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The Okayplayer Interview: James Brown's Tour Manager Alan Leeds Speaks On 'Get On Up' + The New HBO Doc 'Mr. Dynamite'

D'Angelo Took The Apollo To Church On The 1st Night Of The Black Messiah Tour [Recap]

James Brown's longtime Tour Manager Alan Leeds (right) with Kevin Liles, Photo by Vickey Ford for Okayplayer

If James Brown was "the hardest working man in show business" his longtime tour manager Alan Leeds may be (by is own admission) "the luckiest man alive." Although his client list is best described as short and sick, each name on the list (James Brown. Prince.D'AngeloMaxwell.) has cast a super-humanly long shadow on the evolution of American music. Though music obsessive may very well agree with Mr. Leeds' self-assessment, there is no doubt that he attracted talent less through luck than by being the best in the business--as well as his undeniable love for and knowledge of the music.

That knowledge, his proximity to the iconoclastic Godfather of Soul and his self-appointed status as JB's archivist have conspired to place him as the key resource for any definitive work on the singer and his era up to and including the Hollywood biopic Get On Up starring Chadwick Boseman (which hit theaters earlier this year) and Alex Gibney's documentary take Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (which makes it's TV debut tonight at 9pm EST on HBO).

Leeds was a consultant on both films, the fount of authenticity from which screenwriters and documentarians alike had to draw in order to produce a credible screed on James. Okayplayer had the chance to speak with Leeds via his home in Minneapolis, detailing his contribution, the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the two projects and a (brand new) grab-bag of other revelations, from Prince's favorite James Brown sides, right down to how to keep your gold lamé jumpsuit looking crispy while you're on the road 5 nights a week, 51 weeks a year. Without further ado, we are proud to present The Okayplayer Interview with the legendary Alan Leeds. Or to address the music-nerds among us: are y'all ready for star-time?

OKP: When did you get involved with these two projects (Get On Up starring Chadwick Boseman and the HBO doc Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown)?

Alan Leeds: Well I’ve been involved with the biopic more or less since its inception, in the middle aughts...I’ll just pick a year and say about 2007 or ’08 I got a call from Nelson George(author of The James Brown Reader) who wanted to hook me up with Brian Grazer’s people. I met with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth who were writing the script and I showed them the archive [of James Brown material]. I was very involved with the writing of the script—I can’t claim a writer’s credit, because that’s not what I do, but it was a very hands-on consultancy! We went into great detail.

Anyway, they finished the script and then the project seemed to go away, right around the time James died, in fact. I guess the estate got involved and there were rights issues anyway it got put on the back burner. After a while I got a call and was told that Spike Lee was involved and the project was going to be revamped. He wanted to come to Minneapolis and hang out and see stuff from the archive, so I went through the whole process again with him. Which was great…I knew Spike from before. Well [long story short] it got put on the backburner a second time, I guess it was over budget. I don’t know the exact figures but apparently spike said something to the effect of “I want to make my next Malcolm X” and the studio was looking to spend about half that much.

One year ago I was told it was back on the front burner and Tate Taylor was going to direct based on the Butterworth script—and honestly since then, my involvement has diminished. Apparently, he had his own ideas about the film and he wasn’t that interested in what anybody else had to say.

OKP: But the finished film still drew on the Butterworths' research with you and your input?

AL: Yes and honestly, the reason my involvement was diminished is that by the time Tate Taylor came aboard the job was done. There were one or two things that needed to be fixed in the script…there was one scene where it was written with tons of ‘motherfucker’ and ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that’ in it--which is just not the way James Brown talked. He was from the South and a certain era of the South. But that’s more of just a generation gap thing. People who grew up in the hip-hop era when language is so free don’t realize we didn’t always talk like that! So that needed changed, because it sounded more like the music industry in the ‘90s than in the ‘60s. And I cant fault them for that because they just didn’t know—by the time the film was finished I think the only 2 people involved who ever met James were Mick Jagger and I...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

OKP: My impression of James Brown was that he was in fact sort of a cultural conservative. I mean besides the work ethic and the Southern old school manner he famously developed a certain rapport with Richard Nixon

AL: Well, he was a social conservative in the sense that he believed in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. So in that sense he was sort of Republican—but his favorite politician was Hubert Humphrey who was a liberal democrat—or what would’ve been considered a liberal democrat in the ‘60s. My take on James and his relationship with politicians is that most of all he wanted to be down with the winners. He didn’t see much point wasting time in developing a relationship with the guy who lost the election. You know, he really didn’t have much of a relationship with Nixon--he only met Nixon two times and there’s a scene in the [HBO] documentary when you can hear some of the Nixon tapes from the White House. There’s an aide prepping Nixon for the meeting and you can hear this voice saying “well, he’s black and he’s a soul singer” --because of course Nixon had no idea who he was!

