Soul Brother No. 2

R.J. Johnson once ruled the R&B world with James Brown. Now he's serving chicken downtown.

The East Cleveland home is a sore sight inside and out. A peeling, putrid shade of yellow on the outside, on the inside the living room looks like a rummage sale has exploded, casting old VHS cassettes and magazines in every direction. A large Sony TV is so old that it's hard to make out what's on the screen. Roosevelt "R.J." Johnson admits the place isn't up to his standards; as soon as he gets the money together, he wants to tear up the ratty carpet and apply a fresh coat of paint. For now, it will have to wait.

Johnson has just crawled out of bed on a Saturday morning and perched himself at the kitchen table next to an open box of Cheez-Its, clad in a Day-Glo blue robe and a bright red do-rag. He is a somber, at times despondent man. But things weren't always this way.

Destitute and desperate at age 58, Johnson spends his nights working the front counter at the Hot Sauce Williams barbecue joint on Superior Avenue and East 123rd Street, just a couple of miles from his home.

But for 40 years, Johnson was the personal assistant to — and later a heralded performer with — the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. He traveled the globe performing alongside the hardest working man in show business. Today, he clings to a box of tangled laminates that once provided him all-access privileges in venues around the world. A faded press kit from 1998 includes a photo of him dancing alongside the legend himself at a tour stop in Mexico.

The home's dreary walls are dotted with photos of Johnson posing with a variety of celebrities: There's one with former President Bill Clinton, another with Puff Daddy, others with Dave Matthews, Elton John, and Carlos Santana. Old concert posters list Johnson as the opening act on James Brown bills. They are yellowed reminders of the life he once led, a ramshackle shrine of frames all hung haphazardly, as if an earthquake once rattled the house and no one bothered to straighten them again.

Five decades ago, Johnson was plucked from the Cleveland ghetto and ultimately promised the Godfather's throne. When Brown died unexpectedly on Christmas Day 2006, Johnson's dream of succeeding the master died with it.

The Godfather of Soul had no Cleveland show on the schedule when he landed at Burke Lakefront Airport one spring day in 1964. This trip was all about shopping, and Cleveland at the time was as fine a place for it as any.

Twelve-year-old R.J. Johnson was a student at Oliver Wendell Holmes, but he found his passion as an usher at Leo's Casino, already an historic Euclid Avenue club. There, the boy became accustomed to meeting big-name soul stars; today, he cherishes a framed photo of himself standing next to a young Marvin Gaye. But James Brown would leave a far more lasting mark.

Johnson had befriended a group of disc jockeys from WJMO radio, and they were charged with meeting Brown at the airport to chauffeur his adventure that day.

Dressed sharply in gray tweed pants and a turtleneck, Brown took an instant liking to Johnson, who shared with the singer a precocious affinity for fashion, often wearing ties and sport coats to school. When Brown asked Johnson to hold his brown leather coat, the boy eagerly obliged, making no fuss about the pistol he found in its pocket.

"That was the first thing I did for him," says Johnson, noting that he always called Brown "sir." "I was all for it. I thought, 'This man wants me to hold his coat. Nobody gonna get this coat from me. I'm going to guard this coat with my life.'"

Their spree led them to King's Menswear in the Lee-Harvard shopping center. "I got these crisp $20 bills from him, and I had to explain to my mother where I got them. I grew up at 101st and St. Clair in the '60s, in a big apartment building with mice, roaches, and whatever. So for a kid like me to have $40 back then, you had to steal it from somewhere. That's exactly what everyone thought I did. James Brown wasn't in town. He wasn't doing a show. So why would I have run into him? I was so pissed and hurt that nobody would believe me.

"For whatever reason, he was just good to me," Johnson says, still struggling to grasp why they bonded. "For me to be poor and black and living out of a millionaire's pockets is an amazing thing. It's like a fairy tale. It just doesn't happen."

Some time later, Brown returned to town to play a show at the Cleveland Arena, sharing a bill with supporting acts Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, and Sam & Dave. Prior to the show, Brown had a radio appearance at the Giant Tiger department store parking lot. "Bring that kid," he told the WJMO DJs.

