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.