Please, Please, Please

The sun is going down on a farm house outside of Washington, Georgia in the hottest part of August in 1965.  Inside, I am trying my best to get the attention of a large African-American family to show the reference book I am selling. I am not having any luck. It’s a large family, and though my training tells me to gather them all in one location facing me, that seems an impossible task. There are kids here from 5 to 17 who are just too excited about what is going to happen on television in just a few minutes to pay any attention to me. Other children from up and down the road are coming into the house and squeezing into a seat or sitting on the floor. I can’t even tell who is in the family and who isn’t anymore. The parents are as excited as the kids and have secured their own places by picking up a couple of small children and placing them on their laps. Finally, I give up, lean back, and watch the show.

“James Brown and His Fabulous Flames” are appearing on national television, and I am lucky enough to be sitting in the middle of an adoring audience, primed for every word he utters, every move he makes.  I will sell books later. This is a moment to savor. Brown only does a couple of numbers, but he includes “Please, Please, Please,” a closer few acts can match.  As lyrics go, there is not a lot to the song. Brown has been done wrong by a woman, and now she is leaving him on top of that. He begs again and again for her to “please, please don’t go.” The song seems to be winding down when one of the Flames comes over to wrap the overwrought Brown in a cape and console him. Full of grief, Brown slowly heads toward the side of the stage only to bolt and return to the mike to make his plea again. One plea leads to another, and this scene is repeated two or three times, Brown plunging deeper and deeper into his sorrow until for a minute the song becomes a shriek. He drops to his knees repeatedly, but with help he regains his footing.  It is a gut-wrenching performance that ends finally when a sliver of calmness appears in the middle of a shriek, and he closes the number on his feet.

Brown’s emotion fills the room. Children and adults find their own ways to respond. There is dancing, shouting, singing, clapping, stomping and a few shrieks of emotion to match his. At the end, for a minute, the room seems as limp as Brown appears to be on stage.  It would be a sacrilege to try to sell these people anything after what we have experienced. I thank them for letting me be part of the viewing and ask if I can return tomorrow. I have seen James Brown do “Please, Please, Please,” and if he wasn’t live in that little living room, you couldn’t prove it by me.

If you knock on every door you come to, you will learn a lot about the joys and sorrows of people. If you do it in the South in the 1960s, as I did for three summers in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, you will learn a lot about race and the racial divide that so troubles the region. I will never forget that night, but I also always remember that if I had been black and the family had been white, I would have never gotten in the door.  Still, when a door opens and you find something beautiful, you hope you will be different because you were there. That’s a lot to ask of a few minutes in front of a television in the house of a stranger on a hot night in rural Georgia. One thing does lead to another though, and I like to think that maybe that night helped give me ears to hear a little song by Nina Simone titled Compassion a few years later:

Because I have loved so deeply,

Because I have loved so long,

God in his great compassion

Gave me the gift of song.

Because I have loved so vainly,

Sung with such faltering breath

Oh, oh, oh the master in

His infinite mercy

Offers the boon of death.

16 thoughts on “Please, Please, Please

  1. Excellent. James Brown as a preacher when he sings even if he’s singing about lost love, especially if he’s singing about lost love. I remember that severe racial divide. I guess it’s still there in a lot of places. Just read about this restaurant in Nashville. It made the top 100 US restaurants on Yelp this year. Soul food and Southern cooking. Maybe you know it?

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/monells-dining-and-catering-nashville

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  2. I remember when you and I went to the New Daisey on Beale (before the street got a face-lift) to see Leroi Jones’ Dutchman which was paired with one of those Get Whitey movies of the 70s. We were the only ones available in the theater, but we had a good night and I wouldn’t have missed seeing Dutchman for anything. Monell’s has been here for a long time.

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  3. “Still, when a door opens and you find something beautiful, you hope you will be different because you were there.”

    Opening doors — that’s what you do, what this blog does, for all of us. Thanks, David.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read about this song, this James Brown closer, long before I heard it or saw it. A British music writer named Nik Cohn wrote about it in his 1967 book, “Rock from the Beginning.” (At the time, that was all of about 12 years.) Cohn had a style a little like Pauline Kael: entertaining as hell, completely sure of himself, dismissive of artists others viewed as great. He didn’t care for Dylan or the Beatles; in fact, if you Google him now what comes up are multiple references to the time he panned Abbey Road. But I loved his book. It had the spirit of rock and soul. And in a chapter called “Soul,” he described “Please, Please, Please” as if it was somehow too melodramatic. That it may have been, but I wanted to see it, and at the time, there was no way. Courtesy of your essay, I’ve seen it in a much different setting, and light. I don’t think Nik Cohn ever saw James Brown like that. Nice job.

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  5. Thanks Mark. I also posted a video of him doing the number on my Facebook page. It’s from the film of the 1964, The T A M I Show. Check it out. There is some melodrama for sure. Brown apparently used something Little Richard and the Wrestler Gorgeous George had used. On the T A M I show, he doesn’t have much stage room to work in and it heightens the melodramatic element, but I am not very forgiving of something that seems fake, and believe me, he sells the song. I like reading posts like yours though where you capture a memory of your own. When I took introduction to philosophy, I remember the function of the critic being defined as “pointing out something you may have missed.” I always liked that even though I loved Paulene Kael’s writing too.

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  6. Well I certainly envy you that moment in your life. The dynamic of a white young man in a black home filled with black people (interested in what you are selling, but fully aware they will never be able to buy it), is a bit beyond me. I mean I have never been in that position and I have no feeling about being in that position. I am sitting here now trying to image that state and having trouble doing so. Of course Nina Simone would draw someones interest. But i am a bit puzzled as to why young kinds would find her so exciting. Once again you surprise me. So much happens in your writing. I used to listen to Nina when I was in a mood to be gently lead someplace. I have never heard Please, Please, Please, but I think I wrote those words many years ago. Again, thanks for the adventure.

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