A young, long-haired rock guitarist finds the funk on stage with the Godfather of Soul
In this unvarnished account of toiling under one of popular music’s most notorious bosses, Damon Wood details his six years spent playing guitar for James Brown’s Soul Generals.
In a memoir certain to fascinate Mr. Dynamite’s millions of fans, as well as musicians and industry insiders, Wood recalls how a chance encounter with James Brown led him to embrace soul and funk music under the tutelage of its greatest progenitor. Numerous interviews with bandmates provide multiple perspectives on James Brown’s complex character, his leadership of his band, the nature of soul and funk, and insights and sometimes harsh lessons learned along the way.
This is a sideman’s story of the gritty reality of working close to the spotlight but rarely in it. Damon Wood describes life on the road — often on James Brown’s infamous tour bus — with one guitar, a change of clothes, and two dozen comrades-in-arms as they brought the funk to clubs, theaters, and the biggest music festivals on earth. Working for James Brown could be fear-inducing, inspiring, exhilarating, and exasperating — all in the space of a single performance.
Trial by Funk
“Welcome, son! We’re gonna have a good time tonight!”
James Brown called out to me as he approached from across the stage. I’d known him professionally for a little over a year, but I hadn’t seen him for eight months. We were on a multi-level stage in the open-air Earth Theatre in Thessaloniki, Greece. Mr. Brown had arrived several days earlier without his two “go-to” guitarists, prompting him to call me to fill in. Mr. Brown, as he preferred to be called, seemed genuinely glad to see me, and he was his usual smartly dressed, perfectly coifed self. In contrast, I wore faded jeans and a nice set of bloodshot eyes, having just flown halfway ’round the world on a moment’s notice. I knew that Mr. Brown did not like jeans, but he diplomatically ignored my appearance. He was aware that I’d just spent the better part of a day flying through multiple time zones with only a change of clothes and a guitar to answer his call — “the call” I’d been working for and waiting for all my life.
“We’ll tell you what key we’re in,” Mr. Brown assured me. “We’ll give you a few solos. The guys will show you the stuff. You’ll be fine, son. Don’t worry about a thing.”
Mr. Brown was smiling, clearly at ease, and now he had a guitarist who could deliver the trademark “chank” sound so integral to his funky grooves. Mr. Brown knew I didn’t know his whole show. But I’d been on stage with him a half dozen times in the past year or so, and he knew I’d been studying his music. I’d seen several of his shows by then and opened shows for him, backing his protégé and current companion, Tomi Rae Hynie. I’d met most of the band and most of them knew me. They also knew I couldn’t be truly familiar with the James Brown show because of how complex and ever-changing it was, even for them. But I was welcome to give it my best, and everyone made me feel like I could pull it off. Mr. Brown radiated so much confidence that I undoubtedly absorbed some. Perhaps he could see that I was a crazy mix of fatigue and nerves. At this point, I knew enough not to ask him what had happened to his two guitarists. Within 24 hours I’d know the story, and over the next seven years I would live my own version of it. But right now I had to get through a sound check. Then I’d clean up, grab a bite to eat, and learn whatever my bandmates could teach me in the two hours remaining before show time. I kept telling myself: I had to survive the night. Who knew where things might lead? As it turned out, I rarely looked back for the next seven years; facing forward took everything I had. Only now, more than 18 years after I joined James Brown onstage in Thessaloniki, does the whirlwind that began that afternoon make sense.
My adventure began in late June 1999. I had been quarreling with my girlfriend at her apartment in Las Vegas, my hometown, when the phone rang. Miss Ware at James Brown Enterprises was on the line. “Can you go to Europe for Mr. Brown?” The tone was like, “Can you do Mr. Brown a favor?” It was the call every musician dreams of. I gave the only answer a sane man would give. “Sure!” Then I added, “W-when?” Miss Ware said, “You fly out tomorrow morning at six a.m.” I had a difficult time sleeping that night, but I boarded that plane. I can no longer piece together my route from Las Vegas to Thessaloniki beyond the fact that it included three or four flights and lots of dashing through airports in the course of one very long day. In retrospect, it was like passing through some sort of portal into a new life. My former life faded to sepia tones; my new life most definitely would be in Technicolor. The Thessaloniki gig was 30 June 1999, my first proper gig in James Brown’s band. I was 29 years old, a professional guitarist of 10 years standing, and I’d been a few places. Thessaloniki was not one of them.
My arrival in Greece was inauspicious. The organization hadn’t sent anyone to meet me. I didn’t have much money. I really had no idea where I was going or where the gig would be held. In Greece you can’t tell the letters from the numbers. All I had was my Gibson Les Paul guitar, a change of clothes, and stack of plane tickets I’d picked up under my name at McCarran Airport in Vegas. So I called James Brown Enterprises in Augusta, which had just opened for the day, and Miss Ware, who was typically mean as heck, got us on a three-way call with the promoter, who was literally speaking Greek. Somehow, I grasped that I was to take a cab to the Earth Theatre and have the driver take me right up to the stage. James Brown’s manager would pay for the cab when I arrived. The cab ride was brief — my driver grasped the urgency of his mission and obliged by speeding through the hills to the gig. “Judge” Alford Bradley, a tall man with a rakish mustache, paid my tormentor. I attempted a beeline for the dressing room to change out of my rumpled jeans — I already knew Mr. Brown’s preference for sharp-looking associates — but Judge Bradley said, “Naaaah. They need you up there right now.”