Elsewhere in the tapes you can hear Nixon railing about that meeting and saying “well, we’ve had enough of the blacks. We’ve done that and now we’re not doing that anymore…"

OKP: Wow. You have to wonder if that aide went on to sit on the supreme court or something.

AL: [Laughs] Exactly—yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

OKP: So speaking of the Mr. Dynamite documentary you have also been a consultant on that project, were you still working on the Get On Up script when that came about?

AL: The doc came later, since the biopic was revived. And they had very little to do with each other –if anything they were a little competitive, in fact. The doc is by (award-winning filmmaker) Alex Gibney and I’ll just say it’s killer, absolutely killer—my personal opinion for what it’s worth but this is like the gold standard. If somebody came down from Mars and you had to explain who James Brown is, I would make them watch this doc.

OKP: Why is that? So many have attempted to tell Brown’s story--from the eulogies at the time of his passing to various books and movies—what makes this one stand out?

AL: Well, just come very common sense things with the way the producers went about it, they took the time to do it right and they had the funds to do it right. You know Get On Up is a Hollywood biopic, it doesn’t get too deep and doesn’t attempt to.

A biopic is an entertainment vehicle, telling a story about James Brown. it’s unfair to expect it to be more than that. Chadwick Boseman was so fucking good. He stepped into an impossible role and he did a pretty damn good job. You have to judge everything on its own merits; it’s way better than I would have expected Hollwyood was capable of. But the doc is more introspective, I would see that if you really want to understand what made him tick...see the doc.

OKP: So what made him tick?

AL: I don’t know that I could answer that. I think I understood him as well as anybody could. We stayed close until his death and I met him as a teenager, and he really took to me. The toughest years were the years I was on his payroll. He was a tough, erratic boss; he was crazy. But there are certain people who let you in, to see what drives them—he ain’t one of them. There are certainly things he wasn’t going to reveal to me, certain things he was never going to reveal to his wives and children or Al if you asked each of us, we would tell you about five different James Browns.

And honestly James Brown’s career was so long and he was such a complicated person that to really get into it, it would have to be one of those Ken Burns mini-series to cover it; 10 hours or something. But the doc focuses in on his peak years, which is the Civil Rights era and also the period of his greatest musical innovation.

OKP: So I’m sure the Gibney team drew on your archive as well but is that the main source--did they collect footage and material from all over?

AL: Most of the still photos came from my archive, just because I’m a hoarder who keeps everything [deep breath]. The James Brown museum could be my basement, if somebody wants to start one. So if somebody wants to argue about who played drums on a recording—because he always worked with two or three drummers at a time—like is that snare Clyde Stubblefield or Jabo Starks?--I can always go get the recording session log, ‘cause I kept all that stuff and say ‘nope it was this guy’.

OKP: So you're the "I got in the book" guy from the famous Richard Pryor bit.

AL: [Chuckles] I guess so. There is a guy named George Livingston—he lives in Oakland--who worked part-time security for James. He befriended James in the ‘80s. He had some access to James and he’s got some interesting stuff. But otherwise, of people who had an interest--they didn’t have the access.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

But [apart from still photos and visual materials] they also found film footage and interview footage that’s never been seen and that’s from other sources. There’s not a lot of unseen performance footage—because there just isn’t that much to find—but there is new interview footage in this doc.

Also I think with the talking head style interviews, they just went the extra mile, they were exhaustive about who they interviewed and also they got fresh answers from those people. You know if you do something on James Brown who are you gonna talk to? You got to talk to Maceo [Parker], to Fred Wesley to Al Sharpton, I’ll put myself in that list—and those people people, frankly, have been asked about their work with James enough times that they have sort of prepackaged answers ready. I think that’s one major difference: the interviewers were willing to go the extra mile—to arm these guys with different questions that hadn’t been asked before or press them to really think and go deeper about the answers and give fresh responses, instead of being on automatic pilot.

