7:00 p.m. Dec. 25
James Brown checked out on Christmas Day, when silence blankets American cities.
But in Chicago, the Golden Apple was open. The hardest working Greek diner near Wrigley Field never closes. The owners brag how they don’t have keys for their front door. The last entertainer who was audacious enough to die on Christmas was Dean Martin. That night I went to Jilly’s on Rush Street.
This night I thought about J.B. while driving to the Apple for a spaghetti dinner. I was alone. I was tired and a bit hung over. I wondered what happens to a cape without the soul of a man.
Danny Ray spent at least 30 years as James Brown’s emcee. He was best known for draping the lavender cape over a worn-out Brown at the close of a concert. In the fall of 1984 I caught up with Ray after the Godfather of Soul appeared at Cabaret Metro in Chicago…………
Danny Ray looked like Sammy Davis, Jr., especially when he smiled. It was a chance meeting that got Ray together with Brown in 1960. Ray was hanging around the Apollo Theater in New York City when he met one of Brown’s Famous Flames and the group’s manager. “I was just a kid looking to get into the entertainment business, and I came up from Birmingham, Ala. for the weekend,” said Ray, who was 47 in 1984. “It turned out to be a long weekend.”
For two years Ray was a gofer in the Brown entourage. He wore natty suits and a pencil-thin mustache. In 1962 an announcer didn’t show up for a Brown concert. Ray said, “Outside the dressing room I saw Brown and he said, ‘You’re always looking like you’re together. You should do the show.’ I told him I had never done a professional show in my life, but he insisted I think of something. I was kind of shaking the first time, but I said I was going to get this together and really put something into the act.”
Over the years it morphed into something like this:
“LADIEES AND GENTLEMEN, IT’S STARRRR TIME! THE GODFATHER OF SOUL! THE HARDEST-WORKING MAN IN SHOW BUSINESS! SOUL BROTHER NUMBER ONE! THE LEGEND OF SOUL HIMSELF! MISTER DYNAMITE! IT’S MISTERRRR JAMES BROWN! JAMES BROWN! JAMES BROWN!
It was orgasmic.
“A few months later we started the cape routine in Baton Rouge,” Ray said. “It really began with a Turkish towel. I would stand in the door and add a robe when Brown sang ‘Please, Please, Please’ (Don’t Go)’. He would drop to his knees (drained of emotion). I would bring out the towel, he would rip it off and rush back to the microphone onstage. The crowd came to expect it, so we finally got a cape and decided to work it into the show.
“No matter where we are, I never forget the moment to bring it. You have to reach back for the power, and I’ve been doing that for a long time. I think that may be why they call me the little guy with the big voice. I saw the chance and I wanted to hold onto the chance. It may never come again.”
Revisiting Ray and relistening to early Brown (“Try Me,” “I’ll Go Crazy”, “Prisoner of Love”) sheds some light on my earlier questions. Chances can slip through your fingers like tinsel. Hold on to what you got. Sometimes it is a lavender cape, other times it is hope beyond a veil of circumstance. In one way that’s what Brown—who in 1969 cut “Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto”–stood for.