How James Brown Helped a Fledgling Reporter Turn It Loose

ShutterstockJamesBrownThe day before James Brown answered the door at his home in Beech Island, South Carolina in the summer of 2003, reporter Karen Fragala Smith had valiantly rustled up bus fare. From her Huffington Post bog item:

I had withdrawn the last hundred bucks from my checking account and boarded a Greyhound bus for Augusta, Georgia, just over the state line from Beech Island. I was in town to interview James Brown for Newsweek magazine.

Well, sort of. I was an editorial assistant who spent most of my time arranging travel accommodations for the director of the foreign language editions, and making photocopies for an elderly editor who found both the technology of a copy machine and the fact that women in the office weren’t just secretaries anymore, to be equally confounding. I was eager to do something that resembled journalism.

I had started at the magazine in the fall of 1999, as a production assistant in the manufacturing department, doing the graveyard shift on Friday and Saturday nights after working all week at an advertising agency. I had read All the President’s Men as an undergraduate, and I thought that I could work my way through the ranks into a reporting position like Carl Bernstein.

So how did the Godfather of Soul interview turn out? And what did Smith learn? You’re going to have to the rest of this fantastic recollection from a time when weekly news magazines mattered, to find out. We’ll simply tell you two more things:

1) At one point, Brown told the then-Columbia Journalism part-time grad student: “You may have taken a bus here, but you’re not going to take a bus home.”

2) A check Smith subsequently wrote to the entertainer’s business manager has yet to be cashed.

Photo of Brown performing in Milan in 2006: miq77/