Venisha Brown (left) and Deanna Brown-Thomas
To us, he was the ‘Godfather of Soul.’ To them, he was just ‘Daddy.’ Two of his daughters remember James Brown.
At the September 17 opening of the “Say It Loud: The Genius of James Brown” exhibit at the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A., the youngest five of James Brown’s eight children were in attendance: daughters Venisha, Deanna and Yamma, and sons Darryl and James “Little Man” Brown, 10. [Two other sons, Terry and Larry, were not there. His firstborn, son Teddy, passed away in a car accident in 1973.]
At times during a recent phone interview, Venisha Brown and Deanna Brown-Thomas, both of whom currently reside in the Augusta, Ga. area, eerily imitated their father’s voice, first by recalling two of his favorite mottos — “Respect yourself and your music” and “Keep it clean for mama.”
LAS: Where did those come from?
Deanna: In the late ’80s/early ’90s, a lot of sampling had started happening. And of course Dad [then and now] is the most sampled artist in the world! And the record companies would … charge the rappers to sample. However, [Dad] never got paid for it, nor did the record companies ask his permission. Now granted, my dad was very excited and felt very honored and humbled. However, it was important to him that his music be equated with things that are positive —nothing dirty, disrespectful or nasty … He never wanted his music to be used with profanity …
[She then cited a few recent examples.]
LAS: Another thing you mentioned at the Museum was about the James Brown ?Annual Turkey Giveaway and the James Brown Annual Toy Giveaway. Those are two different events?
Deanna: Yes. He started those 21 years ago in Augusta, where he grew up. The turkey giveaway is on James Brown Boulevard, and the toy giveaway is at the James Brown Arena … There were a couple of sponsors, but Dad always put up most of the money out of his pocket.
[To learn more about them, go to www.JamesBrownFamilyFDN.org]
LAS: Those [events] really point up your dad’s legendary generosity, don’t they?
Deanna: One time we were in a limo driving down Crenshaw Boulevard, and Dad had the limo driver stop the car … There was a row of homeless people laid out on the sidewalk — under covers, cardboards … And he got out and started walking towards them. They looked like dead people coming up out of the ground! … And he went in his pocket and just started giving out $50 and $100 bills!
Venisha recalled a time that her dad took her down James Brown Boulevard to see people that he had grown up with in Augusta who didn’t make it out of the hood, saying: “My dad was just a giving and caring person and, as God blessed him, he passed his blessings down to those less fortunate …
LAS: What did you all call him?
Deanna: When I was younger, I called him ‘Daddy.’ When I had my son, he became ‘Dad.’
Venisha: I never got out of that. I called him ‘Daddy’!
LAS: When Bootsy was at a Grammy Museum Q&A a couple of months ago, he said being in the band was like being in the military. Was he like that at home?
Deanna/Venisha: [Brief pause, then nearly in unison … ] Yes! [followed by gales of laughter].
Deanna: I tell you what: My daddy only spanked me once … because he had the kind of voice and presence that when he walked in the room and said what he had to say … He only had to say it one time … It was something about that voice … Venisha: Like Deanna said, when he came in, his voice, his whole presence, you know … I was petrified. He was a strict father.
LAS: When did you realize that your dad was the James Brown?
Deanna: I was actually in college. I had to do a report, and I was in the library and I was looking through this encyclopedia and I just happened to have the ‘B’ section open, and I was flipping through, reading about my dad [biographical info] and then it started naming his kids. And I was like, ‘Oh, hell, I’m in the daggone encyclopedia,’ something that’s gonna be around forever … ’ cause he was just Daddy to me. It just hit me like a ton of bricks …
Venisha: I really didn’t realize who my father was until after he passed away!
V: I really couldn’t grasp what everybody felt … Of course, don’t get me wrong: When I saw him on the stage, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s my father,’ so I felt proud to have him as my father, still not really grasping who he really was. And he did say that, ‘Y’all don’t really know who I am, but one day you will.’ And the day my father died, that’s when it came to me who my father really was … to the world …
LAS: Did you ever see anyone teach him something?
Deanna: My nieces and my son teaching him how to do the latest dances!
Deanna to Venisha: One time we were somewhere and Daddy asked you to dance, then he quick told you to stop dancing ’cause you were ‘bout to show him out ‘cause he couldn’t dance that fast anymore!
LAS to Venisha: When you got up on that [Grammy Museum] stage and started dancing? It was almost creepy [how much you looked and danced like him]!
Venisha: It’s funny you say that ‘cause me and my dad had our little moments when it would just be me and him, and I remember I was at his house one time … and he was just looking at me, just looking at me, squinting his eyes, and I’m thinking something’s wrong – like Daddy, what’s wrong? — And he said, ‘You look so much like me, it’s scary!’
There’s one thing that my dad said — whether he said to make me feel good … When he was rehearsing one time and one of my favorites — “Sex Machine” — was playing. Now, when you hear a James Brown song, I don’t care if you’re his child or whatever, you’re gonna move! …
And I was on the sidelines and [my] legs got to moving, and he stopped the band and looked at me and said [sounding just like him], ‘Where did you learn how to dance like that?’
And somebody asked him one time, Mr. Brown, is there anybody that you think might dance better than you, and my dad said, Yeah, my daughter [Venisha].
LAS: Your father, in my humble opinion, invented funk — if not invented it, he perfected funk. If he wasn’t formally musically trained, how do you, as his daughters, explain this?
Deanna: The only thing I can say that he got that from, is God … See, Daddy was stillborn in a shack in South Carolina, and the midwife that delivered him had laid him down [because she thought he was dead] … and then all of a sudden you heard “Owww! … ”
LAS: I guess the only thing left to say was, “Hit me!” By the way, what were your favorite songs by your dad?
Deanna: “Don’t Be a Dropout”!
Venisha: “Cold Sweat”!