By Pete Candler
One James has his silk-coated back to the river he sailed up a long time ago, in front of him the town he marked out and named for his boss’s mom. He is stylish and even a little campy, in his right hand a rolled-up copy of the charter for the colony of Georgia that could pass for a microphone. From one angle he looks like a karaoke singer, taking a breath between verses, attempting to sing out over the city a lot of people think he made. What he sounds like is anyone’s guess.
Half a block away across Augusta Common, a green space that James Oglethorpe envisioned in the 1730s, a different James looks back at him. Smiling in a three-piece suit and cape, he clutches a Shure SM-55 mic close to his chest. He is wearing a wedding ring.
Of the two, Oglethorpe looks more like the rock star.
Augusta was Oglethorpe’s idea, but the other James is all over the place. His face and name are everywhere: on James Brown Boulevard, on James Brown Arena, where just about every famous African-American musician in the cosmos came to both pay respects and get up offa that thing, right in front of his open casket in 2006. Michael Jackson said a few words then. He said as he stood there in front of the Godfather of Soul forever stilled and silenced, that without Brown there would be no Michael. No Prince, no Usher, no Bruno Mars.
The statue of James Brown on Broad is as tame as Oglethorpe’s is brassy and confident. He’s a happy crooner, not a trace of James’s ferocious virility. There is no sign of the agony — sexual, racial, political — that Brown projected from his sweat-soaked face in live performances. He is now a domesticated, buttoned-up local hero, not the jump-suited, off-kilter-afroed Sex Machine. As much as an honor it is to James to have a statue of him in a town that did not always receive him kindly, the statue seems an attempt to cut him down to size — literally: the sculpture represents the surprisingly diminutive size of his body, if not his outsized persona. Brown is now, a torch-singing family man in bronze, no longer floating above the stage like he once did, his impossibly elastic ankles moving, doing it, you know. He could dance and sing like nobody else and was one of the greatest (and sternest) bandleaders in popular music history. Not many recognize how well he could play (he plays keys on “Sex Machine”).
But you don’t get any of that from the statue on Broad, which looks less like a tribute than an attempt at exoneration. Not for James, but for the city that has long been uneasy about him. The message of the statue is less “James Brown invented popular music” than “Look, we gave James a statue, OK? So let it go.”
One can imagine how those planning conversations went down in City Council. James Brown was not always Augusta’s favorite son, and it ain’t hard to see some of the resentment towards him come through in the image of Brown Augusta decided to reify. The current statuette of Brown on Broad is Brown as the Augusta power-elite wished him to be, not as he was, which is, even still, hard to keep up. Like James himself: always a beat or two ahead of the crowd and its fashions.
I don’t know if anyone did, but I hope someone during those city council discussions about the statue proposed the skin-tight jump-suited Brown of the 1970s, mid-split, or even the serviceably patriotic image of Brown from Rocky IV. Hell, even the improbably Scandinavian version of a pompadoured Brown in a red-and-white Nordic sweater from the 1965 film, “Ski Party” would seem a better compromise to appeal to the country club set in Augusta, but that is not the image they agreed as the final one. They went with a black version of Josh Groban. With a cape.
Many of the images of Brown around Augusta seem designed to modify the statue’s presentation of him. On on the boarded-up storefront of Fuji Wigs, a stylized representation of his famous hairdo. On each side of a traffic light switch box on the corner of Broad and the Boulevard named for him, a different black and white image of Brown, each strikingly different from one another as they are from the statue. On the one facing Broad, James is smiling, looking up, a cross around his neck. He is not wearing a wedding ring. He looks here less like the Godfather of Soul than its High Priest, as is meet and right.
As statues go, Oglethorpe got the better hand, in the end. He’s the more stylish one. In bronze anyway.
But neither statue in Augusta has the footprint or airspace that a third one does.
