“James hated sickness,” Alan writes. “In fact, he hated being around sick people. He saw sickness as a weakness and usually willed himself through any colds or flu he might catch on the road.”
The following anecdote makes the point:
ALAN LEEDS: During a particularly grueling series of one-nighters, [James] caught a flu bug. It was a fall weekend and he had spent the night at the Americana Hotel in New York following a show somewhere in New Jersey. He was scheduled to play Providence, Rhode Island, an hour away on the Lear jet. I was home in Cincinnati, appreciating a rare weekend of girlfriend and football.
Early Sunday I got a call from Danny Ray [James’s emcee] warning me that JB was probably too sick to perform that night and for me to remain on standby. Around noon Bobby Byrd called to report that James couldn't even walk from his bed to the bathroom. He couldn't eat or drink… full of fever. … Byrd said that the doctor had just given JB an antibiotic and ordered 48 hours bed rest. Cautiously I asked Bobby, "So you think I should cancel tonight's show in Providence?"
"No doubt,” he assured me, explaining that James's wife Dee Dee was on her way up from Georgia to nurse the boss back to health and there was no way in the world this man could perform. "Don't worry 'bout a thing," said Byrd. "He can't even talk or walk, how's he gonna sing and dance?"
And so I began the arduous task of contacting the road manager, our local promoter, the venue manager, radio and TV stations advertising the gig etc. etc. Football was raging in the background on the TV in my living room but the only score I knew was how many people in Providence I was unable to reach. Mind you, this was a Sunday in the pre-cellphone era. Businesses and switchboards were closed.
By about 4 o'clock I was satisfied that everybody in Providence who needed to know the show was cancelled was in the process of changing their plans for the night. Radio directed ticket holders to get refunds at their point of purchase and the venue was sending home ushers, ticket takers and security. Road manager Freddie Holmes stood by for directions on where to take the band next. We still didn't know where or when JB would be able to resume the tour.
After a deep breath I decided to call the Americana and check on my ailing boss. Dee Dee answered the phone in his suite. I caught myself speaking softly, as if my voice in the phone could have somehow disturbed James. "Oh man, I'm glad you're there, Mrs. Brown. How is he?"
"How IS he?" Dee Dee shouted. "How would I know? He left for the gig before I even got here!"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw what would have been a game-winning field goal fade short of the goalposts and the Bengals walk dejectedly off the field. I envied them. At least they had another game a week later. I was convinced I would NEVER have another show. My girlfriend saw my face and asked what happened, probably fearing I had just received some horrid news about JB's condition. I remember saying to her, "In about 90 minutes this phone is gonna ring and it's gonna be the ugliest call Cincinnati Bell ever carried on their wires."
Meanwhile I frantically tried reaching everybody in Providence to reverse the cancellation – assuring everyone that James Brown would indeed be there. They must have thought I was a moron. But I didn't care what they thought. I cared what JB thought. And it was bound to be worse than "moron.”
Sure enough the phone rang. The raspy voice was an uncharacteristic monotone. "Mr. Leeds, are you a doctor"? Not the question I expected. But like a… um… moron… I answered him, "No."
"Mr. Leeds I know you're not a doctor. And you know you're not a doctor. Son, I love you for caring about me like that. But I already got a doctor and I don't even listen to him."… his voice began escalating. "SO WHY DO YOU THINK I'M GONNA LISTEN TO YOU???!!!! DON'T YOU NEVER MAKE NO DECISION LIKE THAT UNLESS YOU HEAR IT FROM ME… AND ONLY ME!"
"But Mr. Brown," I sheepishly responded. "Mr. Byrd said you…" He cut me off abruptly.
"Was Mr. Byrd sick? Is Mr. Byrd a doctor? If YOU were sick, you gonna trust your life to Bobby Byrd? Shoot, you know he sings 'I Need Help.' Why you gonna go to a man who already needs help?? I love both you all but now I gotta do a show feelin' like this to half an empty auditorium. I think YOU'RE the one that's sick." And he hung up.
I didn't get fired that time, which illustrates the difference between his sickness and that of others. From that day on, ANY time someone told me about any of his ailments, I refused to listen and just asked, "Are you a doctor?" I'm mad that after last Monday, I'll never be able to ask that again.