Out on stage, scores of musicians, singers, and dancers were arranged for a performance. Indeed, I was the only guitarist. I already knew most of the band. Robert “Mousey” Thompson, the first chair drummer, was real outgoing and all smiles from ear-to-ear. I made friends with him right away. Mousey had become the band’s No. 1 drummer after his predecessor, Arthur Dickson, passed away shortly before I joined. Jerry “Louie” Poindexter played the Hammond B3. He was another really outgoing person who instantly made an impression on me. I knew Jerry had something special. He could take you to church with his B3. (To this day he calls me “colored boy” and leaves messages on my phone I can’t repeat.) These two cats were my solid acquaintances, budding friends, by the time I reached Thessaloniki. Just about everyone in the Soul Generals was easy to get to know and pretty open once we’d had a chance to connect. Even the musicians I didn’t know gave me a warm welcome as, suddenly, we were in this thing together. The group included Hollie Farris, trumpeter and band leader — a very physically fit dude — and the nicest guy; he never threw an attitude around. Jimmie Lee Moore was a multi-talented guy who typically played bass but also played a monster guitar. Jimmie was a real showman who could play his instruments every which way and steal the spotlight, a dangerous talent in Mr. Brown’s band. It was easy to get to know Erik Hargrove, the No. 2 drummer. Erik was a stand-up guy, even-keeled, outgoing; we quickly became friends. The others I would get to know in the process of gigging across Europe over the next two weeks. As we headed to the dressing rooms after the sound check, the promoter approached Judge and, within earshot of me, said, “Here’s the per diem money for the guitarist who just showed up.” Bradley pocketed the money right in front of me. “Don’t worry, son,” he said to me, realizing that I had witnessed his routine, “you’re coming out way ahead.” That was a famous phrase of his that I love to repeat to this day. In other words, “You’re gonna make a lot more money this week than you made last week, so don’t worry about the details.” Whenever anyone tells you that, they’re in your pocketbook. The move showed the greasiness of the organization, but I was too tired to really care, and there was no time to dwell on it.
“Listen, I've read a lot of books about James Brown, but Damon Wood's Working For the Man, Playing in the Band goes right onto the top shelf. Wood's relaxed, honest, delightful account of signing up for a tour in JB's world is the most persuasive snapshot of the lived reality of life on the road and on stage — a picture of a band and entourage in constant orbit around a permanent supernova of a human being. Musicians and fans alike will soak up his brilliant descriptions of his own "coming to the funk"; for me, after years of listening to the mysteriously direct and deep grooves of Brown's bands, I feel I understand them in some ways for the first time. And his portrait of Brown had me laughing constantly with the thrill of true recognition. Bravo.” – Jonathan Lethem, New York Times bestselling author, The Fortress of Solitude, and contributor to The New Yorker.
“What a ride and a great read — a funky, bittersweet masterpiece. Everyone who worked for Mr. Brown has stories to tell, some funny, some hurtful, some caring, some unbelievable. We all wanted to touch a star, so into the abyss we went, whatever the outcome.” —Cynthia Moore, original member of James Brown’s backup singers, The Bittersweet
“Wood balances his admiration and admonition for James Brown, and presents it in a factual way. And it's a great peek behind the curtain of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business who, it seems also had the Hardest Working Band in Show Business.” — Houston Press / Voice Media Group
“Wood and Carson smoothly explain the intricacies of being a guitarist, detailing but never dwelling on minutiae such as Brown's hand signals or tuning on the fly. Readers will come away with a deep respect for the skill and resilience needed to be a professional touring musician, especially one traveling and playing with a mercurial star.” — PublishersWeekly.com
“An absorbing inside look at the not always glamorous life of working for one of the most famous and unpredictable bosses in popular music.” — Booklist Online
“Probably the most intimate account ever published of life in James Brown's orbit — particularly in his latter years; an affectionate, gritty and often very funny account of life on the road with a complex music genius and the phenomenal band of musicians who accompanied him. Damon's rare insight into the distinctly un-glamorous reality of the music industry is a must-read for music fans — and especially wannabe musicians — everywhere.” — Charles Thomson, investigative reporter, feature writer, contributor to MOJO
“A fascinating tribute to one of the last century’s most influential artists that’s also an inside peek into disappearing show biz traditions . . . [James Brown’s] musical legacy is well known, but his unlimited energy and commitment to entertain audiences in his latter years is almost beyond belief.” — Alan Leeds, Grammy-winning writer and former James Brown tour manager
“Wood's writing has the ability to put readers right next to him in the cram-packed, 20-year-old Greyhound Eagle bus that the band traveled thousands of miles in . . . But probably the most effective is Wood's ability to describe the mixed emotions of working for a demanding and sometimes irrational boss like Brown.” —Metro Spirit
“An insider's account that will delight both Brown fans and those interested in what it's like working from such a dedicated showman. Kudos to Wood for delivering the inside scoop on a demanding performer with exacting standards who brought it, every night.” — Library Journal
“This is a musician's tale, albeit one working within what was essentially a corporation by the time he joined, and Damon has written an essential backstory to one of the greatest live shows on Earth. Warts and all.” — All Music Books