James Brown, the Clown Band & me

The best summer job I ever had was working at Ontario Place at the concert venue called “The Forum”.  It’s long gone, replaced with the much slicker, bigger “Molson Amphitheatre”; but back then it was a wonderful, home-sy place.

The stage rotated and the concerts were free.  The artists ranged from up-and-coming Canadian bands (Honeymoon Suite, Glass Tiger etc.) to well established veterans (Natalie Cole, Johnny Cash etc.).  My job was to take care of the performers and their crews during their stay – I fed them, stocked the dressing rooms – whatever they needed – well, whatever they needed that a nice, shy, conservative-ish college girl could/would provide…  Such a fun way to spend a few summers.

Every day brought a new band/artist, so there were any number of cool and exciting things that went on… but my favourite anecdote from those days was the weekend I met James Brown.

The entourage was HUGE, plus the band, Mr. Brown (as I was instructed to call him) and his wife (the one he later went to jail for abusing – I still shudder at that thought).  A busy weekend to say the least… and the crowds were there in force – over 10, 000 per show times 4 shows – it was quite the palooza (which, by the way, is a word I’m trying to single-handedly make mainstream).

After the first matinee, I was walking through the backstage area, carrying a deli tray (ubiquitous, it would seem, to backstage areas).  James/Mr. Brown was sitting outside his dressing room on a bench in the main thoroughfare, just watching the world go by (or perhaps enjoying the minions doing his bidding, I don’t know for sure).  As me & the deli tray walk past, he called out “Girl!  Come sit with me…!”  So, I did (of course!)

He then begins the most bizarre rant/monologue I’ve ever had the good fortune to witness.  He said things like:  “Guess how old I am, girl!” “I’m 54 years old and I’m in gooood shape – did you see me tearing it up out there?!  Yes, I still got it!”  I just smiled, nodded and tried not to drop salami on his shoes (they were purple! – the shoes, not the salami)

At some point during our wee chat, the Clown Band came in for their break – their dressing room was in the same area.  What’s “the Clown Band”, you ask?  They were a half-dozen university music students – hired to dress like clowns and wander Ontario Place with their instruments, entertaining the kids with such classics as: “The Wheels on the Bus”, “Roll out the Barrel” and “The Ants go Marching”… you get the picture.  Anyway, in walks this group of tired, hot young men who immediately walked right toward James Brown and me.  You can imagine their reaction – I mean, for all his faults, this was James friggin’ Brown!  They stopped in their tracks and stared.  James/Mr. Brown said:  “You boys musicians?”  They nodded and muttered things like yes, sir.  He said, “Well, then play us a song!”   I swear to God, the sight that ensued has been burned into my brain, crystal clearly, for all these years.  Picture 6 young men, dressed as clowns, make-up smudged and running from the heat, playing their hearts out for the King of Soul.  Mr. Brown was clapping his hands and tapping his foot while I held onto the increasingly heavy tray, darting my eyes from him to them.  It was truly something to see.  The boys, to their credit, played really well.  When it ended, Mr. Brown clapped enthusiastically, the boys panted with exhaustion and I said (louder than intended) – “Well, that was fucked up”.

I don’t know if I ruined the moment or provided the perfect ending… The boys shuffled off to their dressing room, James/Mr. Brown went to have his hair done and I delivered the (now sweaty) deli tray to the crew room.  Good times.

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