Gorgeous George & James Brown: Soul to Soul
Physically, energetically, emotionally, they were close as kin—only race set them apart. When the young aspiring entertainer James Brown (born in 1933) first saw Gorgeous George—most likely on the TV at his Aunt Honey’s whorehouse in Augusta, GA—he was drawn to the strutting wrestler and showman. Very much like the man and the performer Brown would become, George was not that big or tall, but a dynamo, a muscular athlete with fast, tiny feet, an oversized head and a wild hairstyle that only he would dare to wear.
Every time Brown saw him, it seemed, the wrestler was draped in a different outlandish and attention-grabbing robe, another dazzling style. Brown loved the fancy titles George bestowed on himself, too: Toast of the Coast, Sensation of the Nation... The younger entertainer would create his own set of superlatives—the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite and The Hardest Working Man in Show Business—and what’s more, live up to them.
The late Brown, who passed away in 2006, came up hard, as he put it, not just poor, but also—like George Wagner—having lost his mother early in life. Brown was abandoned by her at four years old. Brown never finished seventh grade; before he and the lightly educated George found their callings and their ways out of poverty, both young men worked at menial jobs: George sacked cotton and poured cement, while Brown shined shoes for three cents a pair. He also broke into cars, for which he went to prison at age 16.
After he got out of the jail on Fourth Street and hooked up with Bobby Byrd’s Gospel Starlighters, Brown began to develop his performing style. One crucial influence, he said in his memoir, I Feel Good, was “the rassler, Gorgeous George, one of the great early stars of live TV [who] added a special flamboyance to his matches.” Soon after Brown got his own band, the Famous Flames, he had his own robes, too, mostly shorter capes, of red sequins, or shiny gold fabric with his name inscribed in rhinestones on the back. (Brown claimed that Elvis Presley took to wearing capes after seeing his fine drapery; if his account is believed, then Gorgeous George indirectly influenced the King as well.)
In 1956 Brown had his first big hit, “Please Please Please,” and for 50 years thereafter the climax of his live shows came during this song. In it there was another nod to George: The Godfather employed a valet, like the wrestler’s manservant Jeffery Jefferies. Mid-song Brown would collapse to the floor, overcome by emotion. From the wings came a man in a white tuxedo and red bow tie. The “Cape Man,” Danny Ray, covered the singer with whatever gaudy layer Brown was featuring that night and tended to his master. Then of course, JB would struggle manfully to his feet, shrug the cape off, and once again sing, scream, and plead to the love of his life.
Both men’s work was sophisticated in some ways yet fundamentally raw as well, based in sweat, phenomenal energy, and determination. Brown, a boxer, was as physical and athletic at his craft as Wagner; at times his knees would be bloody at the end of a show. They both shouted and declaimed, in victory and in loss, and seen in person their effort and intensity made them utterly compelling—they gave it up and turned it loose.