Prostitutes and Preachers: The Spiritual Childhood of James Brown

By James Brown (1933-2006)

Excerpt from James Brown: The Godfather of Soul(Macmillen 1986)

In Augusta, Georgia, Aunt Minnie and I lived with another aunt of mine in a house at 944 Twiggs Street. That’s one place I will never forget. Outside, Highway 1 ran right by the door. You could go all the way to New York on that highway. Inside, there was gambling, moonshine liquor, and prostitution. I wasn’t quite six years old.

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My aunt who had the house on Twiggs Street was named Handsome Washington, but everybody called her Honey. She was very intelligent, and she supported a lot of people. We had about twelve to fifteen men staying there, in and out, and the woman ran the house because she was the most intelligent. A lot of the men were ex-farm workers who couldn’t get jobs, and Honey just fed ’em all. She fed a lot of the people who lived in Helmuth Alley behind the house, too – young mothers who needed things. She brought them meat and sugar, and she gave them money for groceries. And she loved the children.

Honey just didn’t want to see anybody hungry.

**
Honey was a good woman and Iloved her to death, but she was a madam with other things on her mind. It was Aunt Minnie who acted more like a mother to me. I shared a room upstairs with Aunt Minnie, away from what was going on downstairs. She read to me, talked to me, held me close. I’d lie there and daydream and tryto envision something better. I felt terrible about what went on in that house. I knew people could live a lot cleaner, because I saw some who did, and I wanted to be like them.

**
We were just trying to survive.

That’s what everything that went on in that house – gambling, bootlegging, prostitution – was about: survival. Some people call it crime, I call it survival. It’s the same thing goes on right today in the ghetto. You can see kids standing on corners selling marijuana. You get it in a bag, and the funny thing is that the bag says “Church Offering.” That’s what hard times bring – makes pimps and prostitutes out of preachers. Prostitute don’t have to be a person who lays down. A prostitute can be a prostitute for whatever.

One of the things that helped me to survive in those days was music. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was so. I wasn’t thinking about music as a career or anything like that, it was just there in the community, and I fell into it, the way you will. At home I sang gospel with Junior and a fellow named Cornelius. We sang “Old Jonah,” “Old Blind Barnabas,” things like that, and tried to imitate the Five Trumpets and the Golden Gate Quartet. Really, gospel is what got me over, especially after I went to prison.

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I liked gospel and pop songs best of all. …

I heard a lot of church music, too, because I went to all the different churches with a crippled man named Charlie Brown who lived in one of the shacks in Helmuth Alley. He had to walk with two sticks or with somebody on each side holding his arms. On Sundays when we weren’t shining shoes, Junior and I walked Mr. Charlie to one or another of the churches because they’d take up collections for people like him.

At the churches there was a lot of singing and handclapping and usually an organ and tambourines, and then the preacher would really get down. I liked that even more than the music. I had been to a revival service and had seen a preacher who really had a lot of fire. He was just screaming and yelling and stomping his foot and then he dropped to his knees.The peoplegot into it with him, answering him and shouting and clapping time. After that, when I went to church with Mr. Charlie, I watched the preachers real close. Then I’d go home and imitate them because I wanted to preach. I thought that was the answer to it.

Audience participation in church is something the darkerrace of people has going because of a lot of trials and tribulations, because of things that we understand about human nature. It’s something I can’t explain, but I can bring it out of people. I’m not the only person who has the ability, but I work at it, and I’m sure a lot of my stage show came out of the church.

One thing I never saw in the churches was drums until I went to Bishop Grace’s House of Prayer. Those folks were sanctified – they had the beat. See, you got sanctified and you got holy. Sanctified people got more fire; holy people are more secluded – sort of like Democrats versus Republicans. I’m holy myself, but I have a lot of sanctified in me.

Bishop Grace was a big man, the richest and most powerful of that kind of preacher in the country, bigger than Father Divine or any of them. He had houses of prayer in more than thirty cities in the East and South, and he had these “Grace Societies” that just took in the money. Every year when he came back to Augusta there was a monstrous parade down Gwinnett Street for him, with decorated floats and cars and brass bands. Everybody in the Terry turned out for it, and other people came from as far away as Philadelphia to march in it. You could join in it with your car or, if you had a musical instrument, you could fall in with one of the bands.

He was called “Daddy” Grace, and he was like a god on earth. He wore a cape and sat on a throne on the biggest float, with people fanning him while he threw candy and things to the children. He had long curly hair, and real long fingernails, and suits made out of money.

His House of Prayer on Wrightsboro Road in Augusta resembled a warehouse. A sign over the door said: “Great joy! Come to the House of Prayer and forget your troubles.” And everybody did come at one time or another, even people who didn’t believe in him, because he put on such a show. Inside there were plank benches, a dirt floor covered with sawdust and crepe paper streamers on the ceiling. At one end there was a stage where Daddy Grace sat on a red throne.

He’d get to preaching and the people would get in a ring and they’d go round and round and go right behind one another, just shouting. Sometimes they’d fall out right there in the sawdust, shaking and jerking and having convulsions. The posts in the place were padded so the people wouldn’t hurt themselves. There was a big old tin tub sitting there, too, and every time they went by the tub, they threw something in it. See who could give the most. Later on he had various big vases out there, like urns, one for five-dollar bills, one for tens and twenties, and one for hundreds. It seemed like the poorest people sacrificed the most for him.

Daddy Grace had to be a prophet, but seeing him I knew I was an outsider because I couldn’t believe in him. I believed in God, so that made me an outsider right away.

He had his house behind the church, and behind the house was a big pool where he baptized people. Instead of baptizing them just once, he baptized them over and over. Some people had so much faith in him that they took water out of that pool and carried it home by the gallon and drank it when they got sick. They paid for some kind of blessed papers that he put out, too, to put on themselves like a poultice.

That pool was the first place I ever swam in my life. We’dgive him a dollar and he’d let us swim in there. They let him get away with that. But he brought a lot of trade to that city, and that’s what it was about – trade. Like the Masters Golf Tournament. Elections. Or James Brown.

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Eventually the government began to crack down on houses like ours…. She never would tell us straight out, but we knew it had something to do with the soldiers and whiskey and the women. I guess the place really was a hellhole, but when you’re a kid your home is home even if it’s a roadhouse, and I was sorry to see it broken up.

Excerpted from James Brown: The Godfather of Soul(Macmillen 1986)

 

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