A couple of days after submitting his letter of resignation, Alan Leeds had to finally face his ex-boss — James Brown, the Godfather of Soul — who was standing outside a private jet.
“He said, ‘Mr. Leeds, you’re making a big mistake,’ ” Leeds remembered. “At one point, I almost started to cry. He sensed it and he said, ‘There’s a lot of man in you, but I see there’s still some boy. You’ll come to your senses. Maybe we’re not done.’ ”
The Edina music maven shares that story and many others in his entertaining and insightful new book, “There Was a Time: James Brown, the Chitlin’ Circuit, and Me.”
The book is both a history and a memoir, a splendidly seamless blend of life with Soul Brother No. 1 and Leeds’ own story as a DJ, publicist, advance man, tour director and Grammy-winning historian for Brown.
Written in an engagingly conversational fashion, the book chronicles the first act of Leeds’ five-decade career behind the scenes in the music business. His later acts involved Prince, Kiss, D’Angelo, Barry White and many others.
In fact, all those other acts got in the way of Leeds finishing this Brown book, which he began writing in 1980.
“This became kind of a running gag with my mother and my wife: Are you ever gonna finish that book?” said Leeds.
Ethically, he didn’t think he should be writing a book about his ex-boss while he was working for Prince, Maxwell or any other big star. He didn’t want to be known as a tell-all type. Finally, after coordinating comedian Chris Rock’s tour in 2018, Leeds retired from the road and focused on writing about his “wildly unpredictable fantasy” with Brown.
Growing up poor in rural Georgia, Brown was a complicated figure, more friendly just-folks than sophisticated music royalty, more patriarch than boss, as Leeds tells it.
“The biggest surprise was how his impulsiveness and ego frequently trumped his vast knowledge of the black music business into decisions that weren’t always in his best interest,” wrote Leeds, who served as a consultant to two acclaimed 2014 Brown movies, the documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” and the biopic “Get on Up.”
A journalism school dropout, Leeds eventually viewed himself as a historian for Brown. While the boss kept copious records of finances and mental stock of loyalty, he never listed credits for musicians on his recordings. Leeds picked the brains of the various JB players for back information as well as combing through libraries for newspaper clippings, accumulating enough details for a 400-page-plus discography, a project for another day.
“That historian aspect of Alan was there from Day 1,” said younger brother Eric Leeds, a tenor saxophonist with Prince and others. “Alan was subscribing to the trade journals like Cashbox and Billboard when he was 10 years old. He was really reading them and fascinated with not only that week but also what was going on before and why [that impacted] what is going on this week.”
While with the Brown organization, Leeds even scribbled conversations in diaries, enabling him to re-create old dialogue for his book. Like a phone call from Lagos, Nigeria, after a series of concerts in Africa in 1970.
“I’ll be glad to get back home,” Brown told Leeds. “The women ain’t much to look at and the food is a drag — can’t get no good ice cream.”
Wanting in before he knew where
Growing up in New York City, Leeds became obsessed with R&B, thanks in part to free records from an uncle in radio and an aunt in song publishing.
“The music was an entree to a community made mysterious simply because I had no other access to it,” Leeds writes. “It sounded like someplace I wanted to go long before I knew where it was.”
He eventually figured out a way in after his family had relocated to Richmond, Va. In high school, he hustled a DJ gig at an R&B radio station and dances. In 1965, he landed the first in a series of radio interviews with Brown and eventually worked his way into a staff position in ’69. He toured with the star, toiled in the home office in Cincinnati and later Augusta, Ga., JB’s hometown.
To put the Rock Hall of Famer’s story in perspective, Leeds, 73, offers a vivid history of the “chitlin’ circuit,” the U.S. black clubs and theaters where R&B performers traveled in the segregated 1900s, extending well into the 1960s.
In 1964, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business performed 37 shows in 11 days spread over five cities, plus a recording session.
Wrote Leeds: “Getting paid was often an adventure in itself, particularly if tickets didn’t sell as expected.” The tour manager never carried a gun, but the boss did and would flash it when necessary.
In the end, a modest town in Georgia just wasn’t for the self-described “outspoken, pot-smoking Yankee with a Jew-fro.” He missed major league baseball, cultural and dining options, the diversity and energy of a city. So he quit in 1972, though quickly rejoined Brown as a consultant (“I had more to learn”).
Two decades later, they shared a Grammy Award for collaborating on the liner notes to the 1991 boxed set “Star Time,” an acclaimed compilation of vintage Brown recordings.
Comparing Brown, Prince
Even though Leeds barely mentions Prince in his Brown book, comparisons are obvious between the two demanding, hardworking, visionary icons who lived in their hometowns.
“There are definitely similar characteristics,” said Leeds, who moved to Minnesota in 1983 to become Prince’s tour manager. “I think the biggest contrast is offstage, James was a regular guy. He’d throw on a T-shirt and dungarees and drive a pickup around Georgia. Prince feared the public. James saw the entire global public as one huge audience.
“Walking through any airport terminal with him was a trip because there wasn’t an autograph he wouldn’t sign. He would smile and greet people who didn’t even greet him. Of all the artists I’ve worked for, he’s the most comfortable in public.”
Brown was a prominent force in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, whether proclaiming in song “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” or doing a free televised concert in Boston to quell riots after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Leeds feels that if Brown, who died in 2006 at age 73, were alive, he’d be involved in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Leeds recalls Brown’s active role in May 1970 after a 16-year-old black man was found dead amid controversy in an Augusta, Ga., jail — did he fall or was he murdered by other inmates? Demonstrations ensued in the city and six black protesters were shot to death by law enforcement.
On tour at the time, Brown flew home the next day and commanded the microphone on his own radio station to try to bring calm. He insisted that Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, a controversial segregationist, come to town and appear with him on the airwaves.
Said Leeds: “The only quote I have from James Brown in a newspaper clipping is ‘The riot is Augusta’s warning ticket. It’s more about white ignorance than white hate.’
“That’s what he always used to say even as he became a caricature and less political in his later years,” said Leeds, one of the few white employees in Brown’s camp.
“He was a conservative guy in a lot of ways. He certainly believed in law and order. But his conservatism ended when it came to the plight of black men particularly and black people in general. He said many of the things we’ve heard recently that were said. As Al Sharpton [a former Brown tour director] suggested [at Floyd’s Minneapolis memorial service], the time wasn’t ripe yet in James Brown’s lifetime.”
Back in the day, Brown was close to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the former Democratic senator from Minnesota whom he endorsed for president in 1968.
“He adored Humphrey,” said Leeds, pointing out Brown’s later support for Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. “James once told me of all the politicians he ever met that Humphrey was the most real, the most genuine.”
Brown was so close to Humphrey that whenever the singer came to the Twin Cities in the ’80s and ’90s, Skip Humphrey, the VP’s son who became Minnesota’s attorney general, was invariably backstage.
“James would introduce him to me every time, ‘Mr. Leeds, you know who this young man is? This is Vice President Humphrey’s son. He’s almost like you. I almost raised him.’ ”