Brown also knew how to take care of business. When he became dissatisfied with the King label’s ability to get his recordings into stores and onto radio in sufficient numbers, he formed his own Fair Deal Productions in 1964. His next sides went to Smash, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, and some of his biggest hits including “Out of Sight” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” followed. At a time when many African-American performers were getting Cadillacs instead of the royalty checks they’d justly earned, Brown not only controlled his master recordings; he also became his own manager.
Brown’s and Boston’s history became intertwined in 1968. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Violence exploded in major cities as African-Americans reacted in pain and anger. Boston mayor Kevin White feared that the Hub might also burst into flames; racial tensions were already near a flashpoint. He considered canceling all public events, including an April 5 James Brown concert at Boston Garden. After advisors suggested to White that scrapping Brown’s show could, itself, be tinder for a riot, the mayor visited the Godfather to ask if they could work together to keep the peace. After network TV stations declined, local PBS affiliate WGBH volunteered to broadcast the show.
Brown soothed his mourning audience by dedicating the concert to King and delivering a million-watt performance packed with hits. He invited White to speak to the crowd and the cameras. And when frenzied fans went wild and rushed the stage, Brown assured police that he could handle things himself and talked the crowd back into their seats.
But Brown’s politics were perplexing. He performed often for US troops abroad, including tours of Vietnam, but endorsed Richard Nixon’s second-term election bid.
Brown’s last chart hit was “Living in America,” which reached number four on Billboard’s Top 40 chart and won his second Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording in 1985. That year he also became one of the first inductees in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Although the hits stopped coming, the accolades continued. Brown got a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992 and Kennedy Center Honors in 2003. He kept performing until the end and was scheduled to appear in New York City on New Year’s Eve.
His personal life also earned Brown attention. In the 1970s he got whacked for back taxes by the IRS and was compelled to sell his Lear Jet and three radio stations to pay $4.5-million. And his oldest son Teddy died in a 1973 car crash. In ’87, high on PCP, he interrupted a seminar in the office building he owned brandishing a gun and led police on a chase that landed him in prison once again. Eight years ago, after firing a rifle and another police pursuit, he was sentenced to a 90-day drug rehab program. And in 2004 he was charged with domestic violence against his wife, Tomi Rae Hynie. In a final bizarre twist, Hynie and their five-year-old son, James Brown II, were locked out of Brown’s home by his attorneys — who claim Hynie and Brown’s marriage is invalid — the day after his death.