When they delivered Johnson to him, Brown offered a word of advice: "He told me, 'You finish school, and you can work for me.'"

Perhaps it's no surprise that Brown connected with the boy. Raised by an aunt after his parents separated, Brown grew up amid extreme poverty in South Carolina. As an adult, he was always gracious to young children, and he singled out Johnson for his manners and appearance.

"I was clean," says Johnson. "I was dressed. I was very sharp. It was just a habit. I didn't like to be dirty. I didn't want kids putting their dirty hands on me. I always found a way to put a tie or something on my neck. I would dress very colorful."

Several years later, with his GED in hand, Johnson contacted Brown and started promoting his albums and concerts throughout the region and beyond. He bought a Greyhound Ameripass and rode the bus around the country, dropping off James Brown albums at radio stations.

"You didn't have to do much with a James Brown record except hand it to the DJ," he says. "I took 'Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud' to the regional stations. They were a little apprehensive at first about playing it, and then they were like why not? He wrote that song in like an hour and got some kids from San Francisco to sing backing vocals on it. He took all the colored people and made 'em black on that record. Nobody wanted to be black back then. That was a bad thing. But he certainly changed that."

In 1970, Brown assembled what would become his most famous backing band, the JB's. Featuring bassist Bootsy Collins, guitarist Phelps Collins, and trombonist Fred Wesley, the group made its debut on "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine."

"The first time I saw the JB's, I thought, 'Now that is a band,'" Johnson remembers.

His profile higher than ever, Brown left Cincinnati-based King Records (with whom he had signed in 1956) and inked a major deal with Polydor; he even started producing acts of his own on a Polydor subsidiary. Polydor purchased his back catalog, reissued it, and gave Brown his own office at its New York headquarters. Landing the cultural icon was a major coup for the label. But Brown made sure his supporting cast remained intact.

When the singer performed in Zaire in 1974 in advance of the historic fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Johnson was there with him as a traveling companion. "I went with him, but I had to come back early because the fight got postponed," says Johnson. "They still did a show. I saw his performance from a distance."

In 1976, Brown began hosting Future Shock, a weekly variety music program filmed at what would become the TBS studios in Atlanta. He enlisted Johnson to sell ads. "I was criss-crossing the country, selling hair products and whatever would look good being advertised on his program," he remembers.

The show lasted only a year, a casualty of the changing times. When disco pushed R&B to the sidelines, Brown had trouble acclimating. Albums such as 1977's Mutha Nature and 1978's Jam 1980s tried to incorporate disco-friendly production techniques, but ultimately fell flat. The action cooled, though not for Johnson: He was still promoting Brown's records, making a hefty $400 a week.

"He had a few hits for Polydor [for whom he recorded until 1981]," says Johnson. "But he realized he was competing with his own self. It's like Lucille [Ball]. She would do all these new shows, and nothing compared to I Love Lucy. In the same breath, nothing James Brown did was comparable to what he already did. That's when he decided his live performance was more important."

Then Brown's 1985 album Gravity became a surprise hit. It featured the song "Living in America," a patriotic tune that soared thanks to its inclusion in Rocky IV. The song went on to win a Grammy. By this time, rappers were starting to sample Brown's beats and drum breaks, offering reassurance that Brown remained relevant. His induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, its inaugural year, only confirmed his place in history. "That was the beginning of a whole new discovery of James Brown," says Johnson.

As Brown's career was resurging, so too were his demons. He was renowned for his foul temper around the many women in his life. Though he married Velma Warren in 1953, by the end of the '60s, they were divorced, and by that time he'd reportedly had seven children with various women. His infidelity was exacerbated by his addiction to marijuana and other drugs. Johnson admits he bought Brown's pot: "If he came to town and didn't have it, I would get it for him," he says. "It was as easy as getting change for a dollar." But he says it was Brown's last two wives — Adrienne Lois Rodriguez (1984-1996) and Tomi Rae Hynie (2001-2004) — who introduced the legend to painkillers and heavier drugs like PCP. "They were pill-poppers," he says. "And his knees always hurt — you can only drop to your knees so many times before they start to hurt. Adrienne was the one who turned him on to PCP."