OKP: And I’m guessing you were a major part of that process, prepping them with questions and maybe steering them about ground that’s been retread…?

AL: That is one way I was able to help. I was very involved—you know I was the youngest guy in James’ entourage in that time. Most of the other people who were really with him in those years are dead or senile so I’m kind of the last guy standing, just by virtue of the fact that I was younger than everybody else.

OKP: Is that also true of the people who were close, but not necessarily sought out primary interviews before now? The guy who drove the bus, the guy who held the cape—are any of them still living?

AL: Well Danny Ray--who was James’ MC who we called "Capeman"--he is still very much alive and he’s in the doc. The key musicians from the ‘60s are all there: Pee Wee Ellis, Maceo, Melvin Parker, Fred Wesley, Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks. There’s a scholarly view from Michael Veal, Gregory Tate, Christian McBride--the jazz bassist who is a serious James Brown fanatic--Questlove, of course, Al Sharpton, of course…

OKP: You’ve said that doc focuses on his “peak” years--and elsewhere you’ve described his most important years as the mid to late ‘60s. But being of the generation that discovered James Brown largely through those drum breaks, some of the all-time favorites are slightly later; the early ‘70s records, on into the mid-‘70s.

AL: Yeah. Afterward, I went on to work with Prince--who considered himself a very knowledgeable JB fan--and when we would talk about his favorite records, he would always name stuff like “Body Heat” or “Funky President”--the mid-‘70s hits. And I realized, that’s just what he knew and connected with. “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”—that was his dad’s music. But I would argue that the musical innovation all came before—the arrangements and the development of what we now call funk. But you know if you fall in love to a certain song nobody can tell you that’s not the greatest song. When I was a young man, the first time I ever dated an African American girl and she took me home to meet her mother, we talked about James Brown. And to her what defined James Brown was “Try Me”--you know, all the soul ballads that she slow-danced to in the late ‘50s. That was like a whole different career and a different generation. It’s pretty amazing that all that music came from one human being. I can’t think of another great musician who stayed so relevant and encompassed so many different phases of soul music—maybe Stevie Wonder.

OKP: I think it may be that although the innovations in the playing and the arrangement had happened by the end of the ‘60s, the way the songs were recorded and mixed continued to evolve? In a way that sort of parallels what you hear in reggae music, where so much of the song’s lead melody is transferred to the bass groove, and the bass and drums are foregrounded. Maybe that’s why those grooves and drum breaks have lived on. Was James involved in that process—was he there in the studio giving input as those records were mixed down?

AL: Well he was often in the studio, but he didn’t have an engineer’s ear. But there was a definite change in the bass grooves that happened in ’69 to ‘70 when James hired Bootsy [Collins]. You can hear that change in “Sex Machine” and “Get up, Get Into It” --that’s all Bootsy and there’s no doubt that a lot of what he was doing was beyond what James wrote for the band. Bootsy was really on another level and James let him do his thing. You know he [famously] told Bootsy: “Son, I don’t care what you play, just be on the one.” So there’s a lot going on in the basslines of those records that wasn’t there before.

OKP: And I think that maybe the quality I’m talking about—so much of the song’s melody is transferred to the bass grooves.

AL: Yeah, that makes sense. That ‘69-‘70 period is definitely one of those rare moments of genius that happen by accident in a sense because the ‘60s band had left; Peewee, Maceo, Waymon Reed on trumpet--they wrote the book on funk and went on to be The P-Funk Horns. This is something Fred Wesley and I have talked about. After that, James didn’t want star musicians using his band as a stepping stone, he didn’t want cats so good that he couldn’t replace them. He wanted guys who were good enough to be there but not good enough to leave. And if you look at the band that he put together after he got out of prison, he played with that same band from 1991 until he died.

OKP: What made people leave –was it over money?

AL: Well, you were on the road 51 weeks out of the year, you lived on the bus 5 nights a week, they were grueling working conditions—it took a special guy to tolerate that for but so long.

