Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hidden History: Remembering Jerry Ford and James Brown

Jerry Ford once made a promise or prediction that, regardless of how clumsy or ineffectual he was, he would outlive James Brown. The media has traditionally overlooked the quiet but bitter rivalry between the Godfather of Soul and the former president, but history may eventually attest to the sometimes nasty relationship the two had.

“Fuck that cracker mother-fucker,” Brown famously exclaimed to a reporter from Rolling Stone when asked in 1975 why he refused to accept an invitation to dine with the president at an all-star gala which included Mummenschantz, Paul Harvey, and TV’s Sally Struthers. “I’ve got better things to do than sit around eating hash with that stupid, Ban-roll-on-deodorant-looking, can’t-get-elected, fool.”

The snub originated from an incident in May of 1965 when the then up-and-coming Funkster met the then Congressman Ford at a celebrity football match. Ford, hallucinating from sunstroke and mistaking James Brown for the famous running-back Jim Brown. tackled Brown while he was bent over the Gatorade cooler. Afterwards, despite Ford’s attempt to publicly apologize, a feud ensued. Years later, on the eve of the 1976 elections, Ford was at a press conference where he was asked about the current state of play vis a vis the James Brown situation. Ford, in his typically no-nonsense, button-down way, explained that he would consider the matter settled once one or both of them were dead. After a beat, the President added “and I don’t plan on going first. For what it’s worth, I’ve got a legion of secret services agents and a direct line to several Freemasons. ‘Nuff said.” That night, at a show at Carnegie Hall, Brown used the time between songs to declare his continued enmity towards Ford, alternating “fuck that mother-fucker” with “fuck him and his strung-out bitch.”

Things cooled down over the course of the next thirty years and the two eventually reached a kind of d├ętente when both were invited to Mr. and Mrs. PW Botha’s housewarming party in Decatur in 1986. Ford, who was busy surruptiously feeling up the bust of a statue of Queen Beatrix , did not notice Brown’s entry (despite the confetti and gong). The two hovered at opposite ends of the room, occasionally leering at one another from afar before feigning to studying the molding on the wall. Fearing the party would turn sour due to the palpable tension in the air, PW (whom Brown affectionately referred to as “Pee-Wee”) called for Elkie Summers to bring out her “special brownies” which Botha had been saving for the after dinner brandy. Soon, everyone at the party was high and feeling no pain. Charles Nelson Riley began hammering away on the piano and Joan Dideon piped in for a stirring rendition of “I’ve got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” in honor of Merv Griffin whom, for some reason, everyone thought had recently died. Afterwards, Riley asked if President Ford had any requests, and, in a moment of cannabinoidal good-will, said, “I’d love to hear ‘Sex Machine,’” and gave a tearful nod to Brown, who just about broke into tears himself. Brown obliged the former president and when the song was over the two shook hands. Ford said “I still think you are a dirty son-of-a-bitch” to which Brown replied “ you old cracker motherfucker.”