He describes his voice as “raspy but smooth.”
During working hours, James Brown’s voice can be heard taking call after call at a St. Paul health clinic. For the past dozen years, he’s been a scheduler, phone operator, security man, billing claims agent and “jack of all trades” at the bustling doctors’ office on West 7th Street.
“United Family Medicine, how may I direct your call?”
On Tuesdays, his vocal cords get no rest. After work, he scoots over to Payne Avenue and the Minnesota Music Café, one of the Twin Cities’ more unheralded venues for live music. His six-man band, Jaybee and the Routine, has a regular gig and a few dozen folks enjoy what Brown calls a “soulfully eclectic vibe.”
At the last gig, the band pulled out a cover that Brown introduced with a chuckle: Seals and Croft classic “Summer Breeze.” You know, the one that “makes me feel fine, blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind.”
A native of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, Brown started singing at age 5 at the A.M.E. Zion Church. His grandmother, Fran Brown, sang with Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. On her Boston hospital death bed in 1980, she made her 17-year-old grandson promise he would keep singing.
“As long as the Lord will let me,” he told her.
With his 50th birthday coming up this fall, he’s still fulfilling that promise. After a long day of fielding phone calls at the clinic, he’s off to gigs with his band or joining others, including Dr. Mambo’s Combo. He’s been working on a solo project of original compositions, expected out in June, that will fall somewhere on the rhythm-and-blues spectrum near Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke. Working title: “Please Listen to My Demo.”
A father of three, Brown moved from Boston to Minnesota decades ago, but his connections back home are deep. His cousin lost a limb in the Boston Marathon bombing.
A veteran performer, Brown has toured with everyone from New Edition to New Kids On the Block. He came to Minnesota after visiting a friend, who’d left Boston to operate the Murder Mystery Café. Within a few years, he was performing at Prince’s Glam Slam nightclub.
He’s not related to the Godfather of Soul by the same name, and smiles at the endless references to the other James Brown he’s had to endure.
At his Tuesday night gigs, he doesn’t hide out backstage until his moment. Instead, he’s busy hugging and chatting with his regular crowd of R&B aficionados.
“We play the songs our parents listened to,” he said. “Everything from the Temptations to Earth Wind and Fire.”
Prince songs invariably pop up, too.
“I love the rich musical history of the Minneapolis Sound,” he said.
And now he’s adding his voice to that scene — after working hours, that is. It’s something upon which his grandmother would smile down.
“I hope she is,” he said. “This is all for her.”