OKP: One of the great pleasures I’ve had since being at OKP is the chance to be a fly on the wall in a dressing room at Carnegie Hall backstage from The Roots + Friends’ Music of Prince tribute…and listening to Questlove grill you about the JBs tour itinerary and the outfits they wore, like: “Ok they played Memphis on [insert month/day/year] and wore the gold lamé outfits and sweated their brains out. And then the next night, they’re playing Atlanta in the same outfits—how did they have time to get them clean?? That seemed to me like a great metaphor for the whole experience of being on the road with James. So…how did they get them clean?

AL: Well they had to clean them themselves, that’s the short answer—or some of the guys might have a girlfriend in a particular town, who would take care of that for them.

OKP: Was it a family operation in the sense that some of the players had wives and girlfriends travel along with them on tour?

AL: No, no family. James wasn’t into that. Oh, he might fly your woman up for a week at the Apollo once a year, but not week in and week out. And then for that one week a year you had 20 different people with 20 different lifestyles. You know I went into a lot of details on this in a memoir I just wrote which I expect to come out maybe next year. It's called: There Was A Time: The Chitlin Circuit, James Brown & Me. I don’t want to just regurgitate the stories that I’ve just written down but I’ll send you some of the chapters that cover that era.

OKP: You mentioned earlier that you have a background in journalism, is that how you got involved with JB? As in, did you write about him before you worked with him?

AL: Not exactly. Actually when I was very young I was a disc jockey at a radio station in Virginia in the ‘60s. I wasn’t serious about being a broadcaster but I definitely used it as a means, because I wanted to be in the business. I was still in high school, actually, but sometimes when acts came to town they would use me as sort of a local watchdog to help promote the show. When James came to town I wrote a bunch of press releases and because my dad just happened to know the arts & entertainment editor of the local paper I was able to get it a pretty well-placed review. The first time I got him reviewed was in 1966 and "race music"--as it would have been classified then--was not taken very seriously. But because I had this connection and just didn’t know any better I was able to place all these stories and the next time he came to town I showed them to James and he was blown out. So that ultimately lead to him hiring me as his publicity director, to get the newspapers to cover his shows.

Shit was different then. The arts & entertainment coverage in the papers then was 3-4 pages and a pullout on Sundays. Music did not get much coverage, partly because these a&e editors were not music people; they had mostly worked their way up as drama critics, reviewing movies, plays…and that’s what they knew. They didn’t know a James Brown from an Otis Redding, it was just a bunch of black folks screaming as far as they could tell. But they had column inches to fill. And the main reason they didn’t fill it with music is because nobody called them to offer them tickets to the show or let them know they were coming to town. In those days, black music was advertised with ads on black radio and posters in the barbershop—very mom & pop. So I would take the trouble to call these editors and offer them tickets—most of the time they probably gave them to their kids—but you’d be amazed how much coverage I got that way, because it was maybe the first time somebody took an interest.

OKP: Which leads me another question. You started out working for James very young but even for the older professionals—well you’ve summed up your experience elsewhere with the phrase “We called him Mr. Brown”—once you became tour manager—could anybody really manage James Brown? He was the Godfather. He paid the cost to be the boss...

AL: Well, no matter who you work for, I don’t think you can go very far as a manager unless you accept the fact that the artist is the boss. But if you were telling him something that was pertinent to his business—for instance when Ben Bart talked to him about to promote his shows—he would listen.

Personally, I can say I was first drawn to him as a fan. You know, the only gig I ever chased was James Brown. I would cut school to hang out at the back of his tour bus. The others came to me. A girlfriend dragged me to see Prince on the Controversy tour. I didn’t really want to go but I walked out totally blown away, he was an enormous talent, you know: “I would love to work with this guy.” And the next thing you know I got the call to work as his road manager on the 1999 tour. I was like, Are you kidding me? And that turned into 10 years. When that was done I got a call to work with Maxwell in almost the same way. I had heard his album in demo form from a friend who as an agent at William Morris [Agency] and I was already a fan before I got the call. After the Maxwell tour ended I had another pinch myself moment. It was literally the day we were reconciling the tour, I was walking across the room in the Millennium Hotel in New York and my phone rang and a voice said “Hey, it’s D’Angelo.”  I was like “OK, Max…fuck you” and I hung up. Because I had been telling him about D’Angelo and how much I wanted to work with him, so I thought Maxwell was just calling in a fake voice, just to mess with me. but D called back. I must be one of the luckiest people on the planet.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.