FBI agents are known for targeting godfathers. But when it comes to the Godfather of Soul, it turns out they can be a bit more understanding.
That revelation comes courtesy of a secret FBI file on soul legend James Brown, who died in December at age 73. The FBI released the file to The Washington Post last week under the Freedom of Information Act.
Brown was known to occasionally run afoul of the law, most notably in 1988 during a bizarre, PCP-fueled police chase from South Carolina to Georgia. So you might assume Brown's 34-page dossier would recount tales of G-men sifting through capes and jumpsuits in pursuit of incriminating evidence. Instead, the file describes the day that Soul Brother No. 1 unexpectedly turned to the bureau for help.
It was 1989, and Brown had begun serving a six-year sentence for aggravated assault in connection with the chase. The singer's then-wife, Adrienne, called a bureau official to complain about harassment by local cops and a blood test that had found PCP in Brown's blood. She claimed that her husband had never used PCP -- in fact had campaigned against illegal drugs -- and perhaps had just breathed in some secondhand smoke.
FBI officials didn't scoff. They launched an inquiry into Brown's allegations that the police had violated his civil rights.
The transgressions that James and Adrienne Brown itemized in FBI statements fill pages. They claimed the cops shattered Brown's pickup truck window; punched Brown in the mouth and loosened his dental work; kicked his truck and butted it with a rifle; and shot the vehicle 23 times, including the tires and gas tank.
The report gives perhaps the first full, public account of the September 1988 incident from Brown's point of view, including how the misadventure started when a group of insurance agents invaded his bathroom. (It's a long story.)
What Brown told agents
Why try to explain? Let's go directly to the just-the-facts FBI report, recounting what Brown told agents who visited him at the state prison at Columbia, S.C.
"Brown stated that . . . on a Saturday, date not recalled, he drove his pick up truck to his office" in Augusta, Ga. "When arriving at his office he observed that his bathroom door was open. Thinking that possibly there had been a break-in he went back to his truck in the parking lot, got his shot gun and took it back to his office.
"He then learned that there was a meeting going on somewhere in the office complex and that the attendees of this meeting had been using the bathroom in his office.
"Brown was extremely upset about this and began questioning those in attendance as to the reason for using his facility. During this time Brown had placed his shot gun in the corner of his office in full view. Brown then asked for the return of his keys, received same and then locked the bathroom door.
"He then left his office with the shot gun, placed it in the pick up truck and began driving his truck on I-20 into South Carolina. . . . He observed that a road block had been set up by two police vehicles in a 'V' shape. Brown seeing this drove around the police road block to avoid hitting the police vehicles and continued on.
"Brown's vehicle was then pulled over . . . At this time six other police vehicles converged on the scene. . . . A policeman began kicking the vehicle door and hitting the vehicle with the butt of his gun. This resulted in a window being broken. Because of this violence Brown decided to remain in his vehicle. He then locked the vehicle. Brown stated that he was in fear for his life.
"A North Augusta [S.C.] policeman then shot and hit Brown's truck at least eight times and another North Augusta policeman shot approximately nine times at the tires and hood. Other shots were also fired. Brown later counted the bullet holes in his truck and these totalled twenty three. Two of these shots hit the gas tank and the tires were flat.
"Brown became very afraid.
"Because of this fear Brown started up his vehicle and drove away on the flat tires. He was followed by numerous police vehicles. . . . The truck became disabled. At this time approximately twenty policemen arrived on the scene. Brown was pulled from his vehicle by the policeman an[d] slammed against the side of his truck causing injury to his face and body. . . .
"While sitting handcuffed at the jail awaiting the booking process, a white male, 5'4" tall, stocky, in plain clothes walked up to Brown while he was still handcuffed and hit him on the left side of his jaw. This blow was totally unprovoked. The blow knocked loose a denture post of Brown's teeth implant and caused much pain to him."
All of that amounted to civil rights violations, Adrienne Brown told the FBI. She also said that the district attorney who handled the trial "used trickery to plant false thoughts in the minds of the jury, and the police told conflicting stories."
The jury convicted Brown anyway. He was released from prison in 1991.
After its jailhouse interview of the soul man, the FBI referred its report to an assistant U.S. attorney in Georgia. He concluded the allegations had "no apparent prosecutive merit."