In 1988, reportedly high on PCP, the singer hit rock bottom. After allegedly brandishing a weapon at an insurance seminar taking place next door to his office, Brown led officers on a wild car chase. While trying to dodge a police roadblock, he had his tires shot out. Thinking they were harassing him, he led a chase from Georgia into South Carolina for which he ended up serving more than two years in prison. "When they went to reload their guns after shooting out his tires, he took off," says Johnson. "I would have done the same thing. I don't know about the PCP, but I think he was on painkillers, and he had probably smoked some weed."

While Brown was incarcerated, Johnson fell off his payroll, so he picked up odd jobs around Cleveland doing manual labor. He collected food stamps and sold a bit of pot to make ends meet.

"What are you going to do?" he says. "I needed to pay the bills. It was a work stoppage."

When Brown returned from prison, he put Johnson in charge of his wardrobe — a task he gladly accepted. Though Cleveland was still home, Johnson spent most of his time holed up at the Days Inn in Augusta, Georgia, near Brown's office. Room 122 was often booked in his name for weeks at a time. "Packing his suitcase became a major, major chore for me," says Johnson, who would pick the outfits himself from Brown's home, where he had a "stage closet" and a "personal closet."

"He didn't know where stuff was — I knew," says Johnson. Brown would enlist Cleveland designer Curtis Gibson to fly to Augusta and come up with costume ideas. But once they were made, Johnson was the guy who kept track of them.

"He's James Brown. He's known for dressing. His wife Adrienne couldn't do it anymore. I stepped in, and he always says I took the job because I saw her struggling. Once I picked up that iron, I never put it down. When I started packing his clothes, I would load up at least ten personal suits and five or six different boots, an assortment of ties and scarves. For the costumes, you had to piece everything together. I was the only one who could do it. I would take at least two costumes for each show because sometimes he would change during the show."

To celebrate his release from prison in 1991, Brown put on a star-studded pay-per-view special that included guest appearances by Quincy Jones, Gladys Knight, and comedian George Wallace. Johnson was right there at his side, costumes in tow.

"It was a great tribute to James Brown," he says. "[Producer] Butch Lewis did it in a hurry, but it was still great. A lot of artists and stars came to the concert that was James Brown's coming-out [of prison] party. I did make one mistake: I sent him out onstage with a leather jacket on that still had the tag on it. He was walking onto the stage and popping the tag off at the same time." Before the artist went on, Johnson had slipped him a hit of Viagra to help out after the show.

Indeed, the Sex Machine was back.

"They missed him," says Johnson. "He made more money than he ever made in his life. Before prison he was getting $12,000 a night, and afterward it went to $45,000 or even $50,000 a night. He was all over the television too."

Johnson also benefited from the windfall, taking in about $1,000 a week and spending more time working out of the Days Inn. Even after Brown's office burned down in 2002, after an employee reportedly stole from him and set the place on fire, Johnson would stay there, watching old episodes of The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy while sitting by the phone in case Brown needed anything.

Eventually, Brown came to realize his longtime associate deserved more than life as a wardrobe man.

By 1997, Johnson found himself separated from his longtime girlfriend, a Cleveland woman he had dated since the mid-1970s. Together they raised a son and daughter, both of whom were adults by the time of their split.

Johnson says he wasn't anywhere near as promiscuous as his boss, but he admits that life in Brown's entourage made fidelity a constant challenge.

"I didn't set out to be unfaithful," he says, "but being in that business, it happens.When that spotlight is on you, it's going to happen." Their breakup, he insists, was not the result of his lifestyle, but "other things."

That same year, Brown and Johnson found themselves in Los Angeles together at the upscale Beverly Hills restaurant Crustaceans, celebrating the release of Brown's new CD retrospective, JB40: 40th Anniversary Collection. Backing singer Martha High put on a tape that Brown mistook for a new single from R&B great Al Green.

"That's not Green," High corrected him. "That's R.J. Johnson."

"He said, 'What?! You mean he can sing like that?'" Johnson recalls, imitating Brown's animated manner of speaking. "All these years, he never knew I could sing. Then we had to go in the studio."

