2019 Winner, Black Music & Film Awards, “Best Live Performer”. 2019 Winner, SeemssAfrica “Africa Meets The World” Awards, “Best Singer/Recording Artist”.
For the last five funky-funky decades, King James Brown has delivered one of the most thrilling, longest running authentic soul music shows ever to emanate out of Los Angeles. He is a consummate entertainer, band leader, singer and all-around performer who hits audiences from Sapporo to Las Vegas with a bullseye of sweat soaked soul power…every time. Yes, his real name is James Brown. Yes, the music of the Godfather of Soul remains a big part of his act. However, King James Brown further fortified his show to include the hits of other contemporary greats - from Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye to Prince and Rick James. Now in 2019, James is finally recording his first album – a long-awaited project that will also feature a guest performance by his alluring real-life partner, singer/songwriter Jacnique Nina. The lead single is appropriately titled “Soul of a Dancer.”
King James Brown has performed with, shared stages with, and gleaned priceless knowledge from legends such as B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Percy Mayfield, The Temptations, Bobby Blue Bland, Tyrone Davis, Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Z.Z. Hill. However, it was priceless training and knowledge he received right at home that initially set him on the path to soul music supremacy. THIS is his story.
King James Brown was born in Los Angeles in 1954 to parents that lived on Grape Street in Watts and a Grandmother who lived on 106th & Avalon in South Central. When his mother remarried, it was to guitarist Joe Raglin who led the group The Fantastics. At 7, James first got an inkling he was special when his teacher at 109th Street Elementary School sang out his name, James Brown, during roll call and the whole class started screamin’ and hollerin’! James was actually a closet fan of Elvis Presley, watching his movies and mimicking him in the mirror. He was singing in the church choir from age 5, and his parents made him perform for family whenever company came over.
The fateful day arrived when James got a crush on a girl named Annette Rosegood. When she asked him to cut a lil’ rug with her at a party, she stopped in the middle of the song and gently informed him, “James…you can’t dance.” Crestfallen, James went home and pulled out all his mother’s 45s, determined to learn. During a break while flipping through TV channels, he stumbled on a clip of James Brown & The Famous Flames performing “Cold Sweat” live! His jaw hit the floor.
“I was blown away by how fast he moved his feet and the way he did the splits,” James recalls. “There were no VCRs back then so - just from remembering what I saw on TV - I would practice in the bedroom mirror playing the 45s ‘There Was a Time,’ ‘I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)’ and ‘Cold Sweat.’ Once I got his King Records double album James Brown Live at The Apollo Vol. 2, I practiced to sides A, B C & D - start to finish! My stepfather came home early one day and caught me.” Shortly after in 1967, James’ stepfather put him onstage with him for the very first time at Dootoo’s Entertainment Center.
“My mother took me to the Shrine Auditorium to see James Brown live for the first time,” James continues. “I didn’t miss one concert from that day on! I collected all the magazines he was in, and could tell you what song he was doing from the moves captured in the pictures. What I didn’t know, I would fill-in myself. When people see me now, they see James Brown but also something else. At that time, my singing wasn’t so good…but I was determined to show Annette and everyone else that I could dance and sing along. After a while, my sister told me I sounded just like James Brown. It got so serious that I eventually forgot about the girl…we had changed schools anyway. I’d made up my mind – dedicated myself – that music was what I was going to do with my life. I had all the confidence. I already understood that I had to be as good or better than James to succeed. I practiced 4 hours a day every day after school…even got up late at night to work out, playing the music real low. This went on for years.”
James’ second show was at the LAX airport adjacent venue the Proud Bird followed by the Tiki Room. He was a young sensation! As he entered his teens, his mom moved to Inglewood and James became part of a band called James Brown & The Dynamic Souls that included future members of Rose Royce as well as a young DeWayne “Blackbird” McKnight who became a key member of Parliament-Funkadelic. From there, James also started hanging with “The Soul Train Gang” of dancers when TV host Don Cornelius brought the franchise from Chicago to L.A. He was also signed by a female talent agent who effectively snatched him out from under his stepfather’s band. James was busy, busy, busy…and Super Bad!
