darkly that he would talk to the FCC about WJBE's license.

Brown responded on the air. "I was very much surprised, because I thought the Mayor was the kind of man who wanted to bring it to a head," Brown said on WJBE. "I feel very sad and very sorry for him.... Racism is worse than communism. You're dealing with racism in Knoxville."

Criminal charges were dropped, but Brown's civil-rights lawsuit against the City of Knoxville eventually failed in two federal courts. After legal and tax problems, Brown gave up WJBE in the late '70s. But Mayor Testerman's assessment of Brown's "waning career" was a little off. Since 1972, James Brown has sold millions of records worldwide and is now acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in modern music. Even in his late 60s, he draws audiences much bigger than the one he played for that chilly night at the Civic Coliseum in 1972.