With Brown producing, Johnson cut the single "Loving You," a tune he co-wrote with Brown and Clevelander Lou Ragland. Produced by Brown, it's a traditional soul ballad in the vein of Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding, featuring a '90s synth sound. On it, Johnson croons about how he will do anything to keep his woman happy. The track got radio airplay in the South, but didn't make a dent elsewhere, even though Johnson would often sing it during James Brown performances.

"He put me onstage with him from that point on. He would hand me the microphone, and whatever song we were doing, I would take over from there. There was a spot on the stage where he wanted me to stand and would say, 'That's why I got you over there — because one day you're going to be over here.'"

For ten years, Brown's backing ensemble had been known as the Soul Generals. By his own admission, Johnson never was an official member; he was a backup singer and a personal assistant through it all. But it was clear Brown thought highly of him as a performer.

"The very last show we did, he asked me to finish it," says Johnson, referring to a gig in Moscow in October 2006. "The song was 'Sex Machine.' He handed me the microphone and left the stage."

Soul Generals' drummer Robert "Mousey" Thompson joined the band in 1992. He doesn't remember that specific incident, but he does remember that Johnson and Brown were close friends.

"R.J. had been with James Brown for many years by the time I joined the band," recalls Thompson, who lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as a session musician. "He'd do some James Brown tunes and some Al Green. And he had his own stuff he'd play too. James Brown created a bunch of leaders in his band, and he would tell everybody to try to keep that legacy going on."

Soul Generals guitarist Keith Jenkins agrees.

"R.J. was in the immediate entourage; we called it 'The Royal Family,'" says Jenkins, who lives in Augusta and has gone back to school to get a history degree. "James Brown always had a team of people around him, and R.J. was in many ways James Brown's closest personal assistant. He would always carry around James Brown's heavy trench coat that had all his personal belongings in it. But he did so much more than that. He also had a role onstage too. I don't know how he did it. Five people should have been doing all that he did."

Shortly before Christmas in 2006, James Brown made an appointment for tooth implants. But when the dentist heard wheezing in Brown's chest, he suggested he see a doctor first. Brown, it turned out, had caught pneumonia from the recent Moscow tour. He died on Christmas Day.

"I never envisioned him dying," says Johnson. "I never thought he would die. He was 73 years old and still doing two-hour shows. He was still singing and dancing and sweating. He would wear us out. I went numb.

"I was ready to go to the airport and park the car at Hopkins, and go meet him. I had my stuff packed and ready to go. I was going to fly on Christmas Day and go to his house and pack his stuff. I didn't know what to think. I thought about me and what I was going to do. It was such a numbing feeling. You go from way up high to way down low in a heartbeat. That's exactly what it was. From the time I got that phone call, it's been downhill. It's like, how do you go from rags to riches to rags and deal with it?"

By the time of Brown's death, Johnson was making around $3,000 a week and living in an $800-a-month apartment in Euclid's then-upscale Harbor Crest complex. And then, suddenly, it was all gone.

With Brown's death, so too died the Soul Generals and Johnson's spot on the stage. And so began the many questions about who would carry on the great singer's legacy.

In his wake, Brown left a dizzying number of potential heirs. In an extensive article he wrote for GQ on the James Brown estate, reporter Sean Flynn noted Brown left behind "14 children, 16 grandchildren, eight mothers of his children, several mistresses, and 30 lawyers," all of whom have tried to get a piece of Brown's fortune. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. One lawsuit led to another, and eventually the singer's inner circle wound up on the outside looking in: People like Johnson and longtime Brown associates David Washington and Charles Bobbit, his housekeeper and manager, respectively, were left out in the cold.

Jay B. Ross, a Chicago attorney who was one of James Brown's lawyers for 15 years, can't recall whether Johnson was named in one of the wills. But he adds that he wouldn't be surprised if he were.

"Mr. Brown was a big fan of R.J.'s and cared for him and believed in him, and there was not a performance that went by where he wouldn't bring him by to share the stage," says Ross.

But once a South Carolina court appointed an impartial executor to sort out matters regarding Brown's will, Johnson's chances of getting a piece of the pie diminished.