Trouble arose when James “borrowed” a `54 Chevy and wound up in a local jail where his bad attitude got him transferred to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it removed him from street life into a co-ed mountain hideaway complete with animals, a swimming pool, football and tennis. James was even allowed to leave to perform with his stepfather’s band, often departing on Thursdays and not returning until Monday. He was living way better than his friends back home. When his time was up…he didn’t want to leave!
Back in the saddle, James began doing a series of showcases around Los Angeles via the great Cardella de Milo, culminating in his first solo show at the Cover Girl Lounge in Hollywood. He also linked up with Jet Set Productions (helmed by JD Hollywood & Boom Boom), the biggest promoters on the club scene for Black Hollywood. They booked the Citadel (a Soul Train club), the Summit on the Hill (La Brea & Stocker), Disco 9000 (Hollywood), the Speakeasy (Tues. & Wed.). In full hustle mode, James worked with The Lovely Band and, when the budget was lower, performed to pre-recorded tracks hooked up for him by the band leader, Robert “Choo Choo” Stringfellow. Those shows included 3-day soirees in empty mansions…and football great turned Black Hollywood mogul Jim Brown’s infamous house parties.
James also worked with Don Johnson who owned the California Club (on Santa Barbara Blvd. – now Martin Luther King Blvd.) – Don, a former trumpeter of The Johnny Otis Orchestra. “That’s where I opened for Big Mama Thornton, Z.Z. Hill and Percy Mayfield (a mentor). Leroy Daniels (one half of the great Leroy & Skillet comedy duo) was my manager then. I opened for B.B. King and Redd Foxx at the 5 Torches. B.B.’s bandmembers told me I needed to switch up my name. I tried Jimmy King, James King, then King James Brown. I didn’t want to take the Brown off because my name had been in ‘The Scoop’ newspaper a lot. So, at the show they’d call me ‘King James’ but the flyers still read ‘King James Brown.’”
“In the early `80s, I also opened for Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, singing with his band,” James continues. “I was still getting my act together. They said my vocals were getting better and appreciated that I’d started doing some things that James Brown did not do. I never wanted to be a JB impersonator. I had to have my own image. But I also learned that if I wanted to have longevity and travel, I had to sing other stuff – songs in my vocal range (Eddie Levert, Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin, Teddy Pendergrass, Rick James, Prince). I’m a natural second tenor, 1st baritone, can hit some bass and can sing 1st tenor, especially if I’m not singing hard 2 or 3 nights. I also sing in legendary arranger H.B. Barnum’s L.I.F.E. Choir.”
1983 was the year James performed his first show outside of the United States at the Capitol Hotel in White Horse, Canada. He almost couldn’t do the gig because he was plagued with an acutely painful abscess tooth. The plane ride over was excruciating! They had to wake up a dentist in the middle of the night as soon as the plane landed to attend to James right away. On top of that, James was performing with the small-town hotel’s house band that had never played Black music but always wanted to.
“I was the first Black American to perform at the Capitol Hotel,” James shares with pride. “We had one week to get it together, rehearsing at the drummer’s house every day - three hours a day. The pianist was a guy who was used to only playing by himself in the saloon…but I had to use him. However, when opening night arrived, we had a packed house and a line down the street for the second show – despite the fact that it was 60 below zero outside! I had on a tux and you know my shoes was sharp…but this was the Yukon. The audience was all dressed in jeans and t-shirts! I was only supposed to play there for one month but my engagement was extended to two. I cried. My first international show…I felt I’d made it. I rode horses all day and made a lot of new fans by night. It was great!”
