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James Brown had deep roots in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: August 6, 2014 at 06:41 AM

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TMacon, Georgia, gets credit as the place where a young James Brown got his break in the new biopic on the Godfather of Soul, “Get On Up.”

But those who remember complain that it's just artistic license; it should have been Tampa.

In one scene, Brown and his best friend and bandmate Bobby Byrd are counting pennies for a donut and coffee in a Macon diner when an executive from King Records approaches with the recording contract that will change his life.

Here's how it really happened, said friend and former promoter Andre White: Brown got a phone call from King Records while he was in the Tampa area. And he had no worries here about his next meal because the late Moses White, civil rights leader and successful businessman, would have taken care of Brown and his band.

“It was my daddy who loaned James Brown the gas money to get to Cincinnati after he got that call about King Records,” said Andre White, 69-year-old son of Moses White.

The Tampa Bay area, in fact, played a major role in the career of the man whose life gets new international attention this month with the release last week of a film garnering mixed reviews but praise for the actor portraying Brown, Chadwick Boseman.

For the real Brown, one of his earliest early musical inspirations was from Tampa — a percussionist in St. Petersburg helped create “the James Brown sound” — and it was in Thonotosassa that Brown met his patrons in the White family. They would look after him for nearly half a century.

The movie makes no mention of the Tampa area. The soundtrack does include two songs recorded April 23, 1966, during a concert at the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory in Tampa. They are “Please Please Please” and “It's a Man's Man's Man's World.”

“In broad strokes I think they get much right,” said RJ Smith, author of the book, “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown.” “Although these littler things do matter and those who know the story know what they have missed.”

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Andre White is so upset he refuses to see the film.

“They didn't talk to those closest to him,” said White, a Tampa native and longtime resident of Georgia. “They cherry picked information to tell the story they want to tell.”

From the time he was a teenager, White counted Brown as a friend and business associate. On the night Brown died, Christmas Day, 2006, in Atlanta, White was one of the last people to talk with him.

He said the film never should have been made while the James Brown estates remains in turmoil. Brown's last will and testament gave his music empire to the “I Feel Good” education trust for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia. Six of Brown's children continue to contest it.

“If you want to honor James Brown, it is more important to honor his last wish than make a movie,” White said. “If you are going to make a movie, make it accurate. You cannot tell James Brown's story without Tampa.”

Among the most distinctive features of the film are its back and forth time sequences, an extensive long shot of a beating he inflicts on his wife, and actor Boseman's uncanny physical and emotional resemblance to the influential entertainer, who was dubbed the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”

Brown's first connection to Tampa, as a young boy raised by his aunt in her Augusta, Georgia, brothel, was a regular customer there known as “Tampa Red,” Hudson Woodbridge, who learned to play blues guitar from a Tampa street musician called Piccolo Pete.

Woodbridge would go on to become one of the premiere blues musicians of the early 1900s.

Tampa Red taught the instrument to a young James Brown, Brown says in his autobiography, “James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.”

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Later, in the early 1960s, historian Smith said “one of the crucial instrumentalists in Brown's band came from Tampa.”

He is Clayton Fillyau, a St. Petersburg native and drummer Brown discovered while hearing him perform with another band somewhere in the Tampa Bay area.

Smith described Fillyau as a large man with a sense of humor who liked to say he was Brown's driver.

He did drive the tour bus — by choice, Smith said.

But Brown also boasted that Fillyau was the best percussionist he ever played with, combining a New Orleans sound with the Latin beats of Tampa to create a unique style.

“It can be argued that it was Fillyau who helped James Brown create the sound he wanted,” Smith said. “He really opened up the rhythms. One of Brown's best pieces is 'I've Got Money,' and Fillyau is considered the author of it.”

Fillyau performed with Brown through the mid-1960s, and later he played off and on with Brown as well as other acts — Sam and Dave, Ike and Tina Turner and Etta James. Fillyau died in 2001.

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Brown's strongest link to the Tampa Bay area was the White family.

During the days of segregation, White family patriarch, Moses, owned businesses that catered to African-Americans, mainly restaurants and nightclubs.

Most were in Tampa's black entertainment district on Central Avenue, sandwiched between downtown and Ybor City and remembered as “The Harlem of the South.” Ray Charles wrote his first three songs here and it is believed to be where Chubby Checker's dance “The Twist” originated.

Tampa historians have said Brown performed on Central Avenue in the days of Jim Crow laws, but Andre White said Brown was a regular at a venue called The Midway Coliseum owned by his father in rural Thonotosassa.

Moses earned a good living off paying customers but never turned down a customer with an empty wallet, his son said. When he heard Brown had a record deal waiting, but no gas money, he helped out.

“He didn't know James Brown would become famous,” Andre said. “How could he?”

Brown made it to Cincinnati and recorded “Please Please Please,” which launched him to stardom.

When Brown returned to Tampa, to repay Moses White, he chose Andre as his promoter.

“Mr. Brown said he was going to teach me to be a boss man,” Andre White said. “He taught me the secret was to care of those who care about you — and payola.”

The practice of payola, slipping money to radio DJs for song play, rates a mention in “Get On Up.” Brown used it to save money on a promoter, renting concert halls himself and relying on the advance radio play to get out the crowd.

White, who was 17 or 18 at the time, was point man for Brown's Tampa appearances.

White went on to play football at Florida A&M and enjoyed a short career as a tight end in the NFL. He then entered the entertainment industry, promoting shows for Brown in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. He did the same for Marvin Gaye.

“I was a promoter, a manager and a concierge for Mr. Brown,” White said. “What that all means is I was his friend. I had a specific job but I would not limit my work to specific duties. If Mr. Brown needed help with anything, I would do it.”

Sometimes that meant keeping him company, keeping people away from him or just answering the phone.

“I'd get a call from him at two in the morning so he could tell me he knocked the audience dead at the show.”

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The support was mutual in many respects.

“He would have done anything for my family,” White said.

Brown hired Andre's brother Gerald White as his bodyguard.

When Andre's other brother Alton White entered the Tampa mayor's race in 1974, the city's first African-American mayoral candidate, Brown donated to the campaign. He lost the election but became administrative assistant to winner Mayor William Poe.

Just as White called the entertainer Mr. Brown, Brown referred to his promoter as Mr. White.

Brown believed in terms of respect for those who deserved it, White said.

But he admitted Brown was far from perfect. When Moses White died, Brown skipped the funeral.

“I told him that he did my family wrong by not coming,” said Andre White. “He felt bad. He told me he was sorry and had no excuse. He had a drug habit at that time. To me, that was a mark of a man. He never hid from his mistakes. He admitted them and apologized.”

White made the arrangements for Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta to be ready for Brown's arrival when he fell ill on Christmas Eve 2006.

White also helped with the hospital paperwork and stayed by the entertainer's side until he was comfortable.

He excused himself to buy some last minute Christmas gifts.

He called Brown later, but Brown told him he didn't need to come by.

“He said, 'Mr. White, you've done enough for me. I feel better.' Then a few hours later he died.”

The official cause of death was congestive heart failure from complications of pneumonia.

Eight years later White still chokes up discussing his friend's death.

“He was my friend. He was my family.”

 

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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