True Confessions of a former mayor: How the Godfather of Soul lent his coolness, love and funk to my campaign.
In my first year in office I met Mr. James Brown the Godfather of Soul on April 18, 2006 when he served as the honorary starter for the Tour De Georgia leg that opened in Augusta. His first words to me were that he “knew my people” and that I was so “new and now” and that “this town ain’t never gonna hold ya’!”. As a lifelong fan I was just blown away by his aura, his knowledge and his passion for his hometown, a place that didn’t always give him his rightful due. We immediately struck up a kinship through a mutual love for music and a shared love of Augusta. From that moment forward I took every opportunity I had to thank him for his contributions to the city as he took every opportunity he had to show his love for Augusta to a worldwide audience while at the same time revolutionizing the world of music and establishing a legacy that lives on to this very day.
My first memory of Mr. Brown following our first meeting was receiving a package in the mail from him from Ireland where he was on tour. It was a small clock with a golfer on it and the inscription “Longest Drive”. I really didn’t need to know why he thought to send me a gift but was just blown away by the idea that Mr. Brown had even taken the time to give me a second thought on one of his many world tours. Needless to say, I still treasure that clock to this very day.
The next time I recall hearing from him was in the early fall of that year when I had a message to call him. Once again, I was astounded that the Godfather of Soul was reaching out to me. As I called him on my cell on the way home from work I remember the conversation vividly as we discussed music, religion and politics or basically all of the topics that many polite southerners were taught to steer clear of in social conversation. At one point Mr. Brown stopped and said “Man Deke, you’re just like a Kennedy! Black people love you!”. Coming from someone who had been an integral part of those tumultuous times in the sixties, no cooler words have ever been spoken to me before or since.
We next were together on October 15, 2006 for the dedication of the James Brown Arena as our local civic center was renamed in his honor. I’ll never forget that he asked me to speak first on the program. Having run to fulfill an unexpired term the prior year the honor Mr. Brown bestowed upon me came during the midst of my second mayoral campaign. The prior year the point had been made that I had “crossed over” in the mayor’s race as races here had historically gone more or less along racial lines. After I had spoken, Mr. Brown took the time to share with the crowd his support for me and his heartfelt feelings on the job I was doing as mayor. Leading up to that point I had many members of the African-American community share quietly with me that they had supported me and would again in that election. However, after the Godfather did what he did in his own special way I’ll never forget how that support turned vocal with people throughout the crowd coming up to me after the ceremony letting me know that they wanted yard signs as soon as possible. A seminal moment in my life simply made possible by the love and support of my friend Mr. James Brown.
Following a strong victory that November I had two more meetings with the Godfather of Soul in early December of 2006. One where we were guests on a local cable access show and he brought his newly minted UK Music Hall of Fame Award which it awed me to hold in my hand. The next was at his final James Brown Christmas Toy Giveaway where we, along with his family and friends, distributed toys to children the Thursday before his passing on Christmas morning. I’ll never forget our final on camera interview and him telling me before we went on that he had the chills on what to me was one of those muggy, rainy days that you can only get in winters in the south.
That Monday Christmas morning the phone rang at my father-in-law’s house where my wife and I had spent the night for Christmas Eve. It was a local TV station calling to let me know that Mr. Brown had passed and requesting an interview. We were having the whole family over to our house for Christmas that day and had set a policy of not doing interviews from the house. For my friend Mr. Brown I broke that policy that morning and I’ll never forget doing that interview in our den in front of the fireplace and sharing with the reporter that in the wake of his passing now local citizens would have the opportunity to see what this man meant to the world.
In the days leading up to his homegoing service at the Arena now named in his honor, our city team planned furiously for an event that would be befitting of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business knowing that the world would be watching. On that Saturday a capacity crowd gathered in unity for a four hour service to say good-bye to a musical icon and a man that was dedicated to helping his community. For many of those hours the world watched as CNN went live to televise the service attended by politicians, musicians, comedians and just your average man on the street who wanted to pay their respects. I remember thinking how proud I was of our city for giving this great man the respect that he so well deserved and that Mr. Brown was smiling down from heaven.
In the end I will always carry a feeling of gratitude and love in my heart for a man I had always admired and who’s friendship I truly valued. I also came to understand fully in that wonderful season of my life what it meant to have the blessing of the Godfather.