On St. Patrick’s Day on Broad Street, the crowd is mixed — African-American, white, Asian, Hispanic — but everyone is wearing green. A fountain in the middle of Broad Street spews up emerald green. In front of the notorious Confederate Memorial, not a block away, an African-American man in a KISS ME I’M IRISH t-shirt passes and looks sideways at the monument. He registers nothing and does not stop like the white family whose greened-up little girl in a shamrock headband innocently prances up the steps of the memorial under the words:
No nation ever rose so white
Nor fell so pure of crime
The little girl’s parents quickly raise their cell phones to take a photo.
The statue serves as a reminder of who runs this town. When African-Americans marched down Broad Street in the 1870s, the white Lost Causers of the city put up an outsized statue of a Confederate soldier right in the middle of the street, so that if blacks were going to march in protest again, they’d have to go around the big white middle finger to them. The monument is massive, but it doesn’t make a sound.
Down the street, a brass band is kicking ass in front of a flower shop. Dozens of folks have stopped to listen. One older, pot-bellied white man in a white cardigan and green leprechaun’s hat sits through it all on a folding chair, clutching a koozied Silver Bullet, which he sets down on the sidewalk between songs to clap his hands enthusiastically. The all African-American band is mostly men and mostly trombones, one of which is played by a woman in jeans and Chuck Taylors. They are tight as an E-string. They each take turns leading. When I show up, a young man in denim shirt and blue jeans is out front on the trombone, a red-striped white towel in his right hand, Satchmo-style. A toddler bounces percussively on the sidewalk next to him, scratching on a tin grater with an afro pick.
During a break, I ask the sousaphone player what their story is.
“We play at the United House of Prayer every Sunday. And right here every Friday night.”
I was not expecting that. I’ve heard brass bands in church before in New Orleans, but I didn’t see this coming in Augusta. I assume that it’s one of those new-school churches that use unconventional musical styles to draw in young people.
I am so wrong.
The House of Prayer has been around a hundred years, and by the time the Georgia WPA Guide had been written in 1940, it was well established in Augusta, along with its house music:
The House of Prayer, 1269 Wrightsboro Road, is an unpainted, rough-board tabernacle in which Bishop Grace preaches a highly emotional religion to the accompaniment of much shouting, increased by the four brass bands that provide music for the services. At one end of the auditorium, decorated with streamers of crepe paper, is the “throne” of Daddy Grace, as the preacher is affectionately known. Worshippers sit on wooden benches arranged on the sawdust-covered dirt floor.
The United House of Prayer for All People, as it is now known, is an unpainted, rough-board tabernacle no more. On the same Wrightsboro Road site is now a brightly-colored brick and stucco building with three gabled and spired main portals, surrounded by a black aluminum fence. “Sweet Daddy,” as he was affectionately known, was not the local pastor of the House of Prayer, but its founder, who established Houses all over the country, the first of which was in West Wareham, Massachusetts. Born Marcelino Manuel da Graca, “Sweet Daddy,” had come from the Cape Verde Islands in the early twentieth century, toured the country in a black cassock and pattypan squash hairdo. But he was a bishop, and like the cathedra in Catholic churches, the throne for Bishop Grace was likely usually empty, waiting for Sweet Daddy to come back from tending to his many branches around the states. Though he was not there much, they still called the place “Sweet Daddy’s.” I don’t know if there is still a throne in the new building, or if it’s occupied.
And I don’t know what else James Brown took from Sweet Daddy Grace, but he walked out of the House of Prayer one Sunday in 1941 with a taste of his hereafter he’d seen and heard in there: the hairstyle and sass, the spirit-shake, the swagger and the bone-quaking brass. I am sure Sweet Daddy could shell down the corn like no man, but no one ever made a more persuasive on-film preacher than James Brown did in “The Blues Brothers.” Shameless and clichéd, yes. But slip-sliding and swing-kicking across the stage in a fuchsia gown that could barely keep up with him, calling us all back to the Old Landmark, his hair hilariously and uncharacteristically disheveled in a way only the Holy Spirit could get away with, James Brown could have made any damn body see the light.
On the Common, Augusta may look more like James Oglethorpe imagined it, but — today, at least — it sounds like James Brown.