Soul City: The Spirit of James Brown Rises In Augusta, GA.
“When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy. Just like church does. People don’t go to church to find trouble, they go there to lose it.” ~ James Brown
It was a night unlike any other in Augusta, Georgia as the Godfather of Soul’s hometown came together as one to pay tribute to an international musical icon and favorite son while having a mind-blowingly funky good time in the process. As I spoke that night to artists, organizers, attendees and crew members one common theme kept emerging. The night was more than special, it was spiritual.
With more than two thousand six-hundred fans packing the historic Bell Auditorium, a place Mr. Brown knew well as a venue and rehearsal space, the spirit in the room manifested itself in smiles, hugs, dancing, tears and a sense of solidarity running through those gathered the likes of which this city had not seen since his home-going service ten years earlier. The joy he had sought to bring people through his music permeated the room as the artists took the stage with a reunited James Brown Band, led by guitarist and maestro Keith Jenkins, whose ultra tight performance would have no doubt made Mr. Brown proud. On this night people didn’t go to this scintillating show to find trouble, they went there to lose it. And lose it they did in a big way.
Having grown up in Augusta I had always been a fan of James Brown and as mayor of the city I was blessed to call him a friend prior to his passing in December of 2006. For years, Mr. Brown’s family, friends and fans throughout our city had wondered how best to do something to properly honor a man who had revolutionized the world of music and achieved worldwide fame yet never forgotten where he came from along the way. A man who never missed an opportunity to promote his beloved Augusta to a worldwide audience deserved something special, something unique and something that brought people of all generations, creeds and colors together. Several attempts had been made without quite hitting the mark, but the determination of Augusta to honor his legacy in a manner befitting one of the most influential musicians the world has ever known never diminished.
The idea to rekindle the James Brown Family Birthday Bash came from a simple “ah-ha” moment local music promoter George Claussen had after attending a 2015 New Year’s Eve Phish concert at Madison Square Garden. Following the concert, there was a James Brown Dance Party and George, a young entrepreneur with great vision, simply thought: “Why are we not doing this in Augusta?”. From a simple question came a mountain of work by George and his team to put together an event that Mr. Brown and his hometown would be proud of.
With only a few months to prepare, George first went to Keith who got the band back together after talking to Deanna Brown Thomas, Mr. Brown’s lovely daughter and the head of the James Brown Family Foundation. With the band in place and the blessing of the Brown family, George began to sign on the artists for what would ultimately become an historic event and a local milestone in creating a platform to grow our city’s efforts to honor his legacy and to promote the city he loved in the process. After Sharon Jones, a legendary r & b performer in her own right from the Augusta area described as an heir to the legacy of James Brown, signed on the line-up began to take shape with the editions of George Porter Jr., Ivan Neville, Ty Taylor, Jennifer Hartswick, Chris Rob, Funk You and Greg Hester as special guests. On February 16th the event was announced and the excitement and anticipation began to build.
As we neared the event I reflected back on the tangible impact Mr. Brown had on my life and on the life of the City of Augusta. I thought back to the gracious way he had publicly stated his support for me during the ceremony to rename our local arena in his honor and what that had meant in the midst of a campaign by a young newcomer to politics. I relived our conversations about religion and politics and the short but intense times we had spent together. Yet the memory that stuck out most for me was an ongoing conversation we had had since the day we met about music and its transformational power to bring people together in a sense and spirit of community.
In the weeks leading up to the event a team made up of Mr. Brown’s friends and longtime supporters including local music impresario CoCo Rubio, radio host Austin Rhodes, local businessman Brian Brittingham and the aforementioned Keith James and Deanna Brown Thomas, to name just a few, worked overtime putting the final touches on the Bash. It was during those final weeks that George shared with me his feeling that the show should be free to the public in order to truly be a gift to Augusta and to James Brown fans everywhere. I agreed with him and we discussed ways to make this happen including potentially going to the city for further support.
After our discussion and a lot of time to consider things during several hours spent in the car on the way out of town that weekend, I ended up making a decision that I wasn’t sure was the best one but that I knew was the right one. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I continued to owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Brown for his support for, and encouragement of, me all those years ago so I now had the opportunity to pay it back by paying it forward. I called George that night and shared with him that my fledgling company, Copenhaver Consulting LLC, would come on as a major sponsor so that we would be able to make the Bash free to the public. I had long been focused on the fact that the mission of my business had always been to help build stronger communities at all levels. In the end my gut just told me that this event would provide the perfect example for cities everywhere to see how the power of music can be used to bring citizens from all walks of life together in harmony and on one accord.
When I look back on that night there are many things that stand out for me as highlights. Seeing Funk You, my friends and one of my favorite local bands, open the show provided one while seeing the James Brown Academy of Music Pupils (JAMP) electrify the crowd with their performance provided another. Catching up with Danny Ray, Mr. Brown’s “Cape Man”, was a special moment as he shared how happy the evening would have made his old boss. Watching Sharon Jones, the James Brown Band and every other musician that took the stage tear the roof off with their performances sent chills up my spine and a month later I still have people telling me that it was the best show they’ve ever been to.
However, the best part of the evening for me was seeing the spirit of a man whose life was never easy and who dealt with his fair share of controversy simply take over the room and bring together an entire city for a shining moment that none who attended will ever forget. The power of community was on full display as young, old, black, white, rich and poor joined together to celebrate the life, the legacy and the birthday of Mr. James Brown. The next day, there was a picture posted online which was worth a thousand words for me: after a storm had passed early in the evening there was a rainbow over the Bell Auditorium as the concert began. Mr. Brown was smiling down from heaven.
The next day, George told me that he had never been prouder of a concert that he had put together and that he felt like Mr. Brown was actually there. Based on the pure joy I felt in the room that night and the looks on the faces of those in attendance who were all a part of something much bigger than ourselves, I can guarantee you the spirit of James Brown was not only in the house, he brought it down.