"Whoever is the will's executor is more interested in obtaining money than continuing his legacy," says Ross. "They just want to sell all his possessions and denude him of all the stuff that could be so valuable."

"They could have created their own Graceland, and it would have been wonderful for Brown and the family and South Carolina. The family argued among themselves. I did almost all his entertainment agreements, and I've never been contacted once by the executor. I've asked to be contacted. I've gone through other parties, and apparently most of the people who surrounded him were of evil intent and either went to jail or their motives were not pure, and so what I'm told is that I was thrown in with the rest of the them."

Johnson sued the Brown estate shortly after his death, but wound up with nothing. So in 2007, the stars stubbornly fading from his eyes, he took a job as seasonal help at Malley's Chocolate. (Owner Patrick Malley was an acquaintance of James Brown's and befriended Johnson after a Richfield Coliseum show.) Two years ago, he started working at Hot Sauce Williams and moved into a friend's house, where he pays rent only if he's got it. More times than not, he doesn't have it.

"I used to have a ring for every finger, and now I'm down to nothing," says Johnson, adding that he has sold almost everything he had of value, including the Mercedes-Benz and the Jaguar Brown had given him.

He recently borrowed $20,000 from a family friend to help fix up his place and relaunch the band. He's setting up a website to show promoters that he's for real when he says he wants to tour as "R.J. and the James Brown Band." He knows that former members of the Soul Generals would be eager to make up his backing band.

And there are other possibilities brewing. Johnson recently met with Snoop Dogg about a potential TV special. He's talked with Shaquille O'Neal about possible financing. If a mass audience could just see him do his thing, Johnson insists, the band would be able to tour again.

"I think R.J. could do it," says former Soul General Thompson. "But it's more than just filling [Brown's] shoes. It's about keeping his music alive. His music is steadily dying. James Brown stood for so much more than music."

Brown's iconic stature isn't lost on Neal Israel, the Hollywood writer-director whose credits include Bachelor Party. He has expressed interest in making a movie about Johnson's life, centering on the way that Brown retrieved him from Cleveland's ghetto and took him on a wild ride around the world, all because he found someone he could trust to hold his coat.

It's that image that really struck Israel, who heard about Johnson through a friend and flew him to Hawaii a couple of years ago, signing him to a contract that gives away his "life story rights." (Spike Lee reportedly holds the rights to the James Brown story.) If anyone will tell Johnson's story, it will be Israel.

"When I heard Johnson's story, I thought, 'This is the way to tell the James Brown story,'" says Israel. "It's about how this child from the ghetto meets him and he says, 'Hold my coat,' and then begins a 40-year relationship."

So far, the film has gone nowhere.

"Things stalled because the interest in James Brown was not what I thought," admits Israel. "But that doesn't mean it won't get done. I really just need a script to get started."

Through it all, Johnson has struggled with depression, though he thanks his 30-year-old son and 33-year-old daughter for their support.

"They're just waiting on their father to go back to work," he says. "They're glad I didn't collapse. They've been helping me out.

"I got nothin', and I spent over 40 years of my life taking care of this man. I ain't mad at him. What did he do? I wouldn't trade a minute of it. I am not saying I was entitled to anything. There's no reason [his band] shouldn't still be performing. Hell, the Count Basie Orchestra is still playing, and he's been dead 30 years. So why can't we go back to work? I want to get the band to perform again. We miss each other. It's like a team that's been broken up. We're waiting to come back together and play again."

Ross says there is no reason the band can't tour playing Brown's music.

"If you try to impersonate somebody and do only their songs, and try to pass yourself off as them, you can get into trouble," he says. "But not if you bill yourself as a tribute act."

In the meantime, Johnson can be found at the East Cleveland Hot Sauce Williams, serving up Snack Packs of fried chicken and fries to customers who have no idea where he's been. Dressed in a white apron and wearing glasses so he can see the cash register, he does the job without any of the flash he exhibited for so many years.

"I don't want to fry chicken for a living," he says. "I have no business working for Hot Sauce Williams. I should be onstage wearing a fantastic outfit, not in a white apron with chicken grease and barbecue sauce all over me. That's just not cool."Send feedback to [email protected].

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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