The next year, 1984, James was given a gig to fly to Sapporo, Japan for a 4-month engagement at Club Dionysos (a referral that came from Bobby Williams of The California Club in L.A.). James took an already well-rehearsed band from Watts led by a blind drummer named Neal. Received like royalty, James and the band did an autograph session arranged by the owners before their opening night! The club was intimate and exclusive on the 6th floor of a high rise with a small dancefloor that stayed packed. Billed as King James & The KJS Bando, the group (and especially James) learned the finer points of pacing, contracted for six 40-minute shows a night. James eventually renegotiated to sing three sets a night while the band did every other set instrumentally which made for a well-rounded evening of music. They brought a lot of excitement to the spot that was usually more laidback. By this time, James’ repertoire included “When Doves Cry,” “Billie Jean,” Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” standards, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and some Jackie Wilson - all done soulful! They played 6 nights a week and were so popular that on the seventh (which was supposed to be a day of rest), they rocked the Playboy Club, Ice Castles, Cherry Blossoms and other big shows that already had backline in place.
James’ popularity demanded that he release his very first 45 single as a solo artist in Japan: “Suspicion” (on Sheridan House Records, owned by Ken Harris).
After Japan came two years in New York between `86 & `87 with performances in the Village and Yonkers, the Palladium and the 20 Grand in the city, and of course, Carl’s on the Corner and the legendary Apollo Theater in the then-Black mecca of Harlem. There was also a month in L.A. to perform around town when Sugar Ray Leonard fought Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the first time, then a return to Sapporo. The good news was he took a local Japanese lady there to be his second bride. The bad news is he had a run-in at an after-hours club with a racist European patron who called him a nigger and threw a glass of whiskey in his face. James beat his ass so bad the patron wanted to sue! Soon, police apprehended him. After spending a few weeks in jail, being forced to confess to kicking the guy more times than he actually did (3 vs. 16) and paying a fine, James was released. The best part is the media and people of Japan had been following the story and were all on his side. They knew all along that James had been taking up for the honor of Japanese people when that fight broke out. He became a local hero!
James returned to Los Angeles for the sad occasion of burying his beloved grandmother. Soon after, he began splitting his time between gigs in L.A. at old haunts such as the Page Four, the Pied Piper, the Name of The Game and Juniors, and his new stomping grounds of Las Vegas, headlining at The Moulin Rouge where he stayed in the same suite where legendary pioneer Sammy Davis Jr. resided when the powers that be would not allow him to stay in any hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. James also played the Chateau LaSalle as well as after hours at the Riviera Hotel with a 21-piece orchestra. Additionally, James played the New Town Tavern as warm-up for The Silver Fox. It was there that James also met his new manager T-Tony, the club’s resident bartender and former manager for comedic actor Rudy Ray Moore.
For 27 years, King James Brown was the ubiquitous toast of the Las Vegas Strip. His revue played everywhere – from the largest of casinos to the most intimate showrooms and lounges: the Aladdin, the Hacienda, the Dunes, the Riviera, New York New York, Excalibur, Luxor, the Stratosphere, Hard Rock Café and more. Most novel was his becoming a part of The Temptations’ act, coming out of the audience sliding out on stage to a James Brown funk groove then singing “My Girl” with the Motown legends. He had even integrated Techno music into his show. King James was on top of the world!
Then…darkness descended… Too many parties, too many drugs and getting too big for his Black britches in the eyes of the entertainment mecca’s mob heads. King James Brown was dating white women and getting blackballed at every turn. Soon, the cops were closing in, ultimately apprehending King James and taking him to High Desert Prison.
“I remember being alone many times, talking to God a lot…,” King James says softly. “I almost lost my career. I had a warrant from drug court and a warrant from my probation officers. It got to a point where I actually wanted to be arrested…just so I could fix everything - from the bottom up. Psychologically, I wanted to be taken off the scene. I didn’t know I’d have to do two years. On the freeway in the back seat of the squad car, I was glad it was over.”
“I had to do it by myself,” King James continues. “I just disappeared. No one knew where I was. When I got to my cell and the steel doors closed behind me, it was only me and a Bible sitting on the bunk. I almost fainted. I got on my knees and prayed. It was bad… I had been doing meth, coke, ecstasy…you name it. Luckily, I didn’t have any drug withdrawals…basically because I’d kept all those drugs around for the girls – strippers and dancers. It had all been one big party…but that life was all over. It was just me and God now.”
“I was in High Desert for three months then they changed my stature down and sent me to Carson which made me eligible to work on the street and sleep on the yard. I was in a cell with the door unlocked. I used all the programs they offered ‘on the inside’…went to school, worked and corresponded with my mother, who sent me money, through letters only - no phone calls. I read a lot of books, mostly biographies on folks like Ray Charles and Sammy Davis, Jr., and studied a lot of history on Presidents Kennedy, Roosevelt and such. I worked at Nevada State Print Shop, making money doing portraits of people’s families. That’s how I got commissary. I also sang in a Gospel choir for two years. When rehabilitation came up, they wanted to send me back to Vegas but I didn’t want to fall back into bad habits. So, they granted my request to be sent instead to Reno where I worked as a supervisor in Sparks, Nevada driving a forklift. I was finally free in October 2007.”
That November, King James quietly returned to Los Angeles…but he didn’t jump right back into performing. He remained still, deep in his meditations, steeling himself for the third chapter of his life. He wanted it to be right. But he couldn’t lay low for long. One friend could have sworn he saw James riding the bus. Soon, the whole town was whispering. A niece invited him to come sing with the house band at the Bottom Line in Inglewood where she was the bartender. It took him three weeks to take her up on it. The night he walked in, everybody hollered with joy. Some folks had thought he was dead! This is where King James performed his first three songs since incarceration…a revelation. Next, he worked his stage chops back up at Crenshaw Live, bought some new clothes then hit the bricks at the Dynasty, reuniting with Choo Choo. “My mindset was to stay focused, period,” James states! “I knew what I would take to get back. So, I just worked hard.”
Eventually, King James felt strong enough musically and spiritually to return to the Vegas strip – primarily at the Palms. And he’s been back and forth between there and L.A. for over a decade. Following hip and knee replacements, he’s movin’ and groovin’ better than ever. He spends time with his daughter Amika (a professional gamer) and has been blessed to be in a vibrant and inspiring new relationship with singer/songwriter Jacnique Nina, his soulmate and frequent performing partner. They’ve recorded a Christmas duet, “His Greatest Gift,” produced by the great H.B. Barnum. And King James is finally releasing his first full-length album in 2019, produced by renowned hitmaker Preston Glass. Life is sweet again.
Which leaves just one burning question: did King James ever get to meet the Godfather of Soul, James Brown? Indeed, he did! The meeting took place in 1981 on the set of the Dan Aykroyd comedy film, “Doctor Detroit.” “I played a pimp in the Players’ Ball scene shot at the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown L.A.,” King James says beaming. “James was singing ‘Get Up Offa That Thing,’ renamed ‘Doctor Detroit’ for the film. Between takes, he and I danced and sang…with James Brown at the piano! His emcee/cape man Danny Ray was there, too, and we all became friends. I’d see him when he came to Vegas. One night after hours at the Sands, JB’s band and dancers came to back me up – a night I will never forget…”
“I used to perform and hide my past,” King James concludes. “Now I understand I’m all the better for what I’ve lived through. Sobriety is the best – you never realize how high you can get off your natural energy. I was raised by a faithful family with deacons, so I always knew the path I should follow. I have a better insight now into The Spiritual Signs. I see them and I follow them. God gave me a second chance. My faith is very strong! My back has been against the wall on many an occasion. God always brought me out of it. He gave me The Plan and it’s better than I could imagine… I also thank him for keeping me looking young!
“My experiences have taught me that the keys to life are being true to yourself, sincere with others, staying in your lane, always being available to help your brothers and sisters, having NO FEAR…and enjoying the ride as well as the destination.”
Biography composed, researched and prepared by A